Monday, April 12, 2010

5 Days in Hengyang: Day 5

It’s our last day. I can’t lie. I’m actually relieved to leave Hengyang. But we’re all feeling sad about saying goodbye the kids and the people at ICC.

We arrived at the center and headed straight for our respective areas. Glen brought a guitar and gave us the option of singing to the kids. Since no one took it, Derek suggested we do it for our group. OK, I get to hide behind an instrument today.

We went into our first room and started singing any old kid’s song that came into our heads. It helped to have Keena (a BV and school teacher) on our team. Our reward was the look of enjoyment that spread across some of their faces (of course some didn’t look the least bit interested, and one just wanted to pull the strings off the guitar).

After a morning of singing, I went to spend my last few hours with two kids in particular. The first is Guo Guo. This guy is just plain funny! I didn’t get to ask but I wonder he can feel pain. Earlier this morning, he fell head first on the floor with a thud. But he just got up without making the least bit of fuss. Not even a whimper.

Then someone gave him a balloon and he chewed it till it burst in his face. He just looked surprised that the balloon was gone. Anyway, I love this kid. He sucked his thumb then grabbed my hand. He picks his nose regularly. And he is super fast – managing to grab my glasses twice – even when I was watching him to ensure he didn’t grab my glasses. But his face is one of the first in my mind when I think about the trip.

He arrived at the centre starving and almost didn’t make it. Thanks to the care of ICC, he’s lively, smiley and responsive today. Again, I had to clap for him for close to 45 minutes. For reasons I’ll never understand, the sound just mesmerizes him.

I also spent my last hour at the centre with Wei Wei. I took him to his spot at the pergola again – but it looks like this dude remembers me. After just a few minutes at his spot, he led me to the slide and then sat at the foot of it and looked at me expectantly. How could I refuse?

Saying goodbye was sad. Not teary-eyed sad but sad nonetheless.

As we headed away from the centre for the last time, I felt grateful for this experience. Because now I can truly say I feel for them. I’m thankful for this much-needed change of heart. Prior to this trip, I was actually quite afraid of kids with special needs because I didn’t know how to react to them. Now, I know that they’re really not that different. They crave acceptance and love just like any other kid. And they need it more because so few will give them that.

The toddler boys are in a loving environment now. The carers show them affection, feed them and they certainly don’t lack the human touch. But what happens when they outgrow this at this cute and lovable age?

I’ll do what I can from here and pray for them – because God can do what we can’t. I have also decided to sponsor one kid on a regular basis – so that I’ll get regular updates on his progress.

Hazel plans to sponsor a child too. She took care of one blind little girl named Yang Heng Da. Because Hazel spent all 3 days with her, Da Da cried when Hazel said goodbye on the third day – despite the fact that no one told her we were leaving.

Two people sponsoring two kids is like a drop in the ocean. As for the thousands upon thousands of other kids like them, you and I can’t help them all – but the least we could do is remember them and not look past them. If you’re a Christian, join us in prayer for them – not like once a year, but as often as you can. I say this with great comfort because God can love them better than we can.

The train to Changsha took us away from the kids at over 300 km/h. In no time, we were in Hunan’s biggest city. You may not have heard of Changsha – but it is as big and as vibrant as Bangkok – if not bigger. Within 40 minutes we were worlds apart from the kids. But they’ve made their mark and memories of them remain clear in my mind’s eyes.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

5 Days in Hengyang: Day 4

For some strange reason, this is our 2nd consecutive Easter in China. Not that we mind. It’s just something I would never have foreseen in previous years.

Since it was Sunday, we didn’t go to the centre today. Instead, we had Easter service in a conference room in the hotel. The ICC volunteers joined us as our guys took charge of the service.

Glen led in worship. Sky shared a great message. My one takeout of it is this: Let us not focus on His death. Let us not even focus on the resurrection. Let us focus on the Holy Spirit that He sent and is with us today. Powerful stuff.

After that, Derek led the communion service. It was wonderful to break bread together in mainland China on Easter Sunday.

Right after communion, we prayed for the ICC staff plus some of the visitors that were with them – a group of full timers who worked with deaf children in Changsha.

It is one the most unusual Easter services ever, but it was simple and genuine. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

The rest of the day was FREE! Woooot! We went down to Hengyang’s city centre, first having lunch at a pizza buffet place that copied its d├ęcor from Pizza Hut and modified its name from Domino’s. Welcome to Domis Pizza (only in China la).

The rest of the day included walking around aimlessly around the city, having coffee at Hengyang’s most expensive coffee place and then adjourning en masse for a massage.

That night, 15 of us crammed into a restaurant and ordered 13 dishes. The food was amazing and when we got the bill we almost fell off our chairs: HK19 per head.

Our journey back to the hotel was quite unforgettable. We got onto a bus that smelt more like a boat. Diesel fumes hit us the moment we stepped in. Then, to make the toxic experience complete, some passengers started puffing away. As we were approaching our hotel, I saw (and heard) one guy clear his throat and actually spit his glob in the bus. The best part was the locals around him didn’t turn a hair. Oh well, if they don’t mind, who are we to complain?

Just when I thought the day was over, someone suggested we end the day with a bang. So, off we went to the fireworks shop. 3 boxes: 1 small, 1 medium, 1 jumbo-B52-killer-nuclear-death-star-canon. The one I'm holding is only the medium one.

We all felt like kids again that night. We always hear the phrase “Easter Celebration”. Well, this is Easter Celebration with a real bang – China style. What an experience!

Saturday, April 10, 2010

5 Days in Hengyang: Day 3

The window, the window,
The second storey window,
With a Heave and a Ho,
And a mighty, mighty Ho,
They threw him out the window.

(Hengyang trip bus song)

The grey sky hung really low today. Since it was raining, we were confined indoors – which made Day 2 at the centre unexpectedly tougher than the first.

Kenneth, Derek and I split up today. I walked into one of the rooms alone. The first kid that came up to me was Dun Dun. He seemed a little subdued today – but still smiley nonetheless.

He walked up and handed me a toy. And then yes, took it away from me again, laughing as if it’s the funniest trick in the world. Nikki, our wonderful organizer and host, told me that he has “tricks of the season”. At one stage, he blew bubbles with his spit and laughed his head of. Another time, he tried to lick people as a joke. Thankfully, he was over both these tricks

His breath smelt awful today. I guiltily stopped breathing every time he “spoke” to me up close. Dun Dun doesn’t really speak. He just makes sounds – happy sounds, sad sounds, calling sounds. Even his carer checked if he was sick when she caught a whiff of his breath. Poor guy. Thankfully, there was nothing wrong with him.

I went over to greet Bei Bei. I wondered if he could see. When I got closer, he didn’t look and started frowning. Then I tapped in on the shoulder and just said, “Bei Bei, ni hao!!” Instantly, he smiled till his eyes practically disappeared. I really miss that smile.

The carer then asked me to help Bo Bo “practice” his walking. This means I had to help push a wooden rack round the room slowly while he held on to it as he walked. Bo Bo is a cool dude. Tiny but cool. Never says anything and eyes you sleepily. If you make a face at him, he reciprocates with a lazy smile. Even when he cries, it’s soft and gentle.

During lunch, I noticed how little persuasion they needed to clear their plates. Those who didn’t require feeding would wait anxiously while the food was being prepared. When lunch was served, they dug in instantly. Dun Dun shoveled a huge spoon of extremely hot rice into mouth and just kept going. I later learned that most of them wouldn’t know when they were full and would just keep eating as long as there was food. Their allocated quota ensured they didn’t overeat.

I moved to another room after lunch. Wei Wei saw me and reached out his hand, extremely determined to go out. Since we couldn’t, I sat with him and rocked him and again, sang and prayed for him.

As we sat, Guo Guo rocked over from his chair and grabbed my hand. He turned my palm upward and then just started hitting it to make a clapping sound. That lasted for almost 10 minutes. After awhile he picked up a shaker and shook it. Then he handed it to me and pulled his ear, indicating that he wanted to hear the shaker. I made shaking noises near his ears and he looked at me and smiled. I varied the distance of the shaker from his ears – near, far, near, far – and that made him laugh. He didn’t let me stop for close to half an hour.

Towards the end of the day, the rain stopped and we were able to take the kids for walks – an opportunity which I gladly took.

There were times today I felt pretty useless. With so much time in two rooms furnished with nothing much, I was constantly wondering what to do. I initially felt it wasn’t very productive – but then realized “productive” is just an obligation we’re conditioned to strive for. These kids face much bigger challenges. We’re just supposed to be there for them in person and in prayer.

(After a day of not knowing what to do, I ran back to hiding behind instruments.)

Thursday, April 8, 2010

5 Days in Hengyang: Day 2

9 am. Our bus heads down the road. A motorcycle from the opposite direction veers out and heads right at us. The bus honks. The bike honks. Bus honks louder. Bike flashes. They both slow down and somehow miss each other. As we pass, I discover that the bike veered out to avoid a giant watermelon in the middle of the road.

Our first day with the toddler boys began with “circle time” i.e. light therapy sessions. Feeling self-conscious and inadequate, all I could do was sit in the circle and watch. One exercise was just to get each kid to recognize his own name – which came in the form of a song and everybody pointing at the respective kid when his name was sung.

It was a great intro for us as well. Their names all begin with Yang Heng, followed by a given name. Yang Heng Bei, fondly called Bei Bei, has Cerebral Palsy. He can’t stand. He can’t talk. But his smile can light up anyone’s day.

Yang Heng Dun – yes, called Dun Dun – has an attention span of about 5 seconds. He can be quite the rascal but he too has smile that cheers you up. He walked cautiously up to me and smiled. When I smiled back, he beamed further and sat on my lap. 3 seconds later, he got up and moved to Derek and Kenneth, then to the caregivers. Then he walked round the room, handing out a toy and taking it away right after we accept it.

We moved to the next room for another “circle time”. After that, it was basically free time. Yup, that was the moment I was kind of dreading – alone time with the kids. What to say? What to do? A little boy walked up and grabbed my hand. It was Fei Fei. He pulled me towards the door – indicating that he wanted a walk. I held his hand and led him down the walkway towards the garden.

At the garden, I walked around for awhile, unsure if I’m supposed to do anything else. Casually, I prayed, “God, I don’t know what to do.” I felt something in me quietly say, “You don’t always have to know what to do.” At that, I stopped trying to figure out what Fei Fei wanted and just left it to God.

Fei Fei knew what he wanted though. He ambled towards a big swing and climbed on (the swing was bolted so it was more like two benches facing each other). Once on the swing, he just leaned back and looked completely contented. He tensed up every now and then, clenching his fists and grinding his teeth. But he didn’t seem too perturbed.

I began praying for him and speaking into this little life. And then started singing “Jesus Loves You this I know” to him. All this while, he never once looked at me. After singing a few times, I just looked at him and said, “Jesus loves you”. That’s when, for the first time, he looked me in the eye.

Coincidence or not, it was a reminder that praying for them was the best thing we could do. The next best thing was to just be there, giving them some much-desired one-to-one time because the caregivers have so much to do.

I spent time with two other kids the rest of the day. I took Dun Dun for a walk (or rather he took me for a walk). Some of the ICC staff were stern with him and I realized this guy was quite the trickster. He acted tired so that I’d carry him. But when Karen saw us, she advised to put him down. As we walked down the stairs, she stood and watched him, hands on her hips. He just kept looking sheepishly at her. Hah! Me da sucker.

Later in the afternoon, I took Wei Wei for a walk. He’s adorable and always wants much TLC. The caregiver said he had his spot in the garden. I only needed to take him to the pergola in the middle of the garden and let him stand by a circular concrete bench. He got excited as we neared to pergola – walking faster than he could and stumbling almost every step. The moment he reached his spot, settled down in a blink and was a picture of tranquility. I’ve never seen a kid stay so quiet for so long.

I’m always reminded that it’s not about me. Today, the kids taught me that this also means to stop looking to me for solutions. They know themselves better than I do. And God knows them better than they know themselves.

5 Days in Hengyang: Day 1

Arrival in Changsha, largest city in the Hunan province.

The reception we received matched the cold weather. For some strange reason, Hazel’s passport gave the immigration guys lots to talk about. Or maybe it was because they had just a few international flights a day and were bored senseless.

Passport withheld, Hazel was asked her to get her bag. They led us into a windowless room and shut the door. Then they tied Hazel and me with barbed wire and beat us with rubber hoses filled with metal ball bearings. At least that thought flashed through my head. I glanced at Hazel to see if she was scared. Nope. At worst, she looked slightly cheesed off at the thought of having to repack.

5 guards appeared. One was a senior official. He looked capable of beating people with rubber hoses. But today he just stood and watched. 4 young personnel in perfectly-ironed uniforms combed our bags. We were impressed by how courteous they were with our stuff, even having a woman search Hazel’s bag.

Finding nothing suspicious, the guy who summoned us spoke up. Roughly translated by Hazel, he said, “We hope you don’t think badly of this. We were just checking.” Guess that beat saying, “We wanted to impress our boss and you were easy meat” or, “You looked like human organ smugglers”.

We caught up with the group and boarded our bus bound for Hengyang, second-largest city in Hunan. Our 3-hour journey was normal by China standards. It included weaving between slower trucks accompanied by frequent bursts of honking. We made one rest stop. Toilets were clean (as in the stalls had doors and they used urinals instead of piss canals). After that, it was back on the bus for lunch on the go.

Our hotel was in tiny towhship, 15 minutes out of Hengyang’s city centre. Our room was big. Interior design was classy by 80s standards. The carpet was a tad sticky. And we were reminded to throw used toilet paper into the bin, not into the toilet… wokayy! But that said, the rooms were comfortable.

15 minutes later, we were back on the bus and headed towards the orphanage. We drove past drab decrepit buildings and happy locals, out of the town area, through narrow roads and over muddy un-tarred paths.

I arrived at the centre not knowing what to expect. The agenda for Day 1 was a tour. We were split into groups. Karen, who is a fulltime nurse there, was our guide.
From the courtyard area, we could hear excited shouts from a room not far away.

“They’re excited to see you,” Karen said. Our first stop was the block where they housed the “older boys”. One of the boys appointed himself usher, greeting us with great gusto. He said “ellow” to every single person who walked past. Occasionally, he yelled “IMMASOH!!”

With just over 20 people, the room we were in felt crowded. It used to house more than double that number until ICC made some much-needed change. We were surrounded and things are a blur to me now. I remember a guy trying to zip my jacket. I remember hands searching my pockets. Some guy came up and put his arms around me. From the corner of my eye I saw another dude suddenly jump up and down – intentionally stamping his feet so hard when he landed that the floor shuddered.

Suddenly our usher started getting us to sit. He grabbed my arm in an iron grip, all the while beaming, and led me to a bench. I vaguely remember him grabbing Abbie’s arm with the same iron grip and plonking her on the same bench.

He laughed and yelled “IMMASOH!” then started singing “I’ve got peace like a River” in mandarin. That’s when I realized “IMMASOH” was actually “In my soul”. In a society where people like him had little or no hope, this dude has found joy and was praising God in whatever way he knew.

After being with the “older boys”, we visited the other groups: “older girls”, “toddler girls”, "toddler boys” and “babies”. Their stories were heartbreaking. The way they received us was heartwarming.

After dinner was worship and briefing. I was assigned to “toddler boys” along with Kenneth and Derek. We were told that we’d spend the whole day with them. That night, as I lay in bed trying not to let the sporadic honking outside drive me nuts, I thought silently, “What have I gotten myself into?”

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

5 March: Screw Heritage Day

A short but mind boggling article yesterday spoke of an auction that made me ponder, “Really? Can money turn people into soulless, self-serving pigs that put themselves above an entire nation?” Pffft… silly, naive me. Of course it can.

Antiquorum Auctioneers are about to auction off Mahatma Gandhi’s old belongings, including his sandals, watch and trademark round glasses. Despite massive protests in India, spokesperson Michelle Halpern said, “the auction will go ahead…” It will happen later today, 5 March 2009.

Once again, money has spoken louder than history, culture or life. This goes against the denunciation of greed that the humble leader stood for. Gandhi’s belongings may have cost less than 20 dollars. Tomorrow, they will be auctioned off for 1,000 times higher. With all this publicity, it could skyrocket further.

Once again, the soulless left-brainers that run the world (and got us into the state we’re in today) will continue to fuel their obsession.

Once again, monetary value outweighs historical and cultural value. That means to say everything has a price – which inadvertently means so does human life.

Why do Antiquorum insist on the auction despite protests from the rightful owners of Gandhi’s belongings? Wouldn’t these items hold deeper meaning in India? Do affluence (and perhaps) nationality make 1 buyer more important than 1 billion people?

Tomorrow, a country will feel the pain while the fat cats at Antiquorum smugly pop champagne. Next year, Indians will still feel a sense of loss whenever they think about it. Next week, Antiquorum would already be too busy making money off other people’s talents or possessions to even remember the name Gandhi.

Some argue that the Indian government deserves it for not helping the poor. What kind of argument is that? Punish the government by taking something away from the people? That would make as much sense as solar-powered torch lights.

The ideal scenario would be that these items sit in museum as proud parents tell their children about their nation’s hero, or as locals look on with pride while people from around the world muse at the personal belongings of this world icon.

But none of that is going to happen now is it? Come tomorrow, these items will go to one single individual.

It could go two ways. If the highest bidder has a shred of appreciation for heritage, these items could well be donated back to India. I can only pray that this be the case.

However, the highest bidder could also turn out to be a complete doofus, with more dollars than brain cells and culturally shallower than the Azov Sea coastline at low tide. I cringe at the thought of his first phone call: “Yee-haw, bay-beh! I got it! I got Ben Kingsley’s glasses!”

To commemorate today, let’s make every 5 March “Screw Heritage Day”. Got something valuable your grandmother gave you? Pawn it. Especially if she’s dead. The money will bring you happiness.

Sunday, October 5, 2008


I'm halfway through a book called "Animal's People". Here's an excerpt:

I used to walk upright. That's what Ma Franci says, why should she lie? It's not like the news is a comfort to me. Is it kind to remind a blind man that he could once see? The priests who whisper magic in the ears of corpses, they're not saying, 'Cheer up, you used to be alive.' No one leans down and tenderly reassures the turd lying the in dust, 'You still resemble the kebab you once were...'

The author is Indra Sinha - former copywriter extraordinaire who found the sense to leave copywriting.

My ignorance initially led me to believe that this was merely an amazing piece of fiction. But it is far from that. While the characters in this book are all fake, it is based on the true horror that happened in Bhopal, India, and the people linked to that horror - Union Carbide.

In a nutshell, the Bhopal tragedy involves a poison gas leak from the Union Carbide plant. The leak killed thousands of Indian villagers. Known to the victims as "that night", the tragedy caused hundreds to flee from their homes in the dead of night - the strong suffered, the weak died - my description does it little justice.

What I find disturbing are the two very different accounts of the incident. Without being biased, here are some links so you can read about it for yourself and form your own opinion.

Option A: "I want to believe genius American spin doctors who have collaborated with forever-honest Indian officials and, with plenty of money, power and influence, presented these facts." If this is you, visit

Option B: "I want to hear from the people who were and are in Bhopal". If this is you, visit or

Happy reading.