Four days into my Chinadventure, and I’m starting to pick up the pace. It’s interesting to lead a trip to a place you’ve never been to before, because it requires a subtle balance between trying to explore for yourself and actually leading something. I find myself mostly trying to pick up cues as quickly as possible in order to prep the students for something I don’t know much about myself. Some things are pretty easy and universal, but as insular American kids they just don’t get. For example, watch the road when you cross the street here, because a green light doesn’t necessarily mean cross blindly. For me, the second I stepped into the road I understood the lesson, for students, it takes a couple more times. Other things are a little more complicated, like actually speaking Mandarin. Most of my students speak significantly more than me which puts me at a complete disadvantage, and I’m trying to embrace it. What I’ve learned quite quickly is that it’s not a matter of trying to communicate directly, but rather communicating your needs to another person, most of the times hand gestures and common grounds work wonders.
For the past three days we were in at educational center in a village outside Chengdu. We learned about development, and the tension between urban expansion and rural conservation. Which was somewhat interesting, but to me the lessons of this place could have been learn in Mobile, Alabama just as much as they in Chengdu, China. The times at which I wish I could communicate better with the people we were staying with was when we talked about what they wanted. We were told that they wanted to keep their house, and continue their agricultural way of life, and not move to the city. I kinda wanted to hear it from them, and ask some hard questions about modernization and how their desires are manifested, but alas, all I could say was “du zi bu shufu” (and in case your Chinese is weak, that means my stomach hurts). So instead I just ended up cooking with them. I can cook some awesome motherfuckin Chinese food! (with the right guidance of course).
Maybe the most interesting thing about this trip to me is the perceptions. The trip was marketed as “China – off the beaten path”. It attracts upper class kids, who want to learn how to travel and desire to be challenged. To the instructors they perceive themselves as in a position to change their lives, to change their beaten path of becoming corporate lawyers or management majors and to project their lives into a different course that is more meaningful through this authentic experience. But intentionally or not, the “unbeaten path” leads to an appreciation (and maybe even over appreciation) of a conservative lifestyle that cherishes the old and undervalues the new. A lifestyle that is based on beliefs and notions of self that are becoming lost in today’s hyper-Urbanizing China. Most of the instructors here come from American liberal perspective, and have a deep desire to expand their minds and see beyond their closed western perspective, but end up inadvertently propagating a conservative agenda, that if it was presented to them as “Southern Wisdom” in overalls, a pick up truck, a drawl and a sun burnt red neck, they would be revolted. But presented in a monk suit and a triangular hat and a desire to “free Tibet” (please pardon the misplaced stereotypes) and everyone is moved by it as a genuine experience and the ancient wisdom. That seems pretty western too, but what the fuck do I know, I’ve never even been to China before.
The food has been amazing. My mouth has been on fire for the past three days, and both the people in the village and in the city have exceeded my expectations for spice.
Besides that, tomorrow is a new day. Or as I’ve been saying to most people here, most of the time:
Woda changuan bu hao. (look it up)