In September of 2011, I set foot in China for the first time. It was terrifying. I had grown up in Vermont and attended college just 45 minutes from home. I had never spent more than a couple of days in a major city before.

Then I landed in Hangzhou, a “small” city of about eight million. My study abroad university, Zhejiang University of Technology (ZUT), was located far away from the landscaped, gentrified lakefront areas most tourists associate with Hangzhou. Instead I found myself surrounded on all sides by narrow alleys, massive highways, and run-down shops full of locals speaking incomprehensible dialects.

By the end of the semester, of course, my nerves had calmed down. My language skills had improved, I had made local friends, and I had even forced myself to explore parts of the city by myself. But when I think back to my semester at ZUT, I still feel like I never truly mastered the city of Hangzhou. I never really knew my way around, I never quite understood the bus system, and I never felt truly comfortable walking around by myself.

Last month, I returned to Hangzhou for a reunion event at ZUT. It was my first time back in Hangzhou since I finished my program in 2011. Since then, I have graduated from college and lived in China for almost two years, navigating new cities, exploring rural areas, and traveling solo all around the country (and around other countries as well).

I hoped that when I returned to Hangzhou, I would feel distinctly older and wiser, like when you visit your old elementary school and realize how small everything looks.

I was surprised, however, to find Hangzhou almost exactly the way I’d left it. Sure, there’s a new metro system now and most of the construction around ZUT has finished. And yes, I felt immeasurably calmer and more confident this time around, knowing that my Chinese skills would be sufficient to get me out of almost any situation—lost luggage? Missed train? Police searches? Been there done that.

But while my old stress had vanished without a trace, some part of my brain retreated back to 2011 as I spent the day wandering around the city before the reunion dinner that evening.

I arrived in the train station, which was just as dark, drab, and crowded with migrant beggars as I remembered it. Although my anxiety had evaporated this time, I remembered exactly what it felt like back in 2011 to find myself alone in that crowded train station, heads everywhere whipping around to take in my foreignness, unsure of where to go next or how to get there.

As I made my way towards the ZUT campus in the afternoon, I remembered just how far away it took me from the city center. In 2015 I was able to take the metro, but back when I was studying abroad, I had to rely on the confusing public bus system. It took over 30 minutes to get to West Lake by bus, so I only ever went there on weekends.

When I arrived at the ZUT campus, it was unchanged. I recognized the road that led to my gym, and I passed the little music store where I took extracurricular flute lessons. I found myself automatically tracing my old routes from the dorm to the dining hall, the dining hall to the school store, and the school store to the back gate. I remembered the feeling of disorientation I used to get from trying to navigate the dense and confusing campus. Back then, just being on campus made me lose my sense of direction almost instantly. Now, I remembered my old routes as if I had never left, but I also did not trust myself to stray from those habit-formed paths without getting lost.

The highlight of my trip back to Hangzhou last month was reuniting with my old Chinese roommate, Nancy. Back when I was studying abroad, Nancy acted as a buffer shielding me from the outside world, translating the chaotic chatter into slower, simpler language that I could understand. She helped me buy my cell phone, set up my meal plan, and obtain daily necessities.

Today, of course, I would be able to accomplish these tasks on my own. But meeting her nearly four years later, I still felt impressed by Nancy’s poise and maturity. She had gotten married since I last saw her, and she and her husband have stable and lucrative careers. They own two cars and recently purchased a house. I smiled to myself when she told me this, thinking, here I am, working as a volunteer in the middle of nowhere, with no income, and no plans to settle down. But we chatted and lounged on the grass like old friends, and the more we talked, the more confident I felt that while my current path might be convoluted, it’s the right path for me. I love traveling, I am in no hurry to get married, and I would be happy if I never have to buy a car.

As we strolled around West Lake sipping coffee, I marveled at how relaxed I felt. Back in 2011, I might have felt worried about becoming separated from Nancy and getting lost, anxious about all the people looking at me, and exhausted from spending a whole afternoon speaking Chinese. This time around, none of those things mattered. They simply weren’t important enough to worry about.

While I have certainly matured since 2011, I believe that Hangzhou was an objectively difficult city in which to spend my semester abroad. It was confusing to navigate, chaotic with construction and traffic, and our campus was located far away from the beauty and amenities most people associate with one of China’s top tourist destinations.

Nevertheless, I am so glad I chose to spend my semester abroad at ZUT. The China I came to love during those four months was a real slice of urban China, and it gave me the confidence I needed to survive and thrive in China ever since.

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Then…

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…And now

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Before I went to Seoul last week for a visa run, I knew absolutely nothing about the city or Korean culture in general. I really only had one goal for my trip: go to a cat cafe.

I had read a couple of articles about the animal cafe phenomenon in Tokyo, as well as this post about a cat cafe in Oakland, California. Apparently, the idea developed in Taipei and spread to other urban areas across Asia where most people lack the space to keep their own cats (or other pets). The concept seems like heaven on earth: imagine sitting in a cozy cafe, with a purring cat in your lap, a mug of coffee in your hand, and free wifi all around! Okay, it may not seem like heaven to everyone. You have to really, really, like cats.

I had never heard of a cat cafe in China,* so I figured that my trip to Seoul would be my chance to experience the magic. I just had to cross my fingers that I’d be able to find one.

*I’ve since found out that both Beijing and Shanghai have cat cafes! But I didn’t know about them at the time.

Luck was on my side when I passed a sign for a cat cafe almost the moment I arrived in Seoul. I was staying in an awesome guesthouse (non-sponsored shout out to UBT!) in Hongdae, a vibrant, lively neighborhood located near Hongik University. If you ever find yourself in Seoul, Hongdae is the place to go for bars, clubs, public art, cheap accessory shops, and themed cafes of all varieties.

I made a mental note of the cat cafe sign, and decided to come back on my last full afternoon in Seoul. I would be doing a half-day tour of the Demilitarized Zone that morning, and I thought the cat cafe would make a fittingly surreal contrast.

On the appointed day, I bee-lined it back to Hongdae and followed the cat cafe signs…only to find that the cafe was closed, in willful defiance of the business hours printed on the door. I peered through the window where I could see a gray cat perched on a scratching post, just out of reach behind the glass.

Dejected, I used the free wifi from a neighboring hair salon to search for another cat cafe in Hongdae. The first result suggested Tom’s Cat, a cafe near the university gate that was apparently popular with foreigners. Filled with renewed hope, I wandered around and got lost several times before I eventually found the sign for Tom’s Cat—located in a building that was clearly undergoing a massive renovation. Sadly, Tom’s Cat is no more.

About to give up, I decided to look up one more cafe I’d seen online. This one was called Cat’s Attic (although I think this was the Korean name; the English just said “Hello Cat”). For detailed directions and lots of cute kitty pictures, check out this post.

I followed the directions and there it was, the bright yellow sign beckoning me inside like the pearly gates.

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Once inside, I was instructed to take off my shoes and put on some plastic flip-flops, then wash my hands with hand sanitizer. They had a poster on the wall with profiles of all the different cats, but sadly I couldn’t read this because it was all in Korean. I was handed a card with rules for how to interact peacefully and safely with the cats.

From what I have heard, all of this is considered standard procedure at cat cafes around the world.

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As for the actual “cafe” part, this works differently at different establishments. Some cat cafes charge per beverage like an ordinary coffee shop, while others charge by the hour. This particular cat cafe charged a flat cover fee of 8000 KRW (about $8), which included one drink from the menu and unlimited time in the cafe. This might seem steep for an ordinary beverage, but I figured it was worth it both for the experience, and because it covered the cost of caring for the cats.

It was very warm inside—probably for the cats’ comfort—so I decided to order an iced green tea latte. They drew a cat on it with chocolate syrup.

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Despite the heat, the air in the cafe felt very fresh due to several fans and air conditioners positioned around the room. It was also sparkling clean, without a hint of cat smell.

I picked a table by the wall and sat down to take in the scene. The walls were covered with shelves, scratching posts, and cozy cubbyholes, several of which were occupied. The chairs had little cat hammocks hanging underneath. I even noticed some flat platforms affixed a few inches below the ceiling for the cats to explore. It was hard to know how many cats there were, since many were hiding, but I would guess 15-20.

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After sitting for a while and drinking my latte, the owner came over to me carrying a big piece of flowery fabric, which she draped over my lap. I had no idea what was going on. Then she selected a cat who was curled up on a shelf on the wall, picked him up, and placed him abruptly into my lap. The cat barely even registered the disruption; he just curled back up and continued sleeping.

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Eventually, the cat woke up and jumped off (or maybe I was getting restless and gently nudged him, who knows). In the center of the room was a big gym mat where several customers were sitting and playing with the cats, and I went over to join them. This was where the social cats gathered, and there were lots of them: big, long-haired white ones, an orange one with short stubby ears, and a playful calico who started attacking this one girl’s trench coat with remarkable vigor. I noticed that the vast majority of customers were girls—in fact, I only saw two boys, and both looked like their girlfriends had dragged them in against their will. I realized that the flowery fabric I had been given was actually a long skirt, and that several of the girls were wearing them over their clothes to protect against shedding. There were a few foreigners in the mix too, including the owner of the aforementioned trench coat, who was Australian.

One of the more noteworthy cats was this little guy:

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I grew up with some very ugly cats (RIP Hobie), but this guy honestly out-uglied anything I’d ever seen before. In addition to lacking whiskers and generally looking like a plucked chicken, he also felt very, strangely, warm to the touch. But he was clearly a sweetheart, and he sought me out twice to sit on my lap.

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Here are a few pictures of the other cats, in case that last picture gives you nightmares.

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Although Cat’s Attic had a lot of cats in a pretty small space, I was happy to see that they all seemed clean and healthy, and that they had plenty of hidden spaces to retreat to when they wanted to get away from people.

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While Cat’s Attic exists purely for entertainment, I have heard of some inspiring places—particularly in the US—that operate as animal shelters as well. Meow Parlour in New York, for example, takes in rescue cats and encourages customers to adopt.

This doesn’t mean that classic cat cafes like Cat’s Attic aren’t worth a visit, however; if they can bring some joy to cat-less city dwellers, then cat cafes are making the world a better place! That said, I might need to start planning a trip to New York…

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I haven’t written about food in a long time, mostly because our meals in the Laohegou nature reserve get pretty monotonous after a while. I know I shouldn’t complain, since our food is actually quite good (not to mention free, plus I don’t have to cook it myself)…but I still find myself craving some variety now and then.

Luckily, last week I went to Seoul for my visa run (aka mandatory vacation)! Here are a few of the more noteworthy things I gorged on in South Korea:

1. Churros

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I am ashamed to admit that I knew next to nothing about South Korea when I bought my tickets to Seoul and set off on a visa run. So what was my first impression of the country when I poked my head out of the metro for the first time? Man, these people like churros. This wasn’t quite what I expected, but seriously—they sell churros everywhere! Street Churros, Mr. Churro, Churro 101…the streets are dotted with little shops selling long sticks of Mexican-style fried dough, coated in cinnamon sugar and accompanied by your choice of dipping sauces and toppings. Most of the churros were made to order, pulled hot from the fryer and handed to you in a paper cone. It took a lot of restraint for me not to order sixteen churros a day and never eat anything else. But I’m glad I saved room for some of Seoul’s other offerings, such as…

2. The Thunder Bomb

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Just look at this beauty! Sweet milk ice cream underneath a fluffy beard of interesting-colored cotton candy, topped with a little white chocolate lightening bolt. How could I resist? Served up by the science lab-themed ice cream shop Remicone, the Thunder Bomb is apparently super trendy right now. Do a quick Google search and you’ll see what I mean. Although it didn’t taste quite as good as it looked—the cotton candy had a weird minty flavor that wasn’t my favorite—the contrast of textures between the warm, fuzzy “thunder” and the smooth, cold ice cream was very satisfying.

3. Bingsu

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Continuing in the “cold sweet” category, this traditional Korean dessert consists of a massive pile of fluffy shaved ice served with sweet toppings such as red bean paste (patbingsu), mango, or other delectable things. These desserts are tasty and extremely photogenic—but often quite expensive, as I found out only after ordering the mango bingsu pictured above. It cost 10,800 won, or about $10.80! Oh well. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from traveling, it’s that experiencing new places is much more fun and relaxing when you don’t worry too much about money. Although this goes against my frugal nature, sometimes it’s better to just shrug your shoulders and fork over a few extra dollars for an experience you’ll remember forever. Since I spend very little money in my day-to-day life in Laohegou, I figure this bingsu was worth it!

4. Coffee

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Okay, this isn’t really food, but since I consumed more coffee than anything else during my time in Seoul, I’m going to count it anyway. Besides churros, one of my first impressions of South Korean culture was that people really like their coffee. They sell coffee everywhere! You can find it in subway stations, themed cafes, dessert shops, and even at the more traditional Korean restaurants. They’ve got American chains like Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts, Korean chains like Caffé Bene and Tom N Tom’s Coffee, plus adorable little independent coffee shops on every corner. Over my 3+ days in Seoul, I had coffee in several of the aforementioned chains, as well as in a traditional dessert shop, a cat café, a nature-themed café with live sheep outside, and a subway vending machine (it only cost forty cents!) Similar to China, I found that many of Seoul’s coffee shops did not open until 11am or even later; in both countries, it seems that coffee is seen more as an afternoon luxury than an early morning necessity. But I also noticed that some of the subway coffee shops were open during morning rush hour, and they seemed to be doing very steady business, so maybe this is changing in Korea.

5. Kimchi

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You didn’t think I’d forget about kimchi, did you? This pickly side dish is emblematic of Korean culture, and a great source of local pride. Seoul even has an entire museum dedicated to the many varieties and preparations of kimchi. While I did not make it to the museum, I did eat a fair amount of kimchi in the form of kimchi fried rice (bokumbap). It was so delicious I ate it two days in a row (from two different restaurants). Both times, the bokumbap came with several little side dishes containing…more kimchi! Woohoo!

Unfortunately, my time in Seoul was far too short for me to really explore the full range of Korean cuisine. I also sabotaged my chances by eating too many desserts (see: almost every item on this list), thus leaving little room for anything else. Maybe I was feeling sugar-deprived from spending so long in rural China! In any case, it’s back to spicy stir-fries and rice for me—at least until my next visa run.

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Look at that beautiful, empty boardwalk. Stretching past the river and enticing you around the corner and into the unknown—don’t you want to follow it?

Unfortunately, my travel companions at Jiuzhaigou National Park did not. They were anxious to take their selfie-stick selfies and get back to the crowded main road where buses whisked tourists from one poetically named Scenic Spot to the next.

I had sky-high expectations about Jiuzhaigou before I set out. I had heard of its reputation as one of the most beautiful natural places in China. I’d seen photographs of its stunning turquoise lakes and majestic waterfalls, set against a background of brilliant red foliage. The park has been heralded as a model of sustainable nature-based tourism in China. It’s been celebrated for the rich culture of the local Tibetan inhabitants, who still practice a form of the pre-Buddhist Bön religion.

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Naturally, I was not the only one aware of Jiuzhaigou’s mythical beauty. Since it first opened to visitors in 1984, the park has received thousands of tourists from across China and the world (but mostly China), and their numbers continue to increase. In 2001, measures were taken to limit tourists to 12,000 per day.

To their credit, the park authorities have done everything they can to preserve the delicate ecosystems within the park, while still allowing visitors to enjoy the sights. Tourists are kept on elevated boardwalks away from the vegetation, and they are not allowed to stray from the trails or touch the water. They are shuttled to and fro on “green buses,” (powered by low-polluting liquefied petroleum gas), and ordinary vehicles are prohibited. Visitors are required to leave the park every night. The local Tibetan villagers are allowed to live inside the park in their ancestral homes, but they cannot farm or hunt; instead, they earn money through tourism-related activities and receive portions of the park’s ticket revenue. Studies have suggested that several wildlife species, such as Amur hedgehogs, wild boars, and the endangered takin, have increased in population since the area was protected.

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Nevertheless, an influx of millions of tourists per year will inevitably create rippling impacts across the region. Just outside the park gates lies an epic sprawl of hotels, restaurants, and other tourist facilities. Driving towards our hotel (a very nice Holiday Inn) we passed by blocks of newly constructed apartment buildings, a colorful “Bar Street” à la Lijiang, and a resplendent 5-star Sheraton. One could argue that any conservation happening inside Jiuzhaigou National Park is being negated by the rampant development just outside.

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The very concept of nature-based tourism is a paradox. The truth is that Jiuzhaigou is absolutely beautiful. It’s the kind of striking natural beauty that of course every person wants to see. I am an environmentalist for very selfish reasons, if I’m honest: I love nature, and I want to be able to enjoy nature in a so-called pristine state. I also want other people to be able to enjoy nature, and I believe that people are much more willing to care about and protect nature when they have experienced it themselves. But I am a human, and my very presence in a rural setting will have an influence on that place. To visit a place like Jiuzhaigou, I need a road to get there. I need a vehicle and a place to refuel. I need somewhere to spend the night, and somewhere to buy food.

That said, I think there are measures that can be taken to limit tourism development to a reasonable and sustainable level. They didn’t have to build quite so many luxury hotels. They didn’t have to build an airport for god’s sake, allowing urban tour groups to whisk into Jiuzhaigou without ever stepping off a man-made surface. Sometimes a little inaccessibility can be a good thing—I loved my trip last September to Yubeng, a Tibetan village accessible only by foot or horseback, in part because the other tourists were limited to the type who do not mind getting their shoes dirty. I didn’t see a single selfie stick during that trip.

Even as I write this though, I realize how pretentious I sound. I deserve access to these places because I can actually appreciate nature, unlike all those other shallow, uneducated, selfie-taking tourists.

Maybe I’m just a little bitter because I feel like I missed out on what might have been a nicer Jiuzhaigou experience. I’ve heard, via English-language tourism websites, that there are ways to avoid the crowds. You can take the buses all the way to the top and then hike down, in the opposite direction from everyone else. You can eschew the buses altogether and just hike around at your own pace. You can follow those little boardwalks that lead you away from the Scenic Spots with poetic names, and also away from the crowds.

All of these options require you to be willing to miss out on seeing some of the famous, but farther-away lakes and waterfalls. I was willing to skip these, but my travel companions were not, and I can’t really blame them. Jiuzhaigou is extremely famous in China, to the extent that they read about the Five Color Pond (五彩池) in their grade-school textbooks. It would be like an American visiting Washington D.C. for the first time, and deciding to spend all day in the National Postal Museum instead of visiting the Lincoln Memorial, just because it was quieter.

In the end, my trip to Jiuzhaigou was still absolutely worth it. We made the most of our one day in the park, and the landscapes we saw were truly spectacular, unlike anything I had ever seen before.

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I’m even glad we had a selfie stick with us, because you know what? Some of those pictures turned out pretty darn good.

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(I’m the second creepy panda from the right)

I’ve been thinking a lot about culture lately. As I mentioned in my last blog post, I spent the Chinese New Year with my friend and her family in her hometown of Qiaojia, Yunnan. As the sole representative of all of Western Culture, I found myself thinking a lot about the cultural norms that have influenced me growing up in the United States.

In Qiaojia I met lots of interesting characters: the maybe-lesbian from a poor farming village who is studying to be an accountant; the fourteen-year-old cousin with her own motorcycle and more maturity then I’ll ever have; the dude who manages hotels in Chengdu and may or may not be part of the Qiaojia Mafia.

One of the most interesting people I met was my friend’s father, Mr. Zhu, who is a teacher, local historian, and respected figure in the community. Unlike most people of his generation in Qiaojia, he was: 1) able to speak Standard Mandarin, and 2) eager to speak it with me, delving deeper than just “where are you from” and “why are you so tall.” I was incredibly grateful to Mr. Zhu, not only for being such a generous host, but also for providing some of the most stimulating conversation I had with anyone in Qiaojia. He shared my dislike of violent Chinese movies in which the Japanese are always unequivocally evil. He loved looking at my pictures of Vermont, and concluded that my family always looked extremely happy in each other’s company.

As time went on, however, I began to get the sense that Mr. Zhu was not too fond of Western culture, and American culture in particular. There was the old argument that America has only a few hundred years of history, compared to China’s “five thousand years,” and the suggestion that American culture is shallow, empty, and hollow in comparison. He didn’t say any of these things outright, but I sensed his underlying meaning—and I always agreed readily. Why shouldn’t I? America is far from perfect. Because of Americans’ diverse backgrounds, we do indeed lack the singular, cohesive cultural history of which (Han) China is so proud.

Mr. Zhu’s opinions were epitomized in a discussion we had about the meaning of 羊 “yang,” the zodiac animal whose year we just entered. 羊 in English can be variously translated as “sheep,” “goat,” or “ram.” During the days leading up to the New Year, several lighthearted news articles appeared in the U.S. highlighting this confusion: so is it a sheep, or is it a goat?

I brought the subject up with Mr. Zhu, thinking he might find it amusing. Instead, he proceeded to write two characters onto a piece of paper for me. The first was 意, or meaning. The second was 形, or appearance. Chinese characters denote meaning, while English letters denote sound, or appearance. He further explained that 羊 has deep cultural meaning in China, symbolic of auspiciousness (since the character 祥, meaning auspicious, contains 羊). He explained that any differentiation between sheep and goats (绵羊 and 山羊) is irrelevant to this meaning. The distinction in English between sheep and goats refers to a difference in biological species, or a difference in appearance alone.

I nodded along as he said this, but I also felt myself becoming a little defensive.

First of all, written language does not necessarily correlate with cultural richness. Second of all, it is false to assume that American cultural development only began in 1776. It is false to assume that our sheep/goat distinction is purely based on taxonomy, and not on deeply held cultural beliefs of our own.

Because here’s the thing: there is a very significant difference between sheep and goats in my culture, American culture, a culture steeped in the traditions of Western Europe.

Sheep go to heaven and goats go to hell, as the song goes.

Sheep herding has a long history in Europe and its subsequent cultures. Sheep herding and the peaceful, idyllic life of the shepherd have inspired countless works of literature, art, and classical music. I’ve played the clarinet part in Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony myself, and that piece is indisputably a beautiful, complex accomplishment of human culture. Sheep herding meant the breeding of sheep-herding dogs—collies, corgis, and shepherds—which have in turn created cultural icons from Lassie to K9. Sheep herding meant Fair Isle knitting. Haggis. Little Bo Peep. Jesus was a shepherd, his followers a flock.

And goats? Traditionally more common in Eastern Europe and Western Asia, goats are a bit more exotic. They’re tricksters. The devil takes the form of a goat, and his followers wear goatees. That Taylor Swift “Trouble” video would have been much less hilarious with a sheep.

My point is this: our distinction between sheep and goats is much more than a line drawn between two scientifically classified species. It is a deep cultural division of no less validity or significance than the 羊 in Chinese culture. Sheep go to heaven and goats go to hell.

I wish I could have explained this to Mr. Zhu, but at the time my mind drew a blank. It took me several days of mulling it over before I could put into words what I had felt all along—that while American culture may be young, it does not exist in a vacuum.

But even if I’d had the presence of mind to explain the goat/sheep distinction at the time, I’m not sure if I would have dared to open my mouth.

Would it have offended Mr. Zhu, my incredibly generous host?

Did I even have a point at all?

Or was I desperately trying to justify a culture that is objectively shallow compared to the culture of China?

I would love to hear your thoughts on this!

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Qiaojia 巧家 is a small, county-level city in northeast Yunnan on the border of Sichuan. It’s got one main market, at least two bars, a smattering of KTV (karaoke) parlors, and lots of late-night barbecue. Unlike most of Yunnan province, a treasure trove of minority cultures and beautiful landscapes that fill chapter after chapter of guidebooks in every language, Qiaojia is a dusty Han city that nobody visits without a good reason. Qiaojia has had three foreign visitors that I know of: one English teacher a few years back, one middle-aged white dude I spotted walking down the street (perhaps visiting his Chinese wife’s family for the New Year)…and me.

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I came to Qiaojia to visit a good friend who I had met in Lijiang. For the first time in my experience in China, I wouldn’t be holing up in my room alone on Chinese New Year, eating KFC because it was the only food available. This year, I would be spending the holiday in my friend’s hometown with her family.

The Zhu/Deng family lives in a traditional old courtyard house in the middle of the city, set back from the main road in a tangled neighborhood of old houses connected by crumbling dirt streets. We usually took shortcuts in between the houses, stepping carefully over rocks and scrambling across narrow packed-dirt ruts, touching the walls on both sides for balance. My friend’s mother managed it in heels.

The house is home to my friend and her parents, as well as her older brother, his wife, and their one-year-old son. This was not a modern house. The bathroom was a spider-filled outhouse with two holes in the ground (why two?). Water came from several spigots placed around the courtyard so that the water would run through the concrete channels along the edges, outside the main doorway, and into the muddy road that was rutted and eroded from decades of being used both as a road, and as a water system. At least they had hot water, and relatively comfortable showers could be taken in a curtained-off nook under the stairs leading to the rooftop.

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New Years preparations began with a trip to the big vegetable market in the center of town with the women of the family. The market was crammed with holiday shoppers to the point of suffocation. Stares and comments followed me wherever I went. Many of the locals assumed I was from Xinjiang, as if they simply could not fathom why someone from outside the PRC would ever appear in Qiaojia. I wonder if they perceived me as a threat; I heard that Qiaojia had literally kicked out all of its Uighur residents following the attacks in Kunming. I decided instead to take it as a compliment, since every Uighur person I’ve ever met has been exceedingly attractive.

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Back at the house, I felt more relaxed away from the judging eyes of the public. I helped my friend wash dishes, shuck peas, and clean up the main living room (although the bedroom we shared remained a complete disaster throughout my visit). We also picked the stamen (no pistils) out of these big, red, flowers called panzhihua 攀枝花. These would later be stir-fried, a local specialty.

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New Years Eve was much more low-key than I anticipated. Only the immediate family was there. Still, it definitely felt like a special occasion. While most of the family’s meals were eaten outside on little plastic stools around a low table, this time we ate inside the living room, sitting on couches. Red candles and incense burned in the doorway and at the end of the room. Dinner featured a much larger number of dishes than usual, as well as a large assortment of fried foods, since frying is representative of happiness and celebration. We drank coconut milk and sweet red wine out of paper cups. My friend’s father toasted each of us in turn and handed each of us a 100 RMB bill. I felt very awkward accepting this, but I suppose he would have felt even more awkward leaving me out.

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After dinner, my friend and I went out to buy fireworks. Since neither of us like the traditional firecrackers, and are downright terrified of the deafening bomb kind that teenage boys like to set off in unexpected places, we only bought some sparklers. Back at the house, we watched the CCTV Spring Festival Gala on TV, the annual collection of musical and theatrical performances that is the most-watched television program in the world. At midnight, we went outside, lit our sparklers, and watched fireworks explode around us in all directions.

The next morning, Day One of the New Year, we visited my friend’s maternal grandmother and extended family. We first convened at an aunt’s house for a breakfast of tangyuan 汤圆, sesame-filled sticky rice balls that are a traditional New Year food. I was surprised to see that the aunt and her family live in a massive, brand new, luxuriously decorated 8th-floor apartment. It had glittering tile floors, multiple modern bathrooms, and more rooms than they could possibly use. As far as I could tell, three different rooms were used purely for the storage of food, and this was not counting the large, sparkling kitchen with its full-sized refrigerator.

I am still unsure whether my friend grew up in such a run-down house because her family could not afford anything else, or because they truly prefer the traditional way of life to the amenities of a modern apartment complex. I actually suspect the latter.

After a rather rushed breakfast, we headed into the dusty mountains on motorcycles to visit the graves of deceased family members. This was more relaxing than I might have thought. While the older members of the family lit incense and left offerings in front of the graves, the younger people gathered on a sunny hill to eat pine nuts and take pictures (mostly of me, but whatever). As we left each gravesite, the boys set off a massive hail of firecracker explosions.

The days that followed were a slow, lazy, mix of hanging out and visiting with relatives. I don’t think I got any of their names, but by the end I could almost distinguish between the many middle-aged aunts with their identical perms and jewel-toned sweaters. I also spent many long, lethargic afternoons doodling on my hands with henna, doing Buzzfeed quizzes, and reading poorly written horror stories on Thought Catalog.

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By the end of my time in Qiaojia, to be perfectly honest, I was more than ready to leave. I’d had enough of the heat, the angry-sounding dialect, the random explosions, and the monotonously salty food. I was itching to go for a long, long walk without people taking pictures or almost crashing their motorcycles from staring so hard over their shoulders. I was ready to go back to Laohegou, where the air was cool and the dogs weren’t mean, and where everybody had long ago gotten over the novelty of my existence.

But I do not for a second regret my time in Qiaojia. It felt like my first glimpse behind the curtain of an ordinary China, unaware of foreign influence and untouched by tourism. It was neither a booming metropolis nor an isolated farming village—it was a small, unremarkable city, not unlike the cities and towns I grew up with. Qiaojia’s residents weren’t wealthy by American standards, but most of them didn’t seem truly impoverished either. They sang lots of karaoke, ate lots of barbecue, and spent lots of time with their families. Most of my friend’s friends were either college students in other provinces, or were running or managing their own businesses in Qiaojia. One of her best friends, who I felt became my friend too, owned her own coffee shop, and spent her free time performing in a local dance group. Her mother owned a clothing store just a few doors down.

I hope that in my short time in Qiaojia, I was able to help a few people overcome their reticence about foreigners, and to see that Western cultures do not necessarily match the stereotypes—after all, I’m not blonde, I’m not Christian, and I’m not an English teacher. I speak Chinese, I like China, and I am curious about Chinese culture. Once they got over their initial astonishment, I could tell that the people of Qiaojia were curious about me too, and eager to learn more about the big, wide world out there.

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Until I started working in the Laohegou Land Trust Reserve last month, I had never strayed very far off the beaten path in China. Nanjing was a bustling city filled with foreign exchange students. Lijiang was one of the top tourist destinations in China. Sure, I’ve been to rural areas and visited villages accessible only by foot, but almost all of these places had been developed with tourism in mind. There were always guesthouses and hotels to stay in. There were always vans or buses set up to transport visitors to local areas of interest. I almost always saw other foreigners traveling the same route I was, usually a route outlined in The Lonely Planet or recommended on Trip Advisor.

But when I traveled to Laohegou for the first time, I knew that I was in for a different experience. Laohegou is located in Minzhu Village, Pingwu County. Pingwu County is technically under the jurisdiction of Mianyang City (Sichuan’s second-largest urban center), but a good two or three hours away by car. The receptionist at the hostel where I stayed in Chengdu had never even heard of Pingwu County, and had no idea that Laohegou existed. Same thing with several of my friends who had spent extensive time in Sichuan.

Following my supervisor’s instructions, I took a bus from Chengdu to Pingwu, getting off at a stop called Baicao. I stood in the middle of a tiny intersection as the bus drove away. There was a convenience store to my right, a couple of houses to my left, and nothing else. I had a moment of panic when I realized that it was almost dark, I had no idea where I was, and this might not even be the right stop. Luckily, barely a minute had passed before a big muddy pickup truck stopped to pick me up, and we rumbled off into the mountains, past Minzhu Village, through the big metal gate marking the entrance to the reserve, and finally arrived at the compound where Laohegou staff eat, sleep, and work.

It would be overly romantic to call Laohegou “wild.” The forest is all secondary growth, having been logged for timber in the past. Scattered throughout the woods are old stone walls and the decaying foundations of hunting cabins. But the lack of human presence has inspired a resurgence of wildlife in the area. In my short time in the reserve, I have already seen wild boars, tufted deer, and Sichuan snub nosed monkeys.

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Laohegou is no Yellowstone, teeming with busloads of tourists all year round. It’s no Laojunshan, in Lijiang, where visitors from all over China come to experience a (literal) breath of fresh air.

Laohegou is different. Over and over again, various staff members have emphasized to me that the reserve’s first and foremost goal is conservation. That means a strictly enforced “core zone” in which no human activity is allowed. That means limited access to the reserve, and a big metal gate blocking the entrance (although locals are still allowed inside, and I see visitors almost every weekend coming from nearby villages to check out the reserve or visit the dilapidated little temple up the road).

There are no plans to develop tourism in Laohegou, and there likely never will be. The area is beautiful, yes, like all natural places are—forests, mountains, stonebed rivers—but the landscape isn’t spectacular enough to attract visitors from across the country or even from Chengdu. The local villages aren’t set up to accommodate travellers. Everyone agrees that an influx of tourists would bring more harm than good. With a solid source of funding from the Sichuan Nature Conservation Foundation, backed by some of China’s richest investors, Laohegou is free to focus on protecting biodiversity for biodiversity’s sake.

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A ranger checks one of the infrared cameras used to monitor wildlife in the reserve.

It is interesting to me that such a “pure” nature reserve would be founded by The Nature Conservancy, an organization known in the United States for cooperating with Big Business and supporting “sustainable” industry development. Mark Tercek, CEO and president of The Nature Conservancy, believes that quantifying natural resources for financial markets is the only way to make lasting improvements in the health of the global ecosystem. In a New Yorker article published last spring by D. T. Max, Tercek explains that without catering to the needs of industry, environmental protection would never gain enough support to make a real difference.

My high school classmate Ethan Linck wrote a great discussion of this New Yorker article here.

On one hand, I absolutely agree with Tercek. If we truly hope to achieve a sustainable global society in the future, in which human beings thrive without damaging ecosystems or depleting natural resources, then every industry, every business, and every individual must be committed to achieving this goal. Simply walling off choice patches of natural landscape isn’t going to cut it.

However, I also believe that “nature” is more than the sum of its parts, and that in quantifying nature, you lose sight of the reasons why it’s worth protecting in the first place. As the New Yorker article points out, it’s all well and good when a big factory realizes that it is both more cost effective and smog-reducing to plant a thousand acres of trees, rather than to install new smoke scrubbers. But what if it hadn’t worked out that way? What if it was actually more cost effective to install the scrubbers? The factory would have no incentive to plant trees, the local people and animals would never benefit from the beautiful forest, and the factory’s air pollution would continue as it has always continued.

I was lucky enough to have grown up in a natural place, with the freedom to run around and climb trees and catch salamanders. There was no economic value to my childhood exploration, and it would be impossible to quantify how these experiences have influenced my adult life.

This is why I believe that there is no single blanket approach to conservation; every natural area should be evaluated individually, taking into account the needs of its particular people, plants, and animals.

Therefore, Laohegou represents an extremely interesting—and I’d argue, successful—approach to nature conservation. Laohegou recognizes that to succeed as a protector of biodiversity, it must maintain friendly, neighborly relations with the surrounding communities. Staff members are currently working with local farmers to develop a market for custom-order agricultural products: walnuts, honey, persimmons, meat, and poultry.

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But the reserve still puts conservation first. The locals may never get rich selling walnuts and sausages, but they won’t be destitute either. They won’t have to change their lives around completely to accommodate tourism or another new industry with no history in the area. They will always have a beautiful natural area to visit, without competing with busloads of visitors from all over the country.

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As for me, I’m excited for the chance to play a small role in the continued success of such a unique nature reserve, as a volunteer for The Nature Conservancy. Although Laohegou is very isolated (I often find myself craving a bubble tea or wishing I didn’t have to beg somebody to drive me half an hour to the nearest store just so I can buy shampoo), I am enjoying living in a truly non-touristy area of China. As a foreigner, I actually feel less conspicuous here than I do in China’s second or third-tier cities. City-dwellers, raised on a diet of Hollywood movies and stereotypes about white people, are likely to point and stare and giggle.

Rural people might express mild surprise at finding a foreigner in their midst, but they are generally too preoccupied with more important matters to give me a second thought.

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