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.