Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Library Project

This trip to China was really built around three things. Seeing as much of the amazing cultural sites and people as we could was of course one of those things. We wanted to spend time and catch up with old friends, and we wanted to help set up a library in one of the rural communities. Over the years, we have donated time/effort/money to our friend Tom's NGO The Libary Project, I designed that logo actually ;) But we both had always wanted to get more hands on at some point. During our travels in Laos, we got our first taste of delivering books and school supplies, those wonderous little springboards of learning and curiosity, to the kids in villages, so to say we were excited for this day was an understatement.

It was a pleasant drive with two Library Project employees, their driver, and two high school students who, like us, were volunteering for the book donation. Our little van wound along the countryside over the small mountains on a clear warm day. After a few hours of driving we got close to the village. Once there, there were a few interesting sites that surprised me. One was a little glimpse of growing up in the Midwest! Almost every home was drying corn cobs outside their houses. In general I was a bit surprised to see how common corn was in China. They tend to just eat it steamed on the cob, enjoying the sweet naturally grassy flavors, but this corn was being dried to feed the household's animals, it was a little thing, but something about it was really comforting and charming. I liked the village already! It was a fairly barren and dusty place with occasional gaps in terrain and buildings treating you with nice vistas of the surrounding hilly countryside. It was a cute rural community and our first real chance to see something other than city life in China. It did make me wish we had more time than we did so we could have spent more time in more rural locations.

Tom's amazing team helped organize even the smallest detail so in the end, we were tasked with manual labor and documenting the occasion which was great fun! We snapped photos non-stop and ended up with thousands of strong images that will be used by the project in promotional and archival endeavors.

There were two libraries to be set up that day and Kerry and I were split into the two teams. Kerry was to go to a smaller school with only four students and I was assigned to the larger school. Kerry's donation initially had a delivery hiccup, but they were able to get things sorted and have a successful setup so quickly that she and her team came back and joined us to set up the larger school's book donation. After setting up shelves, toys, and globes, we stamped all of the books and Tom's team taught the teachers and school leaders how to manage and maintain the collection. Once the prep was done, the kids were allowed to come and start digging in! In an instant, it was a flurry of excitement! It is truly a fantastic thing to see, kids born in an impoverished community getting an opportunity to exercise their curiosity and thirst for knowledge. Their energy was excited, playful, and definitely contagious!

Around noon, a majority of the kids wandered off in different directions towards their homes for a mid-day meal, but there was a painful part of that moment too, for not all of the children were leaving. Not every family can afford to feed their children more than once or twice a day, so while their friends all ran home to fill their bellies, they were stuck at the school to sit and wait until classes would start again. Trying to keep the blue moment from marking the day for the kids, we began to play some games with them. It was a successful diversion and soon everyone was fully engaged and the lunch time breezed by, but it was a sobering moment of reality for me.

The afternoon was spent playing games with the younger of the 100 school children, helping the kids with the books, and answering the inevitable collection of questions from the teachers that Kerry and I had become used to answering as we traveled the country. "How much money do you make?", "Where are you from?", "Do you like Chinese food?", "How much did your tattoo cost?". It was comical and pretty much identical each time, haha! It was a little exposure to the differences in our societal mores for sure.

The day was capped with a nice ceremony where the school had speeches and performances for us, the principal signed the presentation documentation, and we mounted a little sign on one of the book shelves. It was a little hard to leave, for us and the kids. They had so much fun, and got so attached, especially to the two high-school girls who volunteered. There were a tears shed by the kids, but in the end everyone was really happy with the successful day.

We had been super curious to try yangrou paomo, a mutton based soup that Xi'an is famous for and the team was very kind and took us to a tiny local shop that served it. It was clear the shop wasn't used to Western visitor. There was a charming moment when even the cooks in the kitchen came out and nervously asked if they could take a picture with me. We could tell the yangrou paomo was really meant more for a cooler time of year, but it was a hearty and happy bowl of yum. The mutton was tender and flavorful in a richly seasoned, slightly oily broth which was then filled out with a crumbled flat bread that had the effect of dumplings. There was a nice and flavorful chili paste and pickled garlic cloves as condiments which added a little zing and acid to cut the hearty delicious soup. After we finished our meal, we traveled back to the office, shared contact information, hugs, and our goodbyes with the team and volunteers who had shared the special day with us.

No comments: