Friday, August 29, 2008

Home of the Potato

DingXi is so dry that few things grow. Even the cedar that the government plants on the hills to reduce soil erosion die because of the lack of moisture.

We were surprised that it rained while we were there. But the kids there told us that the last time it rained was two months ago. The potato is one of the things that grow around here. So much so that DingXi has declared itself the “home” of the potato.

It flower is small but really quite pretty. At the Jubilee School, they are growing some corn and potatoes. No wonder we ate a lot of potatoes there.

The potatoes are also eaten in the form of noodles. The starch is removed from the potato by powerful washing, and is a big business around here.

The starch can then be made into noodles. Naturally we also ate a lot of potato starch noodles while we were here. It is a little translucent and slightly chewy. It can be quite tasty in a good mutton soup.

Handicapped children

We saw these slogans while taking a walk on the morning that we left Changkou.

Leo Tolstoy wrote these famous words in his novel, Anna Karenina, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” The same can be said of unhappy places.

Gansu is not just dry and its soil poor. In some economically and culturally backward border regions and remote mountainous districts in China, congenital deformity and intellectual retardation are as high as 1 to 2 percent. A study by Lanzhou Medical College found the overall rate of birth defects in Gansu to be 1.54 percent, one of the highest in China. This situation is closely related to marriage between close relatives. In a study by the Chinese Academy of Sciences on some of the minorities in Gansu and Ningxia, the rate of such marriages was found to be as high as 10 percent.

Other possible reasons for congenital defects are thought to be serious air and water pollution, increasing use of pesticides and other chemicals, ingestion of certain antibiotics and other medicines in early pregnancy.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Working with the students in Jubilee School

Other than installing computers, pulling the fibre optic cable, connecting the network, etc., we were also spending a lot of time singing with the kids, teaching them how to use the computers to edit photographs, showing them fun but healthy computer games, showing a movie about Jesus, teaching them arts and crafts, playing games with them, and simply talking with them.

It was a lot of fun, and also a lot of work. Most of the kids were well-behaved. But there are also some who got bored and ran off, grabbed your camera, climbed all over you, cried when they did not get what they wanted, fought for your attention, and actually fought with each other, ... In other words, they behaved just like kids. The volunteer to kids ratio was about one to seven. Imagine having to take care of seven kids for 12 hours a day all by yourself!

On the other hand, it was also very rewarding when they smiled at you, sat on your lap, hugged you, told you they wanted you to come back, ...

In one of the evenings, we set up a video conference between the kids and the sponsors/donors/volunteers in Hong Kong. The kids loved it. But I suspected the adults in Hong Kong enjoyed it even more.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Laying an optical fibre cable in Jubilee School

Today we pulled an optical fibre cable from the school building to the dormitory, to extend the coverage of the local area network. To do that, we had to tie the cable to a draw wire, pull the cable from the network box through a conduit to a well just outside the dormitory, tie the cable to a second draw wire, pull it through to a well between the buildings to the left of the photo, ..., pull it through to a well across the foot path in the middle, ..., pull it through to the well just outside the school building (when I was), ..., pull it into the building and eventually up to the server room.

It was a bit of dirty work - the wells had some dirt in them, they were wet because it rained the day before, and some of the draw wires were rusted. It was not dangerous as the wells were rather shallow. But it was exciting as we all did it for the first time. There was a great sense of achievement after we got the cable through, and particularly when the team setup the transceivers and got on the Internet from the dormitory!

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Jubilee kids

Some of my students from the university were having dinner with the students at Jubilee School, and their teacher-house parent. Can you tell which ones (3 of them) are my students, and who is the house-parent?

Dinner this evening consisted of millet (小米) porridge and steamed buns with meat fillings. The food is simple but healthy and tasty. Some of the kids ate more than 10 buns for dinner! The quality of the food has been greatly improved compared with what we encountered when we visited back in January. It turned out a Christian volunteer came up here in July to train the kitchen staff how to cook. We are, of course, very grateful.

The kids live in suites of about 10 kids each, with a house parent. There are supposed to be teachers who teach, and a different group of house parents who take care of the kids. However, it is very difficult to recruit staff for an orphan school in such a poor and remote place. And many teachers have to double up as house parents.

We are exhausted at the end of each day, after spending 9 am until 9 pm taking care of the kids. We can bear it because we are here only for one week, and we know we can go home to recuperate. It is hard to imagine how one can do this 24 hours a day, for 7 days a week, for any entended periods. In a town with 2 convenience stores, 2 or 3 noodle shops, no book stores, and no entertainment.

All teachers are Christians.

Gansu badlands

The plane flew over some desolate landscape as we approached Lanzhou. There were miles and miles of rugged mountains, with barely any vegetation. There were very little level ground, even along the rivers. Everything were shades of yellow, even the rivers. This land is really not meant for human habitation. For some reason, people have decided to live here, and they have been struggling with nature even since. It is far from clear that men are winning.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Back at Jubilee School in Gansu

We are back at the Jubilee Primary School at Chankou town, DingXi city, Gansu province. This time they have expanded to 50 orphans, from the 20 in January. Our visiting team consists of 3 professors, 13 students, and one missionary.

The technical sub-team has to move the computer laboratory to a bigger room, install hardware and software to make the computers more resistant to viruses, and improve the network.

The teacher-training sub-team is teaching the teachers basic computer skills, to prepare teaching material, and to search for information on the Internet.

The student-summer-camp sub-team is teaching the students to make a video documentary on themselves, arts and crafts, and various games.

It is 10 PM and we are still working. Everybody is tired but we are in high spirits. The computer network is coming along, and the kids are responding very warmly to us.

I am hearing more and more sad stories that break your heart. One 14 year old new comer girl is in primary 4. She has two brothers at Jubilee School, one of which is handicapped and the other has an eye problem; and she has 4 more siblings back home. It turned out that her grandparents are not her biological grandparents; they “picked” her up when she was orphaned as a baby. She does not even know what her original name was. Over the years her “grandparents” have picked up 40+ orphans, most of whom have either died, or been adopted by others. There are now only seven of them left ...

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Breakfast HuangShi

This was what I saw one morning in July in HuangShi, Hubei. It takes some skills to eat noodles for breakfast while walking along on the street.

This is quite amazing, isn't it. It may not be obvious from the photograph, but they were actually crossing the street at the time.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Dogs in China

Three young dogs were foraging on the shore of the Yangtze River. With the sun sinking on the horizon, someone on the riverboat nearby called, perhaps signalling dinner. Two of the dogs jumped on the plank and went happily back to the boat. They looked healthy.

The last dog walked hesitantly towards the boat, looked longlingly towards it, stopped short, crouched down, and finally put its head down, still staring at the boat. Its eyes were full of sadness; and there seemed to be minor wounds on it.

We found this slogan on the side of the boat. It was a curse: “People who beat dogs - your children will die.”Dog meat was available in many restaurants in Hubei, and in the canteen in one of the high schools we visited.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Bell and drum towers in Beijing

The murder at the Drum Tower in Beijing reminded me of my visit there in October last year. It was a hazy day. Even though the two towers were no more than 100 meters from each other, this picture of the Drum Tower taken from the Bell Tower did not come out very well. The curved edge at the top of the photo was the lip of the bell.

Look at the size of the bell and the supporting beams. The bell is 23 feet tall and weights 63 tons. I think the Towers were built in the Yuan Dynasty and the bell in the Ming. Because the bell was made of copper, it has been preserved well. The drums were not so lucky.

I heard that the air quality in Beijing has improved a lot due to the preparation for the Olympics, but cannot verify it myself. There is no doubt much has been done to ensure the Olympics were run smoothly. I read in the newspapers that thousands of rockets were fired into the atmosphere to prevent the rains to fall on the Olympic stadium during the opening ceremony. I did see lots of street side walls of houses being repaired, clean and modern toilets installed (at least they were clean last October), and tremendous amounts of construction - near tourist attractions. Hopefully the improvements are long term. But, as with many things in China, the appearance and the inside can be quite different.

Standing on top of the Drum Tower, there is a very good view of the Bell Tower and the houses in the neighbourhood. Many of them were originally built in the famous rectangular courtyard styles popular in the Ming and Qing Dynasties. But almost without exception, haphazard structures have sprung up to fill in every feet of open space in the beautiful courtyards. Such is the pressure of population and lack of sense of preservation.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Indescribable sadness

I was taking a walk after dinner in HuangShi, Hubei, one evening in July, when I saw this man squatting on the sidewalk outside a restaurant. His posture, the dim lighting, the noise emanating from the restaurant, the rapidly-growing wealth represented by the smart cars parked on the roadside, and the seemingly-satisfied man on the opposite sidewalk combined to fill me with an indescribable sadness.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Desperately seeking a Form 6 place in the typhoon

The tropical storm Kammuri is passing by Hong Kong at the moment and the Typhoon signal is hoisted. Schools are closed, businesses are shuttered, buses and ferries are stopped, and most people stay at home. The winds are very strong and the rains are heavy. There are real dangers out on the streets.

Yet there are hundreds of students and parents still lining up outside a number of schools despite the wind and the rain, some of them having been there since yesterday.

The results of the Hong Kong Certificate of Education of Examinations (HKCEE), taken by all Form 5 students, were announced on Monday. 90% of the about 25,000 Form 6 places have already been filled by yesterday (Tuesday), leaving only about 2,330 still open for the remaining almost 30,000 students who meet the minimum requirements. Because of the typhoon, the application process have been postponed for one day; so there is really no need to say in line in the storm. However, these students and parents do not wish to take any chances and decide to stay in line. It is a vivid reminder of how seriously we HongKong’ers take our education. And how brutal the competition is.

I cannot help but wonder: Why can’t someone make better arrangements for these desperate students and parents? Why can’t someone give them numbers so that they can come back tomorrow and still keep their places? If it may be deemed unfair to those who follow instructions and stay at home today, why can’t the schools at least let them inside the schools so that they can stay out of the rain and wind?

Tuesday, August 05, 2008


These elegant flying birds are not seagulls. They are much larger, with enormous, comic beaks. They are brown pelicans.

On land, they look ungainly. In close up, some may even consider them ugly. The pouch under the beak is not very obvious, except when they are feeding.

But in the air, they are the epitome of sheer grace. Either individually, or in formation. In and around Pismo Beach in California, there are hundreds and hundreds of pelicans and other sea birds. They are just majestic sights.

It is impossible that such beauty can exist without a purpose.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Surfing in a Marine Corps base

One of our relatives working for the US government booked us into some beach houses in a military base of the Marine Corps in California last week.

Our house looked out on to the beach. We could actually watch the waves pounding the beach and the surfers riding the waves - through our windows. After watching and admiring them for sometime, I screwed up my courage to join them.

It was a scary but exhilarating experience. The waves in the bay were relatively small, about 3 to 4 feet high, I think. I tried to go against them, along with them, above them, through them, ... From the air in an airplane, the waves were invisible before they broke. Even after breaking, they were no more than little lines in the water. From the shore, they looked impressive, but not particularly frightening. However, when actually in the water in front of them - even just the smaller versions at 4 feet high - their power was just overwhelming. At one point, the current carried me more than a hundred meters from where I was, before I even realized it. Faced with such power, a human being is totally helpless.

Someone lent me a baby surfboard, about 3 feet long. After a while, I was able to ride over some of the waves before they broke (see photo). Sometimes I caught them just before they broke, turned, and was carried along a great distance towards the shore. It was a exhilarating experience. Faced with such power of nature, man’s only option is to find some way to go along with it. It is futile to fight it. It also reminded me of 道德經: 生而弗有,為而弗恃 ,功成而不居 。夫唯弗居,是以不去 。

I noticed that strong receding waves would cause the smooth stones on the beach to roll, making a sound like heaving rain pelting a tin roof. At night, after taking a shower, I laid in the couch in front of the windows listening to the rhythmic pounding of the waves, falling asleep in their soothing sound.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Hong Kong at night

After spending two weeks in California, our family flew back to Hong Kong last evening. The plane flew into Hong Kong from the North-East, banked to the right around the Victoria Harbour, skirted the south side of Hong Kong Island, went way out the West of Lantou, and finally landed at the airport from the West.

The night view of Hong Kong from the air was truly breath-taking. We could see practically the whole North shore of Hong Kong Island in this view, stretching from ShengWan in the West to NorthPoint in the East. On the Kowloon side, we could see the container terminals at KwaiChung in the West, down to TsimShaTsui and Nathan Road in the middle. all the way up to KwunTong to the East. In the North-East was Shatin. The sky was unusually clear, there were no clouds, and the lights were so bright. It is a real man-made wonder.

I hope you enjoy the view as much as we did.