CHENGDU, China — The road to peace is seldom easy.
Eighteen teenagers from China, Japan and South Korea discovered this truth through their experiences with the first northeast Asian peace camp sponsored by Mennonite Central Committee (MCC).
The teens were coming together to address grievances and prejudices long held by people of their countries. Counselors from MCC and other peace-promoting organizations — World Friendship Center in Hiroshima, the Korean Anabaptist Center and The Frontiers based in Korea, as well as Peace in China based in Nanchong — were there to guide the process.
The discussions would be difficult enough, but simply getting to the peace camp was an arduous process of its own — symbolic perhaps.
The first peace camp was supposed to be held last year but had to be postponed because of the earthquake that rocked the province of Sichuan, where the campground is located.
This year, the bus carrying the campers broke down near Chengdu, the provincial capital of Sichuan, leaving them stranded by the side of the road for several hours. The replacement bus wended its way through the rain on narrow mountain roads until reaching a rough and muddy track hardly wide enough for a car.
The driver refused to go further, so the teens and 14 counselors, who hadn’t eaten in eight hours, hiked the last 10 minutes by flashlight to the campground and their waiting dinner.
The traveling difficulties to the peace camp, however, were not as tough as the road the teens and counselors would travel toward a peaceful understanding.
Cultural and historical differences between South Korea, China and Japan can be pronounced, said Leah Wang, director of Peace in China and host of the camp. Wang previously served with MCC’s International Volunteer Exchange Program (IVEP).
Young people pick up on the fears and resentments of their elders who suffered through World War II, said Park YoonSeo, a staff member for Korean Anabaptist Center and a former IVEPer. During the war, Japan and China fought each other, and afterward Korea was taken from Japanese control and divided.
Campers ranged in age from 12 to 17. Many of them were leaving their home countries for the first time.
Zhang Lin, 17, from China, admitted she hesitated to come to the camp because people from Japan would be there. “Before this (camp), we always thought cruel things--how Japanese soldiers hurt our Chinese people.
“When I first saw the smiling face of Japanese students, I was shocked. They were not as cruel and bad as we thought,” Lin said.
The camp programming gave the teens many opportunities to interact as they did team-building and confidence-building exercises like rappelling, crossing chain bridges and swinging on a rope to teammates waiting to catch them.
Afternoon peace-building sessions sought to define stereotyping and racism and also invited students to imagine ways to avoid them. Chinese campers shed tears as a Japanese girl read a poem recounting the horrors of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, her hometown.
Through the scheduled program and free time, the heavy baggage associated with each nationality was slowly unpacked until all that was left was a person, a teammate, and a friend.
One Japanese girl, who on the first day withdrew from the afternoon peace-building classes out of frustration with having to speak and understand English, turned out to be absolutely fearless when ascending a ladder to a treetop platform and leaping across a gap in a narrow plank bridge 30 feet above the ground.
Two Korean boys and a Japanese boy of the same age became inseparable. Even though they spoke little of each others’ languages and minimal English, they kept campers and counselors in neighboring rooms awake past midnight one night with their laughter.
Standing before the group on the final night, Yuki Sakata, 15, of Japan, said her goals upon returning to Hiroshima were “to learn about the world war, understand how things are, get rid of prejudice, change how we think and keep in touch with each other from this camp.”
Lin, who had admitted her prejudice against the Japanese, cried as she told the group she would tell her friends that she has Japanese friends and that she doesn’t hate anymore.
Organizers are planning to make peace camp an annual event. They hope that eventually the current crop of campers will become counselors.
“I hope they can bring the peace idea back to their families and schools and talk about it with their friends,” Wang said. “Maybe eventually they want to become a peacemaker, to work with other people to be a peacemaker.”
Eric Eberly currently studies Mandarin full time. He will begin a second three-year term with MCC, teaching English through Mennonite Partners in China in February 2010. Linda Espenshade is MCC’s news coordinator.