Archive for December, 2009


Robert: Snakes and a plane…

December 20, 2009

…And then I was done.  We had a round-up of all our host families, teachers, and friends before flying to Beijing.  A really great meal with a little bit of talent show to it, Napoleon-Dynamite-esque tai-chi-qian performance (which includes a broadsword), and an erhu performance by yours truly.  As long as folks still love their revolution-era folk songs, I will continue to play the hits.

Unfortunately, I was on day two of trying to expedite a lower-respiratory infection vis-à-vis amoxicillin.  It worked faster on my intestinal bacteria than my esophagus, and I spent most of the late night hovering over the sink in my bathroom– an inevitability that I had managed to skirt the entire time I’ve been here.  So, after sleeping for about three fragmented hours, we boarded our plane to Beijing, crossing the tarmac as the sun came up.  I spent the rest of the day on a plane, in the Beijing airport waiting for Ellen’s flight to come in, or in traffic in Beijing.  For better or worse, it’s really hard to find strawberry yogurt at the airport, so I had something to occupy my time as I hobbled through the terminal. had a little subdued feeling to it, consequently.  We hit all the major attractions:  the Great Wall, Summer Palace, Tiananmen, and the Temple of Heaven.  The experiences themselves are definitely variations on a theme (Center of the world!), dumbed down by the constant encroachment of personal space by hawkers. After a couple days, my stomach and Ellen’s jet lag subsided and we had one epic day of traversing the expanse of Beijing to troll through panjiayuan and the pearl market for gifts to take home, a slightly ostentatious meal at a Uighur restaurant, complete with giant vases of beer and a belly dancer with a snake– never mind that Xinjiang is home to the largest Muslim population in China.  This was followed by a trip to a mall-sized club that left nothing to be desired if you like American Top-40 from 2002.

My friend Danny accompanied us prior to the absurdity that was our club experience.  Smart enough to know better than to put himself in a situation where one must choose between inane dance clubs called Mix and Vicks, Danny is in Beijing on a one-year contract working for China Radio International, China’s answer (figuratively and literally) to the BBC.  This is an ambitious undertaking for a radio station in China, considering the difficulty your average Chinese person has getting a visa to leave the country.  God bless copy + paste, I guess.  Thankfully Danny just showed up with 1.5 terrabytes of everything from Soul to New Wave to everything/anything Pitchfork would get behind, ready to alleviate the youths of this culturally sheltered nation from the incessant flow of horrendous/obscene/driveling/inescapable shit that they call popular music here.  Seriously, it’s that bad.  If I ever go on a murderous rampage, it will be to Chinese Pop, blaring through my headphones.  Thankfully the man has a pretty impenetrable attitude and twice the square footage of any Chinese person’s apartment in his danwei.  He can manage a year.

Yesterday I said goodbye to all my classmates and ended my participation in a truly collegiate lifestyle (I am an anthropologist, after all).  Back to trying to be an adult.  I had a wonderful time getting to know my classmates this semester, and look forward to seeing them in the future.  Some of them are going to do really amazing, amazing things in the near future– everything from pilgrimages to Nepal to translating for the CIA to continuing to listen to Afroman in Ohio.  I look forward to seeing you down the road.


Veronica: Host Family

December 19, 2009

I got my host family today. They seem like they are going to be really cool. I looked on Google maps to see where it was, and it’s really pretty. I can’t wait to get there and meet them and live on that cute little street with all the palm trees.

It’s kind of scary though. It’s making this feel real. I know it’s real, but it didn’t really feel like it was actually happening until now. I imagine that when I get an email back from them it will be even more surreal.

I’m nervous and excited to meet my new family.


Veronica: Financial Planning

December 15, 2009

Financial aid and paying for studying abroad is a huge thing. Save your money. Work a lot. Remember to keep the exchange rate in mind. $3000 sounds like a lot, but when you get to Europe and it’s less than that… it’s not so great. I was extremely frugal the year leading up to now and it really helped.

Do your FAFSA. That’s the first step and it’s a given anyway so I’m not going to spend time on it.

This may be different if you aren’t from the University of Minnesota, so if you’re from another university keep in mind that the Financial Aid Checklist on the Learning Abroad Center site doesn’t really apply but you can still use it to help you at at your school to plan.

So, for U people: do a FinAid Preveiw Meeting. To be honest, I didn’t really get what went on in the meeting. To me, it didn’t make sense. It probably will if you get all that accounting, money stuff. But all I got from mine was that my aid wouldn’t be all that bad. All I can say, though, is thank god for work study. (I strongly recommend working full time the summer before you go so you get a lot more money.)

Then you have to do the SACE; the cost estimate form. There is a lot of hype about the SACE and it’s really not that exciting. All it does is tell you how much you have to pay, which can be found online anyway in the budget stuff. So it’s not that big of a deal. All you do is sign it basically. But this is the form OneStop uses to calculate your aid, so in that way it’s rather important. But I was expecting some big, detailed form and it wasn’t. Wait for your aid calculation. From here on it’s just like normal financial aid, so it works no differently and I know you know how that goes.

One thing on the Financial Aid Checklist that doesn’t actually have to do with financial aid, but with finances is the Power of Attorney. The Learning Abroad Center and the U pushes for this so you don’t have to worry about taking care of paying and the FAFSA and all that jazz. My appointment with the counselor in the Legal Services office (on West Bank) took an hour. My counselor was really nice and really helpful. She walked me through everything and all the fancy terms used on it. I’m not a numbers/economics kind of girl, so I can’t describe this to you either (like the preview meeting), but it was rather painless. I appointed my mom as my Attorney in Fact. Basically what that is, is someone who acts on your behalf. They can sign things for you, sign a lease for you, manage your money, do your FAFSA, etc etc. Now, I know that sounds scary. They can control your entire life. I chose my mom because I know that she wouldn’t do bad things in my name and also because she knows what I need. The person you appoint can only do these things, however, if you tell them to, and they need to provide you with documentation of everything. I don’t think the documentation thing will be an issue with my mom, but it was still nice to know. They act on your behalf, but also on your orders.


Veronica: Academic Planning

December 14, 2009

One thing that might be hard to remember about study abroad is the study part. We still have to go to school. Basically same old life, just in a new place. So the academic planning portion of getting ready is kind of a big deal. On the Learning Abroad Center website there are lists of all the classes offered and that have been offered recently so you can look through them and see what seems interesting. When you confirm your place you have to indicate a few areas of interest. This is really just what subjects/disciplines you would want to study while abroad.

Later on you have to do the Academic Planning Form. This is when you look through the requirements of the program, and your majors/minors to see what you will have to fulfill with your classes abroad. From that, you look through that big list I just told you about and indicate classes you want to register for. You then have to get the courses approved by your major/minor/college advisors. All of the advisors. Now, here’s the thing. We don’t get to register until we get there. So I, and everyone else, might not get the classes we indicated on the form. If that happens, I suppose we just have to pick our runner-up classes we got approved, or register for other classes and email info to the advisors and ask if they will count. It seems to me to be very up in the air, which scares me a little because I’m crazy about registration and my schedule. But a lot of people I’ve talked to about study abroad never said they had problems with classes counting. So it must be okay.

This part of the process goes pretty quickly, and everyone (at least my advisors) takes it very casually, but since you’re going abroad to go to school, this really is important. Just take it as seriously as you do when planning registration at your regular university.


Samantha: This is IT!

December 12, 2009

So this is the last post from Chile… My flight leaves tomorrow night at 11pm and I arrive in Minneapolis at 10am Monday Morning… Wow I didn’t think this day would come so fast, I actually didn’t think that I would survive living in a foreign country for five months. As it turns out I built a life here that I am very sad to be leaving. Last week Nico and I took a trip to the south of Chile and it was AMAZING!! This country is soo beautiful! I have been busy saying goodbye and getting things ready to leave! I miss everyone alot but am not sure if I am ready to trade christmas lights on palm trees for christmas lights on snow covered pine trees with a windchill of 30 below!!!!!! I will see you soon!!!


Robert: From the Ground Up

December 10, 2009

I really can’t get my mind around how quickly the last three months have rocketed by, but low-and-behold the end of my semester has arrived.  I handed in a 46-page paper entitled From the Ground Up about land-use, governance, and Dai culture in Xishuangbanna, which is the southernmost part of Yunnan province.  I bit off way more than I could chew, trying to harness a scope of information more suited to a year of fieldwork as opposed to a month, but I think the afterword and acknowledgements deserve to see the light of day. (Read the Afterword below.)

Next for me is Beijing, where I’ll meet my wife (weather permitting- I hear it’s nasty in MN right now!).  We’ll spend the weekend there and then return to Kunming, to stay and visit friends here for a few days.  Hopefully we don’t run into the boneheads I saw brawl three times at the same bar last night.  Foreigners get horrible reputations because of these types.  (But right now there’s a guy outside with red, orange and green-dyed chicks he’s trying to sell, so who’s to say what’s what anyways.) Entertaining at least, especially when you throw an intoxicated girlfriend into the mix.

Anyways, we’ll head up to Lugu Lake, where we’ll enter Sichuan province.  Hoping to get as far west as Litang, on the Sichuan-Tibet Hwy.  Should be somewhere west of Chengdu for Christmas, and in Xian on the 27th for a few days. Planes, trains, and automobiles…

Pictures in this post include Manliu, Ganlanba, and Jinghong.  I made Thanksgiving dinner for 15 people and then played my first solo show in over a year.  That was interesting.


A month is not much time to conduct fieldwork of any sort; I knew this well in advance of undertaking fieldwork for my independent study project.  In my initial conversations with my academic director and her husband (also an advisor), Lu Yuan and Sam Mitchell, the only semblance of a plan I offered up was to be flexible, look for opportunity, and try to get a glimpse of change taking place– that, and I hoped it could involve food and farming.  Perhaps that’s more an approach than a plan, but an approach can be adapted to new opportunity much more easily than plans, and trying to stick to plans in foreign environments can prove troublesome.  Thankfully food is everywhere, and in Xishuangbanna, farms pretty much are too.

Despite having crafted a day-by-day itinerary, opportunities to further my understanding of my surroundings came about, well beyond any kind of research design I could have proposed before beginning to do my fieldwork.  Though my initial proposal felt reasonable given the constraints of time, language, money, training, and experience, I feel as though I would have actually learned less about the things that interest me in Xishuangbanna, even had I fully succeeded in carrying out the fieldwork for my initial proposal.

The reason for that is not that I would’ve focused on the wrong things; it’s quite the opposite in fact.  The problem is that, as I learned over the last month, knowledge acquired in fieldwork is part of a sort of dialectic pyramid.  In my initial idea for my ISP, I was going for something more towards the middle of that pyramid, hoping I could get a glimpse of something at the top, without having the foundation to build upon.  A great deal of that basis is social in nature, as were many of the opportunities that transpired fortuitously.

Thankfully, these opportunities appeared early in my fieldwork, and instead of trying to do everything myself (with no guanxi), I had the help of many people to learn about the things I wanted to learn about.  But with this blessing came the curse of opportunity:  it’s like when people on game shows get into the wind chamber full of five-dollar bills racing through the air.  You can see the expression on their face (I’m rich!), as they get into the tank; soon after you see a disappointed-looking contestant exiting the tank with only ten dollars.

Feeling obligated to utilize the opportunities bestowed upon me to their utmost, I decided incorporate them into my approach, and continue building the foundation of my knowledge of Xishuangbanna, Dai culture, industrial agriculture, sustainable agriculture, human ecology, and government policy.  Along the way I learned a lot about Buddhism, temple food, monastic life, the insanity of driving in China, the instability of rural electricity, what farmers do on their day off, business lunches in China, guanxi, payola, tea, local moonshine, cuisine, motorcycles, and how to throw together Thanksgiving dinner on less than 24 hours’ notice in the kitchen of a Dai barbeque restaurant.   Many of these things would not have occurred during my initially-proposed schedule, and I am so grateful for them.

For instance, in a day I could wake at four-thirty in the morning to meditate and pray with the monks at Manting Temple for two hours, and by noon I would be back in Jinghong, passing out cigarettes and drinking bai jiu at lunch with local officials, real estate developers, and contractors.  Or I could spend an afternoon interviewing the village elders in Manliu, learning that the reason the women have (waist-length) jet-black hair into their 80s is because they wash their hair with rice water.  After that, I’d likely find myself in Fu Tao’s SUV, listening to Black Eyed Peas for the millionth time that week.  I am not sure when, if ever, I will cease to be amazed by the gaps between rich and poor or between the modality of urban and rural life.  And although the pairing was just so-so, the paradox of drinking a $100 bottle of Bordeaux alongside a $4 barbeque dinner overlooking the Mekong will be a tough one to top.

The people I met– especially the ones that had absolutely nothing to do with my ISP, that I could just be with, with no secondary agenda– were so kind, welcoming, and flat-out hilarious at times that I was brought to the verge of tears on a regular basis.  I was blessed with the experience of attending a Hani wedding at a village nestled in the mountains south of Jinghong; getting to exercise a little street-cred by displaying a cursory knowledge of “Struggle Against The Landlord”, a favorite card game among Yunnanese people, put me in good with the groom’s family.  They didn’t even make me wager on my hands!  I ate stomach, cow intestine, pig brain, chicken blood, caterpillars, bees, grasshoppers, eel, and pig skin.  I did draw the line at cow eyes.  But beyond that, I loved every bite.

To keep up with my experiences, I spent an inordinate amount of time reading for context and interview topics.  This was by far the most underwhelming part of the project, but it served good purpose in the end– much of what’s cited in this paper is included because I had the opportunity to read about, say, rubber, and apply the information when conducting interviews in Manliu.  Getting as far as I could in under a month, I’d still say it would have been an ambitious undertaking for a three-month project.  I am looking at a figurative tank full of money, lying idle on the floor, thinking about what I can do better next time.

But next time is exactly the point for me:  In hindsight, this project never could have yielded the anthropological experience I wanted when I applied for the program, solely on the basis of my unsophisticated language skills alone.  But what it has done is given me the experience in the region, and especially the relationships, to return here to conduct fieldwork for my senior thesis, or as a graduate student– or both.

When I think about it that way, that empty tank with a floor full of money isn’t so disappointing after all.  Rather, it’s like an investment that someone dropped in my lap, sitting there, waiting for me to come back again, try a new, improved technique, and see what I can grab.


Veronica: Plane Ticket

December 9, 2009

Thinking about how you want to arrive in France is kind of big, though not quite as important as some other things you have to consider. You can either fly on your own or take the group flight.

The group flight is nice. You can fly with people in your program so you aren’t so alone. It’s coordinated, so you get picked up at the airport. It’s a good little support group and way to make friends before you arrive.

I’m flying alone. I found a ticket that cost half as much as the group flight. My ticket is also flexible, unlike the group flight. If you want to travel after the program is over, the group flight probably is not a good idea. I know people who booked their flights separately but on the same ones as the group flight. Cheaper.

It’s up to you. I wanted to go to France a week early before the program starts, so that’s what I’m doing. I may stay longer. I can change my ticket. The group flight is a committment. It all depends on how much independence you want in your travelling. Both are good options. Keep in mind the cost. If you want to travel lots when you’re abroad, you might want to spend less on your round-trip ticket. Unless you’re filthy rich, it’s something you should take into account.

The most important thing for you to know, no matter what you choose to do, is that your ticket MUST be round-trip in order to be granted a visa. You cannot only buy one way and then buy your return ticket later. I made this mistake (before doing my visa) and the travel company I used told me this.

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