A foreign teacher in China reflects about the 2008 news and calamities

by jpheldt123 / Apr 20, 2011 / 0 comments


A foreign teacher in China reflects about the 2008 news and calamities.


In the aftermath of the recent China earthquake (on May 12, 2008 in Sichuan province), killing over 12,000 people, with the number rising day by day, its toll on human pain and suffering was beyond description. Even though the Chinese people have been conditioned not to seek supernatural (spiritual) explanations for adversity in their lives (Cody, updated 5:37 a.m. ET June 25, 2008, 2008), a Chinese colleague asked me whether such natural disasters and calamities should be seen as a punishment from the “gods” for our “bad” behavior, as Buddhism has been teaching for centuries and millennia. That was a challenging and rather baffling question. Perhaps it was a veiled reference to the recent March events in Ti-bet and their echoes in the worldwide press.


“I am not sure what to make of the role of humans in the causation of such calamities,” I told her, not sure whether my off-the-cuff reply would satisfy her curiosity. Even though humans are guilty of many crimes against our human and natural environments (such as over-exploitation of land and sea or global pollution), I dare not ascribe any precise human liability in the causation of natural disasters. But one thing I knew, I told her, which is that such calamities (both natural and man-made) have been on the rise, even just looking at the first half of 2008. In 2008, indeed, in less than five months, the world has witnessed many local, regional, or global events and problems, with far-reaching consequences and much human suffering in their wake: 


1) In April, the South-East Asian country of Myanmar (formerly named Burma) was struck by deadly cyclones, killing over 100,000 innocent victims (Wikipedia, 2008),  and leaving millions more without food, clean water, or shelter. Deadly tornadoes also struck the US Mid-West in the early part of May 2008 (Fairfax Digital, 2008). 


2) For most of the month of April, too, the evening news was dominated by a global food crisis (McMullen, 2008, Goodspeed, 2008, Smith, 2008, Editorial, 2008),  including inflation in excess of 400% and acute shortage of staple food such as rice and bread in countries such as Egypt, Yemen, Haiti, or Bangladesh.


3) At the time of this writing, the USA is engaged in two concurrent wars, one in Iraq, and another one, almost forgotten, in Afghanistan, with no end in sight for either conflict. At the same time, at the Pentagon, we hear some “saber-rattling” (perhaps referred to in the Bible as rumors of wars? See Matthew 24:6) about a possible US attack against Iran over Iran’s dogged refusal to give up its nuclear ambitions, even in the face of growing opposition from the worldwide community of nations (Gottfried, 2008, Hoagland, 2007). 


4) There have been reports of widespread corruption, unprecedented poverty, and unimaginable wickedness. 


a) In the wake of the Myanmar typhoons, the military regime has at first declined to accept international donor assistance and emergency relief. Once the regime deemed it was in its own best interest to accept it, we now have reports that members of the military elite appropriated the best portions of the donated good for their own exclusive usage, leaving the destitute cyclone victims only with “rotten food,” keeping the best for themselves (Rex, 2008).  


b) From nearby Thailand, comes a report by Dan Rivers (a sensitive CNN reporter) of a 7-year old boy whose only known home has been a garbage dump at the Thai-Burmese border (Rivers, 2008).  This young boy, abandoned after his birth by his impoverished mother, has never experienced the luxury of a fluffy pillow or iron-clad clothes, felt on his sunburned skin the soothing effect of a warm shower, nor tasted the delicacy of a home-cooked meal, not even to mention the benefits of going to school and learning how to read and write. He is simply a “rubbish (or dumpster)-boy,” whose life consists of collecting refuse and recycling garbage, the leftovers of the well-to-do members of Thai society. 


c) From faraway Austria emerged a really gruesome report of an incestuous father who sequestered and repeatedly raped his own daughter for 24 years in the basement of his house in Amstetten, near Vienna (Daily Mail, Last updated at 00:26 30 April 2008 2008, Paterson, 2008, BBC, 2008).  Imagine the life of the young woman deprived of seeing the sunlight for more than half of her life (she is now 42 years old)! Her only contact with the outside world was the unpredictable visits from her incestuous father, whose coming could only mean rape, shame, and humiliation. 


d) But such phenomena of wickedness and violence are not limited to Asia or Europe. I heard reports of gang rape on a grand scale in some Central African countries ravaged by civil wars, where rape by soldiers is routinely used as a means of intimidation and social control, under the watchful eyes of helpless husbands and horrified children (Martens, Last Updated: Saturday, 24 January 2004, 17:15 GMT, 2004, Jardin, 2007, Lefort, 2003).  How much more wicked can it get? And, as I am sure, the Americas are not immune to such kind of atrocities either, as we can see from the reports of torture in Abu Ghraib or in Guantanamo Bay (Lewis, 2004, Redgrave, 2004, Tran, 2008, AFX News, 2008).  Former dictators in Chile or Argentina have to account for their own violent means and ways of leading their respective countries (Chinadaily, 2003). 


5) And now this Sichuan earthquake of magnitude 7.8 on the Richter scale, killing over 15,000 people (Ang, 2008),  and leaving millions without food, clean water, or shelter.


In view of these natural calamities and manmade disasters, I wish to make two comments:


1) It is not that such calamities are “new” occurrences. There have been famines, wars, and earthquakes for as long as one can remember. Perhaps what is new is their increasing frequency, their widespread distribution all over the world, and more so, their unbearable cost in human lives and human suffering.


2) What is perhaps more puzzling and disturbing, at least to me in view of the global events I have just referred to, is the comparative pettiness of my own attitude toward trifles I am experiencing in my own little world. 


a) For example, as a teacher, I get easily annoyed when students sleep in my classes, after I spent hours preparing what I think would be the most exciting PowerPoint presentations, with colorful pictures, carefully chosen sound bites, and exciting animation. 


b) Often, I get upset when i come to the canteen after my fifth and last class, only to find that there is no more warm food. The kitchen staff has turned off the ovens, mindless of the needs and expectations of possible stragglers. 


c) I get annoyed, too, when there is a power outage for a couple of hours because of some road repair work in our neighborhood. As a result, I have no TV, no PC, no internet connection, not hot shower, and no microwave! Just ask the “rubbish boy” in Thailand how he did without these amenities for seven years! Life is not fair, indeed.


d) At last, I get really irritated when my careless roommate tramps into our joint bathroom with dust-encrusted slippers, leaving behind tracks of dirt and slime mixed with the water flowing from the walk-in shower, as is customary in most of China. For several weeks, I used to get startled, even past midnight, when my inconsiderate roommate, coming in or going out of our apartment, would slam the front door, without considering that I might be fast asleep . When, in an effort to save energy (in a heroic yet ultimately futile attempt to stave off the effects of global warming), I gently reminded him to turn off the lights before heading to the classroom, he flew into a youthful (but not very useful!) fit of rage, and refused to talk to me for weeks and months. Perhaps these are manifestations of a common phenomenon known as the “generation gap,” which I never experienced, even with my own children, now in their early 20’s.

From my vantage point, of course, students should not sleep in my classes, nor, for that matter, in any teacher’s class. As for me, a hard working teacher, I should be entitled to a nice hot meal after teaching five hours, and, as a senior teacher, I should be able to expect roommates and colleagues to keep the noise level to a minimum and observe basic rules of cleanliness and sanitation, without becoming exposed over it to the verbal or emotional abuse of a much younger colleague, who became angry simply because I had the perceived “arrogance” of reminding him of pre-established rules to which we had both agreed before, and as a condition of, moving together into the same flat.


But when I compare my situation with the predicaments of millions of people who are affected by earthquakes, famines, food shortage, tornadoes, or military conflicts, my feelings turn from entitlement to embarrassment, guilt, and shame. What are a few tracks of dirt in my bathroom (easily removed by a few well-placed strokes of a Chinese mop) compared with entire homes reduced to a pile of rubble by a 8.0 earthquake, or torn apart or blown away by a powerful cyclone? People hit by earthquakes, floods, or tornadoes have no electric power, no food, no water, and no shelter for many weeks, even months at a time. How does a tepid meal compare with no food at all, or with watching people fight for a single loaf of bread in the suburbs of Cairo, Egypt? How much pain and suffering have been inflicted on millions of Iraqi and Afghani after the US-led invasions of their respective countries? How does seeing disrespectful students sleeping in class compare with 1) being gang raped by militia troops, 2) murdered by foreign soldiers, or 3) held in seclusion and raped for 24 years in your own father’s basement without being allowed to see the light of the day even once?


Someone said (maybe it was John F. Kennedy), “May God grant you to live in interesting times!” Well, I believe we do live in such interesting (perhaps even exciting) times! Provided, that is, that we are aware that we live in such times. And that takes time, time to read, time to pray, and time to reflect on what is happening around us, and in the world. Karl Barth, 20th theologian, has been quoted as saying, “To be truly informed, a preacher should preach a sermon with the newspaper in one hand, and the Bible in the other hand!” Now Barth was a man of foresight (Hamilton, 2006, Bouma, 2007, Cabral, n.d., Puthota, n.d., Réamonn, 2004).  Times may have changed, but the same principle remains, “the Bible in one hand, and the newspaper (or internet, TV) in the other.”


With this in mind, I turn my attention to more existential and cosmic questions, such as, “How long will this last? How much longer do humans have to put up with so much pain and suffering?” Incidentally, we find the same kinds of questions raised some 2,000 years by Jesus’ disciples, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the close of the age?” (Matt. 24:3, see also Rev. 6:9-11). 

Jesus’ answers could not have been more alarm raising then than they are now at the dawn of the 21st century. In his Olivet discourse (Matt. 24-25), Jesus talks about wars and rumors of wars (Matt. 24:6), about famines (i.e., food shortages) and earthquakes in various places (Matt. 24:7), about betrayal and hatred between people (Matt. 24:10), and about wickedness (Matt. 24:12. What Jesus told his disciples then (in the context of 1st century Palestine) is not much different from the strife and calamities people around the world witness now in the 21st century.


Is it possible that events like the ones predicted by Jesus before his ascension to heaven will continue forever and ever, with no end in sight? How depressing would that be! Or is it possible, when we take Bible prophecies at face-value, that some day, the “cup of [human] iniquity will be full,” prompting God to make an end to it all, “cutting the days short” (Mat. 24:22), and causing Jesus Christ at long last to return to planet earth (Matt. 24:30) in order to “make all things new” (Rev. 21:1-5; 22:7, 12)? This is, indeed, a comforting thought, especially for Bible-believing Christians.


We do not know how the year 2008 will bear out biblical prophecy. What we do know, however, is that, in less than five months, many of the events (e.g., wars, rumors of wars, famines, floods, and earthquakes) alluded to in biblical prophecies have become a painful reality for millions of people in various places of the world. Their common feature is their combination (or concurrence), their increase in intensity, and their worldwide, global distribution. We often refer to our times as the age of information, or the age of globalization. Perhaps another and more apt descriptor would be that of “globalization of evil.” 


Nevertheless, the key to happiness, I suppose, is for us to learn to live with this creative tension between the present and the future, between every day events and future promises (yet to find their fulfillment in human history), and yet not get discouraged or give up in despair as these troubling events unfold. We know that these events must take place, and we also know that there will be a glorious deliverance. My father, who passed away last year in October (2007), died without ever seeing the fulfillment of these cosmic prophecies about the end of time. Maybe the year 2008 will be different. We shall know for sure, come January 1, 2009, whether the year 2008 will have delivered what some are thinking and hoping it would bring.



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