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.

No Regrets: My 20th Birthday in Toronto

AIDCI 50th ann

So as some of you may have realized, I was not in Shanghai for the past week. As crazy (and exorbitantly expensive) as it may have been, I decided at the last minute to fly to Toronto to attend the 50th Anniversary commemoration ceremony of the 1962 Chinese-Indian internment. While my dad gladly paid for the plane tickets, I do feel compelled to give a special thanks to Fuji and Rebecca for helping me navigate through the paperwork and thanks to everyone else who was so supportive of the idea.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been mulling over the topic of the paper that Fuji and I plan on presenting at the conference in Meixian. A topic that I’ve hoped to address in the paper involves generational discontinuity between the ex-internee generation and ex-internees’ children. Here, I am referring to an issue that the ex-internee organization in Toronto has faced: getting young people to become involved in the organization’s effort to appeal to the Indian government for a formal apology to those interned as a result of the 1962 Sino-Indian border conflict. As of now, I am the youngest member of AIDCI…and that’s by about 25 years. The majority of the members are about 60 years old or older. With a majority of them being senior citizens, this has posed two major problems within the organization: 1) keeping up with social media and 2) working fast enough to ensure that these elders feel some sense of justice before their lives end.

When I first began approaching the paper, I was leaning toward a pretty pessimistic conclusion about the organization’s sustainability. Over the past few months, I’ve been trying my best to tackle both problems…and admittedly, I felt like I was failing, especially after coming to Shanghai. I had been trying to keep up with the Facebook page, the website, the interviewee blog, and some correspondence/networking—but it was pretty difficult doing all of it on top of schoolwork and the experience of traveling. Additionally, I am terribly behind in terms of social media and, quite frankly, don’t completely know what I’m doing.

These past few months, a small part of me was frustrated that no other young people wanted to get involved in the organization and that the in-fighting within the organization would drive away the few people who wanted to help. A large part of me felt certain that things would stay that way. After all, Sheng, the second-youngest and by far most active member of the organization, had almost quit this summer after he got so frustrated with the organization’s in-fighting and lack of cooperation.

My father and I had initially decided that I wouldn’t go to the 50th anniversary. He saw it as an impractical expense and I had convinced myself that it wouldn’t be worth attending anyway. But a few weeks before the event, my dad asked me on Skype if I wanted to go. I was shocked that he had asked, but told him that I wanted to go. When I asked him what had changed his mind, he said, “I don’t want you to have any regrets in life.”

And that turned into a part of the brief speech that I gave at the 50th Anniversary. The speech was directed toward all the young people at the event, entreating them to honor and appreciate their families by taking up the organization’s cause (the speech will probably be in my next blog post).

IMG_4467I was so happy to see how many ex-internees’ children showed up to the event. More importantly, I was inspired by their involvement and interest in the event. My cousins and uncles showed up to the event, assisting in taking pictures, video recording, catering food, greeting guests and decorating the hall. I found out that some of them had even been helping out with printing tickets and fliers long before the event was held. My sister surprised me and came, too. Before I left for Toronto this summer, she wasn’t even quite sure about the purpose of my interviews.
aidci 50th ann 2After we finished our speeches and dispersed for the buffet line, two girls walked up to me with their mom and dad. Their mother told me in English, “We’re so proud of you! I told my girls they should be like you!” Their dad told them in Hakka, “Make sure you study hard, too. You could go study with Tchi-tchi (older sister) someday.” Years ago, I remember being a little girl in awe of Li Kwai-yun, a fellow Hakka Indian and a published author on the 1962 internment. I remember my Dad telling me similar things—to be like Li Kwai-yun and study hard and someday write something that would make a difference.


I don’t know if I’m living up to the expectations that everyone’s made for me so far, but I can definitely say that this was an amazing 20th birthday. I loved getting to be with my family in Toronto, but more than anything, the trip definitely provided the optimistic outcome that I was always hoping for.

Trailing the Great Wall 长城!

Climbing China’s Great Wall (长城) is both a exceptional and extraordinary experience; having done it twice within 24 hours is seemingly unheard of, and I am glad to say that I’ve done it. Trailing up and down the undulating path was breathtaking, yet it kept me eager to see what more the Wall had to offer me. On the hand, straddling the Wall’s dips and nooks along the edge gave me time to be pensive, which made me nostalgic of my hiking days on the beaten Andean paths to Macchu Pichu in Perú. I remember descending the Wall with Fuji and Justin and I immediately flashbacked to a specific moment to my Incan Trail experience. Climbing the Great Wall was the connecting point – the moment of overlap – that united my Peruvian and Chinese experiences.

I started to notice the similarities as soon as I began to loose buttons. For me, the loss of those buttons, the degradation of my prized and coveted pea coat, made me barren to the elements. Quite frankly, I was not expecting to sweat while climbing and still freeze while I remained idle. Truth be told, trailing up this massive construction in the dead of winter was just as miserable, as well as enticing as the Incan Trail. I honestly feel that up until the point, China has been a cakewalk compared to all of the hiking I’ve endured due to the Peruvian unforgiving terrain. Thus, I love seeing the overlap between the two unique experiences. I’ve been unjustly comparing the two experiences for some time, but the Great Wall finally gave me the excuse I needed.

The greatest link, as I mentioned earlier, was my hike down of the Great Wall with Fuji and Justin. It was so reminiscent of the day that President Quillen and I walked down the hills of the Peruvian salt flats. We talked about everything from the mundane to extreme topics in Marxism (which I couldn’t fully grasp). However, it was really a moment to connect to my social and intellectual superior. I felt a similar bonding experience with Fuji, who (I feel) that many ca attest to the fact that he is somewhat absentee… Nevertheless, both of these are key moments that added sustenance to my traveling experiences – humanizing the distant Davidson intellectuals. They alike have given me something to look forward to when I return to Davidson that I thought never existed before I left.

An Ode to Taipei’s Youth

The allure of Taiwan is immediate and powerful. When we left Shanghai, we were leaving behind a city of global attention and economic power, but we were also leaving behind a city of pungent smells, smoggy air, and honking cars with no intention of braking. Simply smelling Taipei’s clean air brought a smile to my face. However, what I really found and loved most in Taipei was its blossoming culture of youth and creativity.

Call us hipsters, coffeehouse addicts, or pretentious idealists, but the conscientious youth generation is powerful in both the United States and Taiwan. In the U.S., we are the creative force behind trendy green movements, grassroots political campaigns, and countless coffeehouse businesses. In the U.S., so many college-educated twenty-somethings want to move to a big city, “live their truth” (read: find yourself through an indefinite time of self-exploration), and change the world. It is no mistake that many of us chose the Davidson in Shanghai program because we were attracted to the big city. We wanted an opportunity to be at the heart of the action, at the crossroads of international culture and economy. In Shanghai, I certainly found the center of international economy; it is impossible to travel twenty minutes in Shanghai without seeing an endless array of skyscrapers and glittering billboards. While the international economy thrives in Shanghai, the youth culture seems to flounder.

In Taipei, the twenty-somethings are truly at the cultural heart of Taiwan. They run the night markets, which churn out an endless supply of fashion and food. They listen to “World Music” from the U.S., Japan, Korea, and more, but they also create their own Taiwanese pop. College students from the National Taiwan University are political participants and sometimes even political shapers and activists. The walls of the city are full of bulletins for poetry readings, film screenings, and educational lectures. Creative graffiti lines the walls of the Old Town, as if proclaiming that the youth are firmly Taiwanese, not pawns of colonization. The youth are dynamic, active, and highly visible.

On the other end, the youth generation of Shanghai is at the center of business and economic growth. To prepare for a future of economic success, most of the high school and college-aged students in Shanghai study as much as possible. Education is truly a full-time job in China. So, instead of seeing young adults traveling around Shanghai, gathering together, promoting fashion, and creating culture, many are preparing for their futures. I am always weary of stereotypes, but in this case the stereotype is partially true: Chinese students simply study more than American students in general.

In the U.S., we value experience more than academic learning. Mark Twain’s famous quote summarizes this view: “Don’t let your schooling interfere with your education.” Fuji would call this phenomenon anti-intellectualism, but I think it is also related to a love of pragmatism and the self-made person. In Taipei, I felt the same sort of phenomenon. The college students were out trying new things, making mistakes, and learning through experience. They seemed to care more about creativity and experiential learning than money. Taipei was so comfortable to me because my age group in Taiwan felt just like my peers back home.

The youth generation can tell so much about a country: where the country is coming from, where the country is now, and where the country is going. In Shanghai, the youth generation emphasizes China’s economic development. In the United States, the youth generation emphasizes experience or anti-intellectualism (depending on your perception). In Taipei, the youth generation emphasizes Taiwan’s blossoming creativity and cultural growth.

Dumpling Diplomacy

Saturday the School for Social Development and Public Policy, the Fudan University School that is sponsoring our study here in China, held a get together for the foreign students so that we could get to know the other foreign students as well as some of the Fudan students.  We all met out on the lawn of one of the main academic buildings for some icebreakers before moving inside to make dumplings.  Ali, Benito, and I were are bit skeptical as to what to expect from the event, but were all excited to meet new people and practice our Chinese skills.

When enough foreign students had arrived the Chinese students decided that it was time to begin introducing ourselves to each other with some games.  The first game we played was the human knot game.  For anyone who has played this game before you know that it can be taxing and confusing; now add in the fact that we didn’t all speak the same language and you get one hell of an interesting game.   One minute into the game we knew that we were in for a challenge.  We were all trying to direct people in both Chinese and English and translate for those who did not understand.  While we may not have learned everyone’s name in our group, that awkwardness of just meeting everyone was definitely gone after we spent 10 minutes all wrapped around each other.  There was one group of students who were having a particularly hard time unwrapping themselves, so a few German students who had finished early went over to observe and assist.  Whenever they could get a person free and untangled from the group a cry of “German Engineering” would erupt along with peels of laughter. Unfortunately, the German engineering was not enough to help them and they ended up being the last group to finish, but they all seemed to be having a great time.

The next game was again not so much of a getting to know you game, but rather a let’s just be silly and awkward all at the same time to lighten the mood type of game.  It involved two people standing facing each other and creating a roof-like structure with their hands while a third person knelt on the ground between them.  The two people standing made the “tree” while the person on the ground was the “squirrel.”  When the person in charge of the game called out “wind,” the “trees” all had to break apart and find a new “tree” partner and squirrel to cover.  When “fire” was called, the “squirrels” all had to leave his or her “tree” and find a new home, and when “earthquake” was called, everyone had to switch.  Again while this game also did not lend itself well to actually getting to know new people, it was a great way to get people to loosen up and become more comfortable with one another.  No one really understood the point of this game but we had tons of fun running around and grabbing random people to be our “tree” partner or screaming out that we had and empty “tree” for a poor “squirrel” to come and live in.

The next event for the afternoon was to proceed into the canteen to make dumplings.  This was the real time when we got to really meet some of the other students. We were all split into groups so that the foreign and Chinese students could get to know each other more. The Chinese students were very interested in where we were from and what we were studying.  We all had a great time trying to learn how to pronounce each others’ names as well.  With two German, one Swiss, one American and six Chinese students at my table the name part was defiantly a challenge.  The Chinese students thought it was hilarious to watch us try and make the dumplings.  None of us could figure out how to fold and press the dumplings the right way.  A few of the German boys even resorted to making disk shaped dumplings so they did not have to try and fold them.  All in all we met a lot of nice students, foreign and Chinese alike, and had a fun filled afternoon.  The dumplings were tasty and we found new friends to both hangout with and practice our Chinese with.  The Chinese students all seemed eager to know what we liked doing in our free time and wanted to get to know us better.  Overall it was a fun and exciting day filled with lots of laughter.