How did I start with Dialogue?

Oktober 9th, 2010

How did I start with “Dialogue”? 

Many people asked this question – of course, from GE CTO to fashion and then to full-time social worker, it seems to be quite unusual to most people. 

It’s definitely not of my choice, I have to say, God led me to where I am now and I am just learning to follow it.

My encounter started with meeting Sabriye Tenberken – the legendary German blind lady that invented Tibetan braille and started the first blind school in Tibet. In December 2008, I did a fashion show in Innsbruck and my PR agency was also the PR started the “Life award”. Sabriye won the grand award that year and I had the honor to meet her. I was so impressed by her charm and strength that I invited her to model our clothes on the next day – of course, she was the star. 

One year later, during my driving trip to Tibet, I stopped by at the school in Lhasa and was so moved by the children there that I started to volunteer for the school. Through working with them, I learned more and more about visually impaired people and realized that the biggest problem they have is not the “handicap” itself, but the stereotype and prejudice the society has towards them – they can almost do everything but the society won’t give them an equal opportunity. 

In December 2009, I was in Atlanta having dinner with a friend – the CIO of Southern company and told her the story of the blind school. She then told me about the “Dialogue in the dark” exhibition right next door and we took a tour right after – it was such an amazing experience and I was convinced that this is the way to solve the root-cause: to change the “sighted” people’s mindset. I signed up as a fan of “Dialogue in the dark” on Facebook, and the news that it was looking for a COO showed up at the top of my homepage when I signed in Facebook for the first time after three months (it is blocked in China). In the beginning of March 2010, I finally met the “legendary” Andreas Heinecke – the founder of the whole “Dialogue kingdom” and his wife Orna and we talked for 3 hours. After numbers of Skype interview with almost everybody in the company and a online personality test, I started the job part-time remotely from China in April and full-time in July. 

It was not an easy decision to completely switch to full-time working on social project – honestly it had never crossed my mind before and this was not the culture that I was brought up with. Lots of things I had to give up in order to take this role, however, I am convinced that this is doing something good with what I am good at – the way to maximize my value to the society – I think I have finally found myself and my direction.

Dialogue in Silence – Frankfurt

Oktober 6th, 2010

 

After almost 5-hour drive, I finally arrived in Frankfurt am Main – made a stupid mistake: I set the destination to Dialog Museum, while Orna and the others are at the Museum of Communications where the “Dialog im Stillen (Dialogue in silence)” exhibition is. So it took me an extra hour to find the restaurant where Orna and the three master trainers were at – Fondue at the Oper Frankfurt.

This is for sure one of the most memorable meals in my life: since Tali, Susan and Pachan are mute trainers, we had to use sign language to communicate with each other! I am a person that likes to talk and highly rely on verbal communications. This is definitely a brand new and challenging experience for me, but very quickly I  started to fall in love with this complete new language: Sign language is a much more straight forward and open language than any of the verbal languages I know – it actually reminded me of the ancient Chinese how every character was created at the very beginning.

Susan and Pachan are actress/actor, Tali has a PhD and she leads all the guides in Israel – they are the best teachers that I can have! Since they are from Germany, France and Israel, I soon learned that each country has its own sign language and there is also an international sign language. A lot of times it’s also difficult for them to communicate with each other.

Over dinner, I learned already: France, Germany, Israel, China, Paris, Hamburg, Chef (boss), beautiful, sorry, thank you, please, translate, same, face, book, guide, drive, fly, year, month, day, today, yesterday, before, why, welcome, work hard…  – they opened a door to a complete new silent world and I was fascinated….

Everybody should go there and experience this new world!

www.dialog-im-stillen.de

About Aaron Gao

Oktober 8th, 2009

Gao is quite something: at the same age (just several months younger), he has been to Tibet 15 times since 1994, including 5 times by bicycle – he rode his bicycle alone along all routes: Chuanzang, Dianzang, Qingzang and Xinzang. He also rode his bicycle from Hangzhou all the way to Eastern Europe!

Gao’s MSN portrait is Winnie the Pooh – he always jokes that he is just a bear since he looks like one. But his inner world is truly beautiful: he has a big heart: he volunteered to teach in a hope school of the poorest region in China for one year, where he had to sleep on straw and spend his own money buying textbooks for the children; he always helps local people and other travelers since he is really good at mechanics. While we were in Lhasa, one evening he didn’t join us for dinner because he had to fix three bicycles for other people. Once he fixed the tracter of a tribe in Xinjiang and was invited to a local wedding as a honored guest:) He is good at calligraphy, loves classic music and his profession is artificial intelligence technology, and both of his parents are from very prestigious families in China but you can never tell if you see him on the street – he is probably one of the humblest people you know.

Jie and I were absolutely thankful to get Gao as our travel partner/guide – he knows the routes almost as the back of his hands: he remembers each mountain’s names which are really difficult to even pronounce since most of them were just translation from Tibetan or other minority languages. He knows where to stay or eat, when to leave and what to do, he knows the car so well that he can fix most of the problems himself, and the best is, he has so many adventurous stories to tell everywhere we go because he had experienced so much. 

 

I hope one day he would finally decide to write his stories down – that can really benefit a lot of people.

Day 19: Xining西宁-Xi’an西安/National Day Celebration

Oktober 1st, 2009

 Oct 2 01:47 Fortune Suites Xi’an

Today was a special day since it was the 60th anniversary for China. We stopped at one of the rest area on the expressway from Xining at 9:46am to watch the defense force inspection. It was very exciting!! I was very proud of my own country!! Although there is still a big gap especially on Air force and Marine from US, it is still very impressive for China to achieve this much in such a short amount of time. We noticed many cars were decorated by our national flag which was quite rare before – I can clearly tell that the patriotism has grown tremendously in the past years along with our country getting stronger!

We were listening to the real-time radio of the celebration while driving down the highway. I drove for about 5 hours – quite difficult after lunch since it was no longer expressway. People really drive crazily here!!! Quite a challenge for me!

From Tianshui to Baoji was the new expressway (just opened on Sep 26th) but many tunnels along the way, at least over 30 of them and the longest one was 12 KM – the longest in Asia!!! We were amazed at what the government has done in this country! However, the signs were not well done: it took us quite some time to find the entrance of the expressway. Still a lot needs to be done.

We didn’t arrive in Xi’an until 11:30pm – much later than expected because of the difficult traffic and road constructions. 

It was more or less like a dream for me to be in Xi’an again. All the memories rushed back. I walked along the streets but it seemed that I didn’t know this city at all, except for some small parts. 

Day 18: Ge’ermu – Qinghai Lake – Xining: miss the Tibetan blue sky/nice to be back to civilization: Expressway and Homeinn

September 30th, 2009

Sep 30: Homeinn Xining

Today we were not too worried about the drive although there was also over 800 KM to reach Xining: the road was supposed to be good.

It was as expected: most of the time we could drive over 80KM/hr except for speed limit in towns and villages. It felt incredible to be back on real highway after 16 days!!! After driving on the toughest and most difficult roads in China and probably all over the world, today’s drive became really relaxing and enjoyable:)

We did notice the big difference when we dropped from over 4500 meter altitude till around 3700 and to Xining below 3000. The sky color completely changed: it’s still blue, but just nothing like the sky in Tibet – God, I miss it!!! Only one day, I am already missing Tibet: probably the only place in the world that would have such pure color!

Landscape kept changing on the way: from Gobi desert, sand mountains to grasslands around Qinghai lake and then mud mountains to rock mountains close to Xining. 

The towns and villages we passed were clearly not as nice or as new as the ones in Tibet – the government doesn’t give as much money to Qinghai province as to Tibet. 

While climbing down the Xiangpi (Rubber) mountain, we saw Qinghai lake (Mongolian name: Koko Nor)- the largest inland saltwater lake in the world. Qinghai in Chinese means “Blue sea” which came from the Mongolian name and it was right: it is so big that it doesn’t look like a lake at all: it’s about 100 Km long and 50 KM wide and is situated at over 3200 meter above sea level. The water is deep blue – so beautiful! We drove along only the south side of the lake and it took us over 1.5 hours!

The rest  250KM only took us 2.5 hours and we were very excited to finally enter the real expressway! Gao was surprised to find that there was a brand new expressway built which didn’t exist 4 years before when he rode the bicycle through the last time, and it shortened the distance for about 40 KM! The development in China is really amazing: there has been over 100,000 KM of expressway built in the past 10 years!

Xining, the capital of Qinghai province, is a lot bigger and prosperous than I expected. It totally looks like a modern and developed city in the East coast. I was also pleasant surprised by the Homeinn – a chain motel in China: the room was nice and clean and it’s only about 20 Euro!!! I wish it existed in all the towns we visited in the past two weeks!

Day 17: From Naqu那曲to Ge’ermu格尔木: 18-hour drive crossing no-man zone

September 29th, 2009

Sep 29 Ge’ermu Yanhu (Salt Lake) Hotel

Today is probably the longest and the most tiring day for our entire trip. We started at 6:30am while the whole Naqu town was still sleeping – we drove around for a long time and finally found a 24-hour restaurant that’s open for breakfast. It was still dark. We had about 825 KM to go but because of the unknown road condition, we wanted to be safe. 

The first 126 KM there was strict speed limit – 2.5 hours. We were glad that we took the effort to register at each check point since a car behind us was asked to turn back at the second checkpoint since they didn’t get the card from the first one. Many parts of the road were under construction so we had to constantly go down the road foundation to take the “substitute path” which was normally just mud and stone, very bumpy. We could only drive at around 10-20KM per hour. For half-day we were on over 5000-meter altitude but we didn’t feel a thing (many other travelers we ran into were sick as hell!)! I am pretty sure that my body is completely adjusted to the altitude now so there shouldn’t be problem in the future for me to work in this area for the Brailles without Borders project.

It started to snow at around 1500 and we saw trucks were lined up in front of us and two SUV’s from Beijing turned around (they passed us before). The road was blocked till 2000 so we had to take the substitute path. It was totally Ok for our car since ours was made for advanced off-road, however, the Landrover got stuck while passing a little creek – I learned that Landrover was really just for urban drive but not for real off-road like areas in Tibet – friends told me that many Landrovers were shipped out of Tibet since they were not able to make it. Gao is very experienced with situation like this so he used our car to pull out the Landrover (Jie was so proud since we were giving him trouble the whole way about picking this car and today it really made him proud:)). It took us over 1.5 hours to help them and then passed the area of roadblock – this is the only real and challenging off-road experience we’ve had during this trip since we didn’t go to Ali.(Gao told us that Ali would be even tougher than this) which was really exciting for me: there is no road and we were not sure about the direction so had to constantly go down and check, making sure that it’s the right path. It’s more difficult than I thought since we were at such a high altitude. 

It was getting dark but we still had over 400 KM to go. We were basically crossing the whole Kekexili – no man zone. While passing the Tanggula mountain, the temperature dropped below zero and there was nobody around or any village on the way. The toilet situation became a real problem for such a long drive in this area. We were really tired and driving in the mountains at dark and especially taking substitute paths was quite a big challenge – we didn’t know the way. Luckily there were sometimes trucks passing by to show us the direction.

We didn’t arrive Ge’ermu until about 0030 and all of us were relieved. What a day! 18-hour tough drive! We were just glad to see lights and people:)

Day 16: Lhasa – Naqu (Qingzang Highway)

September 28th, 2009

Sep 28 Zhongqingtangla Hotel Naqu 那曲

Knowing that there is about 1100KM between Lhasa and Ge’ermu, we left early in the morning hoping to make it by midnight. However, the speed control was quite tight and we also didn’t want to drive too fast for safety reason. By the time we arrived in Naqu, it was alrealy 1330 and we still had over 800KM to go which would take us about 15 hours with our previous speed. The problem is the next 800 KM is quite tough, especially from Tangla to Kunlun mountain, 400KM is supposed to be the most difficult for altitude. Gao is worried that if we feel sick in the middle of the night, there is no place to stop in the whole way. 

Although I was really disappointed, I had to agree with them to stay in Naqu overnight and leave early next morning for Ge’ermu. Our schedule is getting tight in order to arrive in Hangzhou by the moon festival.

Qiangtang grassland was magnificent – it was so broad! It snowed here in the past couple of nights so the mountains were just amazingly beautiful. Because we were already at over 4500 meter, all the snow mountains looked really close and really small. And the sky, oh, the sky, I swear I had never seen the sky like this outside of Tibet. That blue is so pure and so close that you felt you could reach the clouds.

I slept in the car the whole morning and slept in the hotel for the whole afternoon – I think it’s because of the altitude. 

Naqu was supported by Hangzhou so we saw lots of streets and  plazas named by Hangzhou and Xihu. It was funny to see that since it looks so different from my hometown. At 4500 meter high, this is a big town, probably the biggest at this altitude. I hope we are going to be ok tonight since this is going to be the highest place we’ve ever stayed overnight during this trip…

Day 14: Second working day in the farm

September 26th, 2009

Sep 26 21:51pm Shigatse hotel

Today is rather relaxing. Gao and I went to the farm while Jie took Deegee for the checkup at the hospital. We started with an interview with Nobu – his biggest problem is lack of self-confidence, but he is still young (only 19) and that can be trained. I noticed that he was very passionate when he spoke Tibetan to Nyima explaining his opinion, but he was not confident enough to express himself in English or Chinese. Honestly his English is quite good. I think he is trainable and can be a good candidate for the future cheese factory. Then we went to the cheese workshop to see them making cheese from scratch. We noticed that the cheese they make is still quite basic and very much home style. If we want to be able to sell and make profit and later on expand the production, then a lot need to be changed. Zhaxi and Chunxiao stopped by at the farm on their way back to Lhasa and I was proud to be their tour guide – Paul joked that he could leave me here to be in charge:). They were impressed by the children, the farm and the atmosphere They offered their help to bring more people here and spread the word. I believe anybody come here would be touched – I’ve never been any place in my life that is more close to Shangri-la than this!!!

We also tried out the breads the girls made and found that the recipe needs to be improved – they don’t really have any real recipe! I can tell they are passionate about baking and all they need is the right guidance and experience – I will buy them some good bakery recipe books and send them some home recipe. I am sure they will do well.

We did a lot of research during the day while Gao fixed all the broken computers at the farm and set up the wireless network for the office – He is so valuable! We found lots of good information that would help the team here – the key problem they have is that they don’t have anybody fluent in Mandarin that can do research on all the Chinese internet sites and get them information and help. This really needs to be changed.

We hiked up the mountain behind the farm and the view from there is just spectacular. I sat next to Mike, overlooking the farm, the village and the mountains, I really didn’t want to leave: My heart has fallen for this place and the people here…

I will never forget the drive back this evening: The golden sky in front of us, the dark clouds hanging above the mountain, the music playing in the jeep… I was like in a different world. I was so touched that I didn’t even want to take any photos because I wanted this picture to be carved onto my heart. 

Now I understand Why Gao kept coming back to this land every year, because somehow piece of my soul is left here as well, together with the children, the people and the air….

Day 13: First working day in the farm – a lot accomplished!

September 25th, 2009

Sep 25th 22:01 Shigatse hotel

It’s been an exciting and fruitful day! Most of the morning I was chatting with Mike – the Canadian Catholic priest that is in charge of the compuse factory, while Gao was fixing all the broken computers, setting up the network and Jie doing research online about cheese market in China. 

Mike is an amazing character: unlike Pentacostals, they don’t preach but are all about education – of course it’s also because of the regulation. It’s part of the agreement that he doesn’t preach to people so that he can be here in China. He was in India (Dajeelin) as a missionary for 35 year s and then he came to Tibet where he always wanted to be. So starting at the age of 16, he devoted his whole life to God. He studied at the Tibet university for 4 years so he speaks fluent Tibetan, as well as Hindi and three other Indian languages/dialects which is quite amazing. The kids at the farm call him Father Lama and they call Jesus “Jesus Lama” – very cool. He truly believes that God is doing the work and he just needs to do what he does so he doesn’t talk about God but I believe that people see God through his life. He is an extremely funny guy too and the kids just love him to death. He put up a Christmas tree every year and prepares gifts for all the kids – of course they love it. 

After a simple lunch together with the staff (honestly they really eat very simple, just one small bowl of rice with some green vegetables and sometimes a little piece of meat, but we did get the farm made cheese which is absolutely delicious!), Gao and Jie played Ping Pong with Paul – he is actually really good, surprisingly! The Pingpong table is situated inside the gym, which is one of the most important places in the farm for the kids so that they can excise and keep healthy without hurting themselves – for example, the treadmill is the most important machine there since that’s the only place the blind kids can ever run. Unfortunately both machines are broken and of poor quality at the moment and hopefully the new ones will come soon. 

Then we started working with the cheese team and the bakery team. After some simple reports, we found that the cost is way too high at the moment, especially the cheese: since the milk is also home produced and with only 3 cows in house, the cost of the cheese per Kg is almost more than the retail price in big cities, especially the fact that we haven’t taken into account the packaging, transportation, administration and rental cost yet! Another problem is that the current team that is doing the calculation have no clue about finances and most of the calculations were wrong. There is a lot of work to do here. Tomorrow we will walk through the current process for the cheese making in order to get the accurate calculation and do some tasting of the bakery so that we can have better idea about how to improve the situation. 

Walking around town together with Nyima, Paul and Ah Chung, I found surprisingly that Shigatse was quite big. Paul told me that there are about 200,000 people now while there was only 10000 in 1997 when he was here helping build the building for the Swiss Red Cross. Of course, it also has a huge red-light district, just like Lhasa. We visited several bakery stores in town for some market research before going for dinner. 

 

And, Nyima became my teacher for Tibetan and Braille (he is a wonderful teacher by the way, very patient) – I am determined to learn them…

Day 12: Four Points by Sheraton Lhasa – Farm/Vacational training center for Blinds

September 24th, 2009