Thursday, January 31, 2008

Is God fair?

We are troubled by the plight of the handicapped children at Hong Chi Special School, the poor farmers’ children in Hubei, and the destitute orphans in Gansu. Through no fault of their own, somehow they are placed in a position facing extremely long odds in life. For that matter, why should one be born to parents receiving comprehensive assistance but not billionaires? Why should one have to eat in street stalls facing the elements but not in ELEMENTS itself? Is God being fair?

Sometimes I think it is the wrong question to ask. Each of us is in a unique station in life. Some may be richer, poorer, prettier, uglier, healthier, sicker, smarter, dumber, having perfect pitch, singing off-key, coordinated, clumsy, loved more, loved less, ... Just because we are different does not necessarily mean God is unfair to some.

We cannot control the card that has been dealt to us, hence it is not what we will be judged on. But we do have control on what we do with the card, and that is what we will be judged on. Now, that is being fair.

So when a young man buys a company with his rich father’s money and becomes chairman of the company, people are not impressed. But when a man from a poor family works his way up and becomes a successful businessman, people show him respect.

Jesus said, “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.”(Luke 12:48) What we have now is not really ours to keep, it is merely entrusted to us - for a purpose. And one day we have to give an account on what we have been entrusted with. Sometimes I shudder to think what God is going to demand from those who are “filthy” rich, so to speak.

These are trucks outside the DingXi train station being protected against the elements by straw matts. They are carrying potatoes waiting to be loaded onto the trains. DingXi proclaims itself the Home of The Potatoes - its main produce.

DingXi is one of the poorest counties in Gansu, one of the poorest provinces in China.

Why do people suffer?

Or, more accurately, why does God let innocent people suffer? God being all knowing, all loving, and all powerful, why doesn’t He do something to relieve their suffering?

Over the Christmas and New Year, I have met a lot of suffering people: children with varying degrees of handicap in Hong Kong, orphans in Gansu, people in Gansu who are not orphans but abjectly poor nevertheless, people suffering and dying from cancer in Hong Kong, ... And I got asked this question many times, in its various forms, explicitly and implicitly.

Of course there are answers to the question. Suffering builds character. Suffering brings a family closer. Suffering brings out compassion from people. Suffering brings us closer to God. Sometimes we really don’t know the answer - yet. But we humans are impatient. We want the answer now.

However, patience is an important virtue. When we watch a movie, we often cannot guess the ending, while we are only half way through. We do need to sit through the movie to find out what happens to the bad guy, and the good guy, in the end.

So, in the midst of our own, or someoneelse’ suffering, it may be immensely frustrating not to know why. But we do need to trust that God knows best.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The Heart Will Be Where The Treasure Is

Lately the stock market have been fluctuating wildly. Not too long ago the Hang Sang Index was in the 10,000s; then 20,000s, then 30,000s. Suddenly it was 20,000s again. It used to be that a gain or drop of 500 was a big one. Now it is 1,000 or even 2,000 in one day. If one has any investments in stocks, one’s heart can’t help but swing with them.

How true it is that Matthew 6:21 says, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

It is depressing to have money in stock these days. However, if your money is in real estate, it is a different story because housing prices are going up and up. But one person’s gain is another person’s loss.

A friend was being kicked out of his rented apartment recently because his current landlord sold the apartment. The current owner was really happy because the apartment had been bought a few years ago with seven something million dollars, and he just sold it for nine million. But the new landlord’s heart sank when he saw the inside of the apartment for the first time. Because the apartment had a low ceiling, and the windows look out towards a bank of old buildings, instead of an open vista. A fortune can be gained or lost in the blink of an eye in real estate.

Matthew 6:19-20 says, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do nto destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.”

How true it is! God loves the orphans in Gansu just as much as He loves you and me. So when we trust in God, see them in God’s eyes and are kind to those orphans, treasure is being stored in heaven, where God looks after them. It is much better than putting the money in any bank, stocks, or real estate.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Service Learning in Gansu

Overall, this was a very successful service learning trip. We have achieved all the original objectives. We set up the basic network infrastructure and a small computer laboratory, provided basic training to the students, and some help to the teachers on using the Internet to teach. Our service was welcomed by the school, and our students mixed well with their students. We are all hoping that we can continue to work with the school to improve the network and the students’ learning experience.

Our students themselves learned a lot from the experience. They have acquired useful hands-on experience on the network technology. They have shown excellent team spirit, dedication to service, and discipline. They have seen a part of China not commonly seen. They demonstrated that they are students we can proud of. They have pledged to continue to participate in the project.

This is the fourth time that we have led teams of students on service learning trips to mainland China. Each of the trips is different. and each of them satisfying in its own way. But this one must be one of the best.

I am grateful to my colleague for setting up and leading this trip, another colleague for planning the network and training the students, our university for providing the support to the team, the donors for donating the funds to buy the computers and the network equipment, and ultimately, God, who let this all happen.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Jubilee in snow

This is, of course, not a six-pointed star, but a beautiful snow flake. Look closely, and everyone of them is different.

No, this was not the first time in my life that I have seen a snow flake. I lived in snowy places (Rochester, New York; Madison, Wisconsin; Toronto, Ontario; Ottawa, Ontario) for 18 years. So I have had my share of snow. But I also haven’t seen a snow flake for the past 14 years. So I was excited.

This was Jubilee School in snow. The building to the left is the dormitory, and to the right is the school. It looks really pretty in snow.

The kids don’t have much. Indeed they don’t have many toys, if any. There weren’t even that much snow. Yet they find simple ways to have fun. And they seem genuinely happy. They do have each other and there is love among them.

They have taught me again that there are few true necessities in life.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

All Mutton Meal on a Lanzhou Street

What was this man eating? It looked really tasty, from the way he was enjoying it.

If your answer was goat’s head, your would have been correct. Later on, he would be picking bits from the eye sockets, washed down with a beer. He left with a satisfied look on his face.

This Hui (回族) family was selling bits of goats, mainly intestines and heads. They came from a place around Lanzhou. The young girl is very pretty. Her brother, a bit older, was very friendly and curious about Hong Kong. They don’t look any different from Han (漢族), as far as I can tell.

As indicated in the price list, a whole head with skin and meat would be 20 reminbi. A head with just the bones was only 5 reminbi, and that’s what the man was eating.
Here is a picture of the pot with heads and assorted other parts.

The face and attached meat is sold as 羊頭肉. Here you can see ears, tongues, livers, etc. All chopped to pieces. You select what you want, the mother would chop them to pieces, pour hot soup over it, and you have an instant delicious meal. Dipping your chopsticks into the lottery of goat bits is not a bad way to pass the bitterly cold evening.

The heads, jaws, and other pieces of discarded bones formed a big pile in front of the stall. Fascinating, isn’t it.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Gansu (甘肅) Muslims

There are lots of Muslims in Lanzhou, and Gansu in general. Mosques are everywhere. They are easy enough to spot with their distinctive onion-shaped domes and minarets. I understand they used to make the calls for prayers on top of the minarets. But when I heard the call for prayers around noon in Lanzhou, I could not really see anyone calling from the top of the minarets. Perhaps they use loud speakers these days.

This one is squeezed between the Yellow River and the mountains. Lanzhou is one long city on both sides of the Yellow River, hemmed in on both sides by mountains. At some places it is really narrow, as evident in this picture.

Most Muslims there are Hui (回族), with a small number of Dong Xiang (東鄉族). Many of the men wear white skull caps. The young do not look too different from the Han (漢族)。 The older folks can look rather distinguished, with their white skulls caps, long white beards and weathered faces.

Hence it is easy to find beef and particularly lamb in Gansu. But not pork.

We went looking for Lanzhou lamian (pulled noodles) 蘭州拉麵. This is the kitchen of one of the most famous noodle shops in Lanzhou. For 20 dollars you get a set of four bowls of noodles, with assorted meats. From fine noodles to thick to triangular (in cross-section) to as wide as a belt (the whole bowl consists of one long belt). Plenty enough even for me.

It turns out the local custom is to eat beef noodles mainly for breakfast. In early morning on our last day in Lanzhou, we went for noodle breakfast. For three dollars we got a big bowl of noodles and just a few mossels of meat. For three extra dollars we got several slices of meat. Very tasty, very good, chewy noodles. We were satisfied.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Gansu (甘肅) Landscape

The landscape is stark.

Gansu is a very dry place. Throughout the one and a half hour drive from Lanzhou to ChanKou, we hardly saw any trees. There were not even much grass. But there were lots of evidence of mudslides. Soil erosion is a major problem. Eventually the yellow soil was blown away or somehow got carried into the river. Apparently this is the major reason the Yellow River got yellow.

There were some natural caves. But most of them were evidently man made, easy enough to make because of the softness and looseness of the soil. We were told that many people used to live in those caves. Now it is mostly used for storage and to house domestic animals.

Rows and rows of trees, mostly cedar, were planted to protect the soil. Cedars are well known for being weather-resistant. However, the extreme dryness continues to kill many of them, so they have to be planted and re-planted.

Many of the hills and mountains were covered with ladder fields. The major crop here is potatoes, and banners proclaiming The Home of Potatoes (馬鈴薯之鄉) are everywhere.

On the rare flat lands people try to prolong the growing season with greenhouses. During the day, the sun keeps the plants warm. Towards the evening, straw mats are rolled out over the translucent plastic covers, helping to keep the greenhouses warm during the dark.

It is hard to make a living here.

Sometimes I wonder why people insist on living here. Historically, this was part of the land of the Xi Xia 西夏 in the times of the Tang 唐 and the Sung 宋 Dynasty. A lot of people were sent here over the years to secure the land. Now this is their home, as tough as it is.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Huang He (黃河)

I came face to face with Huang He for the first time in Lanzhou, Gansu (甘肅蘭州). Our bus drove along Huang He on the way from the airport into Lanzhou in the dark in the evening of 6th January. My thought then was: this should be Huang He (Yellow River) based on my understanding of the geography, but it is too small!

Then the following morning, we went to see the Yellow River, the source of much of the Chinese civilization, at the historical 中山橋. The original bridge at this position was built in the Ming Dynasty, in the 14th century. In the last years of the Tsing Dynasty, in 1907, the first iron bridge on the Yellow River was buit here. The current structure is the result of a re-enforcement in 1954.

The river was indeed a bit small, but don’t forget we were in the upper reaches of the river and it was dead winter. It was not that yellow. There was a layer of silt at the bottom, but the water was actually quite clear. It was indeed much clearer than the YangTze River (長江) at Wuhan (武漢), which was really a mud bath when I was there in summer. Lanzhou is the first major city on Huang He. From here, it has watered the Chinese civilization for thousands of years.

But boy, was the water cold! I couldn’t keep my hand in there for more than a few seconds. And it remained burningly cold for a long stretch of time afterwards. So I was making sacrifices for the sake of art - or at least a meaningful photograph.

The last picture is another view of the river from another bridge to the east of city, taken at dusk. The smog over the city is clearly visible. But, we all felt it was not as bad as that in Hong Kong.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Dedicated Jubilee Staff and Teachers

I have great admiration for the teachers and staff at the Jubilee school. Chankou is an isolated place. There is only one main street with a few shops and small restaurants. No entertainment as far as I can see. No book shops or other sources of stimulation.

Not only do they teach, they stay with the students all day, exercising with them, playing with them, and eating all their meals with them. The food is healthy but rather plain, with little meat. Lots of steamed buns, with some noodles and rice mixed in. Vegetables consist mainly of potatoes, Dai Bai Chai (Chinese cabbage), and some green onions. Coal is the main source of energy, used for heating, cooking, and whatever else. Working here is hard work.

In the long run, there are supposed to be house parents to take care of the children outside classes. But for now, the teachers double as house parents. Some of the teachers studied in popular fields such as languages in good universities in large cities. They probably have very good career prospects elsewhere but they chose to come to this remote place to be with these children. All of them are Christians, their faith is probably where they draw their strength from.

The Jubilee staff is no less amazing. Some of them are clearly uncomfortable with the cold, the water (mineral rich with a distinctive aroma), and the isolation. They had to overcome enormous odds and bureaucracy to get the school built. And they are continuing to battle to get the school equipped, students admitted, staff positions filled, finances supported. The manager(?) is a young lady with a sweet smile and friendly disposition. But I imagine the simile must be hiding infinite patience, finely-tuned business skills, and steely determination. The architect is a volunteer who continues to run around all day testing the electrical circuits, the door locks, the plaster falling from the walls and the ceiling, firing the coal burner to provide heat to the buildings, ... He is one-man real-estate development team.

Through their dedication and sacrifices, I see God working.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Clothing Distribution with Jubilee

On Saturday, we went out with Jubilee staff to distribute some winter clothing to the children sponsored by Jubilee Care. It started to snow the day before. So some of the more dangerous locations had to be cancelled. We ended up driving in the snow to a small town one and a half hours away. By Canadian standards, the snow fall was relatively light. But by local standards, it was a rare heavy snow. Because the air is so dry that snow does not usually fall even though the temperature is sub-zero.

We passed by abrupt mountains, potato fields, sheep, villages, people on bicycles, and even children in brightly-colored clothes.

The majority of the population was Han. But there was also a large population of Hui’s and a smaller one of Tung Heung’s. Both of whom were Muslims, with many wearing those white skull-caps. Many of the children had to walk an hour in the snow to come to the government office to pick up their winter clothing. Some were accompanied by their guardians such as grandparents.

Jubilee sponsors their school fees. So the children have to send in their school report cards to confirm that they are staying in school. Some of them failed to send in their report cards, perhaps because the results were not so good. So we had to try to convince them that we were not concerned about the results, but simply that they stay in school.

Many of them spoke Putonghua with very heavy accents. Comparatively, our Cantonese accents seemed mild. Perhaps they were not even speaking Putonghua at all but their local dialects. I could not be sure.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Year-end Dinner at Jubilee Gansu

It was almost the end of the year. The students had finished their examinations, and would be going home to their guardians for the Chinese New Year holidays. We had also finished installing the computers and the network, and completed the training for the students and the teachers. A perfect time for a year-end dinner for everyone.

Their normal meals contain very little meat. But for once, at the year-end dinner, there were sausages and chicken legs. And French Fries! Potatoes is the main crop here. So they eat a lot of potatoes anyway. But it takes a lot of oil to make French Fries, hence it is rare treat.

I learned from one of the older girls, who was attending primary six in another local primary school, that she was from a village in the mountains about three hours away by bus. Her relative were farmers, like most people around there. Each year her relatives would raise a pig, and slaughter it for Chinese New Year. Then they would be eating the pork for the rest of the winter.

Each of the kids has a story that breaks your heart. Two brothers were originally from Henan. The older one said he was 16 but did not know for sure. His parents were dead and his grandfather could not tell him exactly when he was born, not even the exact year. Both of them had some kind of skin problem which gave them extremely low self-esteem.

Another girl was from some place in Gansu. Her guardian is her grandfather, because her father passed away and her mother re-married. She lived in a cave and used to run wildly in the mountains until she was accepted by the orphanage.

Many of the kids do have relatives but they simply cannot take care of them. One of the girls was picked up by a man when she was a baby. They shared the only bed in the house.

Can you imagine the odds that they face in life?

If we can help to give them a better start in life, shouldn’t we do it? Even if it means a bit of hardship and sacrifice?

Video Conference between Jubilee Gansu and Hong Kong

We raised funds in Hong Kong to buy 5 desktop computers and some networking equipment. Once we got there, we spent two days to install the computers and a local area network, and then spent two days to teach the students and teachers the basics on how to use them. Most of the kids have never seen a computer before. So we have to start with the basics, such as mouse clicking, typing, simple drawing, etc.

Then on the last day of lessons, we set up a video conference between Jubilee Primary in Gansu, and a group of Hong Kong students in the eToy Laboratory in our university in Hong Kong. They take turns asking each other questions, such as what do you eat, etc. They even collaborated in making a drawing together. We see great potential in the video conferencing set up.

Overall it was a big success. The Jubilee Gansu kids were very enthusiastic, and some of the Hong Kong students were greatly touched. The Jubilee teachers were happy because their students were happy. We were happy because they were happy.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Jubilee Care Primary School in ChanKou, Gansu

We (a team of 3 staff members and 7 university students) are now in Jubilee Care Primary School in ChanKou, DingXi, Gansu. This is a primary school for orphans set up by a Hong Kong Christian charity in September 2007. We are here to help them set up a local area network and a computer laboratory, and to provide training to the students and teachers in using computers for learning and teaching.

This is a very small town in a very poor place. On the two hour trip from Lanzhou to here, we hardly saw any grass, let lone trees. The main produce here is potatoes.

The school has two buildings, a school building and dormitory. We are looking through a third floor window in the school building towards the dormitory. At the lower right hand corner of the window is the wireless router that we set up to provide temporary network coverage for at least part of the dormitory.

The school and town is surrounded on all sides by mountains. Behind the dormitory is the gap in the mountains through which the highway to Lanzhou leads.

It is bitterly cold here with subzero temperatures all the time.

Our team has set up a blog on the project. Please feel free to visit to find out more about it.