Last week we went on an excursion to the province of Yunnan in China. Yun means cloud, and Nan means south, so Yunnan would be “cloud south” if translated literally into English, and for a majority of our week there, the weather was cloudy or rainy. As different as my life in Zhuhai has been from my life back home in America, staying in Yunnan exposed me to even more new experiences.
On Monday morning we flew to Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province. While we were there, we met last year’s DukeEngage Zhuhai site coordinator and students from the international high school at which she now works. The students we met were Chinese students who wanted to go abroad for college, either in the United States or somewhere else. I went on a scavenger hunt with Irene and 3 of the high schoolers around Kunming to learn more about the city and it’s culture. In the evening, we saw a show titled “Dynamic Yunnan” that was about the diverse minority ethnic groups that live in Yunnan province such as the Yi and Bai people. Before the excursion I did not know much about the various ethnic minorities in China, but it was interesting to learn about them during the trip.
The next day, we left Kunming and flew to Dali. Going into the trip, I didn’t know what to expect, but as soon as we landed, I noticed that the Dali airport was much smaller than any airport I had been to before. As we drove to our hotel, I looked out the window and was presented with a much more rural landscape than I had ever encountered before. Everywhere I had previously visited in China (Guangzhou, Zhuhai, Beijing, and Kunming) was a large city, but the area around Dali was made up of small towns, farms, mountains, and a lake called Erhai. Upon reaching Xizhou, the town near the city of Dali in which we were staying, we walked through the narrow cobblestone streets to the Linden Center, our hotel. Staying in the Linden Center reminded me of living in a camp more
than living in a hotel. The place was a traditional Bai style home that had been renovated to accommodate guests while keeping the feeling of the old style. The central feature of the place was the courtyard surrounded on three sides by rooms and on the fourth side by a tall white reflecting wall intended to reflect sunlight into the courtyard to keep it bright. Four people shared a room and we slept in bunk beds. We met one of the founders of the Linden Center who spoke to us about why she created it and the ideas behind it, especially those related to sustainable tourism. She chose the location of Xizhou instead of the main city of Dali because Dali had become more commercialized due to tourists coming to stay and see the beauty of the natural lake and mountains. As a result, some of the traditional way of life and culture of the citizens was lost in favor of the tourist industry. However, the Linden Center in Xizhou was designed to preserve the traditional culture and prevent the commercialization found in Dali. Rather than building tourist shops and bars that are open late at night, Xizhou remained a small town in which people visit street markets in the morning to buy food and all business close around 8 pm. There was a stronger sense of community there than in a large city, and we learned a lot about the region’s culture while touring the old town and participating in activities with the local people. One night, group of Bai people performed traditional dances for us, and then we all joined them in a circle to dance together.
Another day, we learned how to make Baba, a traditional bread-like food, and learned how they make intricate tie-dye designs on handmade cloth with indigo dye made only from natural plants. When on Friday we visited Dali old town, I saw the contrast between that more commercialized town full of souvenir shops and places for tourists, and Xizhou, the place where we had the opportunity to more closely interact with the traditional culture. I am more comfortable in the commercialized areas because they have more amenities and are closer to the life I’ve been used to, but I am glad that I was placed in a less comfortable and familiar place because it provided a unique learning opportunity that I couldn’t experience anywhere else. I enjoyed my time in Xizhou because of the kind, welcoming locals who we met, and I’m grateful that they were willing to share their culture with us. In particular, I remember one elderly man who sang for us during the Bai dance performances. When we first reached the place they were performing at, he greeted us enthusiastically and eagerly shook our hands. He did not speak any English but we could feel his excitement. When he sang he sang with tremendous passion and energy, and when we all danced together, he was smiling and laughing the entire time. At the end, he shook our hands enthusiastically again, and appeared very happy to take pictures with us. His joy warmed my heart and he made me wish that when I get older, I could be as content and pleased with life as he seemed.
While in the area of Dali, we also participated in a variety of outdoor activities such as climbing mountains and riding bicycles around lake Erhai.I have never been a fan of doing things outdoors; I had never gone hiking before and don’t enjoy camping. I am also not a particularly athletic person and prefer sitting indoors and reading a book. Yet, on Wednesday afternoon, I found myself standing on top of a mountain after climbing for what felt to me like an eternity. The view was breathtaking, and on that day the clouds parted to reveal sunshine. It was an indescribably rewarding feeling to have made it up there and to see the natural beauty of Dali.
In the land full of clouds, I myself felt like a cloud, even more distant from my life in America than I was in Zhuhai. In Zhuhai, it did take some time, but I established a fast paced rhythm filled with teaching and interacting with the middle school students. However, in Yunnan, I did not have that rhythm anymore. Instead, I felt as if I was slowly drifting wherever the wind took me, taking in all the sights and sounds. Thoughts of being a pre-med at Duke and the stress of having to study for the MCAT were foggy like a far off dream.
When I arrived back in Zhuhai on Sunday to my host family’s home, they excitedly welcomed me back and looked very happy to see me again. I didn’t think I had become extremely close with them over the past month and a half, but I had missed them while I was away, and they appeared to have missed me too. However, in that joyous moment, I realized that the next time I leave them and leave Zhuhai, it will be at the end of the DukeEngage program, in less than a week from now. Last time I left, I missed them, but I was able to come back again. Next time I leave, I will be leaving for good. Even thinking about how to say goodbye made me want to start crying, and I fear that when it is time to go, this light cloud might burst into the rain of my tears.