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.

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

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

nglish class with Yi students in the Butuo Township.

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.

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

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.

The team outside of Yangjuan Primary School.

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.

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

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

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