Drinking Pu-Er Tea infused with rose bought in a small tea shop on the northern path by the Greek Lake in Kunming, I sit in my living room and continue to remember and digest all this past summer contained — a summer unlike any other. I tried to summarize the experience of my 15-day trip and here’s the result (as posted on the Yak Yak board at WhereThereBeDragons.)
More thoughts will come along and I decided to start using this blog to include more than just children’s and YA lit. book notes.
Posted: August 20, 2014
Practical, Cultural, Personal
It has been almost 3 weeks since leaving Kunming and all the other cities/towns (Shaxi, Weishan, Weibaoshan, Shuanlang, Baoshan, Pupiao, etc.) I visited during the 15-day program with Dragons. On July 30th, I flew from Kunming to Shanghai and then to Vancouver to join my husband for a 2-week Alaskan cruise and did not get back to New York City until last Saturday. Much to sort through both in practical matters (laundry, pet care, grocery shopping) and internal matters — Dragons propelled me go through a most existentially challenging summer the intensity of which I cannot recall experiencing since in my 20s.
Living a mere couple of blocks away from The 9/11 Memorial Ground which is now open to the public, I am used to threading my way through hundreds of tourists every time I need to get somewhere in the city (a ten-minute walk takes me to subway lines to the rest of the five boroughs.) This morning marked the first time I took that familiar walk since leaving for the China Educators program five weeks ago. And I was keenly aware of the reversal of roles – I, THE “local” and THEY, THE “tourists.” In my mind, I repeated the Dragons’ mantra: Tourist vs Traveler. Some of THEM surely are immersed travelers and aware of the culture and history of this place, but a whole lot of THEM surely are just tourists. By looking at me, a 4-foot-11, 51-year old Chinese woman, wearing sandals and a bamboo basket, who would know that I’m not a tourist/traveler? And how can I tell for sure that some of them are not 9/11 victims families coming from Brooklyn or New Jersey to pay tribute and respect to their loved ones?
Thinking further: I’m not even sure that I can truly label myself as a “local” — being here for 23 years after growing up and educated in Taiwan kind of makes me only a semi-local, doesn’t it? Where could I truly call home? Taipei where I was raised? New York City where I reside now? Baoshan which was printed as my “origin city” on my Taiwan national ID?
These kinds of multi-stepped thoughts manifested on an hourly-basis while I was with Dragons.
They cropped up while the leaders, Max and Yingzhao, walked the five of us in the group through practical exercises for educators who might be leading a student group to a foreign country following Dragons’ experiential model. I took quite a bit of notes and asked a lot of questions about the stages of Group Dynamics, about the basics of Non Violent Communication (which I thought perhaps could be termed Non Aggressive Communication,) meditation techniques, and different icebreakers and check-in techniques. The hows, the whys, and the why-nots. The could it be…. and couldn’t it be… s as well. Whatever was given to us, I wanted to dig up more!
Then there were the more complex issues of cultural adaptations, interpretations, mis-interpretations, encounters, understandings and misunderstandings. My life-long knowledge of Chinese history, geography, literature, and traditions both enriched my experiences during those 15 days and challenged my status as a “knowing” but “foreign” outsider. I don’t even know what an average monthly salary for a middle school teacher is and how is that compared to the living standard: what is the monthly rent for a 3-bedroom apartment and how much it will cost to buy such a unit? I don’t know who the most popular local singers are and where might I buy a reasonably priced rice cooker. I observed, I photographed, and I talked and talked and talked to any locals that would talk back to me. Making friends with Mr. Ma who had a sweet-soup stand in the courtyard shopping ground within the Green Lake Park gave me just a little window into the life of a local shop owner. He and his family are believers of the Islamic faith. They just finished observing Ramadan. The ingredients of their food come from rural Yunnan. His daughter is studying to go to college, and along with his wife and his nephew, who is 24, helps him with running the shop. Business is decent. We talked about my family root in Yunnan and the political relationships between Taiwan and China. His nephew firmly believes that Taiwan should just be absorbed as an official Province (or special political unit) of China. And I found out that the attitude toward Chiang Kai Shek and his military strategies during WWII, fighting against the Japanese invasion, has completely changed in China in the past few years. Now they recognize his and Kuomintang’s achievements. This altered view was confirmed time and time again by others whom I met during the time in Kunming. Much to my joy and relief, since being an army brat of the Kuomintang armed forces, I had always feared the animosity that could be hurled my way if my affiliation had been revealed.
Meeting Lao Zhang, an artist and writer, who survived and thrived after The Cultural Revolution added even more cultural perspectives. I learned yet more from too many others to detail here…. Mr. Yu, a total stranger who gave me a ride and helped me find my ancestral home, my cousins, Ms. Ji, who runs a cafe in Shaxi, Shitou (Rock – a 25-year-old woman from Shandong province) who served as my impromptu tour guide in Shaxi, the Taoist priest who showed me the scripture he was reciting in the morning “lesson,” the girls who mind the shops in Baoshan, etc.
Holding all of the information in my mind, feeling the powerful emotion of “going back to the motherland” for the first time in my heart, and trying to learn new techniques of group management while being part of a group that’s being managed, was truly too overwhelming for me to absorb at once in such a short time. (Not to mention miraculously finding my relatives separated since the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949, 65 years ago.)
This finally led to the toughest, most complex, and mind-shattering aspect of the whole trip: my personal identity struggles. My many years of complacency of self-worth, self-awareness, and self-understanding were jolted by the thunder and lightning of an internal flash storm which questioned whether I actually knew myself — what was my own identity? Stripped off of the coziness constructed with long time friends, a loving family, fairly established professional standing, and the most satisfying dream-job, and many other aspects of my daily existence such as the art and music I love, I had an opportunity to examine me as ME, raw. It was a frightening experience, one that I am still trying to recover from, and yet it was also a truly incredible experience, leaving me hopeful that I might have learned a couple of new things, even though I did not go on this trip to re-establish my self-awareness or re-construct my ways of relating to others.
It has been almost 3 weeks since leaving China… and I am still re-considering priorities, trying to decipher reasons behind my fears and reluctances, and figuring out how I can improve fluency in empathy.