Saturday, June 7, 2008

Mongolian Asides, and the Disaster Response Professionals

My life was too short to achieve the conquest of the world. That task is left for you. (Genghis Khan, 1227)

“Is there a temple in Chengdu?” is easily the oddest question I have ever been asked in Sichuan. With more than two thousand years of history to its credit, Chengdu is chock full of temples—pretty much every eastern faith should find something in this city of thirteen million they can burn incense and offer apples to.

The only temple one is certain not to find is the Jewish kind, since depending on your affiliation such a temple can only be found in Jerusalem’s past and future or (because reform and conservative Jewry call their houses of worship temples, right?) in communities across America. Buddha or bagels, whatever the question had in mind the answer should have been fairly obvious. Except as both the questioner and I realized, he was only trying to introduce himself. My xigua was too easy an identifier to ignore, and so it was through our common heritage that I met, Bryan, the coordinator of Habitat for Humanity’s response to the Sichuan earthquake and one of the savvier Western aid workers operating in the area.

Five months before I arrived in China, I made sure to purchase a ticket that would allow me to travel for two weeks before my summer language course would begin in Beijing. It did not seem necessary to pick a destination. Having traveled in the West, studied near Shanghai and suffered through a freezing winter in the capital, the possibility of taking advantage of the warm weather and exploring China’s north beckoned. Once my thoughts turned north, they were thrown slightly west, and the endless plains of China’s northern neighbor of Mongolia took over my imagination. Until May 12. After western China was shaken by a massive earthquake, travel plans took a back seat to considerations of how I could contribute to the disaster response. The experts had little advice. None of the two dozen NGOs I contacted had any presence in the earthquake zone, most replied that they did not see the Chinese government allowing them in for a few weeks and the best advice I received was simply to go myself and see what I could do. When rumors spread that foreigners were being kept from Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan and the headquarters of disaster response efforts, I figured the best I could count on was pitching in from Beijing for a few days and for the rest of the time…Mongolia! By the time my flight landed in Beijing on May 28, I had Lonely Planet’s guide to Mongolia down cold. By the time I went to sleep in Beijing that night, I had a ticket to Chengdu, having discovered the rumors were baseless and that this foreigner, at least, was heading west to see what he could do in person.

Few western aid workers were evident in Chengdu when I first arrived. But gradually they trickled in. Besides Bryan, whose work with Habitat will continue in Sichuan for at least the next six months, I got to know Stephanie and Caroline fairly well. Both had arrived with a similar mission as Bryan: to scout the area and find how and where their respective organizations could put down roots. Stephanie represents Hands on Disaster Relief, a short-term group that provides (largely foreign) volunteers with a means of directly contributing to natural disasters through clearing rubble and building housing. In other words, had they already been up and running, I would most likely have been one of their first volunteers. Caroline had arrived with a few other English folks under the group name Build Me a Shelter. With a cheap and easy to construct shelter that had been designed in response to the earthquake in Pakistan, her group was looking for someone interested in making use of their product.

Of the many relief workers I met over the course of the day and the week, Bryan was the most intriguing. Besides the shared Jewish faith, he has taken quite a few stepping stones to become a professional in development work in China that I consider likely possibilities for myself. Even his current occupation, disaster relief but really development in western China, is in some sense one area I generally see myself working towards. Even as I observed the parallels and tried my best to learn from Bryan over the next few days, nothing in his path seemed to predetermine how my own professional goals need necessarily play out. But it was fascinating to meet him and so many disaster response professional, especially when I had arrived in the country only a few days before with little idea if I would even be able to contribute effectively to the aid effort.

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