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Bottled by Lack of Water

November, 2008
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Most people cannot imagine life without running water: no flush toilets, no showers, and no convenient way to wash dishes, do the laundry, or even wipe the kitchen table.

I began my second YEP (Yunnan Education Project) Interim this year eager to donate a week’s worth of toil and sweat to the village. I was proud of myself for volunteering to sacrifice yet another week of comfort for a good cause.

After the trip, however, I realized that nothing can prepare you for an experience like this. It was nothing like a regular school Interim trip, and a far cry from a vacation. Instead, it was a weeklong plunge into poverty and the lives of the less fortunate.

The moment we arrived at Tuanshan village, a community in southwestern Yunnan, we were assigned our first mission: dig a kilometer-long trench from the water tank all the way down to the village. Armed with our weapon of choice - either a hoe or a shovel - we marched up the mountain ready and eager to begin work.

After the short hike, we were given a taste of how we would spend the rest of the week: covered in dirt from head to toe, with muscles sore from hard, physical work.

Our first night was spent in a fitful slumber on the cold and hard cement floor of the village church. We were sticky with sweat from not being able to shower, our situation worsened by the symphony of snoring created by our peers (and teachers).

The following morning we trekked back up the mountain to continue with the construction and installation of the freshwater drinking system, despite feeling and looking a little worse for wear after our lack of sleep. However, as if by magic, the trenches we had started to dig the day before were completed and the piping buried.

Only later that day did we discover from James, our accompanying Concordia Welfare and Education Foundation (CWEF) liaison worker, that the villagers had decided to finish digging the trenches for us because we “princes” and “princesses” from the city were far too polished and refined for rugged, manual labor.

Embarrassed, it suddenly dawned on us that our selfless donations of sweat and labor weren’t as valuable as we had initially thought.

For the rest of the week we were more driven in our work. When a villager asked if I was tired or needed a break, I ignored the build-up of lactic acid in my arms and stubbornly shook my head before waving them off. Although it seems foolish, I prided myself on being able to keep up with the villager that worked beside me, despite the fact that he was more than 60 years my senior. Throughout the week, I frequently tapped into my energy reserves, sparked by a smile or thumbs-up from a villager as I hacked away at the earth.

On our second night in Tuanshan village, the villagers built a campfire and invited us to join in a traditional dance. As the villagers circled the fire and chanted, one of our students pulled out his iPod. And, in a familiar gesture, unwound the unmistakable white earphones and plugged them into his ears, drowning out his surroundings.

Curious, one of the villagers, sitting on his heels, pointed to it and asked me what that “thing” was. Eager to show him this amazing new technological gift, I grabbed yet another iPod that had been left on a table, and, with a few clicks of the wheel, showed him that it stores photos and plays music and even videos.

Frowning, the villager fiddled with it for awhile but soon appeared disinterested.

Instead, he was more drawn to the mirror-like surface on the back of the iPod. With his calloused fingers from years of painstaking work with the hoe, he rubbed the metallic finish and scratched it with his fingernail, all the while seemingly oblivious to the MTV of T.I. playing on the screen.

Just as I was about to pull my personal iPod from my pocket to show him that I too, like many others on the trip, also owned one of these gadgets, I soon learned that his disinterest was not because of lack of curiosity or appreciation for technology – but because he was more concerned with knowing how much it cost.

Duo shao qian,” he asked, and the group of students who overheard the question was stumped.

After a brief period of awkward silence during which several uncomfortable glances were exchanged among us students, I abashedly answered him, rounding down the figure by several hundred RMB.

Knowing that the average person in their village earns about RMB400 to RMB500 a year, how could I have told him that this mere toy, something that we wield so indifferently, costs more than he earns in five years?ryan-classroom

As our attention returned to the villagers singing and dancing around the fire, I pushed my own iPod further down into my pocket, far from the villager’s sight, the palm-sized metallic brick weighing down like a world of guilt.

It made me think of home, where so many teenagers cradle sleek and shiny mp3 players. Nearly everyone roams with earphones plugged into his or her ears, isolated, preoccupied, and no longer obligated to interact and deal with the seemingly uncontrollable factors of everyday life.

Could this social pattern be a small scale and far less consequential demonstration of how the world ignores the atrocities taking place around us? Every one of us has heard the statistics about how some people survive on less than US$1 dollar a day, how people suffer in Africa and are made to scavenge for food. But how many of us act on it? How many of us are willing to give up some small luxury of ours so that someone else can simply survive?

On the packing list for the trip, our teachers specifically pointed out the need for us to bring “comfort foods” as our meals would be prepared for us by the villagers – something most of us, if not all of us, weren’t used to.

As a result, rest time in between digging was used for sharing and exchanging these precious delicacies that were mostly self-imported from the United States to satisfy the sporadic cravings for Reese’s peanut butter cups or Swedish Fish.

Even then, a good amount of our time was still spent whining and thinking about foods we wish we had brought or how many cheeseburgers we were going to order once the next pair of golden arches was in sight.

One morning, however, after another tedious digging session, I noticed a young boy squatting on the side of the road dressed in a tattered and dirt-covered red sweater. With a look of utter concentration on his face and his finger lodged in his mouth, he prodded away at a rotten tooth.

In at attempt to abate some of his pain – most likely caused by a gum infection due to the lack of proper sanitation – I offered him a packet of M&M’s. He barely took a glance at me before he reached forward to grab the packet and put them to his teeth. Although I should have predicted what was to happen next, I realized it was too late as the boy ripped open the packet, and the colored candies exploded onto the ground, a majority of them landing in a muddy puddle by his earth stained bare feet.

Not wanting him to feel bad, I told him, “Bu yao jing,” and rushed off to grab another packet of M&M’s from our large pile of “comfort foods.”

However, when I returned, I was shocked to see that the young boy, now on all fours, had gathered the chocolates out of the mud and proceeded to rinse them off – not under a tap, but in another slightly clearer puddle of rainwater. I stood stunned, watching the boy chew happily away at the candies, hand cupped around the color-coated chocolates as they melted in his muddy hand.

As the week progressed, we discovered that the importance of our trip was far greater than the mere physical actions of digging, working in the fields or bringing water to the community. It was about removing obstacles that prevent children who are equally as intelligent and motivated as us from being themselves. It was about giving them a fair chance to live a better life.

We may have “suffered” for a week and left with a better understanding of how the villagers live their lives, but we were left with the sobering reality that we were merely visiting a world that others inhabit full-time. With our multi-bath homes, big cars, personal drivers and indulgent ayis all waiting for our return, we were simply temporary visitors in a world where you have to work hard for even the smallest of comforts.

One of the enduring lessons of this Interim was its irony: It was through getting our hands dirty that we were cleansed, and thatalthough we were supposedly the givers, we were the ones that ultimately received.


By Ryan Benedict Vincent Tan, Grade 11, Concordia International School Shanghai

Concordia high school faculty members Mr. Roger Tu and Mr. Neil Whitehead contributed to this article.

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