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Be content, in much and in need

February 24, 2013

What comes to your mind when you hear the phrase, “Be content”?

I grew up almost always having enough of everything I wanted, except for minor things like a toy gun that I asked for but my parents did not let me have one. My parents showed me to be simple, thrifty, and to save for the future. As a Christian, I also don’t look at things by the monetary value. Expensive clothes, branded handbags, gourmet food, luxurious travels, .. all these I avoid as I don’t see how they would serve Jesus or lead other people to Him. I let myself look mediocre–in a way–because I believe that if someone likes me, that should be because he/she finds values in my inner characters, not in my outer beauty or in the monetary value of my possessions. Also, to show Jesus’ humility and service to the poor and the lost, one cannot be up there sitting on comfy manager’s desk and drinking cocktails.
Therefore, until recently, I thought being content means to feel satisfied when there is little, or relatively little compared to what other people have.

However, God teaches me that being content means being content and thankful whatever the circumstances. It can be when I have much, can be when I have little. God does sometimes give us little to teach us to cherish what we have and to stay faithful to Him. Sometimes, He gives us more to enjoy. Eating ice creams, watching movies, going to the beaches.. are typical of those I’d avoid as I don’t see long term values in them, but I learn that even these entertainments are God-given, and they are to be enjoyed, not loathed. “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.” ~James 1:17 (汉语)

What we should remember, however, to be thankful to God for these gifts and to return to Him the glory. Prideful men would say, “I built this empire with my strengths and wit,” certainly runs on their own and God does not approve of their work.
When we struggle and in need, remember that God does not forget you. Stay faithful, knowing that you are already winners–by having Jesus–the living bread. “Man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” ~Deuteronomy 8:3 (汉语)
When we are comfortable, remember that we bear responsibilities to help other people. “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” Luke 12:48

I still often struggle being comfortable. I resist living comfortably, especially I see clearly that money is indeed the root of all evil (汉语). But I’ve learned to be thankful, and to realize that this is how God has called me to serve Him. Had I live poorly, I might not have gone through those times when I was poor in spirit and was saved by Jesus, the true living God.


My parent’s gift

December 30, 2012

My parents are SPECIAL to me. For all they have been for me, whether nearby or away, they are special. And I will say that with high pride. I’ll tell you why.

The characters I have now are much influenced by them. Since my childhood, my dad has showed us the necessary diligence of savings. Knowing that money comes hard and stays just as hard, he taught me to save and watch my expenses. Back then, 100 Rupiah was my pocket money, and every day I’d enter it in a journal. If I used it to buy something, then there was a debit. I saved a lot. 100 Rupiah would buy 2 sticks of the cheap version of ice cream, or a bag of meatballs from a street-side seller. I think it was all symbolic, but he taught us early on to be responsible in our spending.

My mother is a superb example of patience, slow to speak, slow to anger. I know life was tough for her with many young siblings, her father was a single-parent for most of her life, and my dad had quite a bad temper. My mom took care of groceries and cooked food since she was 12, and later taught ballet to fund her two youngest sisters to college. They later became my English and piano teachers. When people ask me, “How did you learn English?” I proudly say that my aunts taught me, and my mom funded their schooling.

I was a difficult kid, too: VERY short-tempered is the nicest way to say it. When I got angry, which was very easily, I got into my room and locked it. You got it.

The memories stalled for a while as my teenage years went by. I studied all the time. It’s a principle my father held strongly: study hard and be the best. I was brainwashed successfully, being one of the top 3 students in my class and grade each year of middle and high schools. My parents’ hard work and money-saving principles paid for my sister’s and my education in the US, a rarity within our big family. I won’t go into all the stories afterwards, but for one, I got close to God in the US, and two, what I learned has taken me to a journey most people would consider a huge privilege to go through.

I generally hate vacations. I love rest, off from the busy and high pressure of work. But I hate vacations. In my college time, I did not take any even as my friends traveled around the US. They said I missed out a lot. Instead, I studied during the breaks, I worked during the summer, I applied for various scholarships that help to pay some of my tuition. I never regretted it.

People say that you go on a vacation and learn something from it. But I don’t believe you can learn about a new place, the people and culture, the problems, the economy, and all that, if only visiting there for a week or two. Most of the places people visit anyways are the restaurants, the Disneys, the bars, and the malls. Yes sometimes mountains are involved, and you can relax there. But what do you learn if you stay in the Hilton? Besides, vacation is a big dump of money. I have now proofs that vacations cost much no matter where you are and where you go.

However, I do make exceptions to vacations that are focused on relationship building, including one with my family early September this year. I looked forward to it, as my father really loves China (for whatever reason) and they both had missed me and my sister very much. I’d say, this is their present.

I didn’t mind where we went, because the time being together was precious. The time to see my mom’s happy laughs. The time to hold their hands when walking. The time to give my dad a massage, and ask my mom for one (these both made them happy :)). The time to see my dad’s proud stand on the Great Wall while my sister waited behind… The time to walk around a night market with them, seeing how they were “interested” in what these shops offered. The time my dad asked the fruit seller how long he stood there everyday, on the road side, and acknowledging the hard 8 am to 11 pm work. And what they say, was wise and loving. Every talk they gave, every sms, and skype was about me and my health. Of course, they are the greatest parents in the world :). And this vacation is their gift.

The only thing I can’t give to them now is myself. I won’t go home yet. In fact, I don’t know when I will go home. God is leading me to follow Him. Tomorrow and the coming months are not clear. But again, I do follow the one true God who delivers and is faithful. My parents need to learn to let me follow Him, as if He was my husband 🙂 Jesus and I love you, Mom and Dad. Don’t worry, He is good, and has the best plan for all of us.

Beyond the actions

October 1, 2012

Though there is a smile on their face, behind, they are hurt. Though they work hard and look strong, behind, there were stories of struggles, fights for the better, despairs and standing-ups, and being strong for people they care for. I shall not judge how people act given I don’t know why they do certain things. I will try to love others regardless of how they treat me. And that’s what Jesus would do.

“The easiest thing to do is to lose touch with someone.”
People come and go, while relationships take time to build, especially between people who come from different background and culture, and speak different languages.
I won’t claim I know how they think and make decisions, what they like and dislike, and what they plan for their future. These things are precious secrets to these people I meet, shared only with those they come to know as trustworthy friends who really care. And this kind of friendship takes time to build.

Some people in my organization have these relationships. After months of not meeting with one another (due to people moving workplace, going home temporarily, etc), they will recognize us when we meet again. They often ask where such and such person is, they haven’t met for a while. They can see our sincerity, which is quite rare in the midst of fast-and-furious live here in the big mainland.

The hardest part for me is seeing good relationships that are about to take off, stop not long after. People movements are common; anyways they are migrants. They have come to work and earn money temporarily. The recent political tension in the country adds on top of that. I believe a majority of them have gone home now. I wonder, what their life is like back home, if they think about coming back to the city.

These days, everyone is worried about something. Some are on things they can’t control. Many worry on things they make on their own.
In the states, among us middle-class people, we worry about the broken plumbing, the dogs barking outside, the noise from the party next door, missing to watch the show this weekend. In China, way too many people are worried about being single, or getting married late. It’s a topic I have gotten used to have in conversations among colleagues. Early marriages, mostly parents-driven ones, cause many problems in this country. If they are married, they worry about providing for their children; or child I should say, with the one-child policy. This is a bigger problem in the small cities and villages as their jobs there don’t seem to be enough for a living and investing in education (not to mention that education is already undervalued). I don’t have any statistics, so I won’t say more. But as is true anywhere in the world, the need of money drives people to do anything. Families stay together or break apart because of money.

It has happened to me several times that I have only 10-20 rmb in my wallet, and I thought, today I’ll just have banana and jiao zi (dumplings). Then several days later, I’d go to an ATM and replenish myself with more.
Money management is more complicated for those who indeed have little money (not simply need to go to an ATM). A friend of mine postponed getting a 15-rmb haircut (~2.5 USD) several times, because she has no savings. When I asked why she did not try to save, she explained she had to help a few close friends. One of her friends was jobless, another needed money for something else.

Some teachers emphasize on how high a goal, how far one still needs to go to make an achievement, or even to get any acknowledgment from them. It’s kind of like saying, “If you don’t reach this far, you’re not in my standard.” But I emphasize on how much one can do in each small progress. For every doubt: “I don’t know it” or “I can’t do it”, there is a chance to say, “Yes, you can!” Every correct step is a chance to compliment. Every mistake is a chance to “Let’s try it again. Together?”

Two examples of the scariest things I heard in my English class are “What does ‘It is a book’ mean?” and “I don’t know how to write ‘name'”. But this does not discourage me. It got me to a lot of thinking though. Should I offer this student a one-to-one lesson to catch up. Should I talk to her privately and encourage her to continue with the class. Should I split the class. Should I take 5 minutes of everyone’s time for her.

~ ~ ~

Sometimes I wonder if what I do matters much. There is very little progress, in my eyes. Yes, God is working, He is in control, He knows where it is heading, He has a beautiful plan ahead of us. It is kind of like Chinese herbal medicine. It’s natural and healthy, but takes time to heal. A friend reminded me, “It’s not just learning what you teach that is important. Being able to speak English is one of the goals of the class, but that is not the only thing they take from you. They learn about your sincerity, sharing, working together, building confidence, learn that they are valued and able, that there are opportunities beyond what they knew in the past.”

When I see all the work that is yet to be done, everything that used to be important in my life matters less. Petty arguments with friends, what clothes to wear, what food to cook, what the next cool phone to own, .. you got it. These are of no value, compared to the needs I see.

Where Starfish Project stands now, is to provide opportunities for some people to earn a living, learn practical skills, and get education, and at the same time providing a safe home and loving environment for them to recover and grow. God has been faithful and is with us along the way. And He’s still working, to reach out for more lost children.

Memories of Xi’an

July 28, 2012

“Will you miss Xi’an?” and “Which one do you like more, Beijing or Xi’an?” are two common questions I got in my last days in Xi’an, and after I am back in Beijing. My answer in short is, “When I first arrived in Xi’an, I didn’t like it and missed Beijing. I didn’t like the food, didn’t like the location (of the office against other places), and hated the smoggy winter. But now, I love Xi’an more than Beijing and am afraid I will miss it.


Friends I’ve made along the way.

TW Xi’an office is great for making new friends, as they are generally younger :p than Beijing office’s and have more flexibilities to do activities together. We went for karaoke 唱歌, paintball, strawberry picking 朝美, played badminton 一毛球, table-tennis 兵马求, hiking the mountain 爬山, go-karting 卡丁车 (and bump-bumping car 碰碰车), even as silly as sliding in the kids’ park :p. Missing our childhood playtime is not goofy there. Not sure why, I get to see more of: couples got together, broke up, got engaged, had a baby. I also got to see more dynamics at work: new hires joined every few weeks, uprising team leads, a variety of trainings going on regularly, etc.

Pictures won’t do the justice, but still better than mere words. Just see these select few.


A client once commented the big difference between relationships among colleagues in the western compared to that in TW China. He acknowledged that here [in TW China], people are open to talking about personal relationships, not restricted to only business or technical matters, so transitioning from work hours to fun hours is easy. I take it as ‘no beer necessary’ :D.

Learning Mandarin

from local colleagues is different. It is slower than taking classes with a teacher, but is faster in terms of knowing useful local/in-fashion phrases or interesting sayings.

While talking about the Art district in Beijing called 798, a friend explained to me the 3 different types of people: 普通青年 (putong qingnian),文艺青年 (wenyi qingnian),and 2B 青年 (erpi qingnian).
I now have a Chinese weibo (like twitter) account. I’ve always pronounced my nickname, 超级elian, wrongly. Only later did I learn the difference between 炒鸡 (chao3ji1, fried chicken) with 超级 (chao1ji3, super). I do like fried chicken though, LOL.

On Sun Long’s last day with the company, I asked, “What is a common way to say farewell in Mandarin?” He taught me a proverb:

“青山不改,绿水长流”, which literally means “the green mountain does not change, the green water will keep flowing”

Thus translates to say that the friendship remains the same. It’s a beautiful saying. I was sad to see him leave. I was sad myself to leave Xi’an, but greatly consoled by everyone who assured me of our long-term friendships.

My teammates compiled a picture album for me, which was truly absolutely sweet. Not sure if they know, but I love pictures and have indeed been looking for a scrapbook album. They picked the perfect gift. I couldn’t be more delighted. In the last couple of days in Xi’an, before I packed the album in the box to ship, I flipped through the pages, looked at their faces one by one, imagined the smiles, the chats, what we know of one another.. and I got sentimental. It _is_ hard to part.

Beautiful walkways, parks, and mountains.

See my previous post about it.

~ ~ ~

There are other reasons why Xi’an will always hold a special place in my heart. A number of them will not make it to the blog, as I don’t have any pictures to prove them. The mountains are probably the most I will miss from Xi’an. Beijing has some around it, too, but they are far. Plus, it won’t be spent with the same people :). People, of whose stories are not easy to tell in a few words, make up a big portion of it. But as I always do, I’d give special mention to:

  • He Fei, my first co-lead in Xi’an, for being my friend, welcoming and trusting me, and being a joy in the team
  • Zhou Zhewu, a friend I value for being open and down-to-earth, besides being witty and funny and lovable.
  • Wen Di, my proud sponsee, for sharing perspectives about life and the future, and being my friend and company when I am alone; not to mention drawing the fan 扇子 together, it was such a happy time.
  • Chen Jinzhou, for showing what it means to be persistent in fighting the good fight, even in the face of uncertainties; and for encouraging me to follow my heart. I look up to him for the tireless pursuit and vision of greater good. We both have our share of calling in this world. May God bless you abundantly in yours.
  • Cui Liqiang, the other co-lead in my team, for showing the persistence and diligence in learning, and for telling me “Nothing is helpless. Helpless is nothing.” (—is this a Chinese proverb?) That got me re-thinking my doubts.
  • Luo Wenjing, for having the heart and persistence in serving children with special needs. Her sincerity and willingness emphasize that it is not our skills that matter most, but our presence and love to those who need.

It’s an honor to know them all. This quote fits my thought so perfectly:

We all take different paths in life, but no matter where we go, we take a little of each other everywhere.   ~Tim McGraw

The Shed

July 22, 2012

Alice Pung

The shed was always locked.

Right from when I was about four, I was told never to tell anyone about the metal shed. It whirred and hummed like a live thing. It vibrated like a massive machine with a throbbing migraine heartbeat. “If you tell anyone, we could get into big trouble from the government,” Mum and Dad always warned. “The government does not know we do this.”

“What’s the government?” I asked.

“People who are good to us,” my father explained, “but who also take our money.”

“Isn’t that stealing?” I imagined cloaked pilferers stalking our house at night, with crowbars ready to break into the shed.

But there was no money in the shed, just a lot of twenty-four-karat gold. So I thought that the government wanted our gold, the gold my mother melted and molded into shape in that shed. Red dust floated out when the breeze blew, from the gaps beneath the door. In the Australian summer, the shed heated up like a hot poker, and because it did not have any windows that could open, it was difficult for Mum to breathe while she was in there.

Mum spent most of her daylight hours in that shed and I was never allowed to tell, let alone show anyone, what was inside: the wax molds, the plaster casts, the gray filings and tiny hills of gold dust on metal trays—remnants from the filing down of rings. When I was four, I used to poke my finger in those gold hills and spread them flat into strange rivers on the tray. “Aiyoh!” Mum would yell when she saw me. I was not allowed to move or take my hands from the tray lest we lost a bit of the gold dust to the ground. Dad would fill a used ice-cream container with water and soak my fingers in it, so that the gold would un-adhere itself and slowly float to the bottom of the container, where it could be rescued, melted down and reused.

Mum made jewelry in that shed in our backyard. Bespoke jewelry, some of the shops in the inner city would call it. Completely made by hand. Artisan labor, they proclaimed on small tags in the sterling surfaces of the shop counters, and because each item had that little label it could be sold at a hundred times the price of my mother’s labor. To make a bracelet, my mother would stretch gold wire until it was almost hair thin. One end of the wire would slip and flick her in the face, and there would be a line of blood. She would then take the wire and sit down at her work desk, which was a white corkboard affair one of our family friends had knocked up for us. Her tools were second- or thirdhand, but she used new blades in the surgeon’s scalpel to cut the strand of gold wire into tiny pieces of no more than half a centimeter long. Then she would link the tiny segments together with a pair of tweezers, as children string Christmas paper chains together with scissors and tape. She would treat it in potassium cyanide and polish the surfaces with a piece of jade that was stuck on a wooden handle.

“One dollar a ring,” Mum would promise us when we were young, “if you help me polish them.” But she never gave us the money—she just counted up all the rings we had polished. “Five dollars,” she would tell us, tallying up our halfhearted palely polished efforts, efforts she would always have to fix, “five dollars will get you an umbrella.” Then she would come home with one that had Spoony on it, which was the Chinese counterfeit of Charles Schulz’s creation; but I didn’t want Mum’s practical protection from the elements. My seven-year-old self took umbrage at that umbrella. I wanted the five dollars in hand, damn it, I wanted to be paid like a proper Asian back-shed worker so I could use my ill-gotten gain to get a Babie doll, the poor man’s version of Barbie. Babie looked like Barbie, but all her hair lifted up at the back so she had a severe undercut, as if she were auditioning to join a white hair supremacist gang, and when she sat down her legs splayed wide like the fingers of my hand showing Mum how much I was due to be paid, in a pathetic attempt to procure cash from her instead of an umbrella.

Mum used that umbrella when it rained and she had to deliver her wares. Mum did not deliver her wares to the shops in the inner city because the upmarket clientele of Collins Street was a completely foreign world. The Paris end of Melbourne, they called it, where women walked around with faces like Chanel ads. The kind of beauty that would leak down their necks if it rained. I don’t even think Mum had been up there more than once in her life. She was more used to the markets of Phnom Penh and Saigon. Carrying the Spoony umbrella and the fake Gucci handbag (that my brother had brought her from China) into a Collins Street jewelry store would mean that the carefully coiffeured ladies would be speaking about her long after she had left. Although Mum’s jewelry was entirely handmade, she transported it around wrapped in McDonald’s napkins in her fifteen-dollar handbag, and she never wore makeup.

She delivered the hard, shining fruits of her labor to places along the small shopping strips of suburbs brimming with South-east Asians: the Vietnamese, the Cambodians, the ethnic Chinese. She would set her bag on their narrow glass counters below which was displayed bright red velvet dotted with coveted twenty-four-karat gold: pendants shaped like Mercedes-Benz signs, rings with dragons and Buddhas on them, blingy necklaces with chains as thick as my little finger.

My brother and I would sit on the chairs reserved for customers who needed their pieces adjusted on the spot—rings too large or bracelets too short. “When will you be done?” we would whine, “When will you be done, Mum?” We would walk toward the trays of gold behind the cabinets and breathe on the glass.

Mum was trying to do business, so this time she handed me four dollars and told me to go two stores down to buy pork bread rolls from the Vietnamese bakery. We came back with the food and sat back down. We peeled back the white paper bags and bit into the bread. “Aiyoh!” Mum yelled at us, “don’t eat in other people’s stores!” The store was tiny so all ears were alert. “Embarrassments to society, that’s what you are!” We put the bread away, shut our mouths and learned to wait. We waited while the jewelry store owners pored over each ring.

“This one’s a good one,” Mum told the owner earnestly. “Kim Heng from the other store ordered seventeen of those.” I looked at the little pendants with the massive faces of Jesus rendered in three-dimensional twenty-four-karat gold and wondered why I never saw anyone wear such a thing. Some of the rings even had tiny emerald or blue cubic zirconias in the eye sockets.

The store owner, a Vietnamese man, turned the pieces around in his hands. His fingers were gnarled like ginseng from his own outworking in the stuffy room near the back of the cramped shop. “How much?” he asked Mum.

“Four-fifty,” she said. Four-fifty for her four and a half hours of labor.

“Four-fifty, sister?” he repeated.

My mother answered in the affirmative. “You know that was the price last time I was here.”

“Four-fifty is too much,” said the man.

“What do you mean, too much, brother?”

“Four-fifty is not what the new brother from Cambodia is charging.”

“What new brother from Cambodia?”

“The one who used to be a goldsmith in Cambodia. He brought along some of his old tools. He’s been doing it for only six years, but wah! is he good in his detail! Must be because he’s so young.”

Mum shifted her glasses. Mum never used to wear glasses and her eyesight became shot from too much close work attaching tiny clasps and polishing pendants of the Lord’s face with care. Mum didn’t know what to say. “Come on, I’ve been delivering to you for so long, brother,” Mum cajoled.

It did not work, because the new man had better tools and more nimble fingers.

“The new brother only charges four dollars.”

“But that’s ridiculous!”

The small store owner did not say a thing, because there was no need to. He knew that new migrants were desperate to find work and they would settle with any work they could find at any cost. They were just so grateful. And Mum, having worked for over a decade, was not so replete with gratitude or the youthful fervor of ambition. She just wanted the money so we would not be snot-nosed sooks loitering the streets like she did when she was twelve and they closed down her Chinese school in Cambodia. She wanted to make sure we stayed in school, that we did not need to enter a factory as she did at thirteen.

“Okay. Four dollars then, brother.”

By then, my brother and I had lost interest in the Jesus pendants and even the rings encrusted with red jewels as massive as minor melanomas. We wanted to bite back into our bread rolls. We wanted to leave the sticky seats and the red and gold decor of the store.

But we watched as the store owner measured out ounces of gold on scales, in payment, because he did not have cash on hand that day. Mum had come too early and they had made no sales. Mum watched to make sure that the scales were balanced exactly right, that they were not dodgily weighted in any way. Mum wrote down a few figures of what was owing to her on a small notebook she carried in her handbag. Then she wrapped up the remainder of her wares in the now slightly torn McDonald’s napkin, and then the small facecloth.

“Come on you two, let’s go.”

And she led us out down the street to the next store, where the whole scene would repeat itself all over again. But we had learned to wait.

When I was eight, I hated being eight. I smelled like piss all the time—before my sister was born, my mum’s fluorescent yellow pools on our tiles, because she could not control her bladder when she had babies pushing against her pelvic floor, and after my sister was born her pale yellow streams soaked through the sheets. They did not call us Southeast Asians “yellow” for nothing, I supposed. I list incense in front of our Buddha shrine—not due to any particular child’s faith or piety, but just to disguise the smell of pee from the carpet.

I hated being stuck between the four walls of the house. If I had been born in Cambodia, all my friends my age would have had their babies slung over their backs and we would have played together in the streets. But growing up in sordid suburbia, in a house behind the Invicta carpet factories, my friends came over carrying their cabbage patch dolls while I had my sister Alison in my arms. “Let’s go outside and walk to the school and hang around on the monkey bars!” they would tell me, dumping down their dolls on the tiles.

I couldn’t do that with Alison. Live babies hollered, and stuffs came out of their nappies and stuff came out of their mouths. A baby was cute for half an hour. But to an eight year old, that was the limit—after one hour, it got a bit tedious, and after a whole day, they went home muttering how weird that I had this baby that I could not give back to my mum to look after. Slowly, after a few weeks, my mates petered out, and I knew the only times I would be seeing them was at school. Sometimes their parents would see me balancing a baby on my hip and once, Bianca’s dad exclaimed, “What? Another one?” as if at twelve I was responsible for new progeny in the family.

Mum, like me, was just supposed to be at home watching babies: that was her childhood dream. She grew up in Cambodia, narrowly escaping the country’s closing acts of the 1970s, when curtains of bombs rained down between the borders to keep out the North Vietnamese, the Vietcong, The Charlies, the Americans called them, and wanted to blast them all out of existence. They were so worried the Charlies were hiding in the jungles of the Vietnam-Cambodia border that they didn’t care how many Cambodian villagers they would kill in their pursuit of democracy.

My father survived the Cambodian killing fields, emerging as a skin-and-bones man so thin that if he turned sideways he would almost disappear from view. He and my grandmother led the living remnants of his family—his little sister and his wife—through three different countries on foot, sleeping on the floors of jungles when darkness rose. My father calls that trek their three-month backpacker honeymoon, and when they reached the Thai refugee camp, they spent a long sleepy year waiting. My father liked to tell people that I was manufactured in Thailand but assembled in Australia, because I was conceived on a small mat in that camp.

When Mum arrived here, eight months’ pregnant with me at twenty-two, not knowing a word of English, she began with making jewelry molds, a sedentary and silent task suitable for new daughters-in-law who’ve been blessedly deposited in democracies. She made rings by first planting little waxen trees—sometimes sherbet pink, sometimes opal green, growing from waxen stalks that she grew on rubber bases. These waxen trees would be the basis of plaster molds, which would then be filled with melted gold. After the birth of my brother, she moved on to working with gold. While others saw what dirty work it was and how little ill-gotten gains were to be had, Mum persisted with planting these artificial trees and sawing off their real-gold branches.

When I was fourteen, I realized why we weren’t allowed to tell a soul what Mum did, and why Dad had told me once that it was a little like stealing. “We don’t pay taxes on this,” my mother said, “the government will get us.” The government would tax Mum on her two dollars fifty an hour? That did not make sense even to me. But to illiterate migrants like Mum who were paid cash in hand and asked no questions, it made perfect sense.

Even when the surgeon’s scalpel stabbed Mum through the palm so deep that the handle had to be unscrewed to get the blade out, we were not to tell. I remember Mum coming into the house, one hand holding the other like a dead bird. “The knife stabbed through,” she gasped to Dad. The rims of her eyes were not even red-wet with reflexive tears.

Mum was brave, but it was only later in life that I came to this realization. When I was young, I didn’t care. She was never in the house and I had howling babies to watch over, when all I wanted to do was muck around with my nine-year-old mates. Two decades later, Mum finally stopped working. I had made it to university, and my three siblings were looking as if they would follow suit.

When Mum stopped working, she discovered she could not be still. Her hands ached to the bone. She had a hacking cough from the potassium cyanide. She had puckered skin on her forearms from third-degree burns of the welding torch and scars from the surgeon’s scalpel. Her eyesight was shot, and she needed to wear glasses, which she kept losing, because she never used them to read. She did not read, she could not read.

Mum was locked from the language of the outside world. She had spent two decades in that shed, making those rings and pendants and bracelets. A bracelet would earn her twenty dollars, but it would take her a whole day. That worked out to be a couple of dollars an hour for an eight-hour day. Two dollars fifty does not even get someone a cup of coffee at Starbucks these days. So of course, all our coffee came in massive tins of International Roast from the local Coles supermarket. She would also have tins of sweetened condensed milk in the cupboard, and she mixed it with the coffee with boiling water and gulped cupfuls of that stuff down like there was no tomorrow, even though she knew there was and that it would be exactly the same as the previous day, and the one before that, and the one before that. She woke up each morning blinking at the ceiling of our new house wondering what she would do for the next three decades. Mum was forty, and her life was finally confined to supermarket shopping. That was all. The rest of her world had receded into unintelligible sounds and symbols.

“Your mother’s been here twenty years, why doesn’t she speak English?” people at the university asked me in bewilderment. There was a group that called themselves the Socialist Alternative and they once invited me to one of their meetings, when one of them in my Global Politics class discovered what my mother did. “Tell us about how bad it was for your mother,” they urged.

I thought about my mum working for two decades, an active independent business contractor. Then I thought about her not working, lying in bed at home with limp creaking limbs and Zoloft in her bloodstream. “It wasn’t that bad, really.”

We were all seated in a large circle on the floor and there was a cardboard box of organic cooperative food in the middle. One of the Alternative Socialists picked up a roll. “What do you mean it wasn’t that bad? Of course it must be effing awful. It must have been, like, the living manifestation of the Third World in the First World.”

“No.” I was resolute in my conviction: “My mother’s work gave her a sense of purpose and dignity.”

“Dignity?” They were so wide-mouthed incredulous that I could see the masticated remnants of their beansprout alfalfa wholemeal rolls. “What kind of dignity is that? That’s exploitation!”

They wanted to see me as stoic, because they wanted to offer polite charges of bravery before charging on to their manifestos of destroying the capitalists. They needed a scapegoat, but I thought about my mother’s “friends” in the jewelry stores—the small-business owners: the Kims, the Trans, the Quachs—small industrious people with terror in their eyes whenever they saw parking inspectors let alone policemen. The university socialists needed to see me as a suffering victim who would stick with saying the mass line of overthrowing the whole exploitative system of labor. Instead, I became an employment lawyer.

At work, I visited sheltered workshops, places where people with severe disabilities were supported in the most simple of tasks: folding small paper boxes, sorting donated clothing, putting a certain number of screws in containers. Some of the employees had worked there for over four decades, doing the exact same thing day in and day out. The workshops were beautiful austere spaces, every corner cleaner and neater than our entire house in Braybrook, where I grew up. As I visited these places, Mum lay in bed without the disability pension because her physical disabilities weren’t severe enough to warrant any compensation from anyone, and perhaps by the time they became severe enough she would have become too old to work anyway.

Now the shed no longer vibrates with its massive-machine heartbeat. Red dust no longer floats out from beneath the door. But we are still not to speak of what Mum did for those two working decades of her life.

The door to the shed is still locked.

“The Shed” is a work of nonfiction based on the experiences of the author.

~ ~ ~

The above story is a copy from:

Freedom: Stories Celebrating the Universal Declaration of Human RightsFreedom: Stories Celebrating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by Amnesty International Usa

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Some of the stories read more like poems and are hard to digest, but some were written based on actual facts. They cover all the declarations of human rights so I got a wide view of people’s struggles in fighting for their rights (freedom of speech, peace, economic justice, obtaining education, etc). Good read to open my eyes to the injustices that are in the world.

View all my reviews

The green in Xi’an

July 3, 2012

The pedestrian walkways around the office and apartment are full of shrubs, flowers, and trees. Taking a walk was refreshing, day or night. Well, daytime walk is both refreshing and dusty, as the air is generally dusty and cars are driving by.


Sunny morning with a big huge sun like that is quite rare in Xi’an. I totally loved that day and every time the sun heat scorched, I dare not complain. Sunshine is important to my emotional and physical health :p. And look at the quiet beautiful walkways! Don’t think I’d ever not enjoy walking along that.

Pete  Flower
Look what I found while walking! How to say “pete” in English? Not sure. The flowers were pretty. See more in my picasa album.


An easy 20-minute bus ride takes me to a big park right downtown. Parks in Xi’an are designed not just for greenery, but also for recreational activities. Seeing someone sat by a rock and read a book, I followed suit, but instead of sitting by a rock, I sat on one. Wanted to be taller and to have a good view of my surroundings, I thought. I read, watched the people passing by, waited for the sun to set.


After a while, a boy passed by with his mom. He found climbing the little rock a challenge. Next, a girl passed by and did the same. Then a pair of friends 小朋友 came over with their moms. I was really amused by them. She eventually kicked me out of my rock. “阿姨,你坐在那边吧,” she told me while climbing the rock I was on. “好的,” I agreed happily. In a way, I was waiting to hear her say that. It’s nice to be bothered by little kids :p. I watched them play for a long time. They didn’t stop enjoying themselves climbing the several rocks over and over. The girl was more brave and faster than the boy. “从这儿更容易!” she said to the boy every time she managed to be up there first. I loved watching them, 真好朋友。Their friendship and joy passed on to me :).


A 30-minute drive takes me to the mountain, and more depending on how far up I go. I didn’t get many chances to go to the mountain, so I really enjoyed every time I went. The view was just beautiful and the sounds so peaceful. I especially like the forest; being low among the mountain and the giant trees made me feel in awe. Looking up the sky reminded me of God.

Standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon and contemplating your own greatness is pathological. At such moments we are made for a magnificent joy that comes from outside ourselves. And each of these rare and precious moments in life—beside the Canyon, before the Alps, under the stars—is an echo of a far greater excellence, namely, the glory of God. That is why the Bible says, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork” (Psalm 19:1).   ~John Piper, in Don’t Waste Your Life

I think I can sit there and read or chat for a long time, given a good place to sit. I also like the food at the villages all around there. There are so many kinds of veggie dishes, and the fried eggs (炒鸡蛋) is really yummy.

Kids, can always play with anything in any form. Even though there were many people around them, they are not embarrassed. I sometimes act like kids, but the people around me, like my sister, is usually embarrassed 😀

We hiked this CuiHua mountain. It was an easy hike, and halfway up there were rock caves and a lake.

A view from Qingling mountain. The hike here was rough. I’d blame it on my shoes :p The sweat and the view made up for it.

I now love my time in Xi’an. Can say it is better than Beijing. I will definitely miss the parks and (relative) quietness in Xi’an. I think I’ll come back for a visit 🙂

Are you ready to walk on water?

June 29, 2012

When you find a new love, whether to someone or something, your priority changes;  you look at things around that person/thing. When you love someone, you care about that person’s thoughts and needs;  you will want to change for that person (for better or worse).
The same way, if you truly love God, your life will revolve around Him;  you will be aware of what is pleasing to God;  you will want to do those things–at some point, naturally;  your priority will be God first, then other things. Your life changes. If your life and perspectives do not change, then that love is questionable.


I have followed God for years and heard him once in a while in circumstances of need. But in most part of my life, I run on my own, listen to my own thoughts, wants, and needs. The result is like “trying to catch the wind”–futile; feeling good inside but crappy outside.

The idea of cultivation and exercise, so dear to the saints of old, has now no place in our total religious picture. It is too slow, too common. We now demand glamour and fast-flowing dramatic action. We have been trying to apply machine-age methods to our relations with God. We read our chapter, have our short devotions, and rush away, hoping to make up for our deep inward bankruptcy by attending another gospel meeting or listening to another thrilling story told by a religious adventurer lately returned from afar.

I am ready to step on waterOh the life of common christians. We feel satisfied with accepting Christ and acknowledging our sinful nature on a day to day basis. I did not understand Jesus’ precious love for me, what it meant for Him to die on the cross, how He thought and cared for people. When I picked up this book–The Pursuit of God–I told myself I want serious. I was also in a particularly difficult situation that I had to turn my eyes toward God else I fell far to the bottom of the pit. I plead God for discipline and to teach me about Him. I wanted revelation, to know Him like never before, to understand Him and to live with conviction.

For it is not mere words that nourish the soul, but God himself, and unless and until the hearers find God in their personal experience, they are not the better for having heard the truth. The Bible is not an end in itself, but a means to bring men to an intimate and satisfying knowledge of God, that they may enter into him, that they may delight in his presence, may taste and know the inner sweetness of the very God himself in the core and center of their hearts.


I will say upfront I can’t share the details of the experience, as it is personal and involves other people. Besides, your experience will be different so knowing mine will not have much use. What I do want to share is my learning during the experience, and how God let me go, protects, and lifts me out of the trial. My experience was not an easy journey. It was difficult and distressing, to say the very least. I often had no choice but to force myself to think about God, so that my focus is on Him, not on the troubles. I cried out loud in prayers; finally I could resonate with David’s psalms:

“O LORD, I call to you; come quickly to me. Hear my voice when I call to you.”
“Answer me when I call to you, O my righteous God. Give me relief from my distress; be merciful to me and hear my prayer.”
“Turn to me and be gracious to me, for I am lonely and afflicted.”
“Have mercy on me, O Lord, for I call to you all day long.”


My obedience was tested. Knowing what’s right does not translate to doing what’s right (duh). Do I look toward short-term gain or eternal impact? My faith was tested. Do I seek people approval or God’s? Who is first in my life–God, other people, myself?

The Pursuit of GodMillions call themselves by His name, it is true, and pay some token respect to Him, but a simple test will show how little He is really honored among them. Let him be forced into making a choice between God and money, between God and men, between God and personal ambition, God and self, God and human love, and God will take second place every time. However the man may protest, the proof is in the choices he makes day after day throughout his life.

During the experience, I was in constant dilemmas, torn between two choices, each of which had positives and negatives. To put it in perspective, there is something positive about a poor boy who steals food to give to his little brother. But stealing itself is not right, not an action God would suggest us to do. Having a heart to help, which is generally a good thing, is not always right given specific time and situation. Even my compassion was tested.


Cross in the shadowLooking back, I was in a cycle where I could not get out. I thought I got it right, but I lost the battle every time. Then this was the key:  I realized my own helplessness. Over and over I said, “I couldn’t do this. This test is too big for me. I am torn. But I still choose You. I still choose You.” It almost feels like Abraham’s test to sacrifice his son. When Abraham eventually showed that he put God first and trusted Him for what was right, God declared the test over. All He wanted to prove–not for Him but for Abraham and me–is where our priority lies. Everything else flows from there.

Whoever defends himself will have himself for his defense, and he will have no other. But let him come defenseless before the Lord, and he will have for his defender no less than God himself.

I learnt so much from this experience, and not just because of it, but because of having constant talk and reliance on God. Whom else would I trust. I know now how Jesus really loves people, unconditionally, unrelentingly. I know how He feels when people adored Him then later put Him on the cross. I know how He felt when Peter, his beloved disciple, declared to always be faithful to Him but later renounced Him three times. (Now I want to see Rembrandt’s depiction of that scenario)  I understand how He longs for us to be with Him everyday, only to see that we are too busy to even say hello. And most of all, even though we are all these corrupt people, He does not give up on us, still loves us–not forcefully but gracefully, not “now or never” but with open hands that are always there waiting for us. Because “It [love] always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”[1]

Back in elementary school, I was part of the theatrical team, and once performed as the mother in the Prodigal Son story. That was years ago, but only now do I understand how the father felt toward his son who came back home. How his love meant letting the son go and accepting him without reproach when he returned. “It is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.”[1]

Understanding Jesus’ perspectives is one big leap. Having the desire to follow suit and doing it is another. I can’t say how exactly, maybe it is being open and receptive of God’s grace that enables me to do the same, to love other people unconditionally, to give freedom yet still believes and hopes for the best in them. I refuse to give up, just as God does not give up on us. My cup is full, then only I can fill in others.

When I picked up this book, I wanted to be able to say–by experience–how holy and wonderful it is to be in God’s presence, and that nothing beats it. What I experienced was far beyond my expectation, and I am forever grateful for it. Now this is not done, but to be continued.

Indeed, Jesus taught that he wrought his works by always keeping his inward eyes upon his Father. His power lay in his continuous look at God. [2]

[1] 1 Corinthians 13
[2] John 5:19


More quotes from the book: Read more…