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.

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