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.

Taipei vs. Shanghai

This video was produced by Alex Bau and Shanel Tage, for ANT 372 and the Davidson in Shanghai Program in the fall of 2012.

Mainland China V Taiwan

When I was two years old, my family moved from Taipei, Taiwan to Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia. Since then, I have not have the chance of revisiting my birth town. So, when I learned I would have the opportunity to return to Taiwan after all of these years, I was excited, to say the least.

My class made this trip to Taipei last month. Upon exiting the plane, Fuji revealed our trip’s assignment: make a short film about one thing Taipei has that Shanghai does not have. After spending a significant amount of time in China and Malaysia this year, I was already curious to see how Taiwan compared. Initially, I noticed the obvious distinctions between the Mainland China and Taipei. For instance, Taiwanese typically use scooters for transportation and Chinese typically use bicycles. Ali and I chose to focus on Taiwanese scooter culture for our short film. Still, overtime I noticed more and more subtle differences. These obvious and subtle characteristics help construct Taiwan identity and culture.


Taiwan and Mainland China share the same official language: Mandarin. Nonetheless, Taiwan uses traditional Chinese characters, and Mainland China uses simplified Chinese characters. This was the first dissimilarity I noticed. The characters I had grown accustomed to in Shanghai were morphed in Taiwan. Although I hear the transition from simplified to traditional, or vice versa, is doable, I had the hardest time reading street signs, subtitles or product packaging during my visit.


While driving through Shanghai, one will see skyscraper after skyscraper. Disregarding Taipei 101, the buildings are noticeably lower in Taipei. Additionally, the city of Taipei is tucked between the mountains and the coast. There is a visible contrast between the city and the surrounding green scenery, which does not exist in Shanghai. It only took a thirty-minute drive from downtown to Yangming Mountain National Park. I believe the luxury of spending a day in a “natural” setting is less convenient in Shanghai. The mountains around Taipei are a constant reminder of the importance of environmental preservation and enjoyment. Furthermore, the mountains restrict development to a certain degree.

Endless noise pollution and traffic sounds disturbed my sleep and concentration during my first month in China. Now, the same sounds murmur in the background as I go about my day in Shanghai. During our bus ride from the airport to the hotel in Taiwan, I was shocked by silence of traffic. The level of noise pollution in Taiwan is minimal compared to Shanghai. Additionally, the air quality in Taipei is better than Shanghai. I follow the Con Gen ShanghaiAir Twitter feed for air quality reports. Almost everyday the US Embassy reports: “Unhealthy (at 24-hour exposure at this level).” Standing at the top of Yangming Mountain, I could clearly see out for miles to Taiwan’s coast. But, when I look out the apartment window in Shanghai, the hazy atmosphere screens the skyline of the Bund. Taipei’s development and ecological footprint is simply smaller than Shanghai. Undoubtedly, this environmental difference is mostly due to scale.


While we were in Taiwan, Dr. Rigger introduced our class to the youth interns at the Democratic Progressive Party. Through our discussion we learned more about Taiwan’s democracy and the Taiwanese perception of Mainland China. From this meeting it was clear that the Taiwanese people proudly reject any political affiliation or identity with China. In fact, they only grudgingly admit their ethnicity is Chinese. I tested this generalization with my family friends in Taiwan. When I asked if them if they were “Chinese,” their faces jaws dropped and they immediately replied, “No, we are Taiwanese!”

Additionally, the democratic system of Taiwan permits people to express opinions and thoughts more openly. While China blocked all traces of Tiananmen Square from its Internet, the Taiwanese government published the facts and used Tiananmen Square to depict the weaknesses of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The censorship that controls Chinese publications does not exist in Taiwan, and the people of Taiwan campaign to maintain their freedom of speech. Recently, Taiwanese activists protested against the monopolization of media sources, fearing the monopolization would result in an authoritarian like system. During my visit, I could browse Facebook, Twitter and YouTube without connecting to a virtual private network (VPN) to “jump to Great Firewall of China.” This easy access to social media illustrates the freedom of information flow and speech that Americans take for granted everyday.


With more than half of the semester under my belt, I have adjusted to life in one of the largest and most populated cities in the world. In particular, I have grown accustomed to Shanghai’s dog-eat-dog disposition, which is absent in Taiwan. I never apologize or say, “Excuse me,” while pushing my way through crowds of people in Shanghai. In fact, I must push and shove in order to guarantee a spot on the bus. My professor described the dynamics of Shanghai as “controlled chaos.” After going to Taiwan, I can see this even more so. In China, people spit, litter, and urinate in public everyday. Though these actions could be controlled or discreet, individuals choose to do what is convenient for their schedule. From an outsider’s point of view, these actions are dirty, inconsiderate and chaotic.

In Taiwan, order exists everywhere. Courteous patterns and rules of foot traffic are followed. For example, on escalators people either stand on the right or walk on the left. Public restrooms are clean and toilet paper is provided. All drivers wear their seatbelts and scooter drivers all wear helmets. Sidewalks are litter and feces free. These small things add up to a big difference in comparison to Shanghai.

Where is the order in Shanghai? After spending two months in “controlled chaos,” I believe the answer does not matter. Shanghai people get from point A to point B. Sure, the journey is not as smooth or easy, but the bumps along the road do not stop the city of Shanghai from flourishing.


During our last day in Taipei, DJ asked me whether or not I would have liked studying in Taipei better in Shanghai. I was a bit taken aback at first by the question. The luxuries of Taiwan make everyday life easier. But, the madness of Shanghai makes life exciting and unpredictable. In all honesty, our group had fallen in love with Taiwan’s culture, food, people and landscape. We also missed our home in Shanghai. Going abroad is about putting yourself out there. I chose to go to Shanghai because I wanted to be somewhere unique. I wanted to experience things I could not experience in the United States. Shanghai is too big and too messy to grasp in just a weeklong trip. So, I think I made the right decision. As one of my classmates said, “study in Shanghai, vacation in Taiwan.”

Rethinking orientations

This past summer, the Shanghai Taiwanese Student Organization, or Taisheng Zonghui, held a two-day “explanation meeting” for Taiwanese students who would be beginning classes at Mainland universities in the Shanghai-Zhejiang area starting in the fall. The event included presentations and discussions led by former and current Taiwanese students studying in the Mainland and officials from the Taiwanese Strait Exchange Foundation (SEF) and Ministry of National Defense to introduce incoming students to information about the Mainland and challenges they might encounter there. Another topic of discussion was Taiwanese regulations regarding recognition of degrees from Mainland institutions, and officials from the Ministry of Education and Executive Yuan were on hand to explain current and proposed regulations, particularly in regard to Mainland medical degrees, which are not currently recognized in the Republic of China. Officers from the Taiwanese Student Organizations (Taishenghui) of the Shanghai-Zhejiang area introduced their schools to their incoming classmates, and the representatives of the Fudan University Taishenghui were careful to explain the reality of life at Fudan University. Participants had the opportunity to interact and exchange with taishang, Taiwanese businessmen conducting business in the Mainland, and learn about the current status of taishang and the history of Taiwanese studying in the Mainland.

The event also involved informal discussion and bonding between new students, their incoming peers, and their upper-classmates. Officers of the Fudan Taishenghui taught the incoming students how to play Sanguosha (Three Kingdoms Killers), a card game widely popular among college-aged Mainlanders, in the hopes that it would help them more quickly assimilate into Mainland life.

The effectiveness of these activities in preparing Taiwanese students for life in the Mainland is questionable. The most significant issue encountered by Taiwanese students I’ve spoken to at Fudan University seems to be their difficulty in relating to and connecting with Mainland peers. Most Taiwanese students, it seems, spend the majority of their time with Taiwanese classmates rather than Mainland classmates. Various reasons are given for this, with the most commonly mentioned being differences of “education.” It’s understandable: Taiwanese culture and Mainland Chinese culture, after more than 100 years of effective separation, are different in some essential ways, and cross-cultural relationships are not easy. Take a poll of students studying abroad in the United States, and I can almost guarantee that the majority of them will report that most of their friends at school are fellow foreigners. Taiwanese in Mainland China are in a special position. Because of the special political relations between Taiwan and Mainland China, Taiwanese students in the Mainland are neither international students, nor are they local (Mainland) students. They speak the same language, eat the same food, and grew up in a culture with the same roots and similar history to their Mainland peers, but they are somehow, almost inexplicably, different. Not surprising, then, that it’s difficult for many to forge relationships with their Mainland peers.

The activities organized by the Taishenghui may be inhibiting active relationship-building with Mainland peers, however. When Taiwanese students come to the Mainland, they encounter some initial barriers in relating to their Mainland classmates due to differences of cultural and educational background. Normally, they would have to push through these barriers in order to escape the solitude of the exchange student in a new place. Now, however, upon arriving in the Mainland, they’ve already established relationships with many Taiwanese peers, and it’s easy to fall back on these relationships as a safety net and give up on establishing relations with Mainland peers altogether. While the Taishenghui summer explanation and introduction activity undoubtedly is a great event and very effective at helping incoming Taiwanese students adjust and easing their concerns, it may have negative effects towards their overall level of assimilation down the road.

I have often wondered if the same thing can be said of the STRIDE program at Davidson College. STRIDE is a special orientation and support organization for minority and first-generation students at Davidson College. Prior to school beginning, STRIDE participants have the opportunity to meet with other students, both incoming and current, and faculty members to discuss being a minority student at Davidson College and the challenges that prospect entails. This undoubtedly has many incredibly beneficial aspects for incoming students. However, the question should be asked whether or not it inhibits the long-term integration of participants into general college life.

It’s possible that the positive effects of orientation activities like STRIDE or the “explanation meeting” of the Taisheng Zonghui outweigh the negative impacts down the road. However, we should rethink these types of activities and make sure that is truly the case, and, furthermore, be aware that orientation activities of this sort may not be the optimal activity for all students.

Chaotic Order vs Tranquil Organization

Toto, I have feeling we’re not in Shanghai anymore! 

Palm trees? Clean air? No blaring horns? And “excuse me” ‘s? What is this?? Where am I??

Surely not Shanghai.

Who knew a two-hour flight across the East China sea rests an island of total tranquility? A mere 427 miles and you escape the merciless city of Shanghai and are transported to the serene scene of Taipei. Immediately after our arrival, evidence of distinctions was everywhere. From the use of traditional characters, to the immense Japanese influence, the essence of Taiwanese uniqueness is even visually clear. But what was truly astonishing was the level of civil order that contributes to Taipei’s overall peaceful atmosphere. The stark differentiation between Shanghai and Taipei is largely cemented in this distinctive civil behavior.

At no other place have I ever experienced an entire population of modern urban citizens all abiding to the law. Contrastingly, as my fellow classmate, Lincoln Davidson, previously noted, China is a country that operates on the idea: rules that aren’t rules. Taiwan on the other hand, has explicit instructions everywhere and everyone follows them. Lining up in the correct location in the metro; waiting patiently for the passengers to descend; and fastening your seatbelt in the taxi all demonstrate Taiwan’s orderly virtue.  In Taipei, I could let my guard down; I felt no need to constantly be on the defensive. The transportation system and public facilities were all clean and orderly. Stealing apparently was not an issue either.  One evening, I witnessed two school girls leave their book bags at a table they intended to occupy with no concern of thievery at a food court. If this isn’t the closest model of a utopian city, I don’t know what is.

Don’t get me wrong; I am city girl. I love the hustle and bustle of the busy streets and thrive off the sensation of urgency. And of course consumerism is my drug of choice, but with the introduction to Taipei, I question why other metropolises cannot follow suit? Taipei has all the glitz and glamour of city conveniences without the stress. Prior to our visit, I did not believe words such as “serene” and “tranquil” could be associated with any city.

But is this reality? Is it that I am blinded by the outwardly aesthetics that I cannot really see what’s going on? I am at a loss on how this sense of tranquility is feasible in a major metropolis. What secrets does this little island carry to maintain such perfect order? Even with the brewing political tensions under the surface, there is simply no evidence of upheaval or distress. Perhaps it will take more than just four days in Taiwan to fully grasp what’s really going on, but it is undoubtedly a place where’d I love to call home.