Wednesday, December 14, 2011
Sunday, December 4, 2011
I once heard a saying from a friend who had lived in Japan:
"When you've spent two weeks in Japan, you know all there is to know about the Japanese. After two months, you know a little less. And after you've lived in Japan for two years, you realize that you will never know anything about what it means to be Japanese."
Adjust the time frame and the country, and you have my China experience in a nutshell! I think that's part of why I haven't been blogging lately-everything here is so complex and overwhelming that I can barely wrap my head around it, much less write it up in snappy blog post format.
Let me explain what I mean. In Yunnan province (where I am staying) alone, 26 different recognized ethnic minorities co-exist. You can go to the largest market in Kunming, the Bird and Flower Market, and stroll past stalls of Miao jewelry next to Bai clothing stores, followed by rows of digital cameras and cellphones (and, furthermore, when you stop in at the Miao jewelry shop, the traditionally-robed proprietor will look up from his portable DVD player to greet you).
But even this situation has several hundred layers of nuance behind it. Ethnic minorities in China were once discriminated against severely, but are now encouraged to continue their cultural traditions-so long, of course, as they do so in a manner that is happy and tourist-friendly. Minority groups are granted some autonomy within their provinces, but they can most emphatically not become their own states, regardless of how much or little they have in common with the Han Chinese majority. So China celebrates its diversity, but with the primary goal of projecting an image of harmony that may or may not serve the best interests of the minorities themselves, who often struggle to preserve their traditional ways.
Then you have to wonder, what are 'traditional ways' anyhow, and why must the choice be between 'preserving' or 'exterminating' them, as opposed to letting cultures grow and change on their own? But in such an increasingly connected world, filled with societal pressures and misconceptions, what does 'on their own' even mean?
These are the sorts of questions that cloud my mind when I try to write blog posts. To make the matter even more complicated, the over 50 ethnic minorities in all of China (as opposed to just Yunnan province) represent only a fraction of the hundreds of groups that applied for minority status when the government began implementing special laws regarding the country's minorities. If your head is spinning, you're not alone.
Still, the vast diversity of China and Kunming does provide a certain serendipity to daily life. I can walk home past the half-butchered carcass of an unknown animal hanging in the street, and enter my host family's apartment to see their 15 year-old daughter, Ting ting (English name Sunny), browsing the web on her iPad. Experiences like that one make me realize that our day-to-day life in the United States is not the only model of modern existence. And if the smallest cotidian details of city streets vary so much in each country I visit, maybe the larger patterns that govern societies are also changeable and varied across the globe.
Anyway, if I can't explain the intricate web that is China in a few paragraphs, I can at least give you all a summary of what my daily life is like here.
Each morning after breakfast (I'm really starting to appreciate starting the day with a bowl of hot noodles) I walk 20 minutes to the university where we have Chinese class. Our teacher, Charles, has a store of patience matched only by the quantity of his varied talents (Palaeontology? Japanese? Photography? Check, check, and check.)
After class we have either a lecture, a seminar, or media project work time, followed by a leisurely lunch break. You can get seven fresh dumplings here for the equivalent of about one US dollar.
At around 1:00, we go to a local middle and high school, where we split up into groups of two or three to teach classes of English language learners. The 60 student class size makes this fairly intimidating, but we are gradually discovering what techniques make for an effective and enjoyable lesson.
After teaching, we walk back to the university for media project time and lesson planning for the following day. Then we go our separate ways and I head back to my family's apartment to chill out, have dinner, and read.
So that's it for my average routine. Although I had some definite culture shock when we first arrived in Kunming, having a fun and set schedule has helped me feel more able to absorb the huge variety of sights and sounds here in China. And of course, Charles is always ready to help us with questions about both language and culture. On one of our first days here he explained to us that Chinese language is often awkward, dancing around strong expressions and substituting soft negations. For example, if I absolutely despise a dish at a restaurant, I "don't love it too much"; and if I give a blatantly wrong answer in class, it's “maybe not too correct”. This concept of linguistic side-stepping is not unheard of in English (ha!), but I explain it to you here because it is in this sense that I intend the title of this post. Perhaps you can now better understand what I mean when I say that China is Not Too Simple.
Friday, November 4, 2011
Sunday, October 23, 2011
We are a group of high school graduates, all headed for college in the years to come. In Los Naranjos, however, we can´t figure out basic tasks like using the bathroom (you get a bucket of well water from outside and throw it in the toilet to flush) or walking home (take a right on the dirt road surrounded by plantain trees). Thrown into another culture, even the most well-educated students are as lost as toddlers (literally-my directions above are a bit tougher when you realize that all the roads are dirt roads surrounded by plantain trees).
By contrast, the actual toddlers here know exactly what is going on in any given situation. Kiara, the four year-old from my house, is a pretty normal kid, except that instead of going to daycare she runs around the plantain trees all day harassing my family´s chickens.
The truly astounding girls, though, are the three sisters who live in the center of town. Milena, Diana, and Anai are eight, six, and three years old respectively. But they wield machetes like pros. They took Sarah on a trip into the forest for cacao, using a machete to hack down the fruits from the top of a tree, then cracking them open and sharing them with all the students! They easily do laundry, paint hair with the traditional Tsachila achote dye, and shoo away hungry dogs. At the same time though, they are utterly normal kids. They love stealing our backpacks and playing with the puppies that were born during our first week in Los Naranjos. It´s amazing to see little children who are so fluent in a culture that I can never fully understand.
I will miss Kiara and those three girls a lot now that we´ve returned to Quito, but just spending time with them in Los Naranjos was as much of an education as speaking with the adults of the community.
Oh, I also want to say sorry for not including any pictures in these last few posts. I do have them on my camera, it´s just a hassle to transfer them from there to the computer to the blog. I promise to illustrate more later. Adios!
Saturday, October 15, 2011
For the last three weeks I’ve been living in the Tsachila community of Los Naranjos, which is about an hour from Santo Domingo, Ecuador.
I’ve been staying with an incredibly nice host family, consisting of a young couple and their four year-old daughter Kiara. In the afternoons Kiara bounces off the walls, but in the mornings she is usually too sleepy to say goodbye to Nicki and me when we leave for work.
Monday through Thursday mornings, we plant trees beside a river in a nearby town, as part of a reforestation project. The gist is this:
Years ago, the Ecuadorian government passed a law saying that any land that a farmer cultivated would henceforth belong to that farmer. The measure was probably well-intentioned, but it ended up giving farmers an incentive to clear every foot of land they could, prompting them to cut down the very trees that maintained the health of their local river. Residents of the area depended on the river for washing, bathing, irrigation, and sometimes drinking water.
In taking advantage of the new law, the local farmers destroyed the vegetation that was holding the soil of the riverbanks in place. Without plant roots, the sediments of the shoreline began to erode. Further, the water level of the river dropped, harming both the environment and the community-fish could no longer survive in some areas, so the Tsachila could no longer depend on them as a food source.
Every day our group carries baskets of saplings, digs holes, and plants trees along the edge of the river, with the goal of helping to restoring the river’s health.
It’s easy to conclude from their actions that the farmers or the Ecuadorian government areshort-sighted, and perhaps they were in the past. But the farmers who cleared the vegetation originally are now helping us replenish it by giving us access to their lands for reforestation.
We are usually plagued by thorn bushes and mosquitoes as we plant, so the project can sometimes be frustrating. But we only work in the mornings, and in the afternoons we return to Los Naranjos for lunch and seminars. In the evenings we hang out with our host families (Kiara’s favorite things to play with are her stuffed smurf doll and my electric toothbrush), and the next day we start all over again.
Everyone we’ve met here has been so friendly that it’s easy to imagine spending another month in Los Naranjos. Next week, though, we’re departing for Quito and traveling from there to Peru. After that, it’s off to China-I’ve never been to Asia, nor spent a month in a city, but if my experience in Kunming is anything like the time I’ve spent in Ecuador, I’m going to love it.
Ciao ‘til next time!
Saturday, September 24, 2011
Tuesday, September 20, 2011
Tuesday, September 13, 2011
Saturday, September 10, 2011
Thursday, September 8, 2011
We arrived in CR last night and so far everyone is getting along great. Everyone in the group is super nice.
We haven't done much yet but I figured I'd take advantage of the internet access to post (also I'm bored because I thought it was 8 00 when it's actually 7 00). I can't find the colon on this keyboard because most of the punctuation marks don't match up with what is printed on the keys.
Apparently there is beach-going in our future, so that should be fun. More when possible!
Monday, September 5, 2011
I am currently breaking my own cardinal rule, which is "only write when you have something to say", but I felt that it would be odd to send people a link to a site with nothing written on it, so I decided to write a post. I'll sum a few things up.
I'm Alison and I'm writing this blog about my upcoming gap year experience. On Wednesday a group of fellow students and I will head off to spend eight months doing a program with the nonprofit Thinking Beyond Borders. It is a fantastic trip involving several different countries, the four core nations being Ecuador, China, India, and South Africa. In each location, we will live in homestays, do a community service project, and learn about development issues faced by the community we are living in. You can learn more information at the link above.
I have done some traveling with my family, but never anything like this (I've never even been to South America, Asia, or Africa), so needless to say I am both nervous and excited.
My goals with this blog are to both create a record of my trip and to keep in touch with my friends and family back home. I'm hoping that the process of writing will make me feel connected to the people I miss and also be something for me to reread after the trip is over. Posts will likely be a mixture of daily life description (pictures of where I am and what I am doing, etc) as well any interesting thoughts I have (seeing so many different cultures should inspire at least a few).
When you hear from me next, I will probably be posting from Costa Rica, where the other kids in the program and I will be having our orientation (oh yeah...).
Farewell till then,