Reflections from Southeast Asia

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Sarita's Word

As I read and travel, I become more aware of the differences between nations and cultures. A nation's government and religious heritage have an enormous impact on its culture and history. As we seek to raise up future leaders, may we grant our children an understanding of the diverse world in which we live.

One book that has challenged my thinking over the last several months is Vishal Mangalwadi's Truth and Transformation. He focuses on the impact Christianity has had on Western Culture, but from that new way of seeing the world, it's relatively easy to see how other religions impact their nations.

John and I recently returned from a trip to Southeast Asia, an area of fast economic growth. And, though I had already read a lot about this area of the world (thank you, Core 5), I absorbed a great deal more about the culture, economy, and governments while there.

From my view of the world, many countries differ greatly from life in the West. Here are a few observations I'd like to share:

  • We started in Singapore, a very modern, attractive country. It looks very Western. Beautiful buildings, gorgeous facilities, shining shopping malls and easy-to-use freeways. But in reality, it is not at all Western in many ways, particularly its government policy. For example, the government holds elections, but they are not free elections as we might view them. Since all men serve a term in the military and are then considered reservists for the rest of their lives, they are strongly encouraged to vote for the government in power. Actually, we were told, if a man refuses to vote for the current government, he is viewed as a security risk and, therefore, can no longer serve in the reserves and loses certain rights as a citizen. The government also maintains a tightly controlled state with punishments for crimes (e.g., chewing gum or leaving graffiti) that most of us in the west would consider rather harsh. Both of these contribute to a smoothly-run country, but a Westerner would question how much freedom Singapore citizens really have.


  • After Singapore, we traveled to lands that are strongly Buddhist. With 1.25 billion Buddhists in the world, I was eager to see more of what daily life looks like for people in Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. I watched, fascinated, at Buddhist temples as people hit bells, lit incense and tried to get the attention of their god (?) as they prayed. How different this is from my own experiences of prayer and worship.

  • I learned that the rights of women and children are often abused in these countries. This seems to stem from the Buddhist belief that people's status in life is the result of what they've done in a past life: they deserve what they get. Western cultures hold that everybody is equal (though we don't practice it perfectly). But that is not the belief in Thailand. People are inherently unequal. John and I were even instructed in how low we should bow when meeting people of various statuses. If we were considered a higher status than the people we were about to meet, we were told to make a shallow bow. If meeting people socially above us, we should bow more deeply to show that we knew our place.
  • In Cambodia we saw the effects of tyrannical communism as we visited sites of The Killing Fields of Pol Pot's regime. It was sobering to walk through a prison where Cambodians with any sort of education or wealth were rounded up and tortured before being executed. As Pol Pot sought complete control over the country, he knew it would be easier to control people who were illiterate. No one knows just how many people died under his attempt to take power. And Cambodians live in the shadow of this horror in the not-so-distant past.
  • I was also intrigued to see evidence of ancestor worship in Cambodia and Vietnam. In our own culture, we believe children should honor their parents, of course, but we certainly don't pray to our parents' spirits and hope that they'll come back and help us.
  • I also began to grasp the difficulty of living as a Christian in an anti-Christian society. We had the privilege of attending a Sunday morning service with Vietnamese believers. These brothers and sisters face persecution, poverty and the constant worry that the government will decide to shut down their church. May we remember these valiant believers in our prayers.

    • In Hong Kong, we experienced what it's like to be in the most crowded place on earth.

While there, we met with a man who brings Bibles into China. John and I were not sure why that was necessary. After all, the government is cooperating with the International Bible Societies in its Amity Press Bible printing effort. Our contact's response was most enlightening.

In keeping with the "cosmetic culture" idea, that the most important thing is how things look on the outside, not how they are on the inside, he noted several things. John spent more time talking about this than I did, so I'll let him pass on the observations in his own words here:

      • "Amity Press boasts of printing and distributing inside China between 40 and 50 million Bibles in its first 20 years of production (through 2006).
      • "If you look at the Amity page Sarita referenced above, you'll see even higher numbers.
      • "Beyond production, as Peter Dean, Assistant to the General Manager of Amity notes in the YouTube video (beginning at about 4:54), there are 70 main distribution points for these Bibles, and vans take the Bibles out from there.

"All of these numbers and figures are real. Our contact would not quibble with them. HOWEVER, he said,

      • "You've got to recognize that there are between 100 and 150 million Chinese believers in China! Even with all the production since 1986, there may have been one Bible printed for every two believers.
      • "Notice that the numbers Amity quotes are from the beginning of production. How many Bibles remain in good condition twenty years after they were printed? Especially when used and stored in rough conditions—without air conditioning and surrounded by the dirt, insects and rodents common in typical rural areas?
      • "China's land mass is equivalent to the United States (including Alaska and Hawaii) minus Minnesota. Imagine that you could acquire a Bible only by traveling from wherever you are—and you probably don't own a car or motorcycle—to the distribution point closest to you—a hundred, and possibly several hundred miles away from where you live. Moreover, when you get there, you discover that the store happens to be out of stock at the moment, or, while your friends and you all decided to go in together to buy a bunch of Bibles at one time, the distribution point will permit you to pick up only 10 Bibles. –Can we call it what it is? It's a major inconvenience at least, and a major expense in time and money.

"In sum, he said, as wonderful as the Amity Press efforts are, they are inadequate to meet the needs of the church in China."

And thus, John and I gained insight into what daily life looks like for Christians and those considering Christianity in China. Something we take for granted—easy access to Bibles—is not a given for many around the world.

Through this trip, I gained valuable perspectives and greater understanding about Southeast Asia. As we homeschool, we have the opportunity to give our kids a similar education about all parts of the world. Even if international travel is out of the question for you, you can study the world and help your kids understand just how differently other people live.

I pray we raise up leaders of tomorrow by opening their eyes to the broad world around them today. I count it a privilege to provide curriculum that in some small way helps you do just that.


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