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Biting the Bamboo

"Why would anyone bite bamboo? We eat bamboo worms and bamboo shoots but not the bamboo!” (Dr Tan Lai Yong)


In my editorial dated 7 Aug 2022, entitled “Cold Places, Warm Hearts”, I shared how the villagers in the remote and mountainous province of Yunnan coped with their daily routines in a sub-tropical climate, where keeping warm was a big thing. Dr Tan shared that, as a Singaporean boy growing up in our hot and humid climate, he had never appreciated thick blankets as much as he did in the cold mountain homes of Yunnan, where the houses were constructed crudely of hardened mud or bamboo. Despite the harsh living conditions, Dr Tan was very touched by the warm and sincere hospitality shown to him and his family, as well as the foreign medical staff who had volunteered their time there. In this third and last tranche, I am pleased to share selected snippets taken from his book, Biting the Bamboo. They are written in the first person, as narrated by Dr Tan.

Roaring with laughter

My wife and I moved from Singapore to Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture in south Yunnan in 1996. Our two kids had spent their childhood in Yunnan and they were familiar with farms, water buffaloes and the outdoors. On one occasion, they were roaring with laughter when they heard an innocent question from an overseas visitor, “Why is that lady biting bamboo?” Actually, the lady was chewing on a 1.5m long piece of sugar cane, and our kids were tickled that someone could mistake sugar cane for bamboo. The two plants look similar to any visitor new to the mountainous region. It wasn’t just that the foreign visitor could not recognise sugar cane. What was funnier to our kids was their remark, “Why would anyone bite bamboo? We eat bamboo worms and bamboo shoots but not the bamboo!” Bamboo shoots were a delicacy in Yunnan. Depending on the season, the local market would be filled with villagers selling sweet or bitter bamboo shoots. The strong sting of the very pungent, dried bamboo shoots was ever present in the market. But no one would ever bite bamboo, for sure.

Hanging around the market

The market was a great place to just hang around in. My daughter and I would spend many hours watching the farmers and tribal people bring in their fish, pheasants, wild herbs, frogs, and handicrafts to sell. After spending one winter morning at the market, some American friends gave my daughter a stuffed dog as a toy. She held the toy and, with a smile, took a plastic knife from her cooking set. She asked the foreign visitors if they wanted some dog meat. She didn’t quite understand the groan and pale faces that greeted her.

Bumpy ride and innovative love

After a bumpy ride up a steep mountain, we reached a leprosy village. The health workers started to work almost immediately to dress the patients’ chronic ulcers while others helped to clean the mud huts where the patients lived. These homes were no more than six square metres of hard-beaten clay floor with mud walls, straw roofs and a small window for ventilation each. “Leprosy is a badly misunderstood disease and the patients are cruelly stigmatised,” was my lament. The leprosy bacteria attacked the nerves, causing a person to lose his sensation. As a result, he could not feel or know when his fingers or feet were cut, burnt or damaged. It was a horrible disease. But once treated, the patients were no longer infectious. In fact, they should be rightly termed “ex-leprosy patients”.

In a display of innovative love, one of my young staff members and an experienced medic from the UK with 30 years of helping people suffering from nerve impairment, stuffed foam cushions into the shoes of a lady’s infected feet to ensure her feet would not suffer from further abrasions. They also changed the handles of doors and cooking utensils, and rounded off all sharp edges of household items so that the patients would not unknowingly injure themselves. Nursery rhymes

Our team checked the children for intestinal worms. We held a mini-health festival and sang songs about brushing teeth. We changed the words of popular nursery rhymes to teach them good hygiene. We also got the kids to line up, trimmed their nails and sent them off to wash their hands. We told them about dirty hands and diarrhoea. When they came back with clean hands, each of them got a toothbrush and we all brushed our teeth together. Our dental staff made sure we did it the right way.

Laughter and tears

Other staff took blood pressure and treated the old folks’ usual backaches and rheumatism. Many had backaches because they had to carry heavy loads daily. At the end of the day, we gathered for a concert in the main courtyard. Some students sang. Everybody gathered in a big circle and danced in the village courtyard. A group put up a puppet show about brushing teeth. There was much laughter. Some patients cried. One said that no one had ever touched him in all these years. One man came up to me and said, “You people are the first normal people that actually drink the tea I offer.” He cried and shook my hands.

Inner lives

We were on the way home. I sat on the hard seat of the rickety bus. My daughter, worn out from scaling hills, running after butterflies and chasing chickens, fell asleep on my lap. Her palm opened as she dozed off, dropping a few seeds on my lap. I picked the seeds up and was about to throw them out of the window. Like most seeds, they felt hard on the outside. But with water, sunshine and good soil, they would sprout. I was just glad that the patients and staff had experienced the shedding of our brittle outsides, allowing our inner lives to grow.

Friendly people

There were many villages in Yunnan so remote that even a four-wheel drive Pajero, much less my old “LanJian” (Blue Arrow) truck, could not reach. Yunnan is 90% mountains and the rugged terrain causes many isolated villages to be in abject poverty. Sometimes, one has to hike for hours to get to a village. I shudder to think that a sick person needs to travel so far to see a doctor. Despite the severe hardship, the people are extremely friendly. I guess when there are few possessions, people and friends become the treasures. In my years of working among the different ethnic groups (there are more than 20 such groups in Yunnan), I count the friendships made as one of my richest rewards.

When the work is done

Medical practice in Yunnan has stretched me beyond consultations and prescriptions. My family and I have enjoyed the hospitality of the people and learnt from their tenacity. We treasure the community of friends we have in this rugged part of China. In such a setting where we are trying to participate in community development/poverty alleviation, I cannot but agree with the ancient Chinese philosopher, Lao Shi, who penned these words hundreds of years ago:

Go to the people, live among them.

Learn from them. Love them.

Start with what they know; build on what they have.

But (for) the best leaders, when their task is accomplished,

Their work is done, the people will remark,

“We have done it ourselves.”

Personal Reflections

At the human and professional level, it must have seemed a great waste of talent and many missed career opportunities for Dr Tan and his talented wife to give up a bright future in Singapore to minister to poor communities in remote and mountainous Yunnan. His wife, Lay Chin, gave up a bright career in academia and even terminated her PhD studies at Ann Arbor, Michigan, to join him on their unpaved journey to Yunnan. However, Dr Tan and his wife have consistently believed that this is their unique calling from the Lord and in the years they were in Yunnan, they cultivated sincere and close friendships with the villagers, and benefitted from many precious life lessons that cannot be learnt from conventional wisdom or textbooks.

Their steadfast obedience to the Lord’s calling and their willingness to share their lives by living among the village folks speak volumes of their love and devotion to Christ and the Great Commission given by Him. I am reminded of how Christ chose to minister to and live, eat, and fellowship with sinners and publicans, as recorded in several Gospel accounts.

As we look forward to the return of Christ for His redeemed people, may we follow the example of Dr Tan and his wife in their steadfast love and devotion to the Lord’s calling. Granted that most of us may not be called to full-time ministry, either locally or in overseas missions, each of us can still shine for Christ in our own little corner.

May the words of our Lord Jesus encourage us to shine for God: “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden…. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthews 5:14-16). Amen.

- Eld Elgin Chan

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