Last week was our group excursion to Yunnan, which is a province in far western China. Yunnan is known for its beautiful landscapes, and its many ethnic minorities. We passed through Kunming en route to and on the way back from Dali (where we spent most of our time). Though Kunming is the capital of Yunnan, it is a couple steps down from Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou in both size and grandeur. Western China lags behind the East in terms of development, and that was evident as soon as we arrived. Though equipped with most of the conveniences and luxuries of a city in the east—trendy cafes, glittering malls, and public transportation—the buildings were clearly aged and the architecture more utilitarian than in a city like Shanghai.
If we compare Kunming to Guangzhou (as both are the capitals of their provinces), then I suppose Dali would be an analog for Zhuhai. We actually lived in a small town on the outskirts of Dali called Xizhou. Hsiao-mei told us that part of the reason why she selected Zhuhai for this DukeEngage program was that it maintained a sense of ‘old China’. Xizhou—which literally means Happy Town—felt like it was straight out of a period film. It also reminded me of a farming village called Houhuayuan (Back Flower Garden) in Shandong Province, where many of my relatives live, and which I visit almost every time I come back to China. Both places have stone/cobblestone/dirt roads which vary from the width of a horse cart to the width of 1.5 cars. The buildings have been whitewashed and are capped with traditional Chinese-style eaves, and the people seem to get around mostly by bikes or motorcycles.
Before we arrived, we heard from somebody (I don’t remember who) that the hotel we managed to book was actually ranked among the top ten in Asia. I didn’t quite believe that when I heard it, both because I thought it would be out of our budget and because I couldn’t quite imagine what it would be like. I had lived in five-star hotels in the past, courtesy of family friends, and those already seemed extremely luxurious without coming anywhere near a “best in China” label, let alone a “best in Asia”. So I was skeptical, and only became more doubtful when we entered Xizhou, which is a small farming village—but it turned out to be true. We stayed at one of the three houses of the Linden Center, which is a boutique hotel focused on sustainable tourism, cultural preservation, and cultural exchange. It was opened by an American couple who studied in China, and its three houses were National Relics of the government (they were period homes). I think the reason we got to stay there was that the Linden Center often hosts student groups. Living there honestly reminded me a little of summer camps, as the inside of the rooms were wood, and we lived in bunk beds.
We also got to meet Jeanie Linden, who was one of the founders, and a third-generation ABC—American Born Chinese. There’s a bit of a side story regarding that. Because I look Chinese and speak Chinese, in China, people don’t know that I’m American. And because of Western media, many Chinese people assume that all Americans look Caucasian. Even when I’m wearing my Duke shirt along with the other Duke students, sometimes I still get confused looks when people hear me speaking English with my friends. And I can’t count the number of times I have tried to explain that I am an American citizen, just like the rest, only to hear, Oh, so you are a Chinese who has gone to America to study! And so, my spiel about my cultural/national identity has become well-practiced. I learned the term, ABC, from one of the students who showed us around in Kunming; I had been giving my spiel once more when they asked why I could speak Chinese, when one girl aptly summed it up with that word: American born Chinese. Which encapsulates how the Chinese people feel about their overseas sons and daughters—born in America, socialized in America, and carrying an American passport, but not really American, still Chinese at heart.
Back to the Linden Center. So when I heard Jeanie Linden, who looks completely Chinese, speaking perfectly accented American English, like the Chinese I’ve been meeting, I was momentarily thrown. After seeing so many Asian-looking people who were Chinese, meeting one who was not was disorientating. I suppose I understand a little better now people’s reactions when meeting me, or any of the other people in our group with Asian faces.
There is still a lot more that happened while we were in Dali, but the final performance is coming up and we have a lot of work to do, so I suppose I’ll have to end it here for this week.