Last night I had the most metal, badass dinner of my life. It consisted of three things: yak, bugs, and beer.

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The caterpillars were surprisingly good. The flavor was fresh, sweet, and almost floral…more like a vegetable than an animal.

The previous evening, I had been introduced to Mr. Mu, a huge and formidable Han transplant from Heilongjiang. Mr. Mu owns several guesthouses in Lijiang, as well as a couple of bars and a café. When he invited me to a yak meat barbecue the following evening at one of his guesthouses, I knew I couldn’t say no. It wasn’t just that I was excited for a good meal (and if I’d known that there would be caterpillars, I would have been even more excited)—I also had a hunch that Mr. Mu would be a good guy to know.

Guanxi, or interpersonal connections, are a crucial aspect of Chinese society. More than talent, luck, and even money, a person’s success in China depends entirely on connections. This is how jobs are acquired, deals are made, and secrets are kept. Without guanxi, a person in China quite literally has nothing.

This is especially true in a small city like Lijiang.

At first, Lijiang (population 1.2 million) felt quite big to a small-town Vermonter like me. The entire town of Hinesburg could probably fit into Square Market in Old Town. But once you’ve penetrated the tourist-swarmed surface of Lijiang, the close network of guesthouse managers, bar musicians, tour guides and locals begins to feel very cozy indeed. Everybody knows each other. Everybody has connections.

All the people I’ve met so far in Lijiang have been introduced to me by somebody else. If I were to draw a diagram of my network of Lijiang acquaintances, there would be a few obvious central nodes. Lynn, my henna artist friend. Yixiu, the owner of the bar where I work part-time. I have a feeling that Mr. Mu could become an important node as well.

The network of guanxi in Lijiang means that I’m never without a free drink or a free meal, and most importantly, never without a friend. About a month ago my henna artist friend Lynn introduced me to her friend Zafinna (yes, she picked her own English name). In exchange for painting murals all over Zafinna’s guesthouse, Zafinna gives me free coffee in her café. She also knows the owner of a nearby bar and can get us free drinks there. Whenever that bar owner goes to her café, she’ll give him free coffee as well. And whenever Zafinna comes to the bar where I work part-time, I make sure she never pays a cent.

Sometimes, however, this close network means I have to be careful. I was once sitting in a café near my apartment using the internet, when a very strange and awkward guy came over and tried to talk to me in barely-intelligible English. I gleaned that he was asking for my contact information, and I was about to politely refuse when he mentioned that he was friends with the manager of the café. I remembered that a friend-of-a-friend, a local, had once told me that he liked this café. This meant that the friend-of-a-friend probably knew the manager as well. I also knew that the friend-of-a-friend is very close with Yixiu, the owner of the bar where I work part-time.

If I offended this awkward guy and his poor English, word could spread fast. I smiled and gave him my wechat.

I’m finding it easier and easier to understand why so many people here believe in karma.

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