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Robert: Settling in

September 21, 2009

The month has been flying by thus far, especially with the lack of time off we’ve had in the last ten days or so. I’ve been staying busy with learning the language, of course, as well as complete the first of several seminars on various aspects of Chinese culture. Hence the great multitude of monasteries in my last couple weeks, as well as a visit to a mosque, a Confucian temple, and a visit to a Miao (we know them well in Minneapolis/Saint Paul as the Hmong) village for a Sunday church service.

Studying religion in China, even in a cursory manner, is a markedly different experience when considering the role that religion plays in the larger collective identity. Studying it alongside the history of dynastic rule in China as well as modern and contemporary Chinese history makes things even more interesting. The last sixty years of Chinese history really seems to have leveled the playing field for religion in China, as Confucianism and Taoism have more of a latent social influence as opposed to a real religious following, and much of what I’ve seen of Buddhism here thus far takes place in government-underwritten tourist attractions. I do have yet to reach the more Tibetan parts of Yunnan, where Buddhism is alive and well.

Islam in China is certainly an accessible issue to Americans lately, with continued unrest in the north as well as the correlating labor union issues in other provinces. And Christianity as well– I think there’s a certain unexpectedness to the growth of Christianity in China from a western perspective. Mostly this has to do with the fact that China spent much of our lifetimes as both an officially areligious state as well as having trashed much of its religious history during the Cultural Revolution; it goes well beyond the separation of church and state which at times seems nominal in the US (For instance, in China, the birth control issue has almost entirely been one of population control as it pertains to economics. Within government, resistance to restricted family planning at the onset of the “one-child per family” policy was largely from western-educated urbanites). While I did receive an insightful and enthusiastic lecture on the subject of Christianity in China from one of our faculty (also a born-again paleontologist and voracious consumer of American cinema), I think the statistical discrepancy between an outside survey used in a New York Times article on the matter from last year and the government’s official estimation of the number of Christians in China is telling. At its largest, the government’s miscalculation of the actual number of followers would leave over a half-million people counted out– people who are meeting in small congregations, in houses and basements, with sermons that are not sanctioned by the central government. Though I don’t doubt this same thing occurs with any religious organization here, it’s especially interesting for Christianity and Islam because of the overall rate at each is growing, and the grassroots nature in which they’re doing so.

At any rate, I’m very much ready for a real weekend, one in which I take some time off to ride my bike (it’s pink and called Battle) around Kunming, pick up a few things, and hopefully get a haircut. Thankfully I still have my voice from singing a heroic amount of karaoke last night. That was fun. I’ve got plans to make some kind of Thai/Burmese/American feast with my friends here tomorrow– they want spaghetti– and visit with a couple new friends I made this week who want to speak some English with me. Hopefully in the process I can begin to advance my vocabulary beyond a stage more often attributed to a five year old. Otherwise, I’m going to start researching my trip to Xishuangbanna next month and keep doing preliminary work on my independent study project in November. The good news thus far is that although it’s not exactly like walking through the East Village, trolling for a bite to eat and trying to decide on Pakistani, Italian, Korean, or Cuban food, Yunnan is the best place I could’ve imagined for studying foodways. The difference in cuisine is subtle at times, but the background behind any dish or foodstuff tends to be mindboggling in a way that we don’t see in the US.

Ironically, my thought of the day has been studying fasting in China. I started my morning with Eid ul Fitr at a local mosque, as hundreds of local Hui (the blanket term the government uses for Muslims) broke their fast at the end of Ramadan. With such a religiously complex culture, the reasons one could derive for fasting seems endless. Whether I’ll participate or not is a whole other matter…

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