May 17, 2009
Farewell China, home of my personal heroes
By Tracy Quek
In February 2005, I arrived in Beijing carrying an old, beat-up suitcase containing little more than two weeks' worth of clothes and an English-Chinese dictionary.
It was my first time in China and everything felt foreign - the cold, harsh winter; the sprawling, chaotic city with road signs in Chinese; and most of all, the thick Beijing accent which made me wonder if the locals were speaking Mandarin at all.
I had come to China to remedy a mistake I made during my school years in Singapore - that of not recognising the benefits of being bilingual.
I spoke just enough Chinese so that I wouldn't starve and could ask for directions if I got lost.
I was determined to fix this. I set myself a goal: At the end of my five-month school term, I would return to Singapore having learnt enough to hold a proper conversation in Chinese.
I ended up staying four years in China, working for the past 31/2 years at this paper's Beijing bureau. And I learnt more about the country than just a few phrases in Chinese.
I feel more at home in Beijing than I do in Singapore, and have noticed that China has changed me in subtle ways. I drink tea made from loose Chinese tea leaves more than I do water every day; my jaywalking would impress a daredevil; and on occasion, I even dream in Chinese.
Now, I am down to my last few days in this thriving, thumping city, and I am finding it hard to let go.
For all its flaws and shortcomings - pollution, corruption, censorship, just to name a few - China has also been the place where I have seen examples of true grit, spirit and courage, some qualities that define the best of humanity.
Many ethnic Chinese across the globe felt their chests puff up with pride watching the 2008 Beijing Olympics on television, when China put on a show and reaped a medal haul that surpassed all expectations.
My own personal heroes, however, lived far from the stunning Bird's Nest stadium in Beijing, in ramshackle farm houses and in humble, dimly lit apartments.
There is Dr Gao Yaojie, an octogenarian and a grandmother of three who has devoted the last two decades of her life to speaking out on behalf of Aids sufferers in China, when no one else dared to.
When she was in her late 60s, she was instrumental in shedding light on official complicity in the spread of Aids in central Henan province, where she resides.
In the 1990s, thousands of poor farmers there were infected with HIV, the virus that causes acquired immune deficiency syndrome, in state-sanctioned blood-selling schemes.
I barged in on her at her apartment in Zhengzhou city at nine in the evening, just as she was about to retire for the night.
She rose from her sofa and spent the next two hours showing me pictures of sufferers and their dismal living conditions, telling me stories of sufferers ostracised by their communities because of the stigma, and how she would fight until her last breath for her chosen cause.
At the end of our conversation, she gamely posed for pictures, leaning her chin coquettishly on the palm of her hand. I couldn't resist, and took a picture with her.
She probably does not remember me, but I glance at that photograph often. It is the only picture I have on my office wall.
Then there is Mr Tang Xingfu, a farmer who lives in Minqin, a county in hardscrabble Gansu province at risk of being swallowed up by fast-encroaching deserts.
I chanced upon Mr Tang along a dusty village road and found unexpected hospitality in a harsh land. I was in Minqin on an assignment to see how climate change had worsened desertification there.
He showed me into his house, bade me sit and offered me a big soup bowl full of water. In parched Minqin, that bowl of water from his family's well was the equivalent of someone offering their guest a prized vintage wine from their cellar.
We have kept in touch through the years, sending each other messages at Chinese New Year.
I also found a friend in Mr Ma Junhe, 28, a Minqin native who, together with other concerned locals, formed an environmental NGO to try to save their hometown from disappearing under the shifting sands.
Mr Ma and another young 'greenie' I befriended, Mr Xiang Chun, an unassuming 29-year-old based in south-west Chongqing municipality, are just two of a growing community of young people battling to right their country's environmental wrongs.
They have chosen to devote themselves to environmental causes while their peers are off pursuing other more lucrative careers.
I travelled with Mr Xiang Chun for almost two weeks up and down the Yangzte River for a story on the Three Gorges dam. I could see how he loved his home and nature, and how much he wanted the problems of pollution and forced migration fixed.
Then there are my fearless local Christian friends who have kept up their faith despite the restrictions placed on believers by the Chinese government.
Quietly, they help the homeless, visit orphans, teach at schools for the children of migrant workers and raise funds to pay the medical bills of the sick. Without fanfare or thought of reward, they do their best to reach out to those who have fallen through the cracks.
And of course, there are the people of Sichuan, whose hearts will bleed for their dead loved ones for many years to come.
Through them, I have seen the depth of grief and the height of tenacity and fortitude.
Many escaped last year's earthquake with nothing more than the clothes on their backs. They are now slowly rebuilding their homes and lives, one brick at a time.
They have all moved and inspired me more than they will ever know.
China will forever have a special place in my heart for a more personal reason. A few months back, my boyfriend proposed to me in a quiet corner of the Forbidden City in the heart of Beijing.
He had to keep his proposal short, though. China, after all, is the most populated country on the planet and there is no such thing as privacy. We managed to dodge the tourist crowd but not a cleaner, who gave us curious looks while sweeping up leaves nearby.
Years ago, at my graduation ceremony, the chancellor of my university in Scotland threw down a challenge to the class of 1999, a motley crew of restless, idealistic young people.
Go out there, he urged, and make a difference.
In China, I have met people who have certainly tried to do just that, and are still fighting to bring about a positive change.
In my time here, I feel privileged to have been able to tell a few of their stories.