Student gains new outlook in China

“What the superior man seeks is in himself. What the small man seeks is in others.” –Confucius
While a trip to a poverty-stricken region of China to rebuild unstable and burnt-out buildings may not sound like a dream vacation to many, it was the experience of a lifetime for one local college student.
Mark Bujold, a 21-year-old mechanical engineering technician student at Confederation College in Thunder Bay, recently spent six weeks working in a remote region of Shandong province on the east coast of China, about 600 km southeast of Beijing.
The Fort Frances native, the son of Ray and Carol Bujold, was able to do this through the Pro Bono China Outreach Project—a program partly funded and co-organized by local lawyer Larry Eustace.
The project has been in the planning stages for about three years under the supervision of Dr. Norbert Becker, an engineer from Windsor, Ont. The team that travelled to China last October, including Bujold, was the first to begin construction work.
“He’s an outstanding young man,” Becker said. “It’s such a lovely thing to watch the maturing a person of his calibre undergoes when they have an experience like this.”
Although the original plan was to set up a model drinking water system for the villages of Shiwenggou and Matoudianzi, it became clear after a few exploratory trips that people there needed much more than clean water.
While the two villages only have a combined population of about 1,500 people, the local medical clinic was seeing 30,000 visits a year—and was desperately short on basic supplies.
What’s worse, the clinic was destroyed by an electrical fire last January. It was this clinic that Bujold helped rebuild during his six-week stint there.
The team—consisting of Becker, Bujold, another co-op student, and Canadians from various fields including education, engineering, and construction—arrived in China in late October.
Their first order of business was to assemble some hand tools and construction equipment to get started on the clinic.
“There was a week of scouring the township to get all our tools and equipment. It was quite an experience,” Bujold said, adding communication sometimes was a problem.
“I didn’t always have a translator. You’d have to try and explain what you’re looking for, and you’re trying not to raise your voice,” he noted. “We had to use basic hand signals, or draw it on a piece of paper.”
And even when they could find tools, Bujold said they were not of a quality he was used to.
“The tools they do produce in China are amazingly cheap. There is no quality to them whatsoever,” he remarked.
In doing some carpentry work, Bujold said he was constantly breaking hammers—much to the amusement of the Chinese workers.
“We had to get used to the train of thought that, if I need a ratchet, I need to go out and buy 20 of them ’cause in three days I’ll be out,” he laughed.
Work on the clinic involved more than a few repairs.
“We had to tear it down, assess the problem and the amount of work we’d have to do, and start construction,” Bujold explained.
While the team made a good deal of progress, there were some obstacles that slowed them down. “There were some problems with communication with the workers,” Bujold noted.
One of those problems involved a cultural misunderstanding.
“We found out the clinic we were working on used to be a temple [built] 150 years ago. We didn’t realize it was a temple at first,” Bujold said, adding the temple had been destroyed during China’s cultural revolution in the 1960s, when the communist government forbade religious worship of any kind.
In China, before any construction work can be done on a temple, or a building that once was a temple, a special ceremony must be performed first to ensure a successful project.
“You’re supposed to do fireworks and a big ceremony, but we didn’t. Nobody told us,” Bujold said. “So the whole time the workers are thinking we’ve got this black cloud over us.”
It was not until the team was preparing to leave that the crew informed them of the history of the building.
Despite some misunderstandings, Bujold said there were many opportunities to connect with the local villagers.
“There was a small boy that lived behind us. He was about three years old. He had this little rickety, old trike and it was garbage,” Bujold said.
He and one of the engineers on the project decided to buy the boy a new tricycle for 15 yuan, or about $4 Cdn.
“The kid just fell in love with it, his mom was as happy as could be,” Bujold recalled.
Bujold explained the boy’s father worked in the city, and only could occasionally come home to visit his family. The little boy couldn’t wait to show his father his new tricycle.
“When we left, that little kid and his mom could not stop crying, they were so appreciative. It was unbelievable,” Bujold said wistfully.
He said he had another remarkable experience at the local school.
“I went to the school to do temperature readings for Mr. Becker because he wanted to install solar heat in the buildings,” he explained, adding his visits usually happened in the morning.
Bujold said every day, he would go into the kindergarten classroom and teach the students a little English—like the parts of the face (eyes, mouth, nose, etc.) or how to count to 10.
“By the time I left in a month, I could just point at my face and they would know what it was in English. It was awesome,” he enthused.
On his last day in China, Bujold went to the school with a translator to say good-bye. “The next thing I knew, I had 10 or 15 kids all around me, hugging me and tugging at me. It was really neat,” he said.
Besides inspiring young children to excel, Bujold himself had the chance to test his abilities at the construction site.
“If Mr. Becker did not go for the day, if he stayed back to do engineering or something, I fell into the place of the foreman at the job site, which was quite a responsibility,” he explained.
“I had, at times, 14 Chinese men working under me and that’s quite the feeling.”
Some of those workers were nearly three times his age, he said, but they treated him with the same respect they would any foreman. “They don’t go home until you go home. That’s the respect they show you,” he remarked.
Becker he was impressed with the maturity Bujold showed under these circumstances. He told the story of how the outreach team wanted to use one method to transport mixed concrete to an upper beam while the Chinese workers wanted to use another—believing it was more efficient.
“He said, ‘We’re going to do it both ways.’ They had a race,” Becker explained of Bujold’s solution. “After about 15 minutes, we were emptying buckets so fast, everyone was doing it our way.
“It’s these sorts of things that build character and leadership and confidence,” Becker added.
In fact, Bujold made such an impression on his co-workers that they named a portable concrete casting flatbed trailer after him, dubbed the “Mark Mobile.”
“They’re all hoping that he comes back, as am I,” Becker said.
The average work day was about 10 hours, Bujold said, but could sometimes stretch to 14. The team, both the outreach workers and the local crew hired to help, worked seven days a week for 30 days, with only two half-days off—one for rain and the other for snow.
“They work so hard,” Bujold said. “You see poverty, but they’re working at it. They’re making a living. They’re trying to support their family and other families.
“That’s what totally blew me away.”
Despite having so little, the villagers were happy to share with visitors, he noted.
“No matter where I went, they always opened up their doors,” he remarked. “I could go for a walk at night when it’s pitch black, and people would open up their doors and invite you in for tea.”
Before leaving, the town held a send-off for the team—complete with fireworks. Bujold left behind most of his clothes for the workers he had spent so much time with.
“I didn’t want to go at all,” he said of leaving.
Bujold said he still carries with him the lessons he learned in China.
“It was real heart-touching over there: getting in touch with reality, comparing what we have to them, putting everything into perspective, what’s really meaningful and what can you do without.
“That’s kind of the way I look at it now.”
While Bujold won’t be able to go with the team on its next trip, scheduled for early March, he is hoping he can go back to China for his next co-op placement—scheduled to begin once his classes end in August.
“I can’t say how much of an experience it was. It was phenomenal,” he enthused.