Diary Page 13
China - Xi'an. The Soup Kitchen
10th January 2005 - Present
"Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach."
Clarissa Pinkola Estés Ph.D.
As at the time of writing this, August 6th 2007, and after quelling a long-term urge to visit India I have spent the previous two and a half years or so in China. Initially filling the first 6-8 months with a variety of activities that felt right at the time as I came to terms with a growing feeling that this was somewhere that I was going to be for a while. Although I didn't fully understanding why this feeling arose I was in no rush to find out why as accompanied with this was also a strong indication that I would know when the time was right. During this time here I had attempted to find some voluntary work that I could do, but after asking around I was told there was nowhere that one could go to do flexible voluntary work as we know it in the west, for instance at homeless shelters or soup kitchens etc. I didn't truly believe this at the time and thought that maybe I was simply being 'fobbed off' as it was far too much trouble to help a strange foreigner find voluntary work. I did manage to track down a couple of orphanages and helped a little but it never felt like they truly needed what I had to offer and one even refused an offer of used clothes, as such it wasn't particularly fulfilling or ever felt like it was the best use of my time. I later began to feel that perhaps there weren't many opportunities to undertake voluntary work after all and have since realised that it isn't a part of the Chinese culture. Nearing the end of 2005, on December 15th, I met an old homeless lady that would shape the next 2 years of my life and perhaps for a considerable time after that too. By the end of the following day I had organised the first Soup Kitchen which was to begin two days later, and have since been told that it was the first in China in this form, which may possibly be correct.
There has been far too much water that has flowed under this rickety bridge to capture it all here at this moment. Maybe one day I will find the time, but needless to say it has been a very full, interesting, and on many different levels a challenging 20 months, introducing a concept that at times seems at odds culturally, yet slowly welcomed by many. As with anything new, none of the challenges were small and there will undoubtedly be many more ahead yet at this moment in time as I look forward the path appears to be a little clearer.
So for those that are still occasionally glancing at this web site for updates, I apologies for the long silence but I have been unable to access it to do any updates for the previous 18 months. I have copied below a document that I was requested to write during September 2006 for a web-based group that we have set up for the charity. It lays out a little more background as to why, what and how this all came about.
To date we have provided over 15,000 meals and are currently serving around 1500 meals per month in 3 sessions per week, taught English to 180 students in a poor village as a summer project, given out clothes every week since November last year and around 100 blankets during the winter, put on a Christmas party for the homeless and during the Chinese Spring Festival or New Year showers and haircuts. In the previous few months we have begun providing a level of medical care enabling us to arrange operations and hospital care for 6 homeless children and more recently providing first aid medication for those that attend the Soup Kitchen. Something that continues to amaze me is the number of people that hear of our actions and come to volunteer, for whatever period of time, totaling over 400 since we began. Finally on May the 20th of this year we moved into a brand new building that, despite the Soup Kitchen being a secular organisation, was built for our use by the church, the place is amazing with enough seating for over 100 people. Ever since I began, perhaps due to recognising the simplicity of the motivation, they have been tremendously supportive in any way they could be despite little inconveniences like all the homeless people arriving to be fed whilst they are saying Mass!
Unless forces beyond my control prevent me from continuing, which is an everpresent reality, then my feeling is that I will remain here for the long term to continue this work as long as it is still needed, has value, and I can still add value to it. Or until a day that I am drawn to move somewhere else should that ever arrive. If this means that I will devote the next ten to twenty years to this project then I am happy to do that.
(For photos and a more up to date look at progress with the various charity projects check out our web site at www.YellowRiverCharity.com)
"The highest realms of thought are impossible to reach without first attaining an understanding of compassion”
What, How and Why - Sept '06
We are asked many times – “Why?” Not an easy one to answer. I can only give you my ‘why’ as best I understand it, and cannot speak for all the many wonderful volunteers who have offered their time and energy in various forms. Teaching English in remote villages in sweltering classrooms to those that some how find the time week after week to serve food to the homeless in all weathers; during the height of the summer to the depths of the winter in temperatures ranging from +45c to -11c. They will all have their own reasons and I am sure they would be wide and varied.
This project began for me with an old woman in Xi’an, on December 15th 2005. However, in reality maybe my reasons ‘why’ go back much farther, maybe as far back as more than 10 years ago to an orphanage in Romania. I was on my second trip to Romania delivering medical equipment and supplies to hospitals and orphanages for a charity I and four friends had set up. Seeing the children and observing the Mother Teresa nuns’ selfless acts and their amazing strength despite ridiculous odds was humbling and inspiring. So powerful was the experience that I am still unable to reflect back on that time without that same warm tingling feeling invading me and a lump lodging itself firmly in my throat.
That day in 1996 I made a silent promise that I would one day give more of myself to these people, both the nuns and the children, and others like them. Having no idea at the time what may lie ahead.
Then in August 2002, whilst in England, although being what most people would describe as a ‘perennial workaholic’ I suddenly felt that there was no need or point in me continuing to work for money. Something switched inside and I felt so content that I needed nothing more than enough food, clothes and somewhere to sleep. What else could I possibly need? I have come to understand that when you want nothing, you have everything. I felt so blessed with the things that I had been gifted along the way that I felt it was time that I put my experiences, some of the lessons learnt, and skills developed, many due to 14 years of being in business in England, to a much better use than simply making money. Therefore, I sold everything that I owned, picked up my toothbrush grabbed my passport, packed a bag and departed England, with the expectation and acceptance, that apart from the occasional return visits to see my family and friends, I may never return.
Whichever country I lived in and how I spent my time was of no importance to me, I could be in England or any other country, it mattered not, for I carry my family and friends along with me wherever I go. This leaves me free to go anywhere that feels the right place to be and can give some of my time and energy to giving as much back as possible, in whatever way that feels right at that time. Before I left the UK I didn’t know what form it would take but I had a strong feel that I would know what, when and how, whenever it was appropriate. Over the previous 3 ½ years, through a variety of activities, this has proved to be the case.
So the activities here in China seem like a natural progression. I first arrived in China in January ’05 with the intention of staying here for only 2-3 weeks as I was actually on route to India at the time. A country I have wanted to visit for many years. However, a series of things have kept me in China, whilst never fully understanding why, I have felt that this was the place I was meant to be. So here I have remained. Whilst in Xi’an I have neither been looking for something to fill my time, nor have I been waiting for anything, it felt right to be here so I was simply that – ‘just here’.
One Thursday afternoon in December last year (2005), whilst out in Xi’an city center I was approached by an old lady begging, which isn’t unusual but on this day this lady was particularly persistent and followed me for several minutes, she shadowed me and changed gear in sync with my increasing pace. I don't usually like to give money to beggars so I continually refused to contribute to her pot. However, by the time she gave up on me it was too late as the damage had been done; I had caught a glimpse deep into her eyes. That evening I meditated for a couple of hours, during the meditation the old woman’s eyes haunted me. I felt a little guilty at having done nothing for her, yet I still wasn't prepared to give her money. By the end of the two hours, it was all decided. I emerged from the meditation with a plan. I had decided to return the following day, Friday, to find her, with the intention of buying her some lunch. At the same time try to glean information as to where the homeless people go to eat and if there were any shelters where they can sleep, so that I might volunteer to help. Earlier in the year I had tried to find these places but couldn’t find anybody who knew of them, when I enquired I was told that there weren’t any, something that I didn’t believe at the time. I didn’t learn very much from her either but no matter, her job was done, she had unknowingly set 'my wheels in motion'. I roamed the streets asking questions the best I could with my limited Chinese, until I had all my answers. I had also decided the previous evening that in the event that I was told that there was no place where they could go and eat for free, which I now suspected was the case, that I would somehow start a soup kitchen. By that Friday evening it was all organised. and two days later, on the Sunday afternoon, the first Soup Kitchen began. I had been told that every week a few beggars arrived at a local Catholic Church for the Sunday one o'clock mass, this seemed like a good start so I visited the church and found a priest who luckily spoke good English, after telling Father Chen of my plan and maybe despite him thinking I was a little crazy he agreed to allow me to come and provide them with food. That first Sunday afternoon I was accompanied by 3 friends whom I had told what I intended to do and they had said they would like to come along and help, Michael, his brother Daniel both from Australia and Michael's girlfriend Zhang Ying. I had ordered the food on the Friday from a restaurant across the road from the church and when we arrived we saw 8 people begging outside at the church, after serving them we still had food leftover so we then walked the streets and fed a further 17 people. Thus was born the Soup Kitchen. We have continued to run one every Sunday in the same location ever since and then afterwards walked around the streets feeding more homeless people. After my meditation that very first night, without knowing where it all might lead, I felt I was beginning a long-term project that may dominate my time and energy for many years ahead. There was definitely a feeling of fate dipping its mischievous fingers into this and pulling some of the strings.
It is surprising how far the ripples created from dropping a single pebble in a lake can spread. From a pebble that was dropped many years ago by a friend who honoured me by first inviting me to join them in their Romanian project, the ripples of that day are now being felt, amongst other places, here in China.
Every time we venture out to serve food there is not only a verbal reaction from one or more people who simply witness or experience our actions, but often visible evidence of a reaction, and sometimes a change, which can be seen on their faces or in their eyes. By way of an example, one Sunday afternoon whilst serving food outside the church, a man passed on the street pushing a cart, he as do many people stopped to see what we were doing and what the crowd of onlookers were staring at. He started to ask many questions, what we were doing and why, as he grew redder and redder in the face it became obvious he was very unhappy about what he was hearing. I didn’t react to this as I had already grown used to a wide variety of responses and though my views may differ from other peoples it is of little importance and unrealistic to expect everybody to share the same viewpoint. Hence, I merely smiled and said it was all ok and no problem, this obviously didn’t remove his cause of frustration so I carried on about my business whilst one of the Chinese helpers took the brunt of his frustration. Three Sundays later, I had arrived at the Soup Kitchen early so I sat quietly in the street a little distance away for a few moments of quiet before we began. As I sat contemplating I noticed the same man from three weeks earlier pushing his cart at the side of the road, we both did a ‘double take’ as we recognised each other. When I arrived at the church a few minutes later, he was already there with two or three women serving fried noodles in cartons to the homeless. He obviously had some form of food business which would go some way to explaining his initial anger. He told me that he had some food left over and rather than waste it he wanted to give it to the homeless, also that in future if he had extra food he would come and serve it to them again. A big shift from his reaction only three weeks earlier, and a huge step to so publicly change his opinion and risk losing face.
This is just one of many little stories of our experiences so far but it is partly due to this kind of reaction that it feels like the projects we take on are worthwhile for everybody involved. It is not just about the volunteers or the less fortunate people, but also about every single person that sees or comes into contact with whatever we are doing and the small change within them that may result from the briefest of encounters and perhaps the simplest of acts.
This kind of opportunity to do flexible volunteer work and give something of oneself is not widely available in China if at all. Over the months about 200 volunteers have given their time, it has been people who have heard about or seen what we are doing and have been curious or moved enough to come and join us for whatever period of time they have had available. At no point have we had to ask anybody for help yet week after week volunteers keep appearing, it has and will continue to be very much a team effort, no one person could achieve this on their own. It is the collective energies that keeps all of this rolling and it is due to these reactions I decided that I must to continue with this work, as long as it has value.
In order to keep the momentum going and to enable the Soup Kitchen and other projects to continue The Yellow River Voluntary Alliance was started. Providing a vehicle and structure where people who wish to give of themselves to help others, yet don’t know how to do so or where to go, can come and volunteer and give, to a variety of projects, in whatever way they are able. Thus giving more and more people the opportunity to experience volunteer work and work with their hearts. We are at the stage where we the Charity is established in England and we have also applied for Charity Commission approval, classing us as a NGO, thus enabling us to more easily continue and expand our activities in China.
We all work on a voluntary basis, as it is my belief that if the motivation to come along is to help others and not to earn money, then the acts are much purer.
Many people have mentioned to us the ‘Teaching people to fish and feeding people fish’ analogy. Some of the projects we may get involved in will be teaching people to fish whilst others will be solely about feeding people fish. Whilst it may be an ideal situation to teach everybody to fish, with the hope that they may become independent and be able to provide for their own needs, it is not always possible. The process of teaching them takes time, yet in this period they still need their basic needs catered for. E.g. food, clothing, shelter and healthcare. Whilst others, for a number of reasons, may never be able to take care of their own needs. Hence I feel the two approaches need to co-exist, ensuring that there are organisations and projects that educate and train people who are able to become independent, yet people who may never be able to be are not neglected and have there basic needs provided for to some degree.
So what is next? A continued focus will be on improving and expanding the Soup Kitchen, as there will always be homeless people that need feeding. In just two sessions a week we are currently providing about 1200 meals a month with a current total of about 7500 meals since we began in December, but we are not reaching enough people or often enough. We ran an English Summer School teaching English to 180 students in a small village, this may be something we will run again or have as an ongoing project. We are at the same time considering other projects. We wish to collect clothes and blankets for the homeless especially with winter rapidly approaching; also amongst others, we are investigating the feasibility of running a medical project providing some level of medical care to poor families or perhaps some form of shelter.
In the previous 10 months alone, there have been many challenges, people have said none of this was possible, as I look ahead I am sure there will be many more. Yet I feel sure that whatever lays ahead all hurdles will be overcome.
“It is my faith, based on experience, that if one's heart is pure, calamity brings its men and measures to fight it” M.K.Gandhi.
We understand that we cannot assist everybody in all the areas of their needs but if we continue to do our little bit maybe we can make just a small difference to some of the people that we encounter. As single individuals, we can only reach a limited number of people, but if those people in turn connect with others then a chain reaction is beginning. So together, as the Yellow River Voluntary Alliance if we can drop just a few small pebbles in a few lakes who knows how far the ripples may spread and how many people they may touch along the way.
I have found positive energy to be extremely contagious; long may it continue to be so.