Tuesday, May 20, 2008

A Nation in Mourning

Up till now I've avoided blogging about the 8.0 (according to the latest CCTV9 measurement report) earthquake that hit Sichuan Province last week. I figured the news agencies were all over the story, and my fellow China bloggers were keeping folks back home updated. I couldn't think of anything to add. Perhaps a product of our culture or merely a sad commentary on the times we're living in, I often find it difficult to relate to tragic events, particularly when they occur "out of sight". It really wasn't until yesterday that I began to feel the impact of what happened and what is continuing to happen. China has declared a three day mourning period which began Monday at 2:28, exactly one week to the minute that the earthquake hit. William and I were in a taxi heading back to my school from the medical college during this time. At 2:28 sirens went off, and there was a steady stream of horn honking for about a minute. Our driver along with many others pulled to the shoulder and drove the slowest I've ever seen Chinese taxi drivers drive. As we made our way down foot massage street, I was watching the faces of the Chinese shop owners and employees who had come to their doorsteps to watch the procession, and that was when the magnitude of this tragedy finally began to sink in. Anytime anything happens, it's so easy to immediately begin comparing the ways different cultures handle the same situations. National tragedies always evoke national unity (9/11, Hurricane Katrina, 5.12). This is true of both cultures I know and maybe the rest that I don't know. However, there have been some distinctly Chinese methods employed recently in the handling of the aftermath of the Beichuan Earthquake, and I thought it educational to discuss some of the most noticeable ones for those of you back home.

After the quake hit, the Chinese government and people mobilized, and in the opinion of those of us who have watched the presses for any updates, it seems their response has been quite respectable. Every department and every class at our school has rallied together to raise money and donate other supplies to take to Sichuan. Unfortunately, the earthquake caused some serious road destruction, and currently only planes have access to the hardest hit areas. Regardless, students have responded with sincerity and personal conviction to serve the people hurt in the earthquake. Each week my freshmen English majors are to turn in journal entries updating me on the month-long challenge they gave themselves. Last Friday Leon wrote the following:

The Challenge of Love

I know what had happened this week. I know this week is difficult for China. I also know what has happened this year. It’s so bad. I think this year for China is a real challenge. I don’t want to see more people get hurt. Crying is not useful.

I love my family. I love them. I love my classmates. I love my teachers. If they’re all right, I’m all right. I know the bad things didn’t happen first. Don’t be afraid. The earthquake comes one after one. What should we do? Can we bear it? Will we be hurt? I think this is enough. This is life. Maybe yesterday you are all right, today or tomorrow the bad things happens. All will be over. I love my family, classmates and my teachers. Are you all right? Don’t worry. Still I am and will stay with you.

Another similarity between our cultures: tangible death causes us to evaluate life. It must be terrifying to contemplate death when physical life is all there is.

The three days of mourning are interesting. First of all, entertainment is not allowed. Clubs, K-TV, and any other "entertainment" establishments have been mandatorily closed for the three days. Students are told to not engage in anything entertaining. Darla was told by a Chinese teacher not to show her previously scheduled film in class. Yesterday William and I went to play basketball at the medical school. The courts were deserted which thwarted our plans. We had anticipated joining one of the groups already playing since we didn't have a ball of our own, but there was no one to play with. We then came to my school where I have a ball we could use. My school's courts were nearly deserted, as well. There were four other boys playing basketball, and I shudder to think what might happen to them if they were caught. In addition to the no entertainment rule, all television stations are only allowed to show earthquake coverage. My television has about thirty some channels, and only three or four different reports can be seen. Tudou, a popular website that allows free movie downloads, currently has only twelve or so possible downloads - all earthquake footage. Films cannot even be searched on this website as far as we've seen. Speaking of websites, color has been removed from them for these three days of mourning. Everything is in black and white (for example, www.google.com.cn). Oh, and the Olympic torch has, of course, paused to observe this time. One of my students told me that this mandatory period of "silence" is a good method to cause people to stop and think more deeply, to take an introspective look, and to pray for those who were affected. I asked him if people would take advantage of this time. He couldn't say. For as long as human history has been chronicled and for as long as mankind continues, we will continue to mistake visible actions for invisible motives. It's not that I don't respect setting aside three days of mourning. I most certainly do! It's not even that I don't appreciate the methods implemented to bring about three days of silence. It's commendable. And the motives on the side of the government are totally honorable. I'm merely thinking about the underlying idea that people can become what they should be by placing specific requirements on them. I guess I'm really applying this situation to one more personal. There's an idea that sitting in the pew every Sunday and Wednesday makes for a good Follower. The more the outer cup is shiny, the better. Faith, Hope, Love. These aren't things that can be forced into your children, into your friends, or into your families by making certain things mandatory (whether verbally or, more commonly, through social pressure). I definitely want to avoid a soapbox. I know that you will know a tree by its fruit, but I also know that our view of fruit can be skewed sometimes. I think lemons are beautiful fruit, but I'm not such a fan of eating them. Durian, on the other hand, has a horrible wrap for its garlicky, dirty feet smell, but it's some of the tastiest fruit you will find (if you dare to try it). My point is that even if we can identify a tree by its fruit, maybe our view of the fruit itself is not truly representative of the type of tree our Father has asked us to be. So what came first, the chicken or the egg? Hmm, who really cares. The more important question for which there is an answer is what comes first, sincerity and love in one's heart or visible acts of sincerity and love? "First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside will also be clean."

Gandhi once said, "Ask the poor. They'll tell you who the Disciples are." There's a certain amount of truth in that, and the implications are clear. I was just thinking about the mass amounts of aid that are being given and will continue to be given to Beichuan Earthquake survivors. These humanitarian endeavors are amazing examples of mankind's ability to empathize and serve others. Disciples are asked to do more. How are We set apart from others? The lines are blurred quite often because we confuse tangible actions with intangible qualities. Dr. Larry Crabb, author of Inside Out, wrote, "Because we refuse to apply the ointment that burns off the diseased crust (looking inside ourselves and bringing to the surface the pain that keeps us from unconditionally loving others), we settle for natural goodness, for the nice things we do that Believers and non-Believers alike are capable of choosing. We seldom experience supernatural goodness, the release of the energy of Chr*st that is deposited deeply within us through salvation." I'm so thankful for the Chinese government, the Chinese people, and the foreign governments' aid to Sichuan Province. The world knows how to meet the needs of those terribly affected by horrifically large tragedies. But its up to His Children to meet the needs of those terribly affected by the horrors we don't often see: the horrors of abandonment, abuse, animosity...
Love is the fruit of the trees we've been called to be. Love motivates purely and acts sincerely. Love doesn't take time off or wait for serious tragedies to occur before acting. Love sees compassionately the needs of others here and now. Clean the inside...the rest will follow suit.

Monday, May 12, 2008


The sheer length of time since my last update should guarantee at least one or two interesting anecdotes. Sadly, it doesn’t. But I’ve promised to update my faithful readers (or reader, maybe) and attempt to pull something together.

Teaching is bittersweet at the moment. I have one class that I’m really enjoying. Around Easter we watched the film The Ultimate Gift. It’s a cute, Hallmark-quality film about a spoiled young man who is offered the opportunity to receive a series of “gifts” that lead up to an unknown “ultimate” gift. The series of gifts included learning such important lessons as the values of work, money, family, friends, learning, gratitude, dreams, one day, and a couple others. I had planned to show the video, discuss what I consider to be the ultimate gift by doing a cultural talk on Easter, and then move on. However, in light of my students’ overwhelming appreciation for the film, I decided to give them an assignment that would require a bit of work on their part. I asked them to choose one of the “gifts” they feel they personally need to learn and challenge themselves for one month to learn it. For example, if they need to learn the value of money, they might choose to live on a limited amount of money for the whole month or to use their money to help others who are in financial straits. Each week they have to write a journal entry detailing the progress of their challenge, and at the end of the month, they will be presenting the lessons they learned from their challenge. While a large majority is taking the easiest approach possible to this project, the few who are taking it seriously are blowing my mind with the challenges they’ve given themselves and the work they’re putting into meeting the challenges. Here are some highlights:

1) Percy – No doubt the least liked boy in class because of the frank and rather rude comments he makes quite often (which he calls “honesty”), Percy chose the gift of friendship and has challenged himself by first cleaning up his personal appearance (Previously he never thought it important to impress his classmates so he grew his hair long and attempted a disturbingly stringy mustache. This, coupled with his infrequent showers, more than put off his classmates. Since the challenge, he has shaved, cut his hair and cleaned up his appearance.) He is also putting forth more of an effort to be friendly, helpful, and less judgmental of his classmates.

2) Felisha – Felisha is a quiet girl who has chosen to challenge herself to pass her P.E. class. As simple as it sounds, this challenge is huge for her. Not only was she not blessed with any athletic prowess, but the P.E. course they have this semester includes running hurdles, laps, and doing various jumping events. Felisha has challenged herself to run more (even though she hates it) and practice each activity more often and more devotedly. She’s already made huge progress. Before the challenge she couldn’t run one lap around the track; now she can run four!

3) Zita – Zita is a very closed off girl. She seldom talks in class, and I’ve only seen her smile once or twice. She’s the only girl who hasn’t taken the opportunity to come to my apartment for a visit (surprising only because everyone else jumps at the chance). Anyway, she has chosen to challenge herself to learn the gift of family. She has a very poor relationship with her father as a result of some negative experiences in childhood. This month she has challenged herself to confront her father and to begin to rebuild their relationship.

I’m excited to listen to their presentations coming up. My other classes are less than exciting. My non-English major classes last only seven weeks, two of which fall on holidays so we don’t meet. It’s hard to get anything done in five weeks. Plus, this semester my students hardly understand any English so having a productive class is like pulling teeth.


By now most of you have probably heard of the earthquake that hit central China Monday afternoon. We did indeed feel it in Shiyan. Jessica and I were in her apartment killing time before heading to class when things in her living room began to sway. It was a different feeling than the last earthquake we felt a month ago. This one lasted much longer but seemed to be more fluid in its movement than the last one, which seemed to be rather abrasive. I’ve been reading the news, and this earthquake was quite destructive. I haven’t heard the extent of the damage, but many lives have been affected.