Sabbatical 9


Seoul to Beijing is a two hour flight. When we booked our flights to Seoul from Vancouver through Aeroplan points, we discovered that our flight home had a one-stop connection through Beijing, so we rearranged our flights to stay there for a few days. Because we had no relational connections in Beijing, we organized our tour through a Vancouver-based Chinese tour company which helped us obtain our visas, set up our hotels and transportation, as well as secure a tour guide. Visa regulations were just changing, and the costs of getting a visa produced a big of a “gulp” for me, but we realized this was a once-in-lifetime opportunity. It is much more difficult for a pastor to gain a visa for China than an English teacher. Kathleen’s visa is now good until 2024 when her passport expires. Mine? It lasted 90 days, so it has already expired!

After arriving in Beijing on Tuesday afternoon, April 28, we were met at the airport by our lovely tour guide, Siejae. Born and raised in China, she had never been outside the country. Because it was still off-season, we had her and her driver all to ourselves the whole visit. As they drove us to our hotel, we experienced the trauma of driving through Beijing rush hour traffic. I have driven in New York, LA, and Toronto, but have never seen anything like Beijing traffic! I vowed I would never complain about Vancouver traffic again! The collision warning sensors in our car were constantly going off as we navigated the freeway! Many of the cars had buffers made of styrofoam to protect them from fender benders.

After crawling at a snail’s pace to get to our hotel, we settled in and then went for, yes, you guessed it, Chinese food! Of course, it was wonderful. As we enjoyed our first meal there, it was hard for us to take in the reality that we were in China. We couldn’t comprehend the sheer magnitude of the population. Beijing has a metro population of over 21 million people – nearly 2/3 the population of the entirety of Canada!  Furthermore, Beijing is only China’s third largest city! Shanghai has a metro population of 35 million, the size of the whole population of Canada in one metro area!

We soon became acquainted with what our homestay students called, “the great firewall of China.” When we settled into our hotel room, we were surprised to find that we could not connect to Google, Facebook, or “Kakaotalk,” a Korean internet platform. Neither were we able to send email. It felt like we were cut off from communication to the outside world. We did find that we could send “Kakaotalk” messages to Korea, so we relayed a message home through one of our homestay daughters in Korea. China has opened up significantly in the past few years, but it was still jarring to feel the control and restriction of information as we did.

Centres of Power - Past and Present
We had two non-stop days of touring Beijing and vicinity.  After a great breakfast buffet of Western and Asian cuisine, we were picked up and taken to a tour of the Summer Palace grounds for Emperors and Empresses from centuries past. Breathtakingly beautiful, it was situated on a massive human-made lake, built in the 11th century. We could not comprehend the engineering feat that it would have taken to build this lake back in the days when there were no earth movers. From there, we toured Tiananmen Square, the centre of political power in China. All I could think of was the massacre of June 4, 1989. I still remember where I was when I heard the news. To our surprise, Siejae seemed unaware of the event!

Adjacent to Tiananmen Square was the ancient Forbidden City, which made up the main palace headquarters of dynasties stretching back thousands of years. It was rebuilt and refurbished in time to showcase to the world at the 2008 Olympics. What struck me most was how similar the layout of the palace was to the description of the Jerusalem temple, with its outer court, inner court, and inner sanctum. Emperor worship is part of China’s cultural heritage. I again thought of how this design could be like the “Old Testament” for Chinese culture, pointing the way to Jesus who has now given us access to the one true God through his sacrifice on the cross.

Because it was included in our tour, we next rode a rickshaw through a traditional part of Beijing, and ate a home-made lunch in an ordinary looking Chinese home, even though the price of the home was anything but ordinary! It was valued at over 8 million dollars, due to Feng Shui (“wind and water”), the Chinese understanding of how geographical location affects energy related to fortune and prosperity. For a country that regards itself as secular communist, we were struck by how much religion and superstition there was centred around wealth, long life, and fortune.

At the end of the day, we attended a spectacular acrobatic show with stunts and stage affects that left us breathless. During the performance, the whole stage was transformed into rushing rapids and water falls from dry flooring within seconds, and then back again a few minutes later. At the end of our day, in the heart of Beijing, our guide took us for “Peking Duck” – Chinese cuisine as authentic as we were ever going to find!

Rural China and the Great Wall
Our second day in Beijing consisted mostly of a tour through the Chinese countryside to the Great Wall. To get there, it took about a two hour drive from Beijing. Probably the most moving part of our visit was to see authentic China – rural peasants still eking out their living with little plots of agriculture, stacked row upon row next to each other, mile after mile across this vast land. I thought back to my first introduction to China as a child when my grade two elementary teacher in northern Alberta had taught us about Chinese culture. I remember particularly learning about the Chinese rice diet and the farm paddies. It could still see in my mind the little plastic packets of rice that we glued to our construction paper. Now I was seeing the rice paddies and the farmers with my own eyes. In this part of China, nothing has changed for thousands of years. While China has become much more urbanized, the majority of its people are still rural. I closed my eyes and imagined some of our neighbours back home in Vancouver whose parents and grandparents had immigrated over the last century – this was their history, their ancestry, and part of their story. Many had come at great cost, against many adversities and injustices over the past century, and yet they helped build the nation of Canada. They are now part of our Canadian Mosaic.

Once we were out of the smog of Beijing, we were suddenly struck by the beauty of the mountain scenery that rose majestically around the city. We drove through grand mountain passes to one of the access points to the Great Wall of China, one of the Seven Wonders of the World! We took some time to walk the wall, marveling at the grandeur and the history of it, recalling the stories of empires defending themselves. It was a beautiful day. We later  stopped in at a Chinese cafe in the countryside for lunch, before we were driven back to our hotel. We hoped to catch some rest before our flight home the next day.

Home and Ringing Bells
Our departure day to Vancouver was May 1. As we attempted to drive through Beijing May Day traffic congestion, our car often was stopped. Our tour guide was getting worried that we weren’t going to make it to the airport in time, which made us nervous too. But, we made it! Our flight left at 1:30pm Friday afternoon, and we arrived in Vancouver at 11:30am Friday morning! Oh, the joys of international travel and crossing date lines!

We came home with a new appreciation for our Chinese friends in Vancouver, both Mandarin and Cantonese speaking, some of whom have become our friends through our mutual swimming excursions at Templeton Pool, not to mention our next door Asian neighbours. We had a new appreciation for their stories, and the part they had in our story. We also were so grateful for God’s planning because our trip to Asia had been the perfect beginning to our sabbatical. It had served to provide just the right kind of mental, emotional, and spiritual rest that we had needed for the first month.

It was a beautiful spring morning when we arrived in Vancouver. We had travelled lightly, so we took the sky train and transit home. It felt good to be home. We took the first two days to unpack and settle in.  All was quiet although we got some loving “welcome home” texts from church family, but we felt the respectful and caring space given to us in the recognition that we were still on sabbatical. We had planned to go to Graham Ord’s Saturday night concert on May 2, but we had failed to take into account the toll the flight would take on us physically, and I had caught a cold somewhere between Seoul and Beijing, so we gave our tickets away.

Sunday morning, I got up, and was enjoying my morning devotions on our back deck, when I heard church bells. Then it hit me. They were our church bells! The bells of Vancouver Eastside Vineyard Church at St. David of Wales were ringing! Was it Kenny or Big Dave ringing them? It is hard to describe what I was feeling when I recognized them as our church bells. We were home, only blocks away from our church family, who were faithfully meeting that morning. It felt like they were sending us a message –"Welcome home! Keep on resting, dear ones. All is well!”
Wade Pallister