Wednesday, June 13, 2007

When Things Don't Go As Planned

Looking back at all my blog entries, I realized that my journey didn't turn out as planned. I didn't plan to go to OZ or PNG, but I did. On the other hand, I planned to go back to Cambodia but still haven't gone. Also I planned to go to Turkey this year; instead, I'm going to Indonesia to start a career.

But if I hadn't gone to OZ, I wouldn't have gone to PNG or met an Indonesian sister who hooked me up with the school in Indonesia. Also, if I didn't go through so much emotional turmoil after OZ, I wouldln't have gotten serious about starting a career. In retrospect, my time in transit has been nothing but a blessing. I'm simply amazed at how God has been working in my life in the past eight months and the number of people I've met and the amount of things I've learned along the way, and only some of them were recorded.

So when things don't go as planned, maybe God just has something better. My plans, no matter how wonderful, just can't top God's...

"In his heart, a man plans his course
But the Lord determines his steps..." (Proverbs 16:9)

"As the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts," said God (Isaiah 55:9)

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

A Beautiful Heart (Special Gifts from Special Children)

"New eyes see no race
The essence of a child
The essence..."

~"Shimmer" by Shawn Mullins

In high school, I used to stay away from students with Down Syndrome. They were labeled "special" kids and had their own "special" classes and didn't mingle with the rest of us. Some kids would make fun of them when they danced to music during lunch. Some were so mean as to call them "retards." But we, the non-retarded ones, could never muster up the courage to do what they did. I remember having a crush on an alumni who was working with these special students. From afar, I'd watch how he put a smile on their faces and thought he must have a special heart for these special people. I wanted to have a heart like him.

On Monday June 4, 2007, Anna took me and the same group of medical students to Ban Nontaphum, a home for disabled children ages 7 through 18.

HOPE Worldwide Thailand offers to teach computer classes here three days a week. But that day we toured the whole facility in the morning and spent time doing therapy for younger children in the afternoon. Ban Nontaphum was established thirty-five years ago and is a government agency. The home provides various services and activities such as therapy, sports training, and schooling. There was a wide range of disabilities: cerebral palsy, autism, mental retardation, and physical disabilites.

One day while taking a bus to school in Huntington Beach, California, I remember seeing a kid with Down Syndrome and how he'd smile for no reasons. Maybe God created the smile on our faces so that we can give it away freely. This kid certainly did. I wondered if I were to smile as many times as he did, would I be happier? Or would people think I'm crazy?

Kids quickly responded to our presence. They got excited when we walked by their art class and couldn't wait to show us their works. The atmosphere at Ban Nontaphum was livelier than at the AIDS clinic. It didn't take much to make them smile. They clung onto us. One girl ran up to Dan, a med student, and held on to his hand. Dan is a big guy, 6'3", and the picture of him and the little girl was priceless. One boy in a wheel chair specifically asked Dan to take him back to the school after lunch. He wanted the big white man to do it.

All the med students seemed to enjoy this experience with the children, even Paige who had not been feeling well seemed to have fun playing with a boy who could barely sit or talk to her. She was patient with him and he smiled.

During therapy session, I got a chance to bond with a boy named George. When we first met, he was lying helplessly on a mat waiting for the worker to stretch his arms and legs that were tense and cramped up due to his conditions. He couldln't walk and when he sat on a wheel chair, his head fell forward and back bent, so it had to be strapped to the chair. At first I thought he was also mentally disabled because he didn't say anything. Then he turned to me and said 'hi' ,and we began our conversations.

He heard someone laughing and wanted to know who it was. I told him I didn't know the kid's name. Then someone gave him a snack and I asked if he wanted to eat it. He said after he was done with therapy. The whole time we talked he smiled a lot. At one point, I strechted his left arm and he said he was hurt. It was the only time he verbalized his pain. He had more problems with his left arm than his right, and it made it difficult for him to wheel his own chair because he couldn't use his left arm. He wanted to know my name and asked me if I could take him to the music room. We went to the music room and straight to the drums. It took a lot for him to hold a drumstick and each time he hit, he heaved his whole body. Even that, I could barely hear the sound. After awhile, I asked if he was bored. He smiled and said, "No, I'm starting to have fun." Later, he moved on to the piano and was banging on the black and white keys with his feeble right hand. Then he asked for a flute and blew into it with all his might. He was so excited to make all kinds of noise and wanted to know if I'd be back. I really didn't want to answer his question.

George is a smart kid with a beautiful heart trapped inside a disabled body. He helped me find a new kind of courage that I wanted to have since high school. I miss him. Thinking of him brings tears to my eyes.

Monday, June 4, 2007

Miracles at an AIDS Clinic

"You don't have to sit outside in the dark. If however, you want to look at the stars, you will find that darkness is required. The stars neither require it nor demand it"
~Annie Dillard

HOPE Worldwide Thailand took on a project to take a group of medical students from the US to visit an AIDS clinic in Lopburi. I volunteered to come along as an interpreter. Initially, I was excited for a couple of less-than-noble reasons. I was dying to speak English since I hadn't used much of it for about 2 months, and I was bored out of my mind.

Anna, who was in charge of the project, took us to Lopburi, the land of the monkeys, on Friday of June 1, 2007. (Speaking of monkeys, I had never seen anything like it where they'd hang off power lines and climb buildings. We almost got attacked by one of them while walking on a street with bags of fruit. Oh, they kept their vigilant little beady eyes on us all the time from above, these monkey gods. Anyway, one scurried down the telephone pole and shrieked, and so we shrieked, and froze--until a man told us to put our bags of fruit under our shirts, looking like pregnant women scampering into somebody else's building wide-eyed and out-of-breath...)

Beside learning how to live with monkeys, we also made it to the AIDS clinic on our first day to survey what we could do tomorrow. Needless to say, I don't think any of us were prepared for it. I know I wasn't. We were given a tour around the facility. I saw a pile of bone bags the size of a small hill; each one represented a life that had passed away at this clinic. How was I supposed to repond to things like that? Then there was a museum of preserved body parts. I couldn't stomach it and opted to wait outside. We also went to the intensive care ward, walked through it, and I couldn't wait to get out because of the stiffling hot air and the looks of these patients. I mean, they were all skin and bones--not just any skin--but dry, wrinkly, blotted, flaky, never-felt-a-drop-of-lotion kind of skin. As if that wasn't enough, they all had to wear diapers and lied on their bed so quietly, so lifelessly. We were told that we could take care of these patients tomorrow. Really? I was kinda hoping that we could just hang out with the healthier ones.

Around the facility were pictures of Paradorn Srichaphan, a Thai tennis player and Natalie Glebova, a former Miss Universe and of Ashley Judd, a Hollywood star, kissing and holding these terminally ill patients. In all honesty, I wasn't planning on being that touchy feely. Initially Anna scheduled our visit the next day from nine to three, but I talked her down to nine till twelve. Even that, I wasn't sure if I could handle three hours of it!

Late that night, Anna and I looked at each other and knew that tomorrow would be quite a challenge. The thought of what to do with these patients sat heavily on our hearts and we decided to go to God early the next morning. We prayed for the strength to love these patients the way Jesus would. I personally would run from it and, believe me, I'm very good at that. But I remember how the sick and the lame were drawn to Jesus. This situation was a true test of our walk with God. While we read and prayed, I realized that if we could only brighten their day just for a couple hours, that wouldn't take much from us. After that we'd have the rest of our lives to do whatever. In Anna's prayer, she said something that struck me, that we too are ugly and dirty without Christ. Afterall, we are no better than them in God's eyes.

By the grace of God, I had the best time hanging out with the AIDS patients that day. Anna and I couldn't stop yakking about it the whole way back to Bangkok, so much so that it annoyed other passengers on the bus. But we were way too excited . It was like we didn't just pass the bar in Christianity but won a landmark case, or won the Grand Prix for immitating Jesus for a few hours. Go Anna and Nina! And of course, go God! Three hours just whizzed by and when the clock struck twelve, I wished I didn't turn into a pumpkin and had more time with these princes and princesses. For three hours, we mostly massaged them, but that was just icing on the cake. If you're patient enough to read on, I'll show you the different layers of this whole cake.

A scrawny blind man of 46, who looked 64 with good strong teeth, was so happy when I bought him a can of Sprite. Whoa! A can of Sprite can make someone all smiley like a kid with chocolate candy. Then Chris, one of the med students, fed him. The man only wanted vegetables and fruit. Anyway, he barely ate. He said Chris must be handsome, and I asked how did he know since he lost his sight ten years ago ( not that I didn't agree with him or anything). He said all white guys are handsome because they have pretty noses. He thought Chris was a doctor and asked him for a cane. He wanted to walk but the clinic doesn't want to give him a cane because he was weak and blind. So Chris took him for a short walk, so short it was about five steps from his bed before he got tired. He said I spoke good English and that he only knew a little and wanted to learn more. He asked if we'd come back. When I said 'no', he looked extremely sad. On our way out, I saw him curled in a fetal position and lied still with a blanket over him in this stiffling hot room.

April, another med student, started massaging and dancing at the same time, and the patient laughed. He thought she was Thai and started speaking Thai to her but I told him she's a Filipina princes who isn't afraid to get her hands dirty. She told him in Thai that she doesn't drink milk "Mai Kin Nom", and he understood her. April was so excited she didn't say the wrong thing since Thai is such a tonal language and "Nom" has to be pronounced with a certain tone to mean "milk"; otherwise, it could mean "dessert." I wasn't sure how he heard it but, but he got it right. And he told us that he'd been at the clinic for two weeks and already wanted to go home but couldn't. As he was talking, something about the way he addressed himself told me that he'd rather be a she. At home, nobody would take care of him and he hadn't been able to call his family. He said his legs were numb and couldn't move them much. Later, like the blind man or a flower that blooms in the day and closes up without the sunlight, he went back to sleep quietly, facing the wall. Before that he told me he felt lonely a lot.

Another patient said that Sunna, another med student, was beautiful. And when she told him that she doesn't eat pork in Thai "Mai Kin Moo", he gave her the most confusing look. It's the tone thing. He thought Sunna was speaking Sanskrit or something really complicated. Then I laughed and she laughed, and when I told him what Sunna meant, he laughed. This man was a former monk and boxer with Khmer tattoos on his arms and had traveled to many countries in South East Asia. He said if he were strong he would take Chris to see Thai boxing near Channel 3 Station. At one point, three girls were massaging him and he told me he really loved it.

Anna, the project coordinator, sang a country song and many seemingly lifeless bodies rose and began to clap and dance as if she could raise the dead through music. She met a female patient who was from the same province, Kon Kean, and they began chatting away in their dialect. Anna is a great friend who loves to entertain people. There's never a dull moment with her. Many patients thought it was a recording and said she had a great voice.

Also a man with half a skull and long legs told me about how he had half a skull. During his narration, I noticed that he had big feet bones. I'd noticed many feet but never someone's feet bones. He didn't want me to massage him at first but later he called me over and gave me twenty baht for a massage. I couldn't be bribed to massage a man severely ill! That's a disgrace. So I said I couldn't take the money and he got really upset. All in all, I was harrassed into taking his money but later gave it back to the clinic. He wanted me to massage him harder and I tried to squeeze as hard as I could, but still, he said I didn't do it hard enough, which reminded me of how my dad always says I do a lousy job at massaging. Okay now the man with half a skull wanted hot oil for the massage, but the nurse didn't have it, and he didn't like that. He wanted to feel the burn in his muscles. His bed was near the door and he loved telling the same story to each person that walked by about how he had half a skull. I wonder how many times he tells the story of his half skull in one day. Like other patients, he asked if I'd come back, but then he added that there was this one Japanese guy who always comes and gives him a good massage where he could feel something. I really didn't want to answer his question, and he didn't like that either.

That day I was given a chance to love unconditionally and the courage to overcome my fear. After a couple months of feeling rather humdrum, this experience made me feel fulfilled in ways that money can't buy. Maybe God allowed our paths to cross, so these patients can teach me to see people for who they are on the inside. More than a label and decaying bodies, they are people with stories and they need love, just like you and me.