Monday, April 15, 2013

Is ignorance really bliss?

This is one of the first blog entries that I wrote on the road, but I was unable to post it because of China's Internet restrictions. I found it in my notes last night and while it is over a month late, I felt it was still worthy of being shared. Thanks for joining me on this journey!


Sitting in the comfortable arms of the Leija's couch, the soft sounds of the city reminding me of my jet lag, I find myself contemplating all that I have seen thus far. Wet markets, fake markets, old temples, and some of the tallest buildings in the world.

Shanghai is a big, beautiful, polluted city (and I do mean polluted...) The CDC has listed the city at their second highest warning level, cautioning the young and elderly not to engage in outdoor physical activities. But despite this warning, you see many people out, enjoying the current heat wave, and enjoying their lives.

China has placed many restrictions on its people. From banning Facebook and Google, to only allowing a limited selection of movies to be shown in theater. But despite all this, the people I have seen appear to live happy, healthy, and productive lives. However, it also appears that something is missing.

One thing you do not see is a religious presence. No statues of Buda, no Mosques, no Crosses. Outside of the ex-pat communities, you don't see any Church presence. And even then, it is for foreigners only.

I find this disheartening, not only because of my personal belief in God, but my belief that all should have religious freedom. It is evident that these people have a desire to explore and strengthen their faith, but have no outlets to do so. What limited avenues they do have are well hidden out of fear of imprisonment.

It intrigues me how a country that desires a clean, responsible, and almost virtuous way of life for its citizens restricts the very thing that offers it. While restrictions may be in place, the faith of the people is stronger than ever and I am told that the underground church in China is incredibly strong, and would probably put many of our congregations to shame.

Sinuses all in a frenzy from the smog, I am enjoying what may be one of my last moments of comfort and respite in the upcoming weeks. This trip has started off amazingly well, and I am so grateful the Leija family has welcomed me into their home, easing me into this trip, and showing me this great city.

There is a lot more to see, and I am really looking forward to it. But right now, I'm looking forward to a nap.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The Price of a Big Heart

My time in India has been a slap-in-the-face encounter with the developing world. This amazingly beautiful country is as incredible as the tourism commercials make it appear and the poverty is as bad as World Vision brochures depict it. It feels as though half of my trip has been turning down or ignoring disenfranchised or physically handicapped people. It is hard, and many times I walk away guilty for not giving them some change. I am burdened by the fact that in reality, I would not be helping them, but perpetuating the cycle they find themselves in.

When children are involved its even worse and when you get taken to a school in need of a water pump, every bone in your body wants to whip out an American checkbook. I confess that I have given a little money to a few schools and a few people outside of the temples. I pray that it goes to their nourishment and enrichment. Whether it does or not, I'll never know. But one thing I always offer, whether I give them money or not, is a silent prayer.

My big heart has cost me in other ways, feeling guilty for paying so little for services, so out some internal obligation, I pay them more than I could bargain it for. Several times this has come back to haunt me because people begin to see you as an easy target. Perhaps there is something in my eyes that people see. Maybe the eyes really are the window to the soul and my soul exudes a desire to help, to make the world a better place. Or perhaps I am just naive to the way things work when backpacking and in dealing with someone in a foreign land.

I confess that as an American I am not conditioned to the bartering lifestyle. Ask anyone who knows me and they will tell you I love a good deal, but when you're talking a matter of cents, at times I struggle with fitting in with other backpackers cheap and seemingly "heartless" ways. I recognize that that's not the way it is, that in reality most of them do care. Perhaps the tough skin they have developed is something that comes with time and kilometers.

While I love a good deal, I have recognized that I also like convenience. Perhaps this is a trait I picked up from my father. One of the most frugal men I know, always hunting down the best products at the best prices, he's also been known to overpay for something that he wants, just because. I have seen that in myself on this trip. At times I'm okay paying the full price or "too much" for something, just because it's convenient. Most of the time it doesn't bother me, perhaps because I know that what I'm paying is still far less than what I'd pay in America.

I have been challenging myself to get into the groove of things and learn how to barter and stand my ground. At times I feel cheated by people from the past for charging me as much as they did, and get angry at myself for giving in so quick. But that is all part of the learning process, and when I come back to India, or travel to other developing countries, I'll be far more prepared.

As I sit at a small restaurant in Bodgaya on the eve of my week volunteering with the Missionaries of Charity, I see how everything before today has been in preparation for tomorrow. One thing that has been confirmed is my love of others and my desire to help. I walk around these cities wanting to fix everything but unable to do anything. I know that the poverty and sickness I have seen is far less than what I will soon encounter.

All that being said, the glimpse that I have been given and the adventures that I've had have softened me and lowered my standards for cleanliness and comfort. When you've had a cockroach crawl out of your backpack and onto you without freaking out and later that day eat street food with dirty hands, only to realize what you're doing as you lick your fingers clean, you know things have changed. I know that whatever God calls me to do, be it grad school, mission work, a full time job, or something completely different, that I will perform in my position much better because of these experiences.

I thank God everyday for blessing me with the time and financial resources to go on this adventure. I sit here eternally grateful for what has happened and excited for what is to come. I encourage everyone to take a moment today and think about what (and who) is most important to you and what you're thankful for. Even in the toughest moments there is always something good to be found.