Snow Storms, Warm People and … Cement

SP students go on overseas community service trips to learn to be socially responsible and involved in the lives of other peoples. Read about one of their trips to Shangri-La, China.


Student’s journal, Day Seven of Operation Shangri-La 2:

“Have you ever seen an approaching snow storm? It’s something that leaves you with mixed feelings. It washes everything in the distance into whiteness, and it fills you with this internal panic that screams, ‘OMG. IT’S COMING OVER.’ I want to continue watching it, because it’s so beautiful… In a scary kind of way. But I feel at the same time that I should run away.

“So we ended up running away.

“Okay. Brisk walking, to be exact.

“I never thought snow would hurt. :/” –Soong Jia Min, final-year Diploma in Media and Communication (DMC) student

Snow storms, construction works, and the warm hospitality of a Tibetan community were just some vivid experiences engraved in the memories of 24 Singapore Polytechnic (SP) students. For two weeks, they stayed in snowy Ringha Valley in Shangri-La. Their community service and cultural learning trip involved building modern toilets for their host village, entertaining children in the village nursery and forging friendships with the villagers.

Together with the locals, they built three toilets within a week. They dug soil to prepare the foundations, shifted rocks, mixed cement and laid bricks. Jia Min was greatly impressed by a man (who they affectionately called “Shifu”, which means “teacher” in Chinese) who worked with them. She said: “We had to move stray rocks, but the only ones I could move by myself were those that spanned a length of less than 12 centimetres. Shifu was 60 years old, yet he could move super heavy rocks as if they were little pebbles. During a dinner, I asked him about it and he told me he was so strong partly because he used to be a soldier. This man was 60, yet he was stronger than all of us combined. And he had such a good personality that he never complained though he was doing so much work. I really learned something from him that day.”
Each day, they dug, lifted and mixed amidst freezing cold air, with brief spells of snow fall and snow storms occurring every few days. No surprise then that the work left them with huge appetites. Breakfasts were a mishmash of Chinese and Western delights: fried dough fritters, man toubuns, honey, Nutella, fried rice and eggs. The students took turns to cook as well, preparing foods such as dumplings and stir-fried vegetables.

Good food wasn’t the only thing keeping them warm and energised, however. The kind hospitality of their hosts also made the wintry conditions bearable. “Our lady host, Xin Ru, is an angel on earth. One night, right before we slept, she and her family came in with a tall pile of quilts,” said Jia Min, “We were really worried they wouldn’t have anything left for themselves. She was always so kind and giving that we never knew if she was sacrificing for us. That was when we first experienced her gracious hospitality that never seemed to end.”

Determined to reciprocate the goodwill, they put all their energy into cultural performances and Singaporean food dishes meant for their hosts. They also sculpted balloons and planned games for children in the village’s nursery. Sim Xi Zhe, second-year Diploma in Creative Writing for TV and New Media (DTVM) student, said: “Although the games were simple, the children enjoyed themselves and lasting memories were forged. In a decade’s time, many of us would probably have forgotten the finer details of today, but the children could remember it for a long time to come.”

After 12 days of huddling together next to a fire for warmth, sharing steaming-hot meals and learning from each other, the time came to part ways. After packing up, devouring their last fried eggs and snapping as many pictures as they could, the students exchanged gifts and hugs with their gracious hosts before saying their goodbyes. For the last two days of the trip, the students explored beautiful towns and cities near the village.

The experience in Shangri-La definitely left its mark on them. Final-year Diploma in Accountancy (DAC) student Deborah Liu said: “The moments that I recall having laughed so hard with the villagers and amongst ourselves; moments that left me questioning where was the source of the endless kindness and hospitality I received; moments when the children greeted us with genuine, warm smiles – Operation Shangri-La 2 was time that I wouldn’t have spent any other way.”

Austin Cheah,  Diploma in Energy Systems and Management (DESM) recent graduate, wrote a poem about the experience:
“Operation Shangri-La is over & done
Undeniably we had loads of fun
Though the work was intense & all
In the end we stand proud & tall.

“See every sight & hear every sound
Taste all flavours, smell the scents around
Envision the impossible, watch it come true
Many surprises the future holds for you.”

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