Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Bears Sleep by Day So They Can Stay Awake to Chase Away Bad Dreams

A teddy bear does not depend upon mechanics to give him the semblance of life. He is loved - and therefore he lives. (Pam Brown)

I came back exhausted. And then set out for an early evening run. But in my exhaustion lies two of the most memorable hours of my life, and a slice of how daily life in temporary tent-camps is for thousands of Chinese torn from their homes by the devastating earthquake of May 12.

I arrived in Chengdu late on Thursday night, with only a backpack, a big bag full of stuffed animals, and a general idea how I could find my way to the disaster area and distribute the toy animals to children displaced by the earthquake. The bag of stuffed animals came courtesy of friends, from the one who first proposed the idea of taking teddy bears to China, to all those who (largely anonymously) donated their childhood toys and even the friend who ingeniously created the black garbage bag cum duct tape “suitcase” in which the stuffed animals made their way to a displaced persons camp north of Chengdu. Fittingly enough, my arrival in Chengdu was aided by another friend. After I told the young college student sitting by my side in the airplane what my purpose was in coming to Sichuan province, he insisted on assisting me with my luggage. After meeting up with his girlfriend, the three of us ended up spending the night together, eating roasted corn on the cob while walking around the main square in Chengdu. We joked about the massive statue of Mao that lords over the square, shared insights on learning foreign languages and discussed how my new friends would enjoy Boston if the college student is accepted by the MIT graduate program he is applying to for next year. When we arrived at the guesthouse where I am staying in Chengdu, my two friends took the lead in describing to the guesthouse staff my desire to distribute the stuffed animals. After the accommodating staff proposed a way I could put my goal into action, and not until they had insisted on carrying my bags up to my bedroom in the guesthouse, did my two friends finally say goodnight! And here I thought I had come to Sichuan province to provide assistance!

The backpacker couple who own the guesthouse proved to be as helpful as my young friends from the plane. Their first level of generosity was hosting me by what must be the most well-provided for guesthouse in China. Amenities include, besides the new set of “kosher” cooking utensils they began using on my instruction—see previous post, a traditional Chinese garden, a well stocked English library, dozens of animals from black pigs to green-eyed frogs, and even a pool table and gym equipment. The highlight of the guesthouse is, of course, the wonderful staff and the owners’ cute as anything two little daughters. It is difficult to conceive of a more imaginative childhood home than the one these two girls inhabit. I constantly saw them giggling about, playing with the cats and dog, helping their Singaporean father feed the pigs and rabbits kept beside the garden, or practicing any of the three or four languages they speak with the hodge-podge of international travelers.

Thanks to plans organized by the girls’ mother, on Sunday morning a small group of Japanese aid workers and myself joined a local Chinese NGO that was setting off to the disaster area. In our six car convoy we carried supplies to donate to the people living in the displaced persons tent camps set up some two hours north of Chengdu along the cusp of the earthquake zone. The majority of the supplies consisted of food and water, though a healthy portion were stuffed animals. By a strange coincidence, Sunday was the perfect day to give children toys. Chinese nationwide were celebrating Children’s Day, an international holiday that has always had special resonance in communist China. Over the course of the day we would arrive at three different camp sites, meet with children, and divvy up our warm feelings and precious toys.

The first camp consisted of large blue tents as far as the eye could see. Near the camp entrance were two long lines of adults, waiting patiently to receive their daily allotment of food and to fill their water supplies from the single sink. I did not have the chance to wander the camp at more length because my group was immediately plunged into a large group of children. When we first arrived, a clown and then a traditional Sichuanese opera performer were entertaining the crowd. After the performance wrapped with a rousing rendition of the popular Chinese song Hero, I found myself talking with two young siblings. Their English teacher, a teenage volunteer, had invited me over to speak with the brother and sister. Considering I could hardly follow their rural dialect and they probably would not understand my English we communicated in the ideal fashion: I spoke garbled Chinese while they tried out the full range of English phrases they had memorized from recent lessons. Their teacher was really interested in having me return later in the week. While I would have liked to have taken him up on the offer, the Chinese NGO said it would not be possible. My twenty-minute pupils were left with only a wave and a final “goodbye” as we soon piled back into our cars and drove onward.

The second camp we visited made my day, if not my summer, and will easily live on in my mind for years. We parked by what remained of a house, now just two and a half walls with a steel staircase twisting like a pretzel through what remained of the front door. Nearby were a few tents, alongside which a series of wooden huts were in the midst of being constructed. While most of the NGO groups organized the supplies and a few pitched in with the construction effort, I wandered beyond back and ducked into a small tent. Four elderly adults were sitting inside as if waiting for somebody. When I walked in they excitedly asked me to sit down, then offered food and water. After declining their gifts and thanking them profusely, I was interrupted by a small hand tugging at my shorts. Three little children had snuck into the tent and when they had my attention, and confirmed I was indeed a foreigner, their imploring eyes were all the instruction I needed. The children’s need for attention, for someone as exotic as a foreigner to take an interest in them, deserves all the credit for what transpired. From the moment I left the adults’ small tent, I was with anywhere from five to fifty children for the next hour and a half. In the unrelenting heat, a bag full of stuffed animals, a sheet of paper, my pen and a digital camera combined to provide the time of our lives.

The moments passed so quickly and yet everyone and everything is frozen in my mind: playing Kick the Can after neither me or the kids could effectively explain any other games; volunteering to sign my name on a piece of paper for one kid and then being mobbed by every single kid—literally, mobbed by fifty or so sweaty 5-15 year olds— for my “signature;” providing another kid with my American cell number (his request) and then having every kid rush back to get my number as well (crazier than it sounds, believe me!); older teens inviting me to sign my name on their t-shirts; an eight year old boy imploring me to stay the night by his place; explaining what Jerusalem means to me to a young girl who wound up with a gold Israel Discount Bank that had a picture of Jerusalem (big thank you to whoever put their stuffed animals in that bag!), when I left the girl was still proudly showing off the bag to one and all.

All that, and the stuffed animals. And oh, the stuffed animals! When three of the boys rushed to the cars to carry the bag full of animals back to the tents, I was concerned they would be disappointed that the cool American toys I had promised them would turn out to be nothing but babyish stuffed animals. Were my concerns misplaced! The kids loved the animals, loved them- loved them! And thanks to all those who gave—and to the Eirrech family for organizing the whole effort—there were enough so that every child received a stuffed companion. Their smiles upon receiving the gifts, made all the more special when I explained to them where they had come from, were so contagious that everyone from the silent adults in their solitary tent to the rest of the NGO team were smiling as we pulled away all too soon. My last glance at the campsite is perhaps hardest to forget: as our car bumbled down the unpaved path, a young girl was walking in the other direction towards her family’s tentsite. Framed by the green rice fields and broken cement houses, she had a bounce in her step as balanced on her head was a fuzzy, white teddy bear courtesy of Michael Goon and family.

It is difficult to describe the scenery here without thinking of the children that I met in the camps. One drives along small dirt paths, with lush green fields spread in every direction. Farmers are at work in their fields, straw hats protecting them from the blazing sun. The occasional ox comes into view, with an ancient sunburnt fellow trundling it along; the two of them could have slipped off any traditional Chinese painting. And then one glances at the houses and sees devastation: roofs caved in, staircases flung through windows and the families living out of plastic tents in their front yards. Its only because I know that these families, who have so little, now have something extra thanks to your generosity, that I can smile as well as I reflect on the camps. So thanks a hundred times over, to all of you that made my trip happen, in all the many ways.

About that run...

I came back to Chengdu exhausted yet exhilarated from one of the most incredible afternoons of my life. A run was clearly in order. The exhaustion began to kick in on the return leg and might have become a concern if it was not for the stare I received from a middle aged man lying at the foot of a bridge. His eyes seemed to cut right through me yet what lifted my heart and sped up my feet was his face: the man was the spitting image of the incomparable Prefontaine, or at least what the great Pre would have looked like if he had not died tragically in 1975 in a car accident at age 24. And if he would have had vaguely Chinese features. With Pre on my mind and the smiles of dozens of young Chinese children in my heart, I raced home in no time.

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