Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Conference Center in the Hills

Sorry for the general lack of posts lately. I had the flu, and now I'm in the middle of finals. I was hoping to upload the pictures for this post, but I have not had the time to sort through all of them. I will do a photo collage next week when I'm on vacation. Enjoy the story!

General Manager felt quite sorry for me. He was sure I must be devastated by my lack of matrimonial prospects and my broken engagement. To take my mind off my sorrows, he suggested that I transfer to the group surveying a newly-purchased site for a conference center in the hills between Taipei and the international airport. I was more than happy for a change of pace. My class broke up at the end of July because everyone had thought I would be getting married, and we all went our separate ways. Teacher’s daughter was married and having children in California, so she left the school to enjoy being a grandmother. Beatrice, Melanie, and Miss Yan were already married to Chinese husbands, and Susanna got a job with an Italian film company doing interpretation for them on location in China. I decided not to start in another class immediately, and I went ahead with the group that would be living on the “mountain.”

Churches around the world had all contributed funds to purchase a sixteen-acre piece of property that encompassed an entire ridge in the hills south of Taipei. There were rice paddies in the valleys on each side of the ridge, but our “mountain” was pretty much wild jungle. There was a paved road to the edge of the property and then a dirt track leading down to a little brick hut midway up the hill in the midst of thick tropical growth. The church had hired workers to install a restroom and a kitchen in one half of the hut. They had also set up five bunk beds in the other half. Our project for the month of August was to cut trails through the jungle and survey the property so the engineers could design a conference and retreat center.

General Manager decided that the publishing company would offer internships to college men in the churches who wanted to learn some practical skills in addition to their book learning. They would go up to the “mountain” in groups of eight with two adult crew leaders and spend a week on the property cutting brush and surveying. At the end of each week, the interns would come home, and a new group would go up for another week. General Manager wanted me to cook for the work crews as well as help cut through brush and survey the site. General Manager had told me about this assignment while I was still in the US after the demise of my engagement, so I had come prepared with overalls and canvas hiking boots. I was quite happy about my new duties and glad to be free of school.

That first morning the foremen and I waited with the vans at the publishing company’s main office in Taipei. The first set of boys came, and most of them looked ready to go on a picnic; several of them were wearing dress shoes. The foremen checked their luggage and sent them back to get rid of shorts and to find heavy work pants and long-sleeved shirts for the jungle. I had to model my overalls, work shirt, and boots as appropriate attire for the project. Two hours later five of the seven people who had been sent back for work clothes reappeared. The others had been scared off by the prospect of snakes in the jungle. The final person on the list, a Liu Yuni, never showed. The foreman was quite upset because he was listed as having construction experience, and the college men had elected him as their crew leader. One of his schoolmates kept telling us that this prodigy had won national Taiwan bricklaying competitions twice in a row and had even been to the US representing Taiwan in a skill competition. The foreman was even more upset to learn that his best prospect had not even bothered to show up. Finally, three hours after we had planned to leave, we set out in two vans for the hill country near the airport.
There were two trails into the property. Most of the time, we came down a dirt road from the top of the ridge, but because we had so many items to carry, the foreman worked out a deal with the rice farmers in the valley. We drove up their paddy roads until we were directly below the small hut and then scrambled up a narrow path that was less than a quarter of the length of the road. It took us all morning to get everything from the vans up to the hut. We had purchased box lunches for our noon time meal because all we had in the kitchen was a sink, a counter, and a refrigerator until we set up the cooking equipment from Taipei. In our clumsiness, we had broken down some of the dikes separating the rice paddies, so that afternoon our first order of business was to repair them for the farmers. No one really knew how to do this job.

As we were standing there wondering what to do, we heard a sound like a duck quacking from the dirt road up to the top of the ridge. The exuberant classmate went running up the road and came back screaming, “We’re saved! It’s Liu Yuni. He will be able to fix it. He can do anything.” I was a little skeptical that such a paragon existed among the population of Chinese college men, but at least we had our crew leader. The foreman started to get upset that he was arriving late, when he told us he had been waiting on top of the ridge since 8:00 that morning. He had come directly from his parents’ home near the airport and had not wanted to waste fuel by riding his motorcycle to Taipei when the property was only twenty minutes from home. He also thought it would be more convenient to have a motorbike on the property because vans and cars often got stuck in the mud on dirt roads.

The foreman offered him a box lunch and asked him what we needed to do to repair the farmers’ dikes. Liu Yuni instructed us to get several buckets of small river stones from the creek at the bottom of the valley. Then he swiftly and deftly fixed the dikes in less than two hours. Most of the boys could only carry half-bucketfuls of river stones, and they gave out after only two or three trips. In the end, only three of us were left doing the dike repair job. The rest went back to the hut because they needed to rest.

The foremen were at the hut setting up the kitchen equipment and storing the tools under the eaves at the back of the hut. When they saw half of the workforce return and root in the refrigerator, they knew they needed to give them more work. They set them to work digging a pit for the septic tank so we would be able to use the newly installed showers and toilets. At first the malingerers were reluctant, but when they were told that they couldn’t take a shower or use a toilet until that job was done, they set to it quickly enough.

By the time the rest of us came back from repairing the dikes, they had a hole dug, and the bottom was lined with bricks. But they didn’t know what else to do. Not even the foreman knew the specifics of how to make a septic tank. His degree was in engineering. The little schoolmate started yelling, “Liu Yuni, we need you. I have to go to the bathroom, but I can’t until the septic tank is finished.” And Liu Yuni went to the pit, looked at their cement and mortar, ordered us all to get four buckets of large stones, and hopped in to begin lining the rest of the pit with bricks.
After the pit was lined, he poured fine sand in the bottom, next a layer of coarse sand and rock, and finally a layer of rock on top. He ran the pipe from the toilets into the top of one side, and he had left a hole out the bottom on the other side. Then he had the rest of the men cover the pit over with dirt. He had pretty much single-handedly done what the foreman had scheduled for our first day’s work.


Barbara Martin said...

Wonderful post on motivating workers.

Joannalynne said...

WOOHOO!!! our Hero emerges!!!

Teresa said...

Barbara, glad you enjoy the Chinese way of making people work. Our foreman was quite ingenious.

Joanna, yes, we have finally arrived at the point in the blog when your father makes his appearance in my life, and what a splash he made!

murat11 said...

Ah. Jane Austen comes to Taiwan. Let the games begin...

Teresa said...

Murat: I'm so impressed. You've actually read the entire blog. Thank you for your interest and comments. I'm not so sure that I'm Jane Austen. But the romance is beginning.