Bahai News -- Sun-Sentinel - Plantation couple find their calling and a second home helping others in China

Plantation couple find their calling and a second home helping others in China

By Margo Harakas
Staff Writer
Posted July 26 2003

When a Chinese friend and scholar invited Jene Bellows to visit him in his homeland, she had no idea how that experience would reshape her life. Now 20 years after her first visit, Jene and her singer-musician husband, Bob, find themselves maintaining two homes, one in a southern coastal town in China, the other in the west Broward city of Plantation.

Increasingly, says the couple, both in their 70s, they're spending more time there than here. "I'm more at home there," says Jene, senior adviser and consultant to an English language school in Zhuhai, China.

"Basically, it comes down to their way of handling life," she says, trying to define what it is that draws her. "They laugh a lot. Things are difficult, but they're not moaning and groaning all the time."

She recalls a distant conversation she had with a Chinese man waiting to cross the border from Macao. "One of the things I just love about the Chinese people," she told him, "is you're always happy and laughing and smiling."

The man listened patiently then replied, "That's because life is so difficult."

That brave trait is not the only one admired in the Chinese character. Unlike in America, where older citizens tend to be seen as irrelevant, "In China," Jene says, "as soon as you get gray hair, you get respect."

To dispel any misunderstanding, she quickly adds, "I love being American. America will always be my home." Stateside she has a loving, beautiful family -- a daughter, four grandchildren (including one who just graduated medical school) and one great grandchild. They are the source of great pride and joy.

But, in China, through her work at the English language school and through lectures at Chinese universities and elsewhere, she feels she's making a contribution. "I feel I can be of service. I feel needed, I feel appreciated.

"Happiness," she says, "truly comes from serving others."

It was in 1981 that a Chinese scholar at Northwestern University invited Jene to visit his home in Mainland China. She and Bob were living in Chicago at the time, having moved there from South Florida seven years before. A singer and pianist, Bob was performing in clubs and hotels across the country. Jene, a former model who had run a successful modeling agency in Florida, was working as a manager at a medical supply company. It would be three years before she acted on her friend's offer. When she did, she says, "All the stereotypical ideas I had about China were thrown out."

On that visit, her friend appealed to her to "open the hearts of Americans" to Chinese students studying in the United States. They were lonely, he said.

The day after returning home, Jene drove to the Baha'i center in Chicago to "meditate about how I would meet Chinese students."

As she got out of her car, she noticed two men at the entrance to the center. "I knew they were from Mainland China by the way they were dressed," she says. She ran up to them and blurted out, "Are you from China? So am I. I just got back yesterday."

"These two friends became the foundation for change in our lives," she says.

Jene had taken more than 700 slides on her China trip. She assembled them into a show exploring the changing face of China, which she presented at various universities. Eventually, she'd take the program to South America, Europe, Puerto Rico and Africa.

(Jene, it should be noted, avoids any discussion of the government and politics of China, preferring to focus on the people connections and the culture of the country.)

In the beginning, the audiences for her slide show in this country were almost exclusively Chinese. University students for the most part, they expressed gratitude for the interest shown in them and their culture. "You are the only American who understands us," one exchange student told her.

Two years later, wanting to return to China, Jene organized a China studies tour.

"My whole thing has been always just to learn about the people," Jene says. And to spread good will and understanding, one person at a time.

In '87, Jene lived in Taiwan for seven months. The following year she went back and forth several times, visiting Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia. And she returned to China after the student uprisings in '89.

"It was a very tense time. Where before people were open, they now looked through me as though I wasn't there." There was a new cautiousness and fear in the air.

Back in the States and continuing with her slide shows, Jene found her audiences had shifted heavily toward Americans. "For the first time Americans were looking at the Chinese people not as tourists or as business opportunities," she says, "but as people, and their hearts were touched."

Meanwhile, Bob was performing on cruise ships. There were periods when the couple were separated for months.

Jene knew she'd have to do some selling to get Bob, a World War II vet, near Asia.

"I was in Hong Kong in 1945 during the war. I never wanted to go back over there because of those wartime memories," he says.

Even so, eventually, Jene was able to persuade Bob to journey to Taiwan with her. He got a booking there and in Hong Kong.

He also joined her in '95 as representative (from a nongovernmental organization) to the United Nations Women's Conference in Beijing. That same year, she traveled with him to Siberia and Mongolia, where he performed 30 charity concerts. "I was raising money for orphanages in Siberia," he says. In Mongolia he was asked to teach improvisational jazz to music students.

In '98, Jene encouraged her good friend Hong Xiu Ping (one of the students met while giving her slide talks) to follow through on an idea he had to start a club in Zhuhai for adults wanting to learn or practice English. Ping sold water and flowers to keep the fledgling club afloat.

He obviously was on to something. From that humble beginning grew Gateway Language Village, a residential school now employing 30 full-time teachers.

Proficiency in English vastly improves one's opportunities in China so everyone wants to learn English, says Jene, who volunteers at the school. The students, age 18 and older, enroll for anywhere from two weeks to four months or longer.

"It's total immersion," she says. "Everyone lives in apartments around the school and only English is spoken."

Three years ago, while Bob had an extended booking at a hotel in Macao, Jene went north for a few days and returned to tell her husband, "I bought an apartment in Zhuhai."

"OK," he said. Then jokingly added, "Do I get to live there, too?"

The original idea, he says, was to live in the States and "hang out there. But it's evolved into another home."

And it's a convenient base from which Bob can launch his tours to Hong Kong, Taiwan or Japan.

"It's a new day," says Bob, reminded of his initial reluctance to visit that part of the world. Today, he says, he feels as comfortable and as much at home there as does his wife. "We all have to learn from each other," he says, adding that he now knows how to greet people in three other languages, "Chinese, Japanese and French."

In the next few weeks the Bellows once again will be heading to the Far East. Jene will continue her work with the school. Bob has bookings in Japan. He's also working on a couple of new CDs, one of which will include a couple of Chinese folk songs, the other will feature two Japanese songs. A Japanese singer will do the original, and Bob will follow with an English version. Language has never proved a barrier when it comes to performing. His jazz and his Chevalier and Sinatra repertoire connect wherever he performs, whether Stateside or abroad.

So how long will the couple continue to split their lives between the East and the West? Says Jene, "As long as we are physically able."

Margo Harakas can be reached at mharakas@sun-sentinel.com or 954-356-4728.

©Copyright 2003, Sun-Sentinel (FL, USA)

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