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.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Great Wall Video

This is my first feeble attempt at posting video on my blog. I hope this will add a new dimension to this space. Maybe this new capability will inspire me to post more. More about China and more video to come. This is to be viewed with the previous post in mind.