Archive for the ‘Robert in China’ Category


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.


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.


Robert: Rulebook

November 18, 2009

The following is my own personal guide to China that I made for my wife, Ellen, who’s coming here in less than three weeks (!) with less preparation that I had:

The Rules Do Not Apply Here: Everything you’ve ever known about how things should be, what constitutes courtesy, and what common sense is, just forget about all that stuff.  Let it go.  People ride motorcycles on the sidewalk here; toothless old women chew on nuts that make the few remaining teeth they have turn black; prices for anything and everything are negotiable beyond belief.  Ultimately, it’s not that it’s that different, but it’s different enough that it might be easier to work from scratch than to backtrack.  Open your mind reeeeeeeeeal wide and prepare to become just a little bit Asian, if you’re not already.  It doesn’t hurt a bit, won’t last forever, and will make your experience here a lot more fun.

It Smells, Often: Everywhere, almost all the time, it smells.  Usually like fish, feces, or exhaust.  Sometimes like a combination of things.   If you mentioned it every time you smelled something foul, you’d lose your voice pretty quickly.  Grin and bear it for a while, and soon you’ll find that you smell the acres of fresh pineapple, but not the piles of water buffalo dung in between the banana trees.

Water: a) Brush your teeth with anything off the faucet– a teeny bit of foreign intestinal fauna might help you, actually and b) anything boiled will be fine, and you’ll be served hot water or tea on most occasions.  Even in the 90˚ afternoon, eating spicy noodles straight out of a 500˚ wok, people just love their hot tea.  I will never understand. And, c) Water pressure and temperature varies.  China is the largest producer and consumer of solar-powered water heaters in the world; if you take a shower at 4:00 or 5:00 in the afternoon, you’ll at least rule out a cold shower.  Sometimes.  Your greatest memories of China will be when you get a big showerhead with thunderous, steaming water coming from it.

What Is Clean?: When you get here, almost everything is going to seem dirty somehow– chipped laminate or flooring, oddly-stained sidewalks, graffiti, permeating dust, a weird stain on a sheet or the wall– it feels like a Midwestern church basement gone horribly wrong sometimes.

The buildings are largely from the 80s, and you’ll be caught off guard by how run down everything looks on the outside.  That’s the legacy of concrete.

Although I’d recommend watching where you step, I promise you that it’s not as dirty as it seems as when you first arrive, and that I’ll let you know if something really is dirty.  Chinese people are ritual cleaners, but they have a totally different standard of what looks clean compared to the Western world.

Litterbugs!: I do not understand why Chinese people feel so compelled to litter anywhere, anytime.  You are going to see trash, cigarette buts, plastic bags, etc. in the most unusual places; you’ll see people throw mountains of garbage out of their cars onto the road beneath them.  When we eat, you can just throw whatever is not being eaten onto the floor, and it’ll get swept up after you.  I guess with a population this size, it’s not hard to find a cleanup crew?

Honk Honk: I’m trying to figure out how I can transmit a message to every person in this country that says “I look before I walk into the fucking street, alright?”  Car sales climb about 300% every year, so a lot of people are a) getting their first taste of driving in b) their first cars in the history of the oldest country in the world.  It’s like people honk their horns here just to remind themselves that they finally own a car.  They’re really defensive drivers, but the “rules of the road” generally resemble total lawlessness from our perspective.  In reality, it’s not– just make sure you’re paying attention.  Everybody else seems to be.

Smilely Smile: These are the nicest people in the world, though they’re not without their own occasional bad eggs.  They have the impression that all Americans wear a permanent smile, but there’s a reason for that: It’s body language, which the Chinese have a completely different regard for than the Western world, and that most laowai that come here don’t make the first effort to learn the language and thus have to get by on a smile and their good looks, should they have them.

At any rate, if you treat the people you meet like they are your neighbor and not a tourist attraction (it’s harder than it sounds, despite the obvious moral protocol involved), people will love you.  Especially old ladies, and my goodness are they fun.  They are the keepers of this society.   Prepare to talk about yourself, your home, your family, your job, etc.; and to ask questions of a similar caliber when you meet someone new.

Get Ready to Squat: The western-style toilets are few and far between here; sometimes they pop up in the strangest places, but generally speaking, you’ll have to get used to making sure you don’t pee on yourself!

If It Falls, Let It Go: When you eat, if something falls on the table, it’s done for.  If it falls on your finger, don’t lick it off.  You might not be compelled to do these things anyways, but generally if it’s not in a bowl, on a plate, between your kuaizi, or in your mouth, it may as well be on the floor.

Anything That Can Be Accomplished By A Human Being Can Be Done Better By A Human Being With A Cigarette Hanging Out of His Mouth: Cop, butcher, dentist, bubble tea shopkeepers, cooks, bus drivers– they all smoke, and no, they will not stop smoking while they replace that crown that popped off your molar. Read the rest of this entry ?


Robert: The Wind at Our Backs

November 4, 2009

Wooooooooooow… Really loving the last two weeks of this life, traveling through northwestern Yunnan. We swung through Weishan, the first capital of the Nanzhao kingdom during the Tang dynasty.  A low-key, beautiful town, with a great deal of original architecture still shaping the layout of the village.

After spending a day on nearby Weibaoshan, one of twelve holy Daoist sites in China, we headed to Shibaoshan and its monastery, ate amazing temple food, woke up to see the sunrise, were confronted by local monkeys, and watched shooting stars at the foot of a giant, unlit golden Buddha.  Almost stayed and spent the next month studying temple food.  So tempting.

IMG_1663 The next day marked the start of a four-day homestay in a rural village called Sideng, in the Shaxi valley.  On our way, we hiked up through the grottoes of Shibaoshan; Nanzhao-era reliefs that are relics of the advent of Chinese Buddhist art, but still displaying attributes that point to the confluence of Indian, Tibeto-Burmese, and Chinese culture that was occurring in the region.  It took a lot of guanxi to preserve these during the revolution, only to later have a group of angry Muslims go at some of them with hammers and chisels.  Oh, religion.

We hiked over the pass, and came down into the Shaxi valley. Lunched at a place that felt like the south of France or the Anderson Valley in California. Sideng is a fairly straightforward Chinese farm-town. Virtually everyone grows grain, maize, broadbeans, tobacco, or a variety of greens in a combination of large-scale fields and small, 1000-sq. ft. plots at their homes.  Once we found ourselves in the town square in Sideng, I met my host, Duan Bo Shan, a man in his sixties with leathery skin, a few remaining teeth, a huge heart, and wonderful family.  We spent much of the next four days improving my erhu technique, learning Yi folk songs and Mao tributes such as Dongfeng Hong.  I conducted a brief survey of agriculture in and around Sideng– great practice for my upcoming ISP– and the stay culminated with my getting roped into performing erhu in front of the entire village.  Yikes.

From Shaxi we went to Zhongdian, also known as Shangri-la.  I’d been aware of the fictitious origins of the name Shangri-la, but only after arriving there did it become clear why this, of all places, had been appropriated the name.  Lijiang, to the south, had long claimed itself to be the place James Hilton’s Lost Horizon had referred to.  But in the mid-90s, the logging industry around Zhongdian had led to such horrible soil erosion that flooding began to get out of control.  Ultimately the central government instituted a logging ban, leaving the area with virtually no economic base.  Lijiang had gone through the same transition, but their tourist economy, though still in its infancy, was about to boom significantly due to its impending nomination as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and informal use of the name Shangri-la.  After it petitioned for and was granted an official name change to Shangri-la, tourism became the principle industry in Zhongdian, er, Shangri-la.

Now, about that little point of sarcasm above:  A great deal of contemplation and debate went on while we visited Zhongdian and Lijiang, regarding the commodification of culture, authenticity, agency, and even the process by which official minority status is granted here.  First of all, it’s important to recognize that minorities are defined by and for the state, in lieu of the differences the groups perceive between themselves.  One town of Naxi will certainly demarcate themselves from another town of Naxi people living on the other side of the Sichuan border; conversely, the central government will lump them together as “Naxi” simply because of a (partially) shared linguistic basis. In that position of ultimate power that the state holds, the disregard for the values of the people being defined comes the opportunity to control the public perception of minorities by employing an in-group/out-group dynamic that portrays minorities less as unique groups living in concert with one another and more as non-Han “others”. Read the rest of this entry ?


Robert: Holy. Daoist. Mountain.

October 29, 2009

picture-27I’ve caught a couple minutes’ respite here after a two-week homestay that was coupled with the final weeks of my language classes in Kunming and the beginnings of my preparations to conduct a project of my own here in Yunnan.

I really enjoyed the homestay– I think they enjoyed me too, despite my inability to understand Shanghaihua. They really sweet people who moved to Kunming in the 80s, I believe as part of the same danwei. Dad later became a Japanese translator and Mom a nurse. They have a son attending Shanghai University now who’s almost my age, so I felt like they were prepared for and receptive to the mindset of a 20-something college student. I had to miss more meals together than I would’ve liked due to my workload at school, but we did manage to have some great times together– particularly at a wedding I didn’t realize was an actual 650-person reception until I walked in the door (wearing a Twins cap, not smelling particularly great) and saw the bride and groom, who’d gotten married this weekend but was having the ceremony mid-week, as many couples employing the western wedding tradition usually do. In China, apparently they’ll do it on a Monday night. Lesson learned, karaoke sung. Dad can really belt ‘em out.

Now we’re on the road for two weeks as a group, moving up towards Dali, Lijiang, and Zhongdian/Shangri-la. Had an incredible day on one of China’s 12 holy Daoist mountains, Weibaoshan, hiking to the top by myself in a nice seven-hour jaunt. Got to Dali yesterday, declined the multitude of offers to buy weed that every white person surely gets (it’s not just the beard!), and decided that there was nothing I could do about the old town being a tourist trap full of laowai marveling at the orient and vacationing Han shoving cameras in front of everything while they toss their empty Honghe packs into the street. I got a little surly yesterday taking all this in, but a decent slice of pizza, a bottle of Sol, and a two-hour nap put me back on top.

I’m about to go up in to the middle of nowhere for a few days. We hike in to a town called Shaxi, where I’ll stay with another family for four days. I’m sure I’ll have more to share when I get back!


Robert: Xishuangbanna!

October 16, 2009

My trip to Xishuangbanna was, as predicted, a mix of spur-of-the-moment decisions, short-term plans, small accomplishments, and the occasional minor failure. Melissa, Rose, and I were a capable bunch with a good mix of language skills (my weak point) and travel experience both within and outside of China. We left ready to spend a great deal of time in transit, to smell increasingly foul, willing to get soaked by any number of downpours, and catch sleep anywhere we might find sanctuary. With the welcome exception of rainfall, we essentially got what we expected. And we got thoroughly schooled at billiards by a one-eyed man.

Of course, we had no shortage of unexpected developments and revelations as well, the first of which was perhaps the most devastating: After boarding a bus that took an inordinate amount of work to get to, Mel discovered she didn’t have her bus ticket. The reason she didn’t have her bus ticket was because she no longer had her wallet, which contained all of her cash, a credit card, and student ID.

During the stop in Tonghai that followed, I contemplated what could have  happened, realizing that the state in which we found ourselves was the ideal circumstances for a thief. There had been only one scenario during which an opportunity to slip Mel’s wallet from her purse ostensibly could have taken place. But all eyes were on the culprit, and her purse was secure during this episode– a diversion perhaps? On the other hand, I had to consider the possibility that she had somehow misplaced her wallet; it just seemed so unlikely that an opportunity to have her wallet stolen could’ve occurred. But Mel seems too responsible and experienced to let something so major happen so easily, and if the wallet had been stolen the most likely scenario was that the thief was still on the bus with us. Stalemate. Genius.

After sleeping on it for another few hours, I decided that it would be totally ridiculous to not loan Mel the money to stay on with us. It was a matter of about $100 and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I had an extra ¥400 and a few hundred dollars in traveler’s checks that I could cash once we got to Jinghong. Of course, I’m glad Mel stayed on with us. The dynamic among the three of us was basically a steamroller of hilarity. We met a new friend on the bus, Tidan, an Israeli who spoke no putong hua and would spend the next two days with us as we made our way toward Jinghong.

At Yuanyang, we trekked through the rice terraces with a “guide” who was nice enough to take us to some places we didn’t have to pay to get into. The irony of having to pay to see a rice terrace in China would become painfully obvious during the twelve hours of bussing through rice terraces we would endure the next day. Tidan took a spill into one of the rice paddies, soaking most of what she had on her, ruining her camera in the process. While she dried off, the three of us made our way across the slopes, balancing everything on our backs as we hoped to not meet the same fate. After admiring the intricacy of the terracing– particularly the key-point irrigation method employed to get water across and down the hillside, we met some Hani women returning to a small, three-house village carrying screeching black piglets that liberated themselves from their pens. As they dragged their livestock by their hind legs, we followed them to the gate surrounding their concrete dwellings, and asked to come in.

During this visit, I recalled that Charles (one of my instructors) had previously said that the Hani tended to be less than hospitable to tourists, demanding money for photographs and whatnot. As much as I enjoy taking photographs, I’ve lately found that the most unusual, resonant, and singular experiences are potentially undermined by the presence of a camera. The mere acknowledgement of a person’s interest in photographing someone else threatens to create a hierarchical relationship of subject and object between people, and not surprisingly can bring about any number of negative reactions. As we sat with the women in piecemeal but genuine conversation, I thought about every time someone here mockingly issues a “hello” in passing, whistles at a female friend of mine, or blatantly tries to overcharge me for something I don’t need in the first place, and enjoyed the respite. I opted to not be the lao wai with a camera in some farmer’s face.

The next morning, in Xinjie, I watched one of the only foreign tourists we saw grab his Chinese tour guide squarely by the shoulders and start pointing both her and his beer gut toward a row of buses as he loomed over her. Then he turned her around, still grabbing her by the shoulder, and cranes his neck to put his face directly in front of hers and says Now, why don’t you ask some more fucking questions? Always ask questions. (Pointing) Where are all these buses going? That’s the kinda stuff I wanna know. Ask lotsa fucking questions. Jesus. First of all, the buses either have signs or full-fledged windshield decals displaying the names of the towns to which they go. Not that he can read a single character. Secondly, she’s a tour guide, not a mind reader. Ask the questions yourself. Read the rest of this entry ?


Robert: It’s not that H1n1 is that bad—the propaganda’s just that good!

September 28, 2009

Getting ready for a week of (working) vacation. Being stuck in a classroom for most of the day gets a little old after a while– I can do that at home, no?

Had a rowdy Friday night singing KTV until almost 7a.m., and then started getting plans to go to Xishuangbanna together during Saturday and Sunday. Finally broke down and got a flu-mask for all the bus travel I’ll be doing here. That part takes some getting used to; it initially comes off like a paranoid sci-fi movie until you see the hilarious patterns they print on them, worn by about every one in five people. Then you realize the Chinese do not mess around with pandemic disease anymore, and those decades of propaganda experience cajole you into joining the mouthless masses. They’re quarantining H1N1 patients up in Chengdu, which sounds like no fun at all.

Especially since the National Day holiday week starts tomorrow. This year is the 60th anniversary of the revolution, and 30% of all Chinese tourists (12 million is the estimated number) are supposedly coming to Yunnan to eat mooncakes, go to the stone forest (amongst other uber-touristy attractions Yunnan has to offer), and generally muck up every conceivable mode of transportation. I got my ticket as early in advance as possible, so tomorrow night I leave on an overnight bus that gets to Yuanyang at 2 a.m. hopefully ahead of that wave. Fun Times, I’m sure. After a few weeks of really just keeping my nose in a book and working on improving my language skills, I almost feel unprepared to stop working and spend a week traveling around. I’m sure I’ll get used to it pretty quick.

I’m going to spend most of the next 8 days more or less wandering wherever through Xishuangbanna, the southern region of Yunnan that borders on Laos and Burma. I’ll probably stay closer to the Burmese border this time, maybe working my way from Jinghong down the Mekong River. It might get a little rainy, but it’s supposed to be about 90˚F most of the time, so a little rain could be nice. Anti-malarials? Check. 40% DEET? Check.

The rice harvest is mostly done in that region, but the terraces are supposed to be beautiful year-round, and of course there’s always tea and any number of other crops going into the fall. I’m planning on stopping in Pu’er, home of Yunnan’s legendary tea of the same name. The fermented version is sublime; it has an earthiness to it that’s a little peaty, with just the slightest bitterness to an otherwise clean finish. And it’s a gorgeous amber. A good bit of that will be coming back with me, for sure.

So this week I’ll mainly be on the lookout for a community to come back to visit in November, particularly one with a good mix of self-cultivated, local, and commercial foods contributing to their diet. But who knows what I’ll find. There are all kinds of great folk traditions surrounding swidden agriculture, water, forests, and food in this region. And elephants and tigers. Now just let me find a capuchin monkey and my bullwhip.


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…


Robert: Greetings from Hong Kong and Kunming

September 4, 2009

Had a great long weekend in Hong Kong, followed by a monumental first couple of days in Yunnan. Working on collecting my thoughts and experiences to share with y’all real soon. In the meantime, enjoy HK pix.

01 HK Boats03 Causeway Bay05 Jiaozi09 Freeway22 Kong

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