By Robert Hanna
Last Saturday involved an unusual flurry of social activity linked to the Gaelic Football All China Games. During the course of the day I had many enjoyable conversations, but, to my increasing irritation, found that I kept, ever so nonchalantly, dropping my imminent departure for Chengdu into the "chat".
My seemingly throwaway reference to the disaster zone's capital allowed an image of self-effacing, heroic action among the rubble to hover over the discussion of my day job, when in fact the reality is far more prosaic. I was annoyed with my willingness to drop the "C" word into conversation, but enjoyed the admiration it evoked rather too much to actually stop. .
Chengdu, in fact, is proving to be something different from my carefully constructed image of acts of mercy among the ruins. The city is without obvious signs of the disaster on its doorstep. Instead, it seems to be just another metropolis enjoying the opulent fruits of 30 years of "reform and opening up". Wandering the hypermarket aisles for the little luxuries that make life bearable here, — teabags and a milk jug, actually — the contrast with the office conversations of shortage and loss is almost surreal. The low point came in front of a sports goods shop. There, surrounded by the must-have items for a perfect night al fresco, was a one-person tent. We have moved heaven and earth to transport the blessed things over thousands of miles and struggled with Byzantine bureaucracies to see that they get where they were most needed. To find one on sale so near the disaster zone as a rather expensive fashion statement was more than a little shocking.
The temporary office itself is full of the bread-and-butter (rice-and-oil) questions. Having become used to the tensions of headquarters I thought I was ready for the demands of fieldwork. In fact, the very different pressures here are challenging in an entirely unexpected way. I had assumed that announcements that all places were now accessible meant that all roads were now open. It doesn't. Last night we sent two volunteers out on a 20hour journey that should ordinarily take two. The access mutes are often tortuous in this very mountainous area and this makes the logistics , involved in delivering food extremely complex. The ease with which our volunteers, Mr Di and Mr Deng, set out was quite moving. With aftershocks a constant anxiety, my mistake during Mass — I prayed for "our martyrs" instead of "our volunteers" was a little too close to the bone to be merely funny. Theoretical concerns about the health and safety of staff and associates become more personal when you actually have waved these big-hearted men off on a journey you yourself have undertaken only with the greatest reluctance.
Many of the Catholics in the affected areas have been asking the obvious questions about a God who would allow such things to happen, questions their pastors are struggling themselves to answer. For reasons I don't entirely understand, such doubts don't bother me. Instead, I continue to weave in and out among the contrasting worlds here, and seem entirely certain that God, who presides over the odd juxtaposition, loves each and every person in it, namedroppers and thoughtless window-dressers alike. Hardly a philosophical answer, but it is what I hold on to when shaken by a life lived in the jumbled world which is modern China.
Robert Hanna has lived in China for many years. You can read his blog at www.greatwallappeal.org