A Summer in Southwest China: Pt. 3 – Davidson

I struggle to think of a time when I haven’t found myself in a constant balancing act between dedicating my time to learning in the classroom and then to those learning experiences outside the classroom. Save this summer, it was the first instance since coming to Davidson that I could completely dedicate myself to pursuing learning experiences outside the classroom – far outside the classroom ­– without any inhibitions. It was an opportunity I couldn’t have dreamt up. Though I entered it with a lot of uncertainty, it molded into 2+ months which gave me the ideal learning environment I may never have again.

I found so much I had been missing at Davidson. I had that independence, I was in the rural settings using locals, conversations and friends as texts, and in a part of the world that had been forgotten by privilege. But I needed two years of Davidson to make it all work.

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Screen Shot from an interview I filmed for a Nuosu Anthropologist. The Yangjuan elder spoke of the development of the school, the state of the village and his hope for future generations.

I came back from China seeing how necessary all of that friction I’ve felt in academia was. I began to see the learning by doing I was nostalgic for at college as something closer to learning by bumbling – and a large chunk of me wished I had even more time at Davidson under my belt so that I could have sunk my teeth even deeper into the experience. That’s not to say that I don’t I love bumbling, it’s to say that even if I were to find the opportunity elsewhere, this summer would have been very different. Were it two years ago I would have instead been bumbling in the dark across Liangshan, unaware of my position and impact and wasting everyone’s time.

Luckily, Davidson had completely changed the lenses with which I viewed places and people outside my own – the “other” ­– and my identity. I could begin to see my position and privilege as a white, male, American college student moving through some of the poorest parts of China in a way I wouldn’t have earlier. To begin to understand the history and implications of my presence and interactions left me in an almost constant discomfort. But I think if it weren’t for this discomfort ­the distances between us would have kept me from making genuine relationships with my friends and their homes.

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I was honored to hop in on the Fire Torch Festival annual pictures after the pig sacrifice.

Davidson has also given me the chance to develop comparative lenses which interpreted much of my experience this summer. I left Davidson with Native American Studies in mind but have been disappointed to find no opportunities or classes related to the topic. Yet, unexpectedly, every location Davidson has allowed me to travel to –Taiwan, Cambodia and Colombia – has provided me an opportunity to learn more about that country’s indigenous contexts and history of marginalization. And so between these experiences and my own independent studies, this summer was the first time I felt able to interpret the indigenous marginalization I was encountering with this comparative lens. Now it is a framework I am so excited to continue to develop before I return home to South Dakota.

Lenses aside, the knowledge I have learned to digest at college was, of course, also a critical foundation for this summer. I am hard pressed to think of a class I have taken at Davidson which didn’t inform some part of my experiences. Without scholarship I was able to pursue on my own and a spread of classes, I would have been much more ill-prepared. A shout out to Liberal Arts is in order here for allowing me to approach the contexts I spent time in this summer from so many different angles.

I have left knowing that Liangshan and the Yi will be a part of my future, both in the sense that I will return and that I will take what I learned from this summer with me to every community I visit in the future. I feel myself doing so now in my studies in Northeast India.

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Yeah right…A shout-out to all of my teachers (K-Today) who made this summer possible.

A Summer in Southwest China: Pt.2 – What

When someone asks me what I did this summer, I still am not positive I have a clear answer. But I’m sure after my last blog post describing where I was this summer, anyone reading would be curious if I did any work at all. – Don’t worry, I did.

Before I left for China my answer was that I would be helping a nonprofit, the Cool Mountain Education Fund. The CMEF is a nonprofit started to facilitate the building and running of a school in a rural village of the Liangshan Yi Autonomous Prefecture – a region in the South of Sichuan whose geographical isolation and lack of investment combined to make economic development slower than that of other regions.

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Women working on their looms in a rural village, Butuo County.

The nonprofit continued to be involved in financial support for the school and eventually in offering financial support to the students as they went on to high school and college – if they chose. At the nonprofit’s inception, students in the area were often unable to attend school – both primary and secondary –  because of economic realities and cultural expectations pushing them to work instead.

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A Yangjuan student sitting by the riverside. The photo was taken by another student.

I initially thought I would be conducting interviews with students to make a video to give to annual donors of the fund, and hopefully attract new donors so the Cool Mountain Fund could continue to assist funding students’ education. Then upon my arrival, plans changed so that I ended up assisting an anthropologist on the CMEF Board who was doing fieldwork in the area.

My role in assisting her was that of helping to film her interviews and recording on video cultural traditions and heritage of the Mosuo minority she worked with in the Lugu Lake area. Dr. Blumenfield, the anthropologist, was only around Lugu Lake for a few days before I was on my own to continue work.

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A Mosuo Dance put on for tourists in the Lugu Lake Area. I spent much of my time looking at the relationships between the Mosuo, Lugu Lake and Han Tourists.

After I left in Lugu Lake, much of the summer’s time and work fell in the same vein except that I was conducting interviews and filming cultural traditions of the Yi minority instead. My interviews were with graduates from the Yangjuan primary school and other Yi students attending university.

The students I was with all spoke articulately about the experiences they shared as Yi students in university: the dissonances between rural homes and life in a big city, cultural friction in a Han education, questions of handling culture as first generation college (and often high school) students and the stereotypes they face everyday. I conducted the interviews with the aim of compiling them into a video for Cool Mountain Fund that could give supporters a better sense of the personalities and lives behind the scholarships funded. As the summer went on though, students revealed to me another motivation to record their stories.

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English class with Yi students in the Butuo Township. Teaching the importance of the difference between race and ethnicity is even harder in a foreign language.

It was a consensus among them that most existing representations of the Yi minority (a group of almost 8 million) were negative. Continued misinterpretation and exoticization of the Yi’s legacy as the last slave society before communist take over, in combination with fierce warfare legends has frozen their identity in time in the eyes of many Chinese. That combined with sensationalized publications and reporting on the poverty, HIV/AIDS outbreaks and drug problems the area has faced has laced modern perceptions of the Yi with falsehoods and ignorance of a vibrant people and culture.

Students were hungry for new representations so that the rest of China could see them in a light of reality and hope instead of these overdramatized and generalized stereotypes, but also so that the rest of the world could see the beauty of the Yi. Even though the Yi hold a larger population than the 7.5 million Tibetans living in China, and a history and marginalization just as intricate – hardly anyone outside of China has heard of the Yi, there are no Yi solidarity clubs, international coverage or widespread romanticization like that of Tibetans. And so my motivation for the summer became that of exploring the what and how of representations the amazing Nuosu of Liangshan deserve.

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A Zhoajue Nuosu elder in in the area’s traditional attire.

The crux of my summer was the week I spent with Steve Harrell – perhaps the most well known anthropologist and researcher of the entire Liangshan region who was a part of the effort responsible for uniting a Yi studies field and has written many critical works himself. I was there to capture his visit to Liangshan and the story of the Yangjuan primary school he with his Yangjuan native friend and fellow anthropologist, Ma Erzi, founded via CMEF. The story of the school itself had just reached an end with it’s closure this spring, but the story of Cool Mountain Education and Yangjuan was far from over ­– clear not only in the scholarships which continued to be provided to students, but also in Steve’s continued role in the community.

It played out that I was not alone in documenting Steve’s story, I was with a team of anthropologists, both American and Chinese, which included Dr. Blumenfield. To our surprise there were also two CCTV crews (12 individuals in total) who had planned to document Steve and our visit to Yangjuan.

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The team outside of Yangjuan Primary School.

I was used to traveling through villages and conducting interviews solo, as incognito as a white guy with a wild blonde mane could be in borderland villages (which is to say not at all). So to have a whole village of us visiting the Yangjuan Village made the experience an entirely new and fascinating one.

Now the summer and my time in China (for now) is over, but my work isn’t. I’m left to now process hours of interviews and footage and with the responsibility to do my friends, teachers and the Cool Mountain Education Fund justice.

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A friend and I snapped by a Yangjuan student who had a knack for my camera.

A Summer in Southwest China: Pt.1 – Where

It is hard to be general when describing where I spent this summer in China – my experiences and the communities I grew attached to were anything but general. Yet it is impossible to be narrow in describing the where of my summer because of the overwhelming volume of those communities and experiences. I’ll try and hit the mark somewhere in between…

My summer began, and throughout its course returned to, Chengdu. Chengdu is one of China’s utterly massive 1st-tier cities – the 5th largest with an urban population of over 17.5 million. It stands apart not only for being one of the most geographically inland and Western of China’s mega-cities, but also because its pace and residents are known for being much more relaxed – locals would tell you lazy – compared to its Eastern counterparts.

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Downtown Chengdu

This was good news for me as I am not one for the mega-city life, so Chengdu’s numerous quiet tea-houses, parks and generosity were all greatly appreciated. My time in Chengdu was still as close to a “typical” Chinese experience as anything, probably because it was only place I visited where the Han ethnic majority of China was still the majority.

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A portrayal of a Han Emperor from the Three Kingdoms Period in the Wuhou Temple, Chengdu

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Pandas from Chengdu’s Panda Breeding Research Center

My arrival in Chengdu was also the only certain destination I had the whole summer, and after a week of recovering from jetlag and familiarizing myself with the city my remaining time in Southwest China became that of constant mobility – it was rare that I was settled in the same place for more than 3 days.

One of my first stops was the Tibetan grasslands of Northwest Sichuan which hold a culture and lifestyle completely unique to anything else I experienced in Southwest China. The grasslands were a point of pride, the best in China locals told me. And so nomads and their yak herds scattered the open landscape for hours of bus rides across the region.

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A place of prayer for Tibetan Nomads in the mountains outside of Langmusi, Gansu Province.

My time with a nomad family was one of my most treasured experiences of the trip. It is no exaggeration to say life revolved around the yak – from the tents of yak hair kept warm with a yak dung stove, to a menu of yak products cooked over the same stove. Also, in no place I have experienced more rigid gender lines or harder-working women.

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Trying my hand at yak herding

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A incredible sunset on the Tibetan Plateau. Our yak tent is visible in the background, every night each yak is tied to ropes around the tent.

As my summer moved across Sichuan, the scenery remained breathtaking and I began to take towering mountainscapes for granted. But I was moving across ethnic lines which were constantly fluctuating, defined by different environments and so no community’s beautiful ethnic markers or cultures were the same.

I was planted in Lugu Lake, an alpine lake spanning the border of Sichuan and Yunnan, longer than anywhere else this summer. I didn’t know until I arrived that it was fabled for being one of the most beautiful scenes in China, as well as having some of the “cleanest” water.

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Lugu Lake at sunset, Goddess Mountain and Lige Village – where I spent most of time while at Lugu Lake – are in the background.

That Lugu Lake is one of China’s most romanticized tourist destinations and that it’s local people – the Mosuo who are are said to constitute the world’s last matriarchal society – may be one of China’s most exocitized ethnicities made for fascinating contexts and a week full of memories.

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Mosuo Bride in traditional dress on her wedding day.

I spent the largest chunk of the summer moving around the incredible Liangshan (Cool Mountain) Yi autonomous prefecture of Southern Sichuan. As its official name suggests, the region is a geographical core of the Yi minority.

As I moved between country townships and villages. locals were deeply proud of their shared Nuosu heritage while quick to point out the cultural characteristics which separated them from the next county. It was the Nuosu of Liangshan, their rich history, incredible culture and overwhelming love whom I became most familiar and fond of this summer.

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Yi women are known not only for there incredible ethnic markers which involves a variety of headwear, but also their silverwork.

Even though my summer was defined by shifting cultures and minorities, the regions I passed through can’t be simplified with obvious ethnic borders. Lugu Lake was sprinkled with Yi families and the Tibetan highlands often had a surprising number of Hui Muslims with their elaborate mosques alongside monasteries.

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A monastery and its stupas in Kangding, SIchuan. I was roped into walking circles around the eight stupas and rolling my prayer beads for at least 30 minutes with elderly Tibetan woman.

It was rare to find even a village without a Han presence. The incredible Gongga Mountain – noted for being China’s largest mountain east of Tibet and its quickly disappearing glacier – and its vast region were such that ethnic lines of Tibetan, and Han were extensively and intricately overlapped.

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Baiwu Lake at the foot of Gongga Mountain, locally known as Minya Konka.

I am deeply indebted to every location I spent time in this summer, for every community swept me up in a generosity I had not previously known – often leaving me feeling uncomfortable and grappling to understand my position in homes so far from my own.

Now that the summer has finally ended, I am left not only incredibly appreciative but troubled as to how I could ever repay the countless friends who gave me so much. But I have grown attached to these friends and communities and am excited to return in the future when I will be better equipped and prepared to make sure our relationships are reciprocal.

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A friend in her traditional dress in Butuo County.

In the meantime, there is a responsibility in maintaining these relationships across the world which I already feel weighing on me as I begin to sink into new experiences now in India.