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GSBN:Life in the Middle Kingdom, May 19, 2001

Greetings all, have you eaten? (a common Chinese greeting)

I'm back in the Chinese countryside. A strange combination of neon and donkey carts, cell phones and open pit toilets, huge TV's and coal smoke pouring from large and small chimneys alike. I'm ashamed to say that even after working for many months in China over the last 4 years, my language skills are still limited to a vocabulary of not more than 50 words (but growing every day) and an endless stream of smiles and mime. Life is indeed a stage. My most accomplished full sentence, "I can not speak Chinese", always gets me in trouble because as my translator says, "your pronunciation is very good. They do not believe that you can not speak Chinese when they hear you speaking Chinese."

Yesterday on my early morning walk to the fields at the edge of town, an old man in a threadbare, blue Mao-style jacket and cap rode by on an ancient creaking bicycle, then stopped in his tracks and turned around to stare. I smiled and said good morning. He asked where I was from. I said America (literally "beautiful country"). Mislead by my two word vocabulary, he launched into a string of questions. I pulled out my trustworthy, "I can not speak Chinese". This prompted a string of new questions and I pulled out my other well-used phrase, "I don't understand". More questions, more "I don't understand". Finally, with a shaking heads, shrugging shoulders and smiles all around, he climbed back on his bicycle. When he stopped just a short distance ahead, I thought maybe he was going to give it another try, but he only pulled a glass bottle of fresh warm soy milk from a woven saddle bag on his bike and walking to the stoop of a nearby house, exchanged it for a empty. He waved as he rode off to deliver the rest of the 7 or 8 bottles I could see in the bag.

Straw-bale construction is taking root here in Tan Yuan County, Heilongjiang (black dragon river) Province. After three years of work in China, I can finally say that we've got a good working model to build from - excellent quality, affordable construction, good management with the local Chinese government, well-trained local builders and designers and most importantly high owner-builder involvement and satisfaction. I toured one of our building sites from last year and found happy families with few, if any suggestions for improvement. It probably doesn't hurt that last winter was coldest in 50 years and the straw-bale houses out-preformed their brick neighbors hands-down. I was especially pleased to see solid, crack-free plaster (1 cement: 1 lime: 6 sand). The whole community judges the overall construction by the quality of the plaster. Over 1000 families have inquired about straw-bale houses for this year (though they're only building 110 here) so I guess they liked it. I'm also happy to be working myself out of a job - the local team of village head, architect and owners has come up with all their own designs this year - I'll just look over the plans and possibly make a few suggestions tomorrow morning.

With a good model in hand, the challenge this year will be to see if we can replicated it in other areas. To that end, Scott Christiansen, the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA) Director for China, has come through with $1.2 million in outside funding (that will be more than matched by local government and owner-builder contributions). Starting on Monday, using the training/design approach I've evolved, we'll be training 6 teams from 4 provinces - over 80 builders and project managers in all. By the end of the week, they'll know everything I can teach them about straw-bale construction and they'll have come up with their own designs - unique to their home areas. I'd be feeling a bit overwhelmed, but Paul Lacinski and Amy Klippenstein are flying in to help. I'm looking forward to having native English speakers around to share jokes and culture shock with, not to mention their actual contribution to the project.

OK, I'm off to wash my underwear and socks (the rest I send out for washing at 0.30/piece). We have running water for an hour three times a day (and hot water on Saturday night! Yipee!) and I plan to take advantage of it. All my best to each of you. I'll keep you updated with stories of our adventures here in the Middle Kingdom.



Great Accomplishments are possible with attention to small beginnings. - Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching
Kelly Lerner
One World Design, Design and Consulting
925 Avis Drive
El Cerrito, California, 94530, USA
klerner@...   <http://www.one-world-design.com>
510-525-8582 phone, 510-528-8763 fax