Flickr · Early morning on the trek · Marco Polos · Mountain pass, 4,800 meters · China as a River · Mid Autumn on the Tibetan Plateau · mountain village, E Mei Shan · Next stop: home · Summer in China ·
Images for the trek last November are located on: Flicker.com/photos/yingzhao. I'm not sold on Flickr, finding myself not all that social a photographer or viewer. However no need to duplicate the images here.
Leaving China in less than two weeks to return to the Bay Area... Turning of another chapter.
There was the river, of a crystalline aqua-marine, that provided refuge and playground to a group of weary travelers. I remember its name, do you, my students and fellow travelers? One of us, curly-haired, sang by its rushing intensity for a long time like a water spirit. It saw the group sit by the fire, give thanks to the full moon for the beauty it adds to a sentimental holiday, with many other thanks large and small, and heard the idea of "family" interpreted in multiple ways.
There was the village, nestled in a deep valley, offering up its apples thru the raised arms of women. Its doorways are painted in multi colors, ancient water ways channel clear snow mountain water down to each house and shed. Unlike the villages with the insistent old women with the big hats, and the villages with the ridiculously tall ruins of towers watching over them, this one you can only walk to. Can you picture it? Picture then walkers going up the endless switchbacks up the deep valley, two young men at the end, one offering encouragement as well as distraction to the other, both learning about having faith in each step.
There was the sky, here, there, and everywhere, with amazing stars adorning its velvety depths. In one place the night sky heard some young women cough thru the night, and one of them, sleeping outside the tents, break down and cry. Indeed the sky heard at least one of us cry each day, probably. The stars shone more brightly thru the tears.
There was the valley that discovered a bit of gold in the river that runs thru it, and saw a dusty road come in, but not leading to a way out of its vast depth. The people have rough lives here like the pockmarked faces of its mountains--a father got drunk and fell off its sheer drop of hundreds of meters, leaving a wife and two young children behind. The girl quit school to work and raise the boy while the mother left for a town two-days away to make money, and the little bit of donation left by the travelers may help this family a great deal.
There was the mountain pass, barren for its relentless wind, relentless in its test of the travelers. Those who stop to rest only find it harder to continue. It saw these young people pass, one on horseback, all very tired, their will waning. A view of a sacred mountain at the beginning of the pass can only keep one psyched for so long. At this height one can almost see the curvature of the earth; all the tall mountains they saw on the fourth day, the seventh day, and all the other days, were beneath them. Yet neither of these facts may be consolation enough for the fatigue of the body, one only continues because there's no choice. On the descend, finally, they see the three sacred mountains at once and sigh with relief for their protection and blessing. But the mountain knows: you do what you need to do, and you will be able to do it.
Do you remember now, these places? But those are only a few visions of a myriad mountains and valleys we've passed, and what have you seen, my dear young one, my blue-eyed child? Memory is selective, stories even more so. In the evening breezes where you are, to your khans and klans, what kind of fantastical places are you shaping western China out to be?
View of Kunming from the program house living room/classroom
We went to a show here, a dance with the theme of Shangri-La. Quite lovely with its Tibetan singing and dancing, but also over produced in that gaudy Chinese way, and laden with cultural stereotypes. A show is entertainment, but with a lecture and discussion we've done on Chinese minority identities, I can't help but think about the de-politicization of minority cultures in their representations in China. Isn't it good to celebrate these cultures and promote ethnic- and eco-tourism? Is it bad with the over-simplification, as this kind of packaging changes cultures, and Tibetans benefit less from the tourism development than the Han? No easy answers. After the show, Carina surprises one of the performers and a group of onlookers with her accurate rendition of a typical Tibetan drinking song, and we have an invitation to visit his home and performing group back in Zhongdian, or Shangri-La. How nice!
Kirstyn continues in her ISP quest of looking at advertising in China, noticing that the advertising strategies are more sophisticated than they seem at first. She's designing a survey to get first hand impressions from people on select ads. Not an easy task... China's rampant consumerism brings new tastes at a dizzying pace and our group is constantly surprised by it here, a modern and hip and quickly developing city. What to think of China's capitalism? How to take it all in, especially all the DVDs at a fraction of their price in the states? Where is it all going?
Most of our students have concentrated their studies on more traditional and known arts of China. Katie and Lindsey are progressing at a truly impressive pace with calligraphy, Meghan as well with brush painting, producing lovely xie yi (sketching the idea) flower and bird paintings. Steve has advanced to weapons in his kong fu studies, and Sam continues in his study of tea ceremonies and the rhyme and reason of "Cha." But these traditional arts are also constantly changing, perhaps coming to a renaissance as the Chinese middle class enjoy more leisure and appreciate cultural sophistication. The ancient arts and philosophies continue, the ideas that drew some of our students to China, but are presented to them in this bustling city, wrapped up in the flowing force of it, incongruities n'all.
The loudspeakers employeed by the cell phone stores 21 floors below drift up to our program house each morning. What can you do? The Chinese understand the sentiment of "wu nai" very well, which roughly translates as "to no avail," but not as a sense of powerlessness, rather it's often necessary to let go, in the face of great and natural forces of change. Being in China can be inundating and overwhelming, even in a city as pleasant as Kunming, with a program house as lovely as ours. We all have to go with the flow, grateful for being here, this moment. One never steps in the same river twice. Yet each moment in time is connected to all the ones that come before it, and all the ones that follow.
Many have likened China to a river, from the documentary River Elegy 15 years ago to Peter Hessler's River Town. Each of the students are each taking a sip, a dip, using it to water their own plot. This China can do, a drop in the bucket. It's beside the point, our students realize, to really understand China. Rather than seek the answers, they are living the questions.
The students are at a small village doing service work on a community center and surrounding garden, continuing the good work by Tibet Cultural group during the summer. They may be out of contact for a few days, then we'll do a 3-4 day trek either around here or to Tiger Leaping Gorge, before returning to our homebase in Kunming and starting the homestays. We also made contacts with my summer co-leaders who are teaching at an English school here, and with a small orphanage, in need of nutrition and teachers, that we'll visit in a few days, a likely long-term project for Dragons as well. It's wonderful to see the Dragons community grow again, and our young Dragons grow as well. Meghan is finally around 100% and it's great to see her spirits return; Carina, freshly 19, continues to bring us belly laughs each day; after a small bout of illness and celebrating Rosh Hashana it's good to see Sam regain his love of food; Kirstyn and Katie are the jaunty cowgirls of Kham these days; Lindsey hides not her delight at seeing everything new; Steve's comic relief and warm hugs are so welcome at the times of stress. Us leaders can not stop raving about our group, yet as it grows together it's not without difficulties, and we discussed the group processes of Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing together, before leaving for the village, confident that our bond will grow stronger with time.
I stay behind in town for a day and take a long walk. There is a kind of highland bush that turns bright shades of red, and I think of where our students come from, the foliage season on the east coast that are just coming into its prime these days, and the festive colors of the ripening grapes in the lush California valleys. I find a particular valley where the red bushes are an iridescent carpet, so rich, it makes me think of a landscape made of oil paint straight out of the tube, like in What Dreams May Come. Would there be time to bring the students here? Being a leader is a little like being a parent; your awareness never completely leaves the students. Their existence is synoymous with your own.
I think also of the other semester programs in India and in the Himalayas, and the recent tragedy at Colorado University that cast a deep shadow over each of our programs. Over the mountain slope hangs a moon nearing full, here the light is so clear that moon is huge and its light is blue. It's almost Mid Autumn festival, September 28, lunar calendar August 15, an important Chinese holiday where families and friends celebrate the harvest and togetherness, a simple, sentimental holiday that's always been my favorite. As a group we will share mooncakes, and laughter that's always abundant in our group, but indulge in a little bit of homesickness as well. For everyone who's loved and lost, for everyone who continues to love, every parent and every child, everyone of the Dragons community, please know that we think of you.
We have been moving a great deal the last month, and now all we have seen are coming back to me, in turn. The night sky of Hongkong, the pouring rain and lotus flowers of Yangshou, the old city bursting with Chinese tourists and the picture of tranquility outside of the city that is Lijiang, the red-robed monks of Zhongdian, the misty terraced fields near Panzhihua, the endless steps and cloud sea of EMei Shan. I've enjoyed all these places, but it's as if they bounced right off my senses. My attention had been elsewhere, on students, on logistics, on issues to solve, on what to do next. I've worked a little too hard, I think. This is a 24-hour job if there ever is one. The kids are terrific, settled in to their homestays,and as far as I can tell digging it, everything about these village homes so different from what they're used to. The homestay, despite the uneasy beginning, is turning out to be great. They don't know this yet, but they will miss this place, as I will. The end of the program, not far off now, beckons and scares me just as it does for the students.
Running low on time, the students will arrive soon.
It's been a non-stop spring and summer. The next couple of months look like this:
June 11-20, Wilderness First Responder training in Santa Cruz, CA
June 20-30 Training in the Sierras near Mammoth and in LA, for the summer semester-abroad program I'm leading
July 1-August 11 in China
Week 1: Hongkong, Guangdong
Week 2-3: Yunnan
Week 4: Sichuan
Week 5: Shaanxi
Week 6: Beijing
I will keep you posted of how it goes. Looking for more resources in these areas for lectures, projects, homestays, etc., much appreciated! This maybe the most challenging and fulfilling work I'm about to do. I've said that before, yes...
The Africa pictures are finally up, click on Sights to see them. There's a guestbook on the About page, please say hi and let me know how you are. In the fall I'm likely to stay put in the Bay Area for a while and looking for more user interface projects.
love and peace,
Scott Fitzgerald, in The Crackup, said he knew he was crazy when he became unable to hold two opposing ideas simultaneously. The experience of China means that you will never again see singly; the contrary of every idea in your life and culture looks as sane and reasonable as the idea itself. Your consciousness is bifurcated once and for all, so you might as well enjoy it. Every old truth is half a new lie, every perception half a deception. Itís all right; be calm.Africa is the China for me then, in this sense. Or rather, all of my traveling as a whole brought it on, Africa is just a cincher. Despite what the author says, this obviously can be a very confusing state of mind. Perhaps this is right just before China, which will certainly be a crazy-making experience. The world opened up my consciousness, bifurcation multiplication, now China perhaps will bring it together again.
I will be in China end of June through mid August, very exciting teaching-guiding-working-outside opportunity, details on that to come. This is the logical place for me to be, where my journeys lead, both this trip and right now. Right now I hope to do some design projects, catch up on posting some images and text. And thinking and cooking and walks and friends. I would love to hear from you.