Archives for category: Culture

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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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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After my first week in Sichuan, I am pleased to announce that my lost luggage has been returned, my jet lag has disappeared, and I haven’t gotten sick. Other than that though, I don’t have much to report. I’m still getting used to the routine at the Laohegou Nature Reserve, figuring out what’s going on, who’s who, and how to decipher the Sichuan dialect. Being thrust into a new group of people in a new part of China has made me appreciate how close I became with many of the people I met in Lijiang. Hell, I even dated a local. We aren’t together anymore, but we are still in touch and chat occasionally on Wechat.

This brings me to the purpose of this blog post. It’s something I imagine many people are curious about: what was it like to date a rural Chinese person? Weren’t there cultural differences?

The short answer is yes, there were. If the relationship were truly right, however, I believe that any of these differences could be overcome.

As for the long answer, I will attempt to explain several differences in mindset and behavior that I perceived to be cultural, rather than individual. This is not a complete list, and a Part Two might be necessary if I think of more points later. Bear in mind that since I can only speak from my personal experience, I cannot say for sure whether the following cultural differences are specific to ethnic Naxi people, whether they apply throughout rural Yunnan Province, or whether they are indicative of China as a whole.

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  1. Culinary Rigidity

In Southern China, people eat rice. Rice is their staple. Without it, a meal is incomplete. TF was not very adventurous when it came to food, and believed very strongly that without rice, he wouldn’t feel full. If we ate noodles for lunch, we had to have rice for dinner. If we ate at a western-style restaurant (which only happened occasionally), he would order the only rice dish on the menu. He didn’t like pizza, because as he saw it, the crust was a staple food and should be eaten separately from the meat, cheese, and vegetables. He had no taste for sweets, and little interest in trying new foods. Not to mention the fact that I consistently ate more than him!

  1. Insensitivity to Social Injustice

In the United States, most people are hyper-aware of political sensitivity and eager to avoid offending people. Even if many Americans are in fact prejudiced, we are usually unwilling to voice such opinions aloud. Not so in China. I heard several pointed comments aimed at TF, often along the lines of, “Most Naxi aren’t good looking, but you are.” Someone expressed disbelief that I, a foreigner, would choose a Naxi guy over all the fine Han specimens out there (this particular Han answered his own question). The interesting thing was, TF never seemed to mind at all. He even turned around and said similar things about other ethnicities. Uyghurs are terrorists. Yi are thieves. Et cetera. I had walked into a tangled web of Chinese ethnic relations, and I wasn’t sure what to make of it. My American sensibilities were immediately offended, but if none of the people in question seemed insulted, then who was I to judge?

  1. Brotherhood

I first met TF through his “brother” Yixiu, owner of Rock Bar. I soon came to learn that most of the guys who hung out or worked at Rock Bar were “brothers” from the same village in Yulong County. Closer than ordinary friends, these guys shared long histories and a responsibility to protect and respect one another. Yixiu, as the oldest in the group and therefore the “big brother,” demanded the most respect. This often led to complex tensions and conflicts among the lower ranks. If the guys felt upset with Yixiu, they did not dare to voice their complaints for fear of disrespecting their big brother. To me, as TF’s girlfriend, I was granted access to this unusual network of locals. Many of the guys came to feel like real friends. At the same time, though, with TF I consistently felt second-place to his friends. The brotherhood always came first.

  1. Moneymaking

As an upper-middle class American, I was raised to believe that education is the path to success. Pick a direction, follow through, earn a degree (or several), and a long career will follow. This same mindset is very prevalent in urban Chinese society. In Lijiang, however, I found the opposite situation. I’ve written before about Ljiang’s tourism-dominated economy, in which livelihoods are created and destroyed based on informal interpersonal networks. This environment provides easy money to uneducated locals from impoverished backgrounds. Most of the young people I met were dabblers: they played music, worked in guesthouses, led tour groups, and sold local products to tourists. Only a few held full-time “careers,” such as TF’s roommate who was a real estate agent. With his college education, TF might have had more career opportunities than many of the other locals. But surrounded as he was by Lijiang’s unique tourism economy, he remained firmly entrenched in the culture of one-time moneymaking schemes: a jade sale here, a tour group there. In a way, I found this culture freeing and inspiring. Anything seemed possible. If he were tied down to a full-time job, TF would never have had the opportunity to play music, learn about the symbolic significance of jade or tea, or interact with tourists from all walks of life. His experiences have given him a unique appreciation of his own traditional culture, an appreciation that is arguably lacking in many parts of China (and the world).

On the other hand, the Lijiang Lifestyle made me feel anxious. There was a persistent lack of ambition in the air, and the locals spent hours every day playing cards, computer games, and hanging out. As time went on I began to worry that I was losing touch with my sense of idealism, and my belief that continuous learning and hard work would make the world a better place. My decision to apply to graduate school came about during one of those long, lazy days, when I realized that I would rather work hard towards some idealistic goal than remain comfortable forever.

  1. Folk Beliefs

These were the little differences in belief that may not seem important, but tend to add up and constitute a large component of a person’s worldview. TF truly believed in the healing power of jade, Chinese herbs, and ivory (which is another issue altogether). He believed that the Chinese zodiac was of indisputable importance, and once admitted that if I weren’t a foreigner, to whom the zodiac doesn’t really apply, he never would have dated someone from the Year of the Ram. Although many of these seemed like superstitions to me, I had to admit that I probably believe many things that would seem fallacious to Chinese people. MSG is bad. Eggs must be refrigerated. Tylenol cures all. I often discussed with TF what it means to believe in something, and we reached the agreement that belief cannot be forced. Although I wanted to believe in the power of jade, for example, I simply couldn’t. I hadn’t grown up with the idea. All we could do, we agreed, was accept and respect the beliefs of the other person and hope that our own beliefs would expand and evolve with time.

  1. Political Beliefs

I used to assume, naively, that all ethnic minorities in China are somehow at odds with the Chinese government. This is what the American media seem to suggest when they print another piece about Uyghur unrest or a suppressed Tibetan protest. In Yunnan, though, I discovered that many minority people identify very strongly as citizens of the People’s Republic of China. TF was one of these. His upbringing and education had instilled in him a firm belief in the greatness of Mao Zedong, and a strong loyalty to the Communist Party of China. Growing up in America, I had learned a very different story. But how could I argue? How could I question the legitimacy of TF’s education, when I have no way of proving that my own education was any more objective? Every history textbook emphasizes one perspective over another, and every public school curriculum reflects a political agenda. When political topics came up, I chose to respect TF’s point of view and move on. But if our relationship had progressed into something more serious, we might have needed to delve more deeply into uncomfortable subjects.

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The next question, I suppose, is whether or not these cultural differences contributed to the demise of my relationship with TF. I wish I could say they did not. I wish I could say that any two people from anywhere in the world can be brought together, as we were, by curiosity, respect, and a good sense of humor. But the truth is, cultural differences do matter. Perhaps if I had spent more time in rural China before meeting him, or if he had learned English and studied abroad, these differences might have been easier to overcome. The truth is, I wasn’t ready to commit to someone who doesn’t speak English, won’t eat pizza, and believes in his heart of hearts that Mao Zedong made no mistakes. I am pretty sure that TF, similarly, wasn’t ready to commit to a flighty American who travels all over the world and might someday get a PhD.

This was a fascinating and incredibly fun experience, and I am so happy that it happened. But now it’s time to move on to the next stage of my life: working in the Laohegou Nature Reserve in Sichuan. That’ll probably be the topic of my next blog post, so stay tuned!

I am writing this blog post from the window of New Moon Café in Burlington, sipping tea and watching the afternoon shoppers stroll by. That’s right, I’m home. After a train ride, a plane ride, an evening in Bangkok, then another three flights of varying lengths, I have arrived in Vermont safe and sound. My contract with The Nature Conservancy finished. My visa expired. I left.

I’m still going over everything that’s happened to me over the course of my time in Lijiang—the people I met, the places I saw, the decisions I made about my future (grad school!), and the lessons I learned about myself and the world. Cultural differences. Falling in and out of love in another language. At some point I’ll write about all those things, I swear. But for now, I’d like to back up to my last week in Yunnan and tell the story of how I took a traditional Tibetan art class in Shangri-la.

First of all, yes, there is an actual place called Shangri-la. It was thusly named in 2001 in an effort to boost tourism in the area, replacing the former name Zhongdian (which was a Han renaming of the original Tibetan name Gyalthang). The place that is currently called Shangri-la is a predominantly Tibetan county in northwest Yunnan Province, and it is home to the Thangka Center, run by the Shangri-la Association of Cultural Preservation. Thangka is a traditional style of Buddhist art. Painted in bright colors on silk or cotton, these highly symbolic works are common among Vajrayana Buddhist cultures across the Himalayan region. I have always admired the intricate details and vivid colors of thangka paintings, and I was excited to see that the Thangka Center in Shangri-la offered art classes to tourists.

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I emailed the director of the Association, Dakpa Kelden, and he replied in English saying I was welcome to stop by at any time. The Thangka Center has several full-time students from local villages, and I was welcome to join them for a few days of classes. I could even eat and sleep at the center for a very reasonable price.

A few days later I showed up…alone. I had been traveling with another girl, but she elected not to join me on this part of the adventure. I met Dakpa Kelden briefly, a well-dressed businessman with a posh Indian accent. Born to Tibetan exiles in India, he returned to his ancestral hometown in Yunnan as an adult to develop the community and preserve cultural practices such as thangka painting.

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The art teacher himself was Master Palden, a small, soft-spoken man who showed me the cavernous twelve-bed dormitory where I would be sleeping (alone) and got me started in the art studio. Six other students were already at work: five Tibetan teenaged boys, and one Han girl—a tourist like me. I was very grateful for her presence.

I could immediately see that thangka painting was not a skill that one could acquire in an afternoon. The students at work on large, colorful cloth paintings had been studying for years. A couple of the boys were still sketching in pencil on scrap paper. It takes several months of sketching before one is ready to begin painting in color.

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My first task was to sketch the head of the Shakyamuni Buddha. This involved copying an intricate framework of lines and angles onto the page, upon which the Buddha’s features must be carefully and exactly replicated. One of the more advanced students was assigned to keep an eye on me and give me pointers. Although he couldn’t have been older than eighteen, this boy struck me as extremely mature and trustworthy. All of the boys seemed a little bit different—less cocky and more disciplined—compared to teenagers in the United States.

After finishing the Buddha’s head, the boy came over to investigate my work. I was pretty proud of myself for getting the grid and the proportions right, and I thought I’d done a very nice job on the facial features thank you very much. But what did I know? The mouth was all wrong—too big and too downturned. The eyes were too wide. The ears were crooked and short. The chin was too pointed. Even the round thing at the top of the head was the wrong shape—it was supposed to be a jewel, I learned, although I couldn’t tell so from the scanned line drawing I was trying to copy.

I could see that thangka painting was very different from art classes I had taken in high school, where experimentation is celebrated and creativity is expected. Thangka painting is a highly exact and rigidly stylized process. Each building block—the eyes, the chin, the jewel—must be replicated perfectly and mastered before the student can move on. A finished thangka painting, no matter how complex it may appear, is simply a composite of these various building blocks, all of which are rich in symbolic meaning. I began to see why thangka artists never sign their work. Unlike art in the west, a completed painting is not seen as the accomplishment of a talented individual. Rather, it is seen as a new manifestation of a centuries-old spiritual tradition. A tiny drop added into the great ocean of Buddhist symbolism.

The boy handed me a blank sheet of paper and told me to try again. Once again I copied the intricate grid, then overlaid that with the features of the Shakyamuni Buddha. This time my efforts were rewarded—the nose was quite nice, and the shape of the face was almost right, although there was still something wrong with the ears. For homework, the boy told me to practice drawing the most difficult features over and over again: eyes, lips, and ears. I filled half a page with upturned mouths, spirally ears and wavy, heavy-lidded eyes, before it was time for lunch.

I am embarrassed to admit this next part of the story. Lunch was served with the other students in the little outbuilding by the studio, and it was very tasty—marinated cucumbers with Tibetan barley bread—but there just wasn’t enough to satisfy my American appetite. Since we had our afternoons free, I sauntered over to the nearest Western-style café (there are an astonishing number of these in Shangri-la) for some coffee and fried bananas. I felt like a pig.

That afternoon the other tourist girl left, leaving me alone with the boys. I had progressed by this point to Shakyamuni’s full body, which introduced the new challenges of hands and feet. Like all of the Buddha’s body parts, the hands and feet are highly stylized and must be precisely replicated in each of their various positions. After my first attempt at the right hand, one of the students peered over my shoulder and actually laughed. I couldn’t really blame him. My effort to recreate those fleshy, gracefully curved fingers looked more like a deformed tangle of spiders than anything else. The feet, meanwhile, proved even more difficult than the hands. I always made them too large, and the angle of the toes was never quite right. At some point my student teacher gave up trying to correct each spot where I had gone wrong, and started simply erasing my feet and drawing new ones.

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Dinner that night was much more satisfying than lunch (thank god), and my sleep in the cavernous dorm room was disturbed only when the middle-aged male caretaker decided his bed was too cold, and came in to sleep in the bunk two over from mine. Awkward, but whatever.

I was awoken bright and early the next morning by the sound of chanting coming from the art studio, which was located directly over my bed. The students, teachers, and caretakers had gathered for their daily recitation of Buddhist scripture. Their voices rose and fell together in a rolling cascade of syllables in 5/4 time.

After they had finished, I went outside and joined them for breakfast—tsampa and butter tea. I chatted a bit with one of the students, who I learned came from a Tibetan area of Sichuan Province and had been studying at the Thangka Center for three years. All of the students come from relatively poor backgrounds where they might not have had access to traditional education. Their studies at the Thangka Center are funded entirely by the Shangri-la Association of Cultural Preservation. This knowledge only deepened my admiration of their discipline and modesty.

The second day, after more or less approving my full-body Buddha (the ears were still wrong, and the feet were actually the work of my student teacher), Master Palden instructed me to add clothing. Again, I worked with a grid and a scanned line drawing. Despite the relative softness of the folds of fabric, the process of drawing clothing was no less rigorous than replicating the delicate facial features. I had lots of trouble with the left sleeve, and the lotus petals upon which the Buddha was sitting were too pointy. During my last class session, I attempted a new drawing of Tara, the female aspect of the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara. This one was difficult because her head was tilted at an angle to her body, but I’m proud to say that my attempts at her hands and feet passed inspection. Something was still wrong with the earlobes though. I still can’t quite say what.

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After two full days of lessons, I returned to Lijiang with a backpack full of imperfectly-eared Buddhas. I promised Master Palden never to throw my drawings away, out of respect for the image of the Buddha. If I ever choose to dispose of them in the future, I must burn them.

When I got back to Lijiang a couple of people asked me: what was the point? After all, I couldn’t really learn very much in just two days. Was it really worth the trouble? Although I’m no closer to being a thangka master now than when I started, to me the experience was absolutely worthwhile. My purpose in traveling isn’t to acquire tangible new skills; it is simply to expand my horizons as much as possible. Through my experience at the Thangka Center, I was able to glimpse the everyday life of a Tibetan art student and gain a deeper understanding of the cultural foundations of a beautiful art form. To me, such new experiences are always worth the trouble.

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First of all, I should admit that I’m hardly an expert in this subject. I turned twenty-one the summer before my senior year of college and moved to China right after graduation. I can count on one hand the number of bars I’ve been to in the United States, so I can hardly claim to understand what the American “bar scene” is like. Still, I’ve been to my fair share of bars in China, both in Nanjing and in Lijiang (and now I work part time in a bar), and there are many features of the bar culture here that strike me as distinctly Chinese. These are a few that come to mind:

1. Dozens of bottles of beer

When Americans go to bars in groups—as far as I know—it is customary for each person to order whatever he or she feels like drinking—a beer, a cocktail, whatever. When Chinese people go to bars in groups, they usually order dozens of the same cheap beer for the whole table to share. At Rock, where I work, the menu includes dozens of different beers, liquors, cocktails and wines (and even a champagne listed at over $3000). But despite the variety available, 99% of customers order the same thing—Snow beer by the dozen. Snow beer contains 2.5% alcohol, has less flavor than seltzer, and is the cheapest thing on the menu. Two people might order twelve bottles and hunker down with dice and cigarettes, cracking open one bottle at a time and barely getting any drunker. A large group might order two or three dozen bottles at a time. It’s quantity over quality, one hundred percent.

2. Whiskey and iced tea

Perhaps second in popularity to the cheap beer is overpriced whiskey served with bottled iced tea. This is less common at Rock, but I remember it clearly from the bars and clubs in Nanjing. My guess is that wealthy men—always men—want to show off that they know what whiskey is and can afford to buy it, but they haven’t quite acquired the taste for it yet. Thus they feel the need to dilute it with tea until you can’t even taste the whiskey. The iced tea they use is the cheapest bottled kind probably made from sugar, more sugar, and floor scrapings from the tea factory. In Nanjing, I remember a constant battle between a certain American friend, who would add more whiskey to the pitcher until it tasted strong enough, and a certain Chinese friend, who would keep pouring iced tea until the whiskey flavor disappeared. In the end they both got drunk, so it didn’t matter.

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3. Toasting

In China it is considered rude to drink alone. Before you take a sip, you must toast someone else at the table and drink with them. To really show your respect for the other person, it’s best to down your drink in one gulp (干杯). Because this is difficult to do with an entire bottle of Snow beer, most Chinese people pour their beer into a small glass and drink out of that. I actually really like this custom. It makes your drink last longer, keeps you interacting with the other people at the table, and it’s a great way to meet new people too. Just raise your glass to anyone in the room, and you’ve started a conversation.

4. Bar food

The first time I saw Chinese bar food at a club in Nanjing I couldn’t believe my eyes. Here was a room of sweaty young people nodding their heads to the beats of Nicki Minaj, just like in the US, pausing every now and then to snack on…sunflower seeds? Cucumbers? Fruit? Drunk Americans like cheese and grease: French fries, nachos, and chicken wings. Drunk Chinese, apparently, eat like a yoga teacher on a diet. They dine on unsalted sunflower seeds, plain peanuts, sliced cucumbers, and popcorn. The fanciest, most expensive snack is usually sliced fruit—watermelon, dragon fruit, apples, grapes, and cherry tomatoes—elaborately arranged on tiered platters. Rock bar offers French fries and pizza, but these are far less popular than the sunflower seeds. Seriously.

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5. Kids

In the US, the drinking age is strictly enforced, and children aren’t even allowed to enter most drinking establishments. Not so in China. The drinking age is officially 18, but I have never seen this enforced, and there is no limit to who can enter a bar or a club. This means that in places like Lijiang, where most bar-goers are tourists with nowhere to leave their kids, the bars are crawling with wee ones. They aren’t drinking (at least I hope not). But they do play under the tables, drop dice on the floor, and dance wildly to the music. More disturbingly, children frequently come in off the street trying to sell flowers to the patrons. I’m not sure I want to know where those kids’ parents are…

6. It’s great to be a foreigner

If you’ve never been to China before, it can be hard to imagine people treating you as a celebrity simply for existing (especially if you’re white). If you go to bars and clubs you can expect to get free drinks, invitations to the VIP rooms, and Wechat friend requests from seven thousand people you’ll never see again. From the perspective of a bar manager, this friendliness towards foreigners has an ulterior motive. A Chinese bar filled with foreigners is immediately assumed to be trendier, hipper, and more cosmopolitan than a bar filled with locals. In Nanjing, I was friends with some promoters (all foreigners) at one of the larger clubs. Their job was to attract foreigners to come and drink for free, in the hope that this would in turn attract wealthy Chinese who would spend a lot of money to drink in such a globalized establishment. At Rock in Lijiang, my job is less to serve customers, and more to chat with them and make them feel special, thus encouraging them to buy more drinks. My very presence in the bar elevates it in status. I suppose this is racial objectification in its crudest, most obvious form. The bar doesn’t want me to work there because I’m friendly and good with customers; they want me to work there because I’m a white girl. I usually try not to think too hard about this. After all, don’t bars and clubs in the US give preference to “hot” girls over everybody else? It’s a biased, racialized, image-obsessed world we live in, and in China I’m workin’ my privilege as shamelessly as I can. You know, for now.