Friday, December 22, 2006

A Change in Climate

Wednesday morning was gloomy. Much like many other JH mornings, dark gray rainclouds shrouded the sky, and fog dulled the vibrant greens in the foothills of the surrounding Mekong valley. Tuesday weather was a bit brighter, and today's change in climate foreshadowed a dreary shift on the last day of camp.

During the party the night before, the mood was utter jubilation. The kids showered us with gifts, the most moving of which were not the bracelets and little pillows they made us, but the loving smiles they used to express their gratitude. With the coming of rain, though, everything turned upside-down. Smiles turned to frowns, joy gave way to anxiety, and the eagerness to learn faded into apathetic malaise. The kids' motivation was gone. They knew we were leaving, and we'd take with us the strange joy and love we'd brought to their lives.

We tried our best to stay cheerful whie we consoled the crying children, but our efforts inevitably resulted in more tears. Music class was a drag. The happy, cheesy songs lost their spunk when sung by a sobbing, slurring choir. We ended class early and used the time to say goodbyes. Afternoon activities were also cancelled so the kids could get an early start out to their villages.

The camp organizers wisely decided to get us on the bus quickly after the final whistle blew. We didn't need to prolong the inevitable. Once we were on the bus, the children gathered outside the windows, waving frantically as if they thought their waving could convince us to turn the bus around and stay with them for the entire school year.

Some of the students' flamboyant emotion can be attributed to their immaturity and the novelty of interacting with goofy foreigners. We were like the fun-loving uncle that gives kids a break from their strict parents. But I hope that some of the sadness they expressed was genuine, a natural and warranted response to aspects of Christ's love that they had never tasted before.

When students go home, how will they remember us? As jokesters, teachers, buddies, coaches, mentors, friends, or all of the above? Through all the activities, did we tap into their spiritual well and instill a hunger for more of the joy and peace we poured their lives? We may never know the answers to these questions, but we are sure that without even cracking a Bible, we accomplished the most important thing in missions: We were faithful to what God called us to do. And the results are in his big, capable hands.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Party Time

It was Tuesday night, the eve of the last day of camp and the kids' last chance to show us their appreciation. When the final whistle blew Wednesday, most of the kids, all of whom were members of minority groups, would head back to their villages for a few days of rest before beginning one of two equally grueling activities: life on the farm or a semester of school.

Our team had eaten a quick dinner after classes adjourned at five, and we were back at school around 6:30, the 24 foreigners slowly being herded into an upstairs dance studio with an open floorplan and mirrors on the walls. We had held music classes there this week, trampling the green-carpeted floors with endless rounds of the "Hokey Pokey" and "Row, Row, Row Your Boat." Our normal set-up included rolling the slightly out-of-tune piano to the center of the room, and having the 50-or-so kids surround us as we taught them words and motions to accompany the songs.

But tonight, we were the ones being directed. Parents, teachers, and the entire mass of students (over 100) filled the room and watched with eager faces as we filed in. Many of the students (the girls) were dressed in their traditional minority garb: the Akha students their navy blue get-ups accented with colorful fringes and pom-poms, the Dai kids in vibrant silk dresses, heavy make-up and elaborate hairstyles. Others wore normal school clothing, t-shirts emblazoned with strange designs and slogans. My favorite? A yellow shirt with navy blue lettering that said "Nuke: Don't Do It" with a warhead and its fiery tail forming a Nike-esque swoosh beneath. The teachers lingered in front, waiting for our procession to stop and for us to take our seats.

Front and center in the makeshift auditorium, the students had set up a long row of stools topped with plates brimming with fresh pineapple and crabapples. Each stool was flanked by two or three unopened bottles of water, and the line of stools formed a barrier between the crowd and the open area that would serve as the stage. We sat behind the stools, our eyes wide at the fruity feast before us, our stomachs wondering if we could handle it so soon after dinner. The barred windows to the room were open, letting in a humid breeze and mixing the sallow remnants of sunlight with the bluish tint of the weak lightbulbs in the room. We were the guests of honor, and we couldn't wait to see what the program would hold.

The students' shy murmuring stopped as a male teacher, presumably one of the school's administrators, began to speak. He welcomed us to the celebration, stating clearly what we already knew: this program was to honor us for our generosity in coming to teach their students. He called for us to sit back and enjoy the program they had prepared for us.

The first few acts were minority songs and dances performed by both Akha and Dai students. The Dai students had been studying a dance their people had inherited from Thailand. The kids in the spotlight had looked so childish in their t-shirts and jeans, but they transformed into elegant performers when the music switched on. During my high-tension visit last year, there was no room for cultural experiences like this, and I was glad to finally be able to see some Dai traditions in action.

While the Dai dances were characterized by delicate, sweeping hand motions and steady, soothing rhythms, Akha dances were more masculine in nature, and their activities were more animated in general. One of them required crowd participation. Four pairs of parallel bamboo poles lay on the floor. There was an Akha student stationed at each side of each set. On the teacher's count, they would begin a sequence of banging these rods on the floor: open, close, open, close, open, open, close. The object was for a pair of foreigners to get through this gauntlet without getting their foot trapped by the bamboo poles, which slapped together whenever the teacher said "Close!" Luckily, I'd done something like this in elementary school P.E., so I was prepared. With Katy as my partner, I was able to hold my own even as the speed increased.

Other acts included: a magnificent harp player, a very entertaining rendition of a Britney Spears song, and a Dai dance at the end that had us in a circular conga line learning how to twirl our wrists in the air and bow gracefully. When the circle broke, the mass of people became a frenzy of gift-giving and camera flashes. The young girls had made friendship bracelets, and they began sliding them on the wrists of their favorite teachers. They had also crafted tiny pillows that hung on yarn necklaces, and they put them on the male teacher of choice. Someone told us later that in Dai tradition, to accept someone's bracelet was to accept their marriage proposal. So we joked that Stephen, who had a neck wreathed in colorful yarn and bracelets up to his armpits, would have an ample pool of prospective wives if he ever came back to China.

Sensing that the festivities were winding down, the students began disposing of the leftover pineapple, and not with a trash bag. Running around the room, giggling, they stuffed slices in our mouths until all the trays were empty and our stomachs were about to burst. The adults in our group called for us to gracefully peel ourselves from the kids. Tomorrow would be the last day of camp, and the students would need some rest after such an exciting night. They snapped pictures and fed us fruit until the very last of us made it to the door, where we retrieved our shoes from the huge pile that had accumulated there.

The mood on the way back to the hotel was exuberant. The kids had shown us through their actions how much they appreciated our work. But as the cliche goes, they taught us much more than we could've ever taught them. For a long time, their faces, smiling in gladhearted appreciation, will fuel my fire for missions. Although we couldn't directly give them the Gospel, they felt the love of Christ as we imparted it to them, and in that, we were faithful witnesses.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Powered Down

Within the span of a week, my cell phone battery broke, my computer's charger cord began acting up, I wrecked my car, and I lost my jacket and my watch. And I became an island. I could still use my computer and the internet, but my laptop lost its portability. So did my conversations. I had to borrow phones while at home to make arrangements for my car and to talk to Katy, who is three hours away. I rode the city bus to class for the first time, and I scrambled to find rides home from class and then to work. I couldn't keep up with time. I used to use my cell phone as a watch when my wrist was bare, but now that wasn't even an option. Many times, I was stranded for a few hours, waiting on someone to fulfill the items on their agenda before they got to mine.

It's amazing, and sad, the extent to which technology dictates my life, and the blessings I rarely think twice about. I rely on the cell phone rather than my brain to make plans, and I take for granted the convenience that owning my own car gives me. For my journalism classes, I often resort to the internet's fast-food format for information consumption rather than doing actual "shoe-leather" reporting. But with some of that gone, having to rely on other people, I faced a power outage in more than a literal sense. Without technology, I had little means to function in daily life.

John Mayer sings a song called "Something's Missing," in which he laments over the fact that he has everything he could want, but there's still a void in his life. In a live version of this song on his "Any Given Thursday" CD, he says, "How come everything I think I need always comes with batteries? What do you think it means?" Mired in this experience, I think I'm better prepared to answer this question.

Our reliance on batteries means that we live in a world that requires an increasing measure of technological savvy for our very survival. If communications networks were to be shut down indefinitely, most of us will lose all of our financial assets, which are tied up in electronic bank and stock databases. If we lose our telephones, we can no longer communicate. We've built sprawling cities that all but require us to have cars in order to function. Without them, there's just enough public transportation to get us where we're going, but not without a lot of walking and inconvenient downtime.

Being "powered down," stripped of all electronic amenities, has been trying, but it's helped me learn to appreciate things that electronics cannot provide: friendship and salvation. Friends took me to and from work. A friend provided me with a new cell phone for free. Friends are still offering to let me use their cars to take care of things. Many have expressed their regret that my life has become so "difficult." But through this time, God has been teaching me to put my faith in him rather than in things. If you can't remain faithful when wires get crossed, what will you do when real calamity comes?" he seems to be asking. He's helped me remember that true power comes from trusting in him for salvation and remaining thankful for what he has given me and what he's taken away. God is recharging my character.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Holy Days

We've all heard the quote from St. Augustine: "Preach the Gospel; if necessary, use words." I agree with the Augustine's central idea, that there's value in a spirituality that shows itself more in works of love than in self-righteous ranting. Good works, though, should not be a subsitute for verbalizing the Gospel. Rather, they should serve as the seal of validity, the sign that the message we have received sets us apart from the world. (The apostles Paul and James offer some clarification on the issue. Paul: "Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God." James: "Faith without works is dead.")

Throughout the English camp, we had been keenly aware of the government restrictions that preclude any attempt to proselytize. From what I've heard (although I haven't had this objectively verified) it's illegal to preach the Gospel to any child under the age of 18. We had done our share of lifestyle evangelism. We smiled, hugged, played, and taught with authenticity and fervor, and it was unquestionable that our love for the children shined through. But without the Word, they might remain unclear about what motivated our selflessness.

On the second to last day of camp, we finally found a stealthful way to eliminate any ambiguity. The lesson for the day was holidays, and we started by asking some of the kids about their favorite Chinese holidays. Many mentioned Chinese New Year, the Dragonboat Festival and National Day, which commemorates the Communist takeover on October 1, 1949. We then found ways to relate these holidays to American holidays. For instance, we likened National Day to our Independence Day celebrations on the fourth of July, and we talked about how the Spring Festival is like Thanksgiving, a time to go home and visit family.

In this way, we were able to present Christmas and Easter in a natural flow of conversation as authentic American customs. We couldn't preach to them, but we could tell them what these holidays mean and why Americans, Christians in particular, feel they are so important to remember. With the help of a resident missionary, we translated the stories of the birth of Christ and his Resurrection. Citing miracles or parables would have been helpful, but we would leave that up to Tim and his later teams. This camp was called an "exposure" camp, and we were out to make sure the kids heard the essentials of the Gospel: Christ, God's son, came into the world to save those who had sinned against him (Christmas). To accomplish that, he died on a cross and rose again, displaying his authority over death and his ability to save sinners from it (Easter).

Having to teach something to children makes you test whether you really believe it or not. Airing your beliefs is risky because you put yourself on the line. When you preach to crowds, you have nothing and no one to hide behind. If your audience counts you a fool, you have no recourse, no choice but to receive a barrage of ridicule while struggling to maintain your measure of faith, like a climber trying to keep a handhold as an avalanche comes down upon him.

Surprisingly, it's easier to keep a grip in China than it is in America, where an "enlightened" society doesn't welcome a Gospel that calls on faith in the unseen. As Christmas approaches, Christians must stand their ground against the culture that seeks to redefine the holiday. True, it's a time for gifts, food and family. But ultimately, it's a time to put ourselves on the line, to reaffirm that we believe in a story that is ridiculous by all human reasoning. God came down to a small nation in the form of a baby, in the womb of a virgin, to be born in a trough in a stable. Not so we could receive material wealth (let's not sell him short by worshipping perishable things), but to ransom us from the sin that holds us captive.

Are you willing to dedicate Christmas to Jesus and the spread of his Gospel? If so, you just might unwrap a greater measure of faith this holiday season.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Leisurely Labor: A Sabbath Rest in China

I use the previous post as a preface to this one, which will describe an unconventional but extremely relaxing and productive Sunday in China. We had no structured activities at the school, and we decided to take advantage of the day off to rest and regroup.

Our church service began at 10 a.m. in the office where Tim works. Elayne had asked me to put together a praise and worship set. With Michelle singing backup and Casey accompanying me on another acoustic guitar, I sang four songs, three of which were chosen with China in mind, particularly this region of China:

1. Nothing but the Blood of Jesus-I selected this song not only because I like it, but because I believe that the people here need to realize that salvation comes through no other name but Jesus and by no other means but his blood shed for them. The people here fear spirits, and only Jesus' blood can take that fear away.

2. God of Wonders-This song aptly relates the grandeur of a worldwide God. It helps us, the mission team, keep our minds focused on a God who is "beyond our galaxy" and "holy," which in its truest sense means, "set apart," or "different." God made us in his image, but he is not like us. He is far greater. This song also served as a sort of battle hymn for Steve and I on our trip to JH last year. We sang it as we walked to the bus stop on our first day hiking in the villages.

3. Ancient of Days-On our trip last year, we sang Ancient of Days in a remote village. A guy had come out of his hut playing a guitar with no top string. He lent me the guitar, and we praised God in the middle of a country that suppresses the Gospel.

Tim spoke about God's sovereignty and love, and how the two seemingly contradictory concepts are reconciled. It was a refreshing teaching time on a trip where we had been dishing out a lot of knowledge but taking in very little.

Lunch was even more refreshing. We took taxis to large hotel where were were served our best lunch yet. The banquet room was quiet, and for most of the time our massive group was the only one there. We occupied three circular, family-style dining tables. The place settings had milky white dishes, plastic chopsticks and small glass animals that served as chopstick stands, a far cry from the saucer-and-ricebowl meals we'd been served lately.

Although the hotel had Thai in its name, it served Chinese cuisine from the North, the kind most places in the U.S. serve. Naturally, this was more pleasing to our taste buds. Some of the girls ate more here than I'd seen them eat the entire rest of the week. In between bites, we made cheerful smalltalk and plans for the rest of the day. Some of the girls would go in search of pedicures, and some of the guys (and a few girls) would take a biking trip into the countryside to drink in the region's natural beauty. Others opted to swim at the hotel's pool and then head back to our hotel for an afternoon nap.

With all this talk of leisure, you might think that we forgot this was a mission trip. With only the information I've provided, you're justified in that assumption. But before you assume anything, I challenge you to start considering missions not as an event, but as a process, and one that in closed countries becomes painstakingly slow. Jesus often used farming analogies to talk about the kingdom. In order to grow a crop, you first have to plow the ground, shoveling any rocks out of the way to make room for the seed. Then you have to plant, water and tend the seed. Only after seasons of preparation and care do you see the harvest. In Corinthians, Paul shows that he's familiar with the concept: "Paul plants, Apollos waters, but God brings the harvest."

I say this not to make any excuse for laziness on the mission field; I don't endorse that at all. But I do want to emphasize that there are essential aspects of missions that don't involve standing in a pulpit or sharing the Bible with someone. And you don't have to avoid fun to get work done.

Our bike team was a perfect example of this. What started out as a leisurely ride evolved into a full-fledged prayer-walking (-riding?) expedition, on which we visited villages Brad and Bill had prayed in last year.

I can't tell you how much it meant to be back in this area, continuing the work we had begun a year ago. Even though I hadn't been to this exact spot, the villages on this side of the city were very similar to those where I had dropped VCDs and prayed before. And they house members of the same people group we'd been targeting, the same ornate Buddhist temples and decorative wells dedicated to gods that supposedly provide them with the rain that fills the puddles in their rice paddies, which in turn fill their stomachs with food. Exactly what God had in mind, I don't know, but I'm glad that God chose to use at this time, in this part of his grand redemptive plan for this people.

Three hours and 10-15 miles later we arrived back at the hotel, ready for warm showers and hot dinner. After dinner, Katy and I went to a massage parlor for a miniature date to complete the relaxing evening.

A Gentile Sabbath?

In America, a society of Gentiles, we usually hold ourselves to a double-standard on Sunday, the so-called Sabbath. Most people don't work, but this is not because we have some kind of unwavering devotion to a special day of rest. It's because many of the businesses we work for are closed on Sundays. So out of convenience and not religious fervor, we take advantage of the day off, worshiping in the morning, eating lunch and then curling up on the couch for an afternoon nap.

I'm not condemning this routine. I just think it's funny how we profess to be observing the Sabbath, but we bypass its restrictions if they become inconvenient for us. We, a Gentile people, have taken a Jewish custom (which by the way would've been celebrated on Saturday) and Americanized it, changing it from a time of reflection on God's goodness to an excuse to watch football. We want it both ways. We subject ourselves to some aspects of the Old Testament law, but we also dismiss some as culturally obsolete. In order to decide on matters such as these, I like to take Paul's advice in Romans 14 (and the book of Galatians), where he addresses the differences between Jew and Gentile and the extent to which Gentiles should be held accountable to Jewish customs:

One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. He who regards one day as special, does so to the Lord (Romans 14:5-6a).

The predominate theme of the chapter is clean and unclean food and how abstaining or partaking affects the faith of the one eating and those around him. Paul uses this subject to expound upon our freedom in the faith, and how freedom runs out at the same time peace starts to disappear. As Paul says, Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification (Romans 14:19).

This passage does not serve as a license for us to do whatever we want as long as it leads ultimately to peace. Doing the right thing often requires us to go against the consensus viewpoint (think Jesus turning over tables in the temple). What Paul is doing here is making sure that we don't harbor narrow views that unnecessarily limit our faith. If God has declared all foods clean, we should not hesitate to eat them. But if we some not yet strong enough to do so, Paul says that those with stronger faith should bear with them.

Similarly, if some of us regard the Sundays as worship/football day and others see it as a day to put in some extra hours at the office, we should all be able to get along, providing that we all agree that we must meet together with God's people and we must set aside time to worship him during the week. In all things, his purposes are to be held in the highest regard, and we should always seek to interpret the law with faith, not legalism, as our motivation.


Friday night before Saturday's rainforest excursion, Katy wasn't feeling well, so I went to a nice bread shop to buy her a banana muffin for dinner (or breakfast). A Chinese woman must've overheard me speaking Chinese to the attendant. Intrigued, she rushed over and began rattling off sentences. After I got her to slow down, I could finally understand what she was saying.

"This bread shop is the best in the prefecture," she raved. The bags she clutched against her body bulged with muffins and bread, proving that she meant every word.

"You hungry?" I asked, nodding at the bags and flashing a smile to let her know I was joking.

"No, I have three children that have to eat," she said, smiling politely but not quite getting the joke.

"Do you work here at the shop?" I asked. I prayed that this conversation would stay within the range of my vocabulary.

"No, I work outside the city, in the country. My kids and I live here in this building, on the third floor above this shop. I come here almost every day. It's the best bread shop in the prefecture." She was beginning to sound like a paid advertisement; I guess she genuinely loves the shop that provides food for her children on a regular basis.

Realizing that the conversation would be difficult to carry much further, I said goodbye and left the store with her smiling after me.

Saturday, walking the trails at the rainforest I saw a woman wearing a round rice-worker's hat and colorful clothes. She looked familiar; a lot of people do in China. I did a double-take, and I finally met her eyes. It looked just like the woman from the store, but I wasn't sure until she said in Chinese, "Hello, I met you last night at bread shop." I stopped and talked for a moment before catching up with my group.

What are the odds that she worked at the sprawling rainforest park and walked on the same path at the same time? It's a small world, one over which God maintains control. I hope she was somehow blessed by the deja vu experience.

China Travel Articles

I recently entered an article-writing contest on Both of the articles I posted were among the winners for the competition. To read these, go to this website and click on the articles listed with ICTHUS17 as the author. Some of the material in those articles will also be discussed here soon.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Rooftop View

What I tell you in the dark, speak in the daylight;
what is whispered in your ear, proclaim from the roofs.
Matthew 10:27

Meals 3-Burma

Most places in the U.S. will set you back at least five or six bucks for a good plate of beef tips and rice. But in Burma, the hearty dish must be in low demand.

In the Burmese food court, located in an alleyway in JH, I had a steaming plate of beef tips for only US$0.75. Add to that a quarter's worth of Coke and my meal rounded out to be about a dollar. For dessert (which you can't possibly resist after such a cheap main course) we had shaved ice topped with a strawberry glaze and sweetened condensed milk. Sounds gross, I know, but it's like sweet cream in thick liquid form. The shaved ice came in a portion big enough for two to share and cost the same as the beef tips.

Addiction quickly ensued, and for the rest of the trip at the mention of "Burma," our team's ears would collectively perk up. We went back at least twice after our initial fix.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Rain for us, Rainforest

A kid plays with balloon animals at camp
When the balloon wars ended, our day had just begun. Leaving drenched, smiling kids behind, we boarded the bus. Our clothes had dried a little in the sun, but we still had to try our best not to soak the seats. For China, this bus was top of the line, and the school was very generous to taxi us around in it. The last thing we wanted to do was mess something up.

For lunch we headed to an outdoor restaurant specializing in food indigenous to our target people group. Not only is the food prepared in their style, but the restaurant also resembles one of their villages. A few free-standing huts surround the big hut at the center of the complex. Each small hut is outfitted with at least two round tables perfect for family dining.

Sweet pork ribs anchored the meal, which consisted of a diverse but balanced mix of dishes, both fiery and dull. The fish were fresh, probably having been snatched from the stream that morning. Even after going through the fire, they still puckered their lips at us. A bitter green herb soup, peanuts and vegetable succotash rounded out the meal. The most interesting thing on the menu this time, though, was the mysterious cornmeal fritter. As its name suggests, the sweet treat is a sticky cornmeal patty, breaded and deep-fried, and served opposite noodles and the spicy sauce I liked to call "death salsa."

Bellies full, we took the bus to our next activity: trekking. As I've mentioned before, JH sits in a verdant valley, and the surrounding mountain wilderness is littered with natural beauty and ecological diversity. To cash in on tourists that enjoy the outdoors, the government has constructed a rain forest park about 20 minutes (by bus) east of the city. The park allows visitors an up-close encounter with this province's humid climate and hilly terrain without the hassle of tents, machetes and gallons of bug repellent.

The park is divided into three basic levels: bottom, middle, top. The bus dropped us off at the bottom level, so we went to the relatively nice bathroom complex while the adults bought our tickets. Fanny pack strapped on and tickets in hand, Frank came to get us from the tourist activity center, where we had struck up a jam session on the huge Buddhist drums. (Drums were basically the only activity there.)

We walked on the paved trail that promised to lead us up to the third level, where the rain forest would actually begin. Golf-cart tram drivers offered to take us up the the modest incline for 15 kuai (each way). The offer enticed the lazy part of me, but the adventurer and glutton within me conspired to make this solution: I'd expend some calories and keep my 30 kuai to replenish them once we got back to the city (shaved ice, anyone?).

We passed a peacock pen and a beautiful pond where Chinese tourists had gathered to enjoy the weather. This was the first day without rain all week. I guess for purposes of clarity, this should be called level 1.5.

When we heard singing we knew we had reached level two. Large crowds had piled into a small amphitheater, which sat within splashing distance of a tall, man-made waterfall. The man on stage wore traditional garb and wailed something into his headset microphone, which was turned up way too loud. He entered into a rhythmic chant and his arms flailed wildly as he lit into the huge drums surrounding him. The crowd loved it.

Across the street (and back a little) from the theater sat an "authentic" minority village that had two points of entry: a long bridge from the main road, or a zip-line across a wide ravine. The bridge was free. The zip-line was 15 kuai (almost two U.S. dollars) each way. We left level two just as a flock of vibrantly dressed women got off a golf-cart tram. I guessed they were up next to perform.

If the image of the tourist trap hasn't solidified yet, it will with level three. To get to the staircase that led to the rainforest trail, we had to walk through trinket shops and a small cafe. The more experienced travelers told the greener ones to obey the Six Flags principle: Everything costs exponentially more at theme parks. And for China, this was a theme park.

Before the rainforest trail began, we found some of the best (or should I say worst) English translations I'd ever seen in China. My personal favorites: "Enter into monkeys, please safekeeping your stuff" and the "tropical rare and extinct plants park."

I stand on the bridge, careful not to sway
We crossed over a bamboo bridge reminiscent of an Indiana Jones movie, disobeying the sign that said in English, "No swaying." The trail, a flexible but sturdy path of interwoven bamboo, snaked upward along the sides of the small valley. Along the easy two-hour hike, vendors had set up kiosks (small huts) in another attempt to get into tourists' wallets. You could do anything here from archery practice to taking your picture with a giant python. Almost every kiosk was equipped with a computer and a printer, so the attendants could print your picture on the spot. It seems like digital cameras would've made this occupation obsolete, but these guys aren't dragging electrical cords through a wet forest for no reason. There must be bucks involved.

Halfway through the hike, the rainforest started living up to its name. Fat droplets crawled down the leaves of the canopy above and began to plop on top of our heads. Frank covered his camera with a plastic bag. Abby slipped and fell. The rest of us just picked up our pace a little bit. By the end, the trail had looped back to its beginning. Katy and I stopped to take a picture with the ostrich. Yes, the ostrich. He made his money as a steed, so we didn't even have to pay for the photo-op.

After stopping for some coffee at the tourist trap cafe, we headed back to level one. The downhill trek was a lot easier, despite the rain, which luckily had lightened up a little. Apparently, though, there had been some miscommunication. Our driver had left, and he would not be coming back. After standing in the rain for about 20 minutes, half of our team found taxis. The rest of us flagged a bus and hitchhiked our way back to the city. For a moment there, it felt a little like last year's journey, and I was just fine with that.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006


We woke up at our normal time (a little before 8 a.m.) so we could leave the hotel by 8:30 in order to reach the school a little before 9. We had no class today, but we'd planned a 3-hour recreation period for the kids during which we'd learn a little English and have a lot of fun.

Brad and I volunteered for the basketball station, the one out of the nine field day-type competitions that seemed most appealing to us. True to form, neither one of us planned a format to handle the 20 kids that came to us as each class rotated between stations. So we made it up as we went along, tailoring our activity to the athleticism of each group.

It went surprisingly well. We did lay-up drills, shooting competitions and the three-man weave of all things (if you don't know what this is, I assume you never played organized basketball). With my little Chinese and Brad's acting ability, we convinced them to say in English the action that they were carrying out: pass, shoot, catch. If the shot was successful, we'd make everyone say "make." If not, everyone would have to shout "miss!" The kids learned the word "miss" very well.

After every class had completed each station, we had organized a massive water balloon fight. Two classes would line up, one on each side of a line of water balloons that had been placed in the middle. When the whistle blew, they would rush to the water balloons and begin an all-out war.

As I watched, Brad dropped a balloon the size of Jupiter directly on my back. I couldn't get mad because it felt so good in the mid-day heat, and the kids got a kick out of watching their laoshi (teacher) get doused. A few minutes later, it was utter pandemonium, every man for himself, with water balloons of various sizes flying all over the place. It didn't stop until everyone was drenched and the stash of balloons was exhausted.

It was great to see the kids having a good time. their lives are filled with so many strict rules and regulations. Many of them will be returning to the countryside the day that camp ends. Some will come back for school, renewing friendships they made this week. Others will stay on the farm and help produce income for the family. Either way, this week has been a great escape from the mundane.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Peacock Lake Park

I'm probably giving away too many clues about JH, but I've been looking forward to talking about Peacock Lake Park.
It was a Friday night, and most of the group was locked in a hotel room watching a bootleg copy of Seven on a laptop. I don't mind a movie now and then, but I'd personally rather experience another culture than immerse myself in Hollywood's.
So I went out to roam the streets.
Originally I had planned to buy an unlocked cell phone that would work with China's mobile networks. I still had three weeks left in country with a lot of exploring on the agenda. A phone would make travel arrangements and team communication much easier. And if I could find a cheap one of good quality, I'd be able to donate it to other teams or use it on subsequent trips.
I had noticed a street lined with small cell phone shops, so I went to check it out. When I had first seen cell phone row, I hadn't realized how packed with vendors it really was. This street, with competition unrivaled even in the U.S., would've made Adam Smith proud. Our host, Tim, had said that capitalistic activity keeps the communist country afloat, and now I knew he wasn't kidding.
Sadly, even in this bazaar, there was nothing of decent quality that fit within my price range. So I crossed the street to Peacock Lake Park.
During the day, American public parks are places where kids play, families relax and athletes practice their sports. After nightfall, though, they become places of infamy, dimly lit dens of iniquity frequented by those who plan to perpetrate dark deeds. In China, it's the exact opposite. Most people don't congregate in parks during the day, but at night, when the neon lights buzz on, the whole family comes out to enjoy the electric energy of China's nightlife.
It was like everyone hibernates during the day, soaking up the sun's solar energy to be released as soon as it goes down. Vendors with headset mics barked verbal advertisements through loud, grainy speakers, beckoning potential buyers to witness the wonders of their products. One guy demonstrated a glass cutter while another played a tune on a stringed instrument he had for sale. A circle of about ten senior citizens danced around a tree, singing a sad song accompanied by twanging strings. At the edge of the lake, a crowd had gathered to watch another band of musicians--anchored by a severely nasal female singer--wail the night away. And this was just on one side of the lake.
Circling around, I passed lovers boarding paddleboats and an outdoor party where the drinks were flowing with the melody. A man sat on a makeshift stage playing his acoustic guitar and singing to entertain the crowd.
Even farther along, I happened upon a game called xiang qi, which is sometimes described as a Chinese version of chess. A small, old man with a long, gray fu-manchu crouched in the middle of a crowd, the gameboard directly in front of him. He looked straight ahead, deep in thought, mumbling to himself every now and then. The crowd that had gathered grew restless awaiting his next move, but he sat still, his bloodshot eyes glazing over. He was deep in either meditation or inebriation.
A man in the crowd yelled at the old man, trying to shake him from his stupor. Still no response. The old master's younger opponent waited respectfully for him to challenge his last move. This went on for about 10 minutes before I walked away. The whole experience had a strange vibe to it, like there was something spiritual attached to this particular game. As I moved back toward cell phone row, I wondered if the feeling is a result of my ignorance to the culture, or if some strange energy was afoot. Disregarding an internal urge to stay and watch the game unfold, I walked away and started toward the hotel. I had no cell phone, but I had gained invaluable cultural experience I could share with my teammates.


While eating spaghetti, our host (we'll call him Tim) told us about a lot of the projects he has undertaken in order to reach his people group, a rural minority group that adheres to an animistic form of Buddhism. A quick glimpse at the obstacles he faces shows how difficult missionary work is, and how much the missionary must rely on God for guidance with every new project.

For his organization, Tim is the highest authority responsible for reaching his people group. He casts the vision, drafts a master plan and hires necessary staff. He is the general, the head, the one in charge of his organization's efforts to bring these people into the kingdom. As such, he's aware of every project that seeks to either build relationships or sow the seed of the Gospel. Here are some of the things going on:

-Parables-Tim is currently developing culturally appropriate parables to use as training lessons for new believers that come from his people group's background. This taps into the overall intention of the parable: to explain deep truths with common language and imagery. Instead of the parable of the lost sheep, for instance, he might use the lost water buffalo. This doesn't water down the word; it makes it accessible to those who've never heard it before. Luckily, a believer from his people is helping him translate spiritual language into the people's vernacular.

-Translation-This people group has their own distinct writing system and about five different dialects of their language. The New Testament has been in print here for a long time, but the Old Testament has never been translated, much less read in the churches. Without a solid foundation of the Jewish people and their desire for a messiah, how will some of the New Testament passages (think Romans) even begin to make sense? Tim has a small team working on this at his office. They translate from Chinese into their language. They recently experienced a setback in production, when one of their team members, a girl in her late teens, died unexpectedly. Tim requests prayer in this endeavor.

-Laying foundations-Until the O.T. is completed, Tim must lay the foundation for the Gospel all by himself. He says that without a working knowledge of God's existence, man's sin, God's wrath and God's love, you can't even begin to talk about things like atonement and santification. He must start from the beginning, brick by brick building a view of God, a theology, from scratch, sometimes having to tear down strongholds that hinder construction. These people have been in bondage so long, he says, they have a lot of cobwebs to clear out of their thinking.

-Building Relationships-Surprisingly, this is the easy part and the reason we had traveled across the seas. Relationships are extremely important in China, and by giving of our time, we reflected well on Tim. His opportunities will hopefully multiply because we loved those kids and taught them a little bit of English.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

New Article

For those of you who are interested, I just had a two-page spread in The Red and Black newspaper in Athens. My article was about hiking trails in Athens, outdoor escapes inside the city limits. If you want to check it out, go to the link below and click on all the articles that say "Urban Hiker." My piece was one article with four parts, so they split it up on the Web site. You'll have to scroll down on the page to learn about the last three trails. Hopefully this will be the starting point for many more adventure pieces. Here goes:


Sunday, October 29, 2006

A Good Day

I've tried not to bore you with simple lists of our day-to-day activities. So far I've selected some of the most exciting moments of the trip to post. This lengthier post will take you deeper into our mission and help explain where all our time went each day.

The day we hit the one-week mark in China, it was a Friday, and business was as usual. Our morning skit was hilarious. Evan selected Stephen and Katelyn to simulate midgets on stage. They stood with their hands in shoes on the table, and in "Whose Line?" style, Brad and Cat served as their arms. Evan narrated, forcing them to eat a peanut butter sandwich, brush their teeth and shave. Needless to say, their faces were covered in all kinds of substances before the skit ended. Most importantly, the kids laughed and our day started off right.

Classroom time focused on hobbies, and we were floundering a little bit because we couldn't think of enough questions to ask. Jon and I had been pretty effective at winging our presentations, but on this day, we were drawing blanks.

Each student had a canned answer to the question, "What is your hobby?" Some mentioned sports, others shopping or spending time with family. But if we asked "What else?" we'd get a stuttering response that amounted to nothing more than a restatement of the first answer. Rephrasing the questions and writing some alternate answers on the board, we gave them practice making complete sentences and saying things other than "play basketball" or "watch TV."

Teaching methods in China are different than in the US, with a lot of rote memorization and very little independent or critical thinking. The differences in education systems reflect conflicting ideologies in the two countries. Our individualism promotes free thought sometimes bordering on rebellion, while a hybrid Confucian/communist ideology in China focuses more on respecting authority and knowing one's place in the community.

The school day is structured differently as well. While I haven't been to an actual classroom when I wasn't teaching, I've heard that teachers in China generally don't try to use engaging activities to make boring concepts easier to swallow. It seems that fun is not used to promote learning. It is a separate phenomenon, something that happens outside of school as a relief from study.

This is possibly because teachers and parents feel that there's no time to waste. With so much competition, the pressure for Chinese kids to perform is immense, and it starts early. If they don't do well one examinations, then they won't be able to get into a good middle school, which might not prepare them well enough for the examinations leading into university, the key criterion observed by employers on applications. As far as I know, salary and starting position are linked to the college degree, even moreso than in America, where the capitalist system can be harnessed to make high-school dropouts rich.

In music class today, we did the "Hokey Pokey" and introduced "The Wheels on the Bus," a song that took the kids a while to learn. My guitar was put to use on the camp theme song, which I had to drag through because of the difficulty of the lyrics. Maybe by the end of camp they'd be able to say "English Summer Camp is a really cool place to be" five times fast.

During xiuxi time, we ate lunch at a Dai restaurant near the school on the way back into town. Either Linda, the camp organizer, really liked the food, or she was getting massive kickbacks from this place. We ate there two days in a row, and had similar food on other days.

Back at camp, we taught the kids ultimate frisbee, which they loved. They caught on much quicker than with kickball and wiffle ball, I guess because of ultimate's similarity to soccer. One team advances against another, trying to make it across a goal line. It's a mindless advance of the masses, the community working together, none of the individual effort and critical thinking stuff you find in baseball. Wow, even the favorite sports represent the predominate educational ideologies.

After school let out, the Georgia half of our team (12 people) went to our hosts' apartment (3 bedrooms) for dinner. We had no clue what to expect, but we hoped to avoid the cornmeal fritters, ground beef and grilled fish we'd had at Linda's place for lunch.

As soon as I walked in, I knew I'd hit the jackpot. For the first time on this trip, I smelled home. Our hosts had whipped up a spaghetti feast, and not a Chinese rendition made with fake sauce and ground chicken meat. This was American spaghetti with tomato sauce and parmesan cheese newly imported from Kunming, the capital city of Yunnan province. There was Coke (still carbonated!) to drink, real garlic bread and salad with ranch dressing also from Kunming.

After returning for seconds, I was in high spirits for the rest of the evening, which was spent getting to know our hosts better and learning more about the projects they're working on.

Web Developments

This semester I've enrolled in a digital media production class where I've learned some of the secrets to building websites. I'm still a beginner, but you can sample some of my work and see what you think. My home page is bursting with information about me, and it has some previews of my music as well as pictures from a lot of my trips, and if you really want it, my resume in both html and PDF formats.

The Chinese minorities site is a new project, and it focuses on people groups with whom I've had direct contact. I've only updated three of the people groups so far, but I'm thinking about doing all 56 minorities that are registered by the government, focusing on things not mentioned by other sites. Forays into my web designs will give you a much needed break from the China narrative. If you don't have Chinese characters enabled, the design suffers a bit. I think I'll improve it when I have some knowledge of photo-editing software.

Tell me what you think about the sites. The personal site has a feedback page, but you'll have to come here to bash (or praise) my minorities site. Here we go:



Thursday, October 26, 2006

A Ray of Light

After lunch one day, we had a few hours to explore the city before a meeting that evening. I took Casey, Evan, Katy and Brad by a few outdoors shops I had found last year. Brad and Casey both bought shirts for $8 US, and after they had gotten their fix, we had to decide our next course of action. Brad and Katy returned to the hotel, but the rest of us maximized our down time by exploring the city. I had spent less than 24 hours in JH last year, and this was my chance to get a feel for the city.

From the "Forest Explore Shop," Evan, Casey and I headed to the east side of the city, where a relatively new suspension bridge stretches over the Mekong river. The brown water flowed through the wide channel in a swift current, and the valley stretched into the horizon, lined on either side by green mountains peeking through the low-floating clouds. We could see where the city ended on the north and south sides and where it spilled over to the other side of the bridge. I wondered if this was still JH proper, or if this suburb of sorts had another name.

We stopped about halfway across and spent a little while admiring the scenery, joking about how sometime on this trip, we should go "brownwater rafting." Foot traffic on the bridge was heavy, mostly with dark-skinned, non-Han-looking (minority) people. It was almost dusk; the ones moving east must be returning home from a day's work. The one's moving west toward town might be going in to do some shopping or enjoy the vibrant nightlife.

We remembered our hosts mentioning an old Christian church standing strong on this side of the city. Looking from the north side of the bridge back toward town, we looked for any semblance of a steeple. A cross stuck up in between some buildings, and despite its crimson color, we knew it didn't signify the presence of a hospital. Darkness was beginning to descend on the town and pull the curtain on our beautiful scenery, so we decided to use our remaining 30 minutes to find a ray of light: the church.

Back on land, we ducked northward down a narrow street, guessing at where the church could be. The steeple was no longer visible, so the plain, computer-drawn map given to us was our only guide. We found an outdoor carnival where vendors had set up grills and were preparing to cook dinner. Evan found a game where for one yuan you could shoot plastic BBs at balloons taped to a wall.

After this quick diversion, we maneuvered around some condos toward the bank of river, hoping to use it as a point of reference. The looks we got from people indicated that we were off the beaten path for tourists. From the bank we got some great views of the bridge, which turns into a neon light show at dusk. Turning back toward town, we saw the same cross we had seen from the bridge, this time a lot closer but still inaccessible because of fences and buildings blocking our path.

With five minutes to spare before we needed to find a taxi, we saw an alcove with crosses on it and figured it must lead to the church. Under the alcove, down an alley and through a gate, we made it into the church's courtyard. Through a glassless window we saw a group of believers, mostly women, meeting in a one-room sanctuary. A single, uncovered lightbulb cast a bluish glow in the room, illuminating a scene that encouraged us greatly. The woman standing at front held a Bible in her hands and she seemed to be reading from it. We wanted to stay and listen, but we didn't want get the others worried.

We left unnoticed, thanking God that these dear brothers and sisters were here, paving the way for those that will pray later for them and their country, doing their best to shine a small ray of light into the darkness that has fallen on their city.

Meals 2-Dico's

Dico's is China's indigenous version of KFC, but it's definitely not as tasty as the Colonel's brand. The fast food chain has made it to at least three cities (I saw it JH, Kunming, and Urumqi) and will probably keep expanding.

The chicken there was piping hot, served in ample portions, but it had the Chinese aftertaste that pervades most western food in China. As Frank said, "You'll find that western food in China is like that--pretty good, but just not the same."

So don't expect Dico's to make your fried chicken like Big Ma did it back in the deep south. But if you go in with low expectations, you'll leave full and pleasantly surprised. The sundaes are almost as good as McDonald's, but again, they leave something to be desired, and for six kuai, you might as well take a trip to the Burmese place to eat some strawberry shaved ice. More on that in a later post.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Music Class

After morning classes, I headed across the courtyard to music class, sometimes venturing outside the school’s gate to buy some one-kuai waters vendors were selling across the street. There was no telling how many times in a given day we’d have to go through B-I-N-G-O, or how many times the wheels on the bus would go round and round. It could be taxing on the throat.

The higher-ups in our camp administration assumed that just because I had brought a guitar with me, I would be delighted to drone through an endless directory of camp songs. They were right in assuming that I would do it, but wanting to was a different story. For one, I’ve never been a “campy” type of person. I don’t consider myself smug or too cool for school or anything; I’ve just never really been that excitable, especially with music.

Most of my playing occurs within the confines of my own bedroom, with the wall and the ceiling fan as the only audience. Not that I’d be too nervous to play in front of children, but the smooth sound of the acoustic guitar tends to mellow me out, not hype me up. So you can guess just how delighted I was to hear that our arrangement of songs for the week came straight from the “unnecessarily giddy music” hall of fame.

Consider such hits as “BINGO,” “The Hokey Pokey,” “If You’re Happy and You Know It…,” and “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” among others. The great thing was that these kids, who are almost all 14 years old or above, don’t know that the songs they’re singing are for preschoolers in the states. With the English levels they displayed, they didn’t need to go much higher.

It’s interesting to see how slow to develop these kids are, physically, emotionally, and socially. They could be living in downright iniquity for all I know, but they all seem so innocent, so clueless as to what’s going on in the world. The 15-year-olds looked and acted about like Michelle and Charlotte, members of our team who are both 13. Maybe their mature side was hidden behind the language barrier.

I had two choices when going to music class. Man up and do my job, or complain about anything from the humidity in the room to lack of sleep to the spicy noodle breakfast that didn’t settle right in my stomach. To whine or shrink back would be a waste of the money and the prayers people have spent to get me across the Pacific Ocean. Amid all the spiritual attacks, I would do what I came to do.

The kids fed off their teachers’ energy in class. If we didn’t set an example, the kids would never have branched out. By making fools of ourselves, we became vulnerable, and in doing so made it clear to these gun-shy teenagers that participating in ridiculous activities like the hokey pokey would not lower your social standing. By bending their routine and making learning fun, we left them with more of a handle on English and a better impression of American Christians.

My journal about that day:

“Being an active, energetic person is not my strong suit, but God’s been giving me strength to keep the pace fast. I’ve been having the same ol’ spiritual attacks from the enemy as I go off to camp each day: the sinking feelings about having to do work, the desire to sleep but an inability to do so, the discouragement about the relevance of our work. But small prayers have called the H.S. to my aid. Through his strength--and the smiles of the kids--I’ve been able to stop whining and be thankful…”

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

First Day of Camp

JH was still soggy from the permanent drizzle that had settled over the city the day we got off the plane. As we boarded the bus to head to school, everyone was a bit apprehensive about camp.

At least in my mind, the questions began to arise: How will we perform? Will we actually help the kids? Is all this work worth it? Will the support that we raised be spent wisely here? And most importantly, How will teaching English bring the Gospel of Jesus to these people?

Before I discuss these issues, let me elaborate a little about the structure of the camp, just in case anyone wants to borrow this format. As soon as we arrived, we would have a group assembly. Evan was in charge of coming up with a skit to capture the kids' attention during this early meeting. Various team members would carry out the skits, which usually had the kids rolling with laughter by the end.

Next, kids would follow their teachers to their classrooms, where we'd have 50 minutes of traditional class time, teachers in standing in front of the students lecturing, using games and activities to get them involved. When class time ended, the group of students was split in two, one group going to music class for an hour, the other group going to word games, which reinforced the lesson taught during class. After the hour had passed, students, who were grouped with regard to age and English level, would swap places.

At about noon, we'd head back to town for lunch, and then back to the hotel for mid-afternoon xiuxi before returning to the school at 2 p.m. Afternoons were literally all fun and games. The group would split again, with half of the students going to recreation and the others to arts and crafts. After 1 1/2 hours, we'd switch. These activities allowed the kids to let their creative and athletic energies flow, and we taught them a little bit of English as they went along.

During the morning assembly on Day 1, we did an American Idol simulation. Frank used my black guitar to impersonate Elvis, Joe sung a horrific version of a popular boyband song, and Charlotte "won" with an opera rendition of "Happy Birthday." After the assault on the ears was over, I joined my fellow teachers and met my class.

I couldn't have asked to be stuck with better teachers. Jon Sieg is amazing guy whose Chinese is on a level similar to mine. Combining our knowledge, we could translate pretty well. A goofy but caring guy, Jon taught with an uncanny energy that the kids could feel, and they had the most fun when he was in front of the class. Both having experience teaching English in China, we made a good tandem, each stepping in when we felt like the other was floundering.

Christy Saucier rounded out the group. The 16-year-old is mature for her age, and she looks like she's five years older than most of the students. When we played the "guess our age" game, the students wouldn't believe that she was either their age or a little older. She mostly relied on Jon and me to set the tone for the class, but she stepped in nicely when called upon.

Our first lesson with the kids was very simple. We practiced easy sentences like "Hello, my name is...," "Where do you live?" and "What do you have?" Contrary to what we expected, we had to adjust the curriculum to fit our class, which boasted a relatively high English level. I did hear a lot of canned responses, stuff they had memorized from dialogues and books. They had problems understanding questions pointed directly at them, and they were uncomfortable with questions that don't have automatic responses. Basically, they were running into the same problems I've been facing while trying to learn Chinese.

But we're here to help them get out of their comfort zones, something that's necessary when learning a language. If you never have the courage to practice, you'll rely on book knowledge and never improve your conversation skills. My poor conversational Chinese attests to that.

Thursday, October 12, 2006


Without knowing about the food, you can't possibly get an accurate portrayal of China. Food is inextricably linked to daily life and community, especially in rural areas. So, along with the devotions, I'll be giving you glimpses of some of our meals as well. What you see may shock or surprise you, but as I said in the post about the school, you'll be surprised what you can do outside of your fat-and-happy American context.

Today's Menu at a garden restauraunt included:

-Black chicken soup, complete with head and feet. We took a picture of the chicken as if he were lying in a bathtub surrounded by spices and his own severed limbs.

-Pineapple steamed rice, an amazing sweet supplement to the salty and spicy meal. Good to anybody's taste buds, American or Chinese. Prepared by coring a pineapple, scooping out the insides and mixing them with freshly steamed rice. The mix is then put back into the pineapple and covered with the pineapple's original top, allowing the flavor to really marinate.

There's countless other things to list, but these are some of the highlights from the feast. Almost every meal like this was served with some sort of bamboo chutes, spicy noodles or other delights.


God speaks on mission trips, so throughout these posts I'm going to intersperse some quotations from our devotions that may encourage you. Think of these as a glimpse into what God was doing in our hearts as we carried out his work. These may just be short quotations, or they may be full-blown articles depending on how relevant they are. So, here's the first one. It came from our first meeting with our hosts and addresses the subject of God's nature, which at all times is both just and loving:

"Every good thing that I have experience is because of God's goodness and every suffering I have not experienced is because of God's grace, and all the time I have on this earth is not because God is obligated to give it to me, but because of his patience."

Tuesday, October 10, 2006


The night before camp, our team headed to a middle school on the outskirts of the city to complete our first assignment--evalutating the children's English levels.

When I say "middle school," there are a few things I need to clarify. For starters, Chinese middle schools don't encompass the exact same age groups as the ones here. For example, some of the kids in our classes were 15 years old. If I'm not mistaken, these kids' American grade levels would be anywhere from seventh to tenth rather than the sixth through eighth.

Also, don't think of this middle school as one building with a few wings. As I mentioned in the last post, dorms, cafeterias, outhouses, dancehalls and instructional buildings are all spread out. It's like a miniature college campus where students from poorer families will be housed until they return to their fields and villages. Some of the more wealthy students found lodging in the city.

I'm not one who likes to sit through meetings. That's partly a bad thing, because it sometimes leaves me disorganized and out of sync with the way a certain operation is supposed to run. At other times, though, I feel like restlessness is a good thing, a way of never becoming so settled that I can't stir anything up or so idle that I can't get running again.

That said, the day before camp had been a dreary one, and although we'd had some rest time and a good lunch, the rain and the planning sessions had sapped most of our strength. But then we crossed the threshold into the auditorium where all the kids had assembled.

Seeing their smiling faces triggered an amazing response from our team. It felt like either pure adrenaline or the Holy Spirit, or a combination of the two. Whatever it was, God controlled it and used it to give us fuel for the rest of the evening.

With well over a hundred students, the task of evaluating each one's English level looked daunting. But with 24 people and a little organization, we were able to tackle it. Using ESL curriculum, we tested students on vocabulary, speaking and comprehension. We used pictures that forced them to distinguish between similar items and sentences. We also asked simple questions like, "What time is it?" and "What day is today?" If they got 6-9 right on the first part, they moved on to the second, which could have been easier or harder depending on which vocabulary had stuck in their heads.

Each teacher evaluated about six students, and instead of leaving the school exhausted, we felt refreshed and excited. Tomorrow--the first day of camp--couldn't come soon enough.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

The School

I wonder how some of the others felt about the school's conditions. Having taught English at some poorer colleges last year, I knew to expect the flimsy, padlocked doors leading into concrete-floored classrooms furnished with splintery wooden desks and squatty rectangular stools.

The first classroom boasted a welcome message, written with crisp white chalk on the newly painted blackboard. As with most Chinese signs, I could make out about half the characters. Outside in a courtyard of sorts stood stubborn concrete tables that looked like picnic tables without the benches. We learned that these were for ping-pong, and that the students would use lines of bricks as inflexible nets.

Across the main street from this area were some basketball courts, backboards without goals hanging from poles. Student living quarters, shoddy brick structures with broken windows and the same metal doors, lined the courts and formed an L-shaped enclave that stretched close to a three-story, white-tile building.

The only bathrooms were tucked into a corner of the property all too close to the dormitories. Schools in areas like this have no indoor plumbing. In fact, students are lucky to have an outdoor toilet with the technology (like a hose pumping water through a trough) that keeps things circulating. I've been in areas where a rectangular hole in the concrete is all you get.

When the girls got back from using the bathroom the first time, we heard about it. Of course they were right in thinking the bathrooms were disgusting, but sadly, they weren't as bad as they could have been.

Some of you cringe, but you'll be surprised what you can do when options are slim. It's not that you lower your standards; you just realize that standards here are different, and facing that fact, discipline yourself to live according to the present situation. As someone once said, "A foreign country isn't designed to make you comfortable; it's designed to make its own people comfortable."

For this week, this was our workplace, and with God's help, all the trappings of American life would be as far from our minds as our country was from this one.

The Office

We were still dodging puddles on the way to the office today, trying to avoid getting splashed by bikes and mopeds passing on the small feeder roads sandwiched between the sidewalk and the street.

The sidewalks, like most in China, are a hodge-podge of square concrete tiles, sometimes drab, other times colorful, but never good at absorbing impact. With all the scattered, crumbling pieces of concrete, we might as well have been walking through a mountain pass.

The office consisted of converted apartments stacked on the second and third floors of a building whose shoddy outer appearance belied the quaint but decent inside. There was no AC, and the barred windows were open, inviting any possible gust of wind to relieve us from the humid air we almost had to swim through.

Unfortunately, the open windows also allowed the sounds of the city to sweep in on our meeting. Gradually, we got used to the loud Chinese outbursts, the whish of water splashing off the rubber of car tires, and the incessant beeping horns of taxi drivers dead set on making that last five kuai before their shift came to a close.

The second floor housed what I would call an office, the base of operations for our host's platform. Inside, we peeked around a large wooden shelf with named cubbie holes and saw Chinese people, mostly women, working diligently at a table. Besides our host, there were no laowai (a mildly derogatory but mostly jesting Chinese term for foreigners) to be seen. This was a big deal. For an organization headed by a white guy to be run by natives was both a sign that our host was impacting the community and an indicator that his prospects of staying here were good.

We continued, a hardly inconspicuous procession of 24 white folks and one Korean, up the stairs and into the third floor apartment that served as an international school. The rooms were decorated with posters that highlighted grammar terms and presented math problems, colorful tastes of America set in stark contrast to the whitewashed walls of the distinctly Chinese apartment.

Here, we sat in a circle on whatever chairs we could find and listened to our host's vision for the people group and the area. He talked about the spiritual darkness that hangs over the land and his team's efforts to reverse the negative trends set in motion by the people's philosophies, deadly mixes of Buddhism and animism sometimes seasoned with a pinch of Communist indoctrination or a dose of Confucian ideology. He gave us a history of the area, glimpses of his platform and its successes and failures, as well as his idea of how our mission at the English camp fits into the overall goal. I, for one, was impressed and inspired.

Then we hatched a plan for the rest of the day, starting with lunch at a Thai place and culminating in our first contact with the kids at the middle school near the airport just outside of town. Tonight, using ESL curriculum, we would evaluate their English levels and group them accordingly so that our classes would be as organized as possible.

With heads overflowing with knowledge and hearts brimming with anticipation, we left the the comfort of the office and braved the city. This was our base camp. From here the journey would begin.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

From the Ground Up

Jesus is a craftsman. He spent his entire adult life working with his hands at the carpenter's bench. And before his incarnation, he formed and shaped the universe. I think it's safe to say he knows a thing or two about building.

That's why his admonition in Matthew 7 is so important. To build a house on sand is to build in vain, but a house built on rock--on a firm foundation--will endure even when tested by wind and rain. In context, Jesus was talking about his words and their power to sustain us if we put them into practice.

In the American church today, figuratively speaking, there's a lot of coastal development going on, and if we don't reinforce our structures, the gusting hurricane winds of persecution could knock it all down.

Because persecution is always a threat in China, missionaries have realized that training new believers should be their foremost priority. They take the Great Commission in its full context, making disciples of all nations by teaching them to observe Jesus' commands. At least in my experience, they emphasize relationship with Jesus and how our obedience to him shows our love and respect for him. And they warn them that their belief in Jesus may cause trouble with the authorities.

But they don't stop here. Usually a new believer undergoes systematic training straight through the main stories of the Bible, from Adam and Eve to Jesus' return. In fact, because of the shortage of Bibles, evangelistic presentations often involve telling the story from creation to the resurrection of Christ.

In America, a person can become a "Christian" by completing the ABCs of faith, or by praying some words on the back of a tract. Examining these methods I've noticed that many "salvation" tracts and pamphlets don't even mention the resurrection. They talk about Jesus dying for the sins of the world and taking our death sentence, but they don't explain how he won the victory over the grave. You'd think a tract focusing on salvation would heed the words of Romans 10:9-10, that the believer must "confess with his mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in his heart that God has raised him from the dead" in order to be saved.

What it comes down to is that it doesn't cost much to be a believer in America. But the battle is more palpable in China, and those doing the training have their lives and work hinging partly upon the new believer's productivity.

Here at home, we must catch the urgency with which missionaries train new believers. Maybe we should start be retraining some people who've been taught--but not trained--for years. Maybe we should start with the kids in the nursery. Maybe, in some way (I don't care how!), we should start exporting fervent disciples rather than importing comfort-seeking pew-ploppers. Only then will our house will be built on the rock.


For missionaries, a good platform--a reason to be in country validated by the government--can mean the difference between deportation and successful ministry, especially in a closed country. The platform is particularly important in areas like minority villages, where tourism is about the only excuse perceived by the government as a good reason for foreigners to visit. But if you want to sustain ministry in an area, to take up residence in a city, to be visible and still be able to do illegal work, tourism won't work. That's where missions organizations have gotten creative.

Long before Hudson Taylor smuggled himself into China and began the China Inland Mission, missionaries were finding ways to sustain work in cultures where they weren't welcome. For the apostle Paul, it was a prison cell that ironically kept him preserved from the Pharisees and Sadducees, two Jewish sects that may have ripped him to shreds had they ever gotten a firm hold on him. Jesus chose carpentry as his platform, and the profession allowed God in the flesh to live in a small town and remain relatively unknown until he began his in-your-face redemptive mission.

Today, missionaries in China find similar ways to sustain the work there. Whether building business to help the economy or offering healing hands to the afflicted, they usually engage in some sort of occupation that will help China, so as to invite the government's favor. The only problem is that along with favor comes intense scrutiny, so they're forced to walk a tightrope, balancing between the government's expectations and God's calling on their lives.

On this trip and others, I've seen platforms in action, and I've been grateful to play a small role in each of them, like a screw that hold up one of the legs, so those who stand on top don't lose their balance. My roles as an accomplice in undercover schemes have been varied. I've been an English teacher, an adventure-crazed backpacker, a college student, a tourist, a businessperson, and part of a medical organization. Each time, I've experienced a taste of what it must be like to live as a full-time missionary who, with mafia-like secrecy, straddles the line of legality for the sake of the greater good.

This is not to mean that platforms adopted aren't useful or necessary. Some platforms, like medical work or relief for the impoverished, lend themselves more readily to ministry. But the same ulterior motives drive them all: get access, show compassion and preach the Gospel that can save both body and soul.

In JH, I found two platforms at work, moving in different directions but promising to converge somewhere down the road. We would be teaching English, establishing relationships with the minority kids at the middle school. At first glance, it was hard to see how doing the hokey pokey and playing kickball would impact the kingdom. But as we learned more about the vision for the people, we found that our job was to plow the soil of these kids' hearts so that when they return to their homes in the countryside, activities born out of the other platform might have a better chance of bearing fruit.

Obviously I can't go into too much detail, but it was great to see how God places creative, courageous people in the roles where he wants them, and it was encouraging to see that some of the work we did last year was supplemented by these two platforms. As Jesus said, "My Father is always working."

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Chinese Breakfast

JH is a city of a few hundred-thousand people, very small for Chinese standards. And it's in southwest China, very close to some other SE Asian countries. That said, western expansionist regimes like McDonald's, Burger King and KFC haven't made it here--yet.

This meant that instead of munching on Egg McMuffins in the morning, we'd be doing breakfast Chinese style. Americans like grains in the morning, and we usually lean toward the sweet side of the taste spectrum. Hot breakfast is fine as long as it's a country-cooked plate brimming with scrambled eggs, grits and bacon. A gooey cinnamon roll will also do the trick. But if a Cracker Barrel waitress serves up a bowl of spicy noodles and greasy greens when I ordered the Old Timer's breakfast, she'd better be prepared for a riot.

The first morning at the Lu Qiao (Green Bridge), we gathered at the round tables in the hotel restaurant at about 8:30 a.m., and I was promptly reminded why I brought a box of granola bars. The feast, served in large metal pans steam-heated with boiling water, consisted of rice gruel (China's answer to sweet oatmeal), noodles tinged with vinegar and a variety of salty and spicy toppings. There was also a type of bread that looked doughy on the outside but inside had the texture of a stale biscuit.

It quickly became evident that the Green Bridge was not the ritzy Sino-Swiss. There would be no raspberry-topped waffles, sweet pastries or syrup-drenched pancakes. This is authentic Chinese breakfast served in a China far from Beijing, the one that doesn't care about making westerners happy. Realizing this fact got me wondering: Did we bring enough Pop-Tarts?

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

The Return

Rice paddies during the rainy season

For security reasons, I can't mention the name of the city where our plane touched down at about 4:30 that Monday afternoon after we left Beijing. Just know that it's a pretty small place, one I never thought I'd revisit, especially after doing a backpacking expedition there last year. For purposes of flow, I'll refer to it as JH.

The international airport in JH is little more than two baggage carousels and a few runways. When you arrive, no tunnel nestles up against your plane to lead you safely into the airport. Once you dismount, it's down some steps to the tarmac, and you're out in the open air until you reach the main building. The absence of a tunnel didn't bother us. The scenery around JH is beautiful, complete with towering green mountains capped not with snow but with manicured rows of rubber trees and other crops. The air here was different too. With the airport 5 km away from the city, we couldn't see the pollution and or smell the stench of open-air latrines. It was still drizzling lightly, and the scent of morning dew hung in the air even though it was afternoon.

As two buses waited on us outside, I couldn't help but notice the contrast between this year's trip and last year's. Last spring, our mission was tense. We had divided into teams of two, staggering our exit from the airport so as to raise the least amount of suspicion. This year, our team was joking from the plane to the bus, playing very well the role of ignorant American tourists who've come to help a school teach English.

A teacher from the school helped us get our things loaded into the back van, while we loaded ourselves into the leading vehicle. I was awash with both memories and anticipation. I couldn't wait to show Katy the places we'd been last year. Even though I spent less than 24 hours in this city, it felt as familiar as if I'd stayed a week.

As our bus splashed through the streets and over the long bridge running over rice fields into the city proper, I replayed the scene from last year at this exact spot. I had told the taxi driver that his city's scenery was beautiful. And it was still beautiful, this time even more so. During the rainy season, the prefecture--known for its beauty--comes alive with a new vibrance, like a beautiful woman who has donned her best dress, jewelry and the perfect shades of makeup.

With rooms doled out at the Green Bridge Hotel, we had crossed the street for our second Chinese meal, after which Evan, Abby, Katy and I went to a little cafe for Coke floats and banana shakes. Evan and I reminisced about last year and wondered what this year's trip would hold. On our way home, the rain came again, and we ducked into our first cab. Five yuan and a few minutes later, we were resting in our hotel rooms, preparing for the long road ahead.

Bumpass, Virginia

After a hearty American-style breakfast at the Sino-Swiss, we had our first meeting with the entire group that comprised our 25-person teaching team. Introductions went smoothly, and I had a surprisingly easy time memorizing names. Maybe God was behind this trip after all.

When two of the guys introduced themselves, we realized they were from the same hometown. Casey a junior at Bridgewater College, and Jon, a recent college graduate who's looking at long-term work in the Middle Country, both hail from the bustling metropolis of Bumpass, Virginia. Pardon the immaturity, but we snickered a little when we heard the name. Casey and John, both hilarious guys, joined us, and then intros continued.

It wasn't until we got to know them a little better that Casey told us the legend from which Bumpass got its name. The Bumpass family was a contingent of Mormons living in a Christian-saturated area in what is now Virginia. The community drove the Bumpasses out, telling them that if they left peacefully, the town would be named after them. None of us thought it made much sense to name a town after someone you discriminated against, so we made Bumpass the butt of many jokes to come.

Beijing Duck

I mentioned dinner in the last post, but I forgot to talk about lunch, our first authentic Chinese meal of the trip. For the first time in the four times that I've been in China, I was treated to Beijing kaoya, or roast duck. For those of you who don't know much about romanization of the Chinese language, this is the same thing as Peking duck. Beijing=Peking? Funny how foreigners can screw those things up.

The Chinese have an interesting practice of serving meat on a dish shaped like the animal it came from, so we were served with milk-white ducky plates--one with duck skin, one with meat, and one with a combination of the two. Other items on the menu included a kung-pao-esque spicy chicken, slimy pork cut into wormy strips, served with a beancurd tortilla that many of us said looked and felt like a rubber jar opener.

The duck tasted like barbeque pork, and the chicken was spicy and delicious. The only thing I couldn't get down were the pork and doufu fajitas.

We ordered Sprite and bottled water. Only the Sprite came, and we didn't have anywhere to pour it. Our small glasses were filled with boiling hot water, another Chinese custom born out of the need to sterilize bacteria-ridden water. So, to prove just how culturally inappropriate we could be, we walked outside and dumped out our cups of water, making room for the cold and refreshing xuebi (Sprite).

One meal down (and actually staying down). Only about a hundred more to go.

Beijing's Summer Palace

Front view of the Summer Palace. I had to dip past the lazy security guard to snap this one.

So glad you've tuned in for another episode of China's rich, royal, and God-ordained. This time, we'll be taking a tour of Beijing's Summer Palace, a sprawling complex that features a huge lake, magnificent pavilions, waves of Chinese people, and of course, a palace.

Again, I'm not a history major, and ours was a crash course in Beijing tourism. We had less than two days to cover the big sites, and we had very little funding to work with. That meant no drawn-out tours with big-mouthed guides stuttering through tiresome routines. I guess we would've gained a lot if we had someone to explain our surroundings, but a my theory is that a guide is only worth as much as an internet connection. I can do my own research, but I can't recreate my experience of the place or the amazing things I observed while walking around.

So let's start with what I do know. With a day of touring experience, we'd become pros at weaving through masses of Chinese people. Buying tickets, Evan and I were pleased to find out that once again our student IDs saved us money, this time about 30 percent off the regular price. We entered through the arched red doors typical of imperial entryways in old China and took a left past a few shops that were already selling Olympic merchandise in preparation for the 2008 games.

In front of us was the lake, riddled with lover-filled paddle-boats puttering along the surface. A concrete peninsula, culminating with a gazebo, jutted out into the lake, offering great views of the grand palace on the other side. Some Chinese women sat alone, using garish umbrellas to shield them from the minimal sun, which still couldn't peek through the gray haze that had fallen on Beijing when we came to town. Families interacted with flurries of laughter and animated conversation while couples like Katy and I posed for pictures on rocks with the palace in the background.

Having exhausted the pavilion, we went to take a closer look at the palace. On the way we encountered colonnades and courtyards--some opulently decorated, some covered by sheets of plastic as they're repainted. We took a back street into one of the many courtyards. As we walked past the trench-like pond, a man standing outside one of the buildings called to us in perfect English.

"Would you like to come in and look at some art?" It was only our second day, but it was great to hear our language come out of a Chinese person's mouth. Whether for that reason or because of simple curiosity we obliged him and were rewarded with a beautiful exhibit. Apparently, this guy and his friends were art majors at a nearby university, selling their work to give scholarships to aspiring art students who can't afford the high costs of college.

I felt bad that I couldn't buy anything. I wanted to support their work and in doing so increase my small collection of Chinese art, which now consists of hand-scrawled notes and simple scrolls adorned with seasonal landscapes and ancient calligraphy. I won't call their paintings expensive because I know that artwork of comparable quality in the States would've cost twice as much. Let's just say I don't have money to spend on things that I can't drive, wear, eat, or study.

When we finally dragged everyone out of the art exhibit, we took the same concrete path past the entrance to the palace, which was manned by a solemn sentinel who didn't mind if you snuck under the alcove to get a clear picture. With the lake on our left we continued till we reached the marble boat. Before you ask, yes, it is a boat made out of stone. It sits in the water, but I don't think I ever got a clear answer as to whether it's floating or not. If it is, the Chinese boat builders must've been amazing engineers. Off-setting marble's density had to be tough.

So why a marble boat? Here's where we get to the "rich and God-ordained" part. The Queen apparently wanted a place to hang out when the palace got too hot and crowded in the summer. So she had her subjects build her a lakeside retreat. And don't forget, this is a lakeside retreat at her vacation home. As to why she wanted marble, I can think of two reasons. One, the foundation for some of the royal structures in Forbidden City and Summer Palace was marble. Two, she just felt like it. If I had the "Mandate of Heaven" and little to no moral compass, you can bet I'd be offering up some crazy commands to suit my whims.

After a long walk through some winding trails, past the "Hall of Listening to Orioles" and some other sites, we made it to the back of the palace. Katy and I waited while the rest of the crew climbed to the top. Then we took the back exit.

Dodging taxis and bikes we crossed the street and collapsed at a place that felt a little like home: Mai Dan Lao.

Monday, September 04, 2006

The Other Side of the Wall

One of the less developed sections of the Great Wall, overgrown with shrubbery and off-limits to tourists.

In Safely Home, Randy Alcorn's fiction work about the church in China, two characters have a very revealing conversation about the Great Wall of China. Li Quan, a Chinese citizen educated in history at a prestigious American university, gives Ben Fielding, an American businessman, a look at the other side of the wall. While Ben sees it as a monument to human achievement, Li Quan, like many other Chinese, considers it "the longest graveyard," a place where the poor, powerless and enslaved were exploited at the hands of those in the seats of government.

Certainly, the numerous governments that built and maintained the wall had noble intentions. They wanted to keep their empire safe from marauding invaders. But it's a shame that the safety of the empire (and of the emperor's seat) had to come at the expense of so many lives. It makes you wonder about the wager made by those in seats of power. Over time, were more people killed by the wall than would have been if the Mongols or other tribes had invaded?

Walking around, feeling these sentiments reminded me of my visit earlier this year to the Panama Canal, where the museum said that over 19,000 Jamaicans died to build the glorified ditch that would expand trade between continents. There's an inherent value judgment made by those in authority who decide to undertake the vast projects that produce the wonders of the world. Basically, they're saying that the advancement of mankind, or the state's interest, or whatever other banner they use, is more important than thousands of plebeian lives. All the arguments and justification are easily made while sitting in the throneroom or in parliament sessions, but throw authority figures in the trenches and they might say that human achievement can wait a bit longer.

It's hard to find a "great wonder" of the world that hasn't been achieved on the back of slaves or lower-class citizens. The pyramids in Egypt, the hanging gardens of Babylon, all the ancient cities I visited in Jordan. Even our own country used slaves to construct the burgeoning economy that has made our nation the richest in the world. And while we reap the benefits, I wonder if there is another way, a method of achieving without exploiting, of producing marvelous acts without forced labor.

Then I think of Jesus. The greatest emperor, the supreme authority figure, he wanted to build a kingdom that would become so marvelous that the angels and spiritual authorities would stand in awe. But he did not sit in his posh throneroom and watch the laborers toil. He came down and offered himself as the foundation for the building. And now, slaves of righteousness become living stones to continue the construction, which he will complete when he returns on the last day. The attraction will be so grand that no one can possibly pay enough money to deserve to take a look. The only admission ticket will be the blood that was shed for sin by the Great Empathizer who saw us as a pile of rubble but came down to transform us into a shining temple to himself.