Recapping the year, three months later

In part to break the silence on this blog, in part to respond to friends who didn’t receive the update, I’m posting below the annual holiday letter I send out to folks between traditional New Years and Chinese New Year. I promise I will write a real update soon. I have no excuses now, not with all this free time 🙂

Dear friends,

As the holiday season falls upon us and a new year awaits right around the corner, I find myself especially grateful to be writing you. It means a lot to have such wonderful friends and family in all corners of the world.

In March I finished up my last course at Johns Hopkins, where I’m now a happy graduate of the international health department. Around that time, I was given the opportunity to go to Liberia to improve the financing of the health sector. Our main task was to work with the government to develop a national health insurance system, so that all Liberians have access to quality essential health services. I won’t bore you with details, but I will say that this work is important because good aid is sustainable aid. I’m much more hopeful when countries can manage their own resources effectively instead of relying on unpredictable aid.

Many people think that aid work is glamorous and exciting, but the reality is far from it. My days consisted of long meetings, tedious analysis, and making presentations to policymakers who had a million other priorities. Nights and weekends, nights and weekends. I am grateful for a boss who entrusted me a lot of responsibility and gave me the freedom to run with my ideas.

But the most challenging part had nothing to do with the work. It was learning to carry the emotional weight of human suffering. It’s one thing to fly into developing country, stay in five star hotels within view of urban slums, and shuttle to and from government buildings all day discussing numbers and figures. It’s another thing to call somebody a friend, care for them like family, and continue to watch them struggle day after day, working harder than I know I ever will in my life, only for a fighting chance at a better future.

A Liberian friend once said to me, “A war is being fought in this country, only without the sound of gunfire.” The things we take for granted—public transportation, a high school degree, the opportunity to work, a meal to expect on the table at the end of the day—these are distant dreams for so many. And the more I immersed myself into that environment, the harder it became to reconcile the two starkly different realities.

Sometimes thinking about it made me mad. Sometimes it made me sad. But oftentimes it was inspiring. Living in Monrovia was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had, not only professionally but on a profoundly personal level as well. There, more so than anywhere else, I saw the resilience and generosity of human beings, often from those who had the least. I felt the power of a word and a promise left unsaid. I was forced to question my assumptions about moral behavior and ethics. Once again, I feel as if I was the one who took away more from an experience than I was originally intending to give. Life is funny like that.

I would have liked to stay, but Ebola was too great a risk. The first case was reported from neighboring Guinea the same week I arrived in March. The alarm bells rang very early on, but I must admit that nobody on the ground, myself included, expected it to develop into the situation today, until at least June. We all need to stop pointing fingers.

There is still hope. As I write this, ministers of health and finance are meeting in Geneva with the WHO to devise a strategy for long- term health system strengthening. On a global level the renewed attention on the importance of health systems is encouraging. Far too often, people look for magic bullet solutions and quick fixes. It was time for a wake up call. I hope that the message won’t be overlooked again.

With a very heavy heart, I left Liberia at the end of July. A month later, I found myself in Lima, Peru where I switched hats and jumped into a journalism assignment covering an overlooked global issue: elder abuse and aging societies. The assignment was sponsored by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis reporting in collaboration with Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. I picked Peru partly because there was evidence of government and civil society activity on the rights of older persons, and partly because I wanted a refresher on my very rusty Spanish. I also thought it would be a nice break from aid work… if only I knew what I was getting myself into!

As the food capital of Latin America, Lima was a very exciting place to be based for a few months. But like many other places, the inequality was hard to ignore. From $1 soup kitchen lunches to lavish high-society parties in a single day, 80 year-old grandmothers and grandfathers collecting trash and destitute mothers selling candies at every street corner, there were constant reminders of the failures of social protection. Amidst this environment, I spent my days photographing and interviewing older adults, government officials, civil society actors, and ordinary people. Coupled with the depressing, relentless winter grayness (think London and Seattle), it became a little too much. I had to get out.

To take a breather from work, I spent the month of October traveling the three regions of Peru—from the hot and humid Amazonian jungle to the chilly Andean mountain range to the relaxed coastal towns off the Pacific Ocean. Peru is an incredibly diverse country with such wonderful, hospitable people. I loved Machu Picchu and the tourist magnets, but my favorite part was probably rowing into the Amazonian river under the moonlight, lying in a drifting wooden boat, enjoying the view of thousands of stars accompanied by a wildlife symphony. Away from civilization, the world was so incredibly still and beautiful.

In November, I wearily began my journey back to Taipei via a two- week visit to Paraguay and Brazil. My mom recently moved to Paraguay to be closer to her family, who has been running businesses there for the past 20-30 years. It was so nice to spend some time together, as I had not visited them in more than five years. I hope the next trip will be much sooner than 2019! 🙂

I’m now in Taipei, where I’m wrapping up my Peru reporting and then relaxing. I can’t wait to catch up on reading, do living room workouts with the aunties (Fitness Blender on Youtube is awesome J), and recover a little from a busy year of travel and work. Nothing is in store yet for 2015, but I hope to jump back into the aid world by springtime. Fingers crossed.

Please feel free to write me sometime! I’d love to hear from you. My e-mail remains the same: mferng@gmail.com.

Love and light,
Michelle