Saturday, August 23, 2008

Great Endings

My final day was awash in new goodbyes. In the morning I said farewell to my two older gentlemen friends, to Lily my helpful friend and interpreter, to my calligraphy teacher and classmates. I had a final meeting at The Nature Conservancy, further saying goodbye to the friends I had made there. There was dinner and visiting with Sunny, and gift-giving and address-swapping with my Meimeis. And finally: relaxing and joking with the hardworking girls & Mama & Papa at my hostel.

At my final meeting, TNC left me with words of wisdom:

Lijiang is a World Heritage Site because it has a history of accepting China's many cultures. The people of Lijiang learn from others, accept other cultures...they are very open minded. The new cultures coming in, whether "mainstream" or not, have been coming in for centuries. Lijiang is Master of Assimilation. And so, in this way, you cannot say change is bad. It's a process for the future.

This is so important to remember, especially as I reflect on this hub of change, preservation, and development. If you cannot prevent, you can at least effectively and efficiently adapt. Lijiang's been doing it for centuries, so why shouldn't it continue today?


As my time in Lijiang comes to a close--perhaps one of my most memorable summers ever-- I wanted to end with a favorite story from my time here.

After developing a second batch of photos for my new gentlemen friends, I headed back to their home to thank them for all their hospitality. My favorite Navy Blue Wonder greeted me at the door, immediately inviting me to sit in his chair, drink promptly-provided tea, and munch on locally praised sunflower seeds. Children filed in from upstairs, nodding to me in friendly there's-a-foreigner-in-my-courtyard! surprise.

As we chatted, I expressed my hesitancy to go back home; the elder gentleman agreed that yes, indeed, it was sad. Then, lightning quick, the kind sir went into a back room, returning with a small box. The box was a hazy clear, laying peek to a small figure inside. "Shangdi, Shangdi" he said, motioning at the box. He wrote it out for me so I could look it up in my dictionary:


Everyone has their God, he explained to me. Even in America, there is God.

I carefully opened the box as he handed it to me, delicately revealing the ivory figurine inside. It looked worn from touch, its cream color roughed around the edges with a brown musty dirt. The figure was Man, with arms outstretched, standing in confident omnipotence. His long hair reached his shoulders with dignity, and a long fur cloak stretched down to his feet; the coat's long sleeves draping his thin wrists in scholarly significance. Finally, an outstretched finger pointed to a worshipping audience. With mouth agape, this little figure, this little God, seemed to be teaching.

I began to wonder how old this figure was-- how long my gentleman friend had owned it, where he had gotten it, and how it figured into his Naxi ethnicity's belief in Dongba. Who was this God? There are so many Gods in this world, his world, which one was this? And, why was I priviledged to be the new owner of such a treasured item?

As I continued to behold my beloved gift, I turned the little God in my hand, inspecting every corner. There, at its foot, I finally understood. There, hidden at the bottom of this sacred symbolism, was my answer.


A plastic toy?!

There is so much you cannot know in one glance, so much that can be clouded with a little assumption.

Two days after owning my treasured gift, I now know a little more. This little revered God...
is wearing heels.

And has...

This little God... is Cruella Deville!

I guess it just shows: experiences need time to set in before you really can learn from them, huh?

xiexie & byebye!

Friday, August 22, 2008

T minus 2

Rather than schedule those last possible meetings (difficult now that my cell phone is out of minutes!), I resolved to spend my last 2 days in Lijiang calm and relaxed. And I’m so glad I did, because the morning rightfully started out with a bang.

This past Monday, I was supposed to meet two older men for a “picture hand-off” in the main square. I had interviewed them with Lily over the weekend, and had promised them printed pictures. However, because of Monday’s morning rain, the two men personally made their way to my hostel instead, so I did not have to walk through the downpour. So wonderful of them! Sadly, though, the pictures had not yet been printed, and they had to leave with only umbrella in hand.

For two more mornings, they trekked to my hostel. And, for each of those mornings, they were without luck; the pictures were not yet ready.

But finally, today they were.

Mama Naxi helped me call one of my picture-questing friends with the news. Thirty minutes later, there he was, all navy blue of him, umbrella-turned-cane in hand. I gave him the pictures, he smiled thankfully… then invited me to their home. How could I resist? I dropped everything I was doing and accompanied him on the 20-minute walk to their house.

As I followed the cute navy-blue 81-year-old, I was thrilled for the invitation. We left touristy Old Town, and went to where the residents actually lived. Calmer, greener, with pretty views of the rolling green hillside. I’m so lucky I got to see this part of Old Town before I left.

We arrived at a courtyard-style home—the most squeaky-clean abode I’ve been to in all of Lijiang. The floors were sparkling white, the flowers huge, the birds calm. I sat with Kind Navy Blue Man and his cousin, Smiley Beard Man, for perhaps an hour, chatting lusciously about little things now and then, but mostly sitting in comfortable silence while sipping Puer tea. I have a hard time just sitting when visiting with people. I feel like I should be talking, doing, inquiring. But, sometimes just sitting is the best way to visit; the company is all that matters. Especially to these men.

After picture-taking and walnut-munching (and of course, water pipe and well system-inspecting), they walked me over to another water source: a large 3-pit-well in southern Old Town. The men told me that in the past, when Black Dragon Pool ran low, they would often fetch their water here. In the background, in the third pool, women washed mountains of chives to be eaten later that day. (As it was morning, perhaps no one had yet done laundry, and vegetables were still OK to wash in the third pool). The women were loud, and green, green, green.

This really was old Lijiang, life away from all the tourism. I feel lucky to have been a part of it—if even for a few minutes.

I had my second-to-last calligraphy class today; I’m going to miss this place. While my normal little friends were not there this time (school starts soon—September 1), I really do enjoy sitting against the sunlight, with a teacher-offered pear in one hand, and an ink-sopped brush in the other, trying to avoid the stares of the passerby tourists (Chinese & Western alike). For me, this is stress relieving—I can sit in concentration for two hours (2 hours = 100 characters) and not even realize it. Definitely will be continuing this routine back at home, for my own sanity.

As I finished my characters, Mama Naxi (my hostel owner) popped her head in, her loud voice booming. She saw that I was getting ready to leave, and quickly invited me to go with her to buy plants for her hotel. I agreed right away—but when found out it would be a two-hour endeavor—politely declined. “OK, Fine,” she conceded. “But, I will take you to eat.”

Without really agreeing, I was whisked away, Mama Naxi holding my hand, laughing at me as she took me through the streets. We pranced through my favorite Zhongyi Market, then out to a Muslim Halal Restaurant. As we sat there, just the two of us, she ordered her favorite beef dish—Mama knows best. While delicious, Mama Naxi made sure that I ate my whole share of the tender beef in soup, fat and bones and all. (Thank goodness I had not eaten lunch! Though, I do believe that my next two weeks of meat-income is now taken care of.) This sort of hospitality just is Mama Naxi. Treating you to lunch at a restaurant that’s not her own, paying for a meal more expensive than at her place, laughing and shoving food in your face until you threaten to explode (through hand motions & facial expressions, but not words, of course.)

And so, I waddled home.

Hospitality at its best hurts.

Thursday, August 21, 2008


A Naxi insult I learned

A Naxi grandma comes up to her friend.
--"Do you have the cards you promised you'd bring me today?"
--"Euuhh, I forgot."
--"Ah! 3 generations of your mommy!"

I have NO idea what it means, but it is quite the insult! Resulted in some hearty laughs.

Some Dongba Poetry
Sayings provided by the Dongba Research Institute.

Plow the fields before you are hungry,
Dig the well before you are thirsty.

The Yulong Mountain towers into the sky,
The Jinsha River winds round the earth

There are lofty pines on the mountain
Because there is nurturing water and soil.

And my personal favorite:

Trees in deep soil will not fall,
Wells in fertile valleys will not dry.

The Naxi have a history of bountiful resources. It really is reflected in their overwhelming trust that Nature will Provide.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Weaseling my Way into the Water Company

OK, it really wasn't weaseling.

It was more of asking my friend Yana who graciously asked her mom to graciously call her friend who graciously drove us to the water-supply company, sat around, then graciously drove us to the wastewater treatment company, sat around, then graciously drove us back home.

Thanks, new pal!

I wracked my brain to remember everything I could about water supply & sanitation systems... settling chambers, filtration & sterilization units, activated sludge processes, blah, blah, blah... and battled with the language constraints preventing my questions to reach our personal tour guide.

It's amazing how much diagrams & pictures can communicate things, even across language barriers.

I-- with no water supply-related language skill,
Yana-- with just a handy cell phone dictionary but no background in water supply, and
A Water Company Employee-- with no previous experience in answering science-related questions (Now what chemical do you add in this process? What are your standards for turbidity?) from two chatty young girls in their twenties.

And yet, diagrams & pictures helped the ideas make their way across all these extremes. Pipe drawings, schematic systems, percentages... diagrams & pictures not only help explain ideas in mere English, but across so many language and background barriers. They certainly worked today to get the ideas across--across experience, nationality, language, background, age, & gender borders-- sans even words. I am a continued fan. And my notebook, full of informative arrows, boxes, and markings, proves it.

Company does not have a specific target number for supply they have to meet. And, the water that they do source is paid for. So,A couple things come to mind from our visit: the Water Company deals with water from Qingxi Reservoir and Yulong Snow Mountain. (Qingxi Reservoir has its own springs, Yulong's water comes from the melting glacier.) Since people access their water in Lijiang either through wells, through the public springs, through heated rainwater, or through the pipes--the Water when I asked what typical water demand was per capita... I got some confused looks. Likewise, when I asked if they were worried about the Yulong Glacier significantly depleting (global warming)... again some frowns & lowered voices. I didn't really get a straight answer from Yana--language barrier I think--but from the tone of the voice, and the look on the face (facial expressions shows all avoidance)... this seemed to be a touchy subject.

Nonetheless, it was quite a "normal" day at the Water Co hydrological data I would have likedmpany. Still, despite this normalcy, I felt quite proud to have gotten myself there! (Thanks, Yana!) Perhaps I'll never get access to the historical records & (NO WAY would they have allowed that!)... but I got in the door--and for me, that is enough!

Monday, August 18, 2008

A Wedding Celebration

I wish I had pictures to accompany this post, but alas, I just enjoyed and didn't worry about picture-snapping this time.

For all of its local culture and heritage, Lijiang is also the perfect host to the ephemeral traveler, a network of tourism. And, for all the booming development that it brings, tourism brings a wealth of hospitality, outgoingness, and fun, as well.

Recently, I made friends with Sunny, a cute nine-year-old in my Calligraphy class. Her parents, kind people, invited me to dinner last week--they spend every summer in Lijiang (for the past ~10 years). Lijiang really is their second home.

Tonight, we had something special to celebrate. Sunny's English teacher, a young Australian-Chinese guy, was getting married! Here was the ultimate expression of traveling romance. Two months ago, on a planned year of traveling abroad, he met a girl from Xian, also vacationing in Lijiang. They both extended their stay, and are now getting married. Sunny's parents, in wonderful Chinese hospitality, threw a huge traditional wedding bash for them tonight. Horse riding through the streets, anklets with bells on both bride and groom, thousands of red roses decorating the courtyard. Table full of food (all made by Sunny's dad), bountiful wine, a colorful cake, and many, many friends--mostly travelers themselves.

The evening involved a small ceremony for bride & groom (the bride wears a red cloth over her face for the first bit--much like a veil), then the banging of a gong, the kiss, the popping of balloons, the throw of the flowers, the hoots and hollers of the crowd, then eating, drinking, watching Olympics (girls gymnastics), playing with babies, & teasing & laughing.

As we munched away on the glorious banquet, just my luck: I took a bite into my jiaozi (dumpling) and crunched on something hard... a silver coin! As per custom, my good fortune meant I was supposed to perform a talent. In front of Everyone. Woweee. Chanting began, Jia you Jia you... Common Common! I couldn't get out of it.

And so I took a deep breath, and performed.

Peter Piper Picked a Peck of Pickled Peppers
A Peck of Pickled Peppers Peter Piper Picked...

Obviously-- they didn't really understand my tongue twister; I guess my talents weren't really on par tonight. Nonetheless, being the pretty American, I got a round of applause all the same(& a boyfriend proposal). It might be superficial, but at least I have that lao wai (foreigner) thing going for me!

Black Dragon Pool Revisited

Interviews are still going well--though we have to compete with the rain for the Lijiang Elders' time.

I visited Black Dragon Pool again, this time more knowledgeable about its water source. There are several springs where the water pools up out from the mountain. Bowls relax along the rocks, for thirsty passerby to quench their thirst. People come to fill their bottles with the free water.

I drank some of the water... very delicious! And I don't think I've gotten sick from it, yet...

And--here is another picture from our daily interviews. These women were willing to talk to us. There are songs about the water that Naxi people sing... though they were reluctant to sing them for me. I don't blame them-- I'd be embarrassed too!

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Little Whirlwind

Things are going well... especially because I finally started to interview Naxi Elders!

My friend Lily (Naxi ethnicity and Lijiang area native) is helping me as an interpreter... and it’s a win-win combination. As she runs tours in this area, it's important for her to know local culture and history, so that she may tell accurate information to her tour-guides and guests. On my side, I could do nothing without her, her Naxi+Mandarin+English abilities, and her comforting personality. As she chats it up with the Grandmas and the Grandpas, I feel like I’m not doing any work!

As I haven’t had enough time to really reflect on the 2-days worth of interviewing we have done... here are just a few things I've noticed so far.

In some ways, this interviewing is easy. Most elder Naxi women wear the traditional blue hat, blue shirt, maroon vest, and black and blue apron over black pants. A melding of mostly blue and black, they then layer this look with the sheepskin cape that protects their back from heavy loads, and that keeps them warm in the cooler temperatures. All in all—very easy to recognize. The elder Naxi men, too, are quite easy to spot. Lounging back on benches, cane in hand, & often with long beards a-pipe a-suckin’, these men are waiting targets for our questioning goals. Most elder people in the old town delight in a relaxing life nowadays. As they love to congregate together to relax and have fun—it’s easy to know where we can find people to interview. In the morning, they stroll around Black Dragon Pool for exercise, and in the afternoon, they dance in Sifang Square… or play cards or sing songs or chat amongst themselves or laugh at the little kids or—as of now—entertain us in stories of their childhoods & water, as we all perch on benches among a big shady tree.

Oddly enough, the men are much more eager to talk to us, while the women are rather timid about answering questions. While I at first assumed that the boisterousness of Naxi women in society would lead them to giving all the answers—this doesn’t seem to be the case. While just speculation, there seem to be some reasons for this. First, these Naxi women are very modest; many say that they do not know anything worthy of such structured questions. Second, because they spent so much of their lives working hard for their families, they maybe did not spend much time thinking critically about where there water came from, about the history of water in the town, etc. Third, they might be less educated than the men are, and so perhaps less critical or opinionated about the ongoings in this city. (Please remember though, these are just speculation.)

This oddity has led to some barriers in interviewing. While I believe Naxi women hold a wealth of knowledge in how they accessed water for their families in the past compared to now… their hesitancy to answer questions permits this information from reaching my ears. Through easy-going liao tianr (chatting), they have no problem divulging these sorts of clues…yet when we politely wonder if we can ask specific questions, or have their permission to record their voices (oh, IRB!), this fluid conservation shuts down, and an ending nod of the head and a referral takes its place.

Still, despite barriers, there is one thing in particular that I find stunningly interesting. Through our conservations, we’ve learned that very few of the Elders (aged 60-80+) believe in the Naxi Dongba religion. In the past, Dongba priests taught people to protect their environment through ritual, but after the Cultural Revolution, the number of Dongba priests SEVERELY dropped. Many Elders said that when growing up, their home villages had maybe two or one or none Dongba priests, and this number is continuing to decrease today. More specifically, according to the Dongba Research Institute, there are only 9 true Dongba priests alive today (though I need to fully confirm that number). As true Dongba-ism is passed down father to son—a veritable religious inheritance—the disappearance of the Dongba religion is all too present.

So, instead of religion and ritual teaching these current Elders as it had past generations, environmental & water protection was bestowed to them "from generation to generation." And, since today even this “generation to generation” tradition is not being passed down, without religion to back them up, the younger generation no longer has a comparable "code" to live by. All in all: a gradual loss of environmental protection among the Naxi people, (though I'm taking it to extremes here to make my point, of course.)

Now, it’s time for me to be a little lame. Ideally, I wanted to draw a diagram to illustrate this idea... but that just doesn't work on Blogger. So, an equation will have to do---

A = Passing down Tradition from Generation to Generation
B = Dongba Religious Beliefs

A + B = Why Past Generations took care of their water
A = Why Elder Generation takes care of their water
ZERO = Why the Younger Generation is not taking care of their water (+ impacts of tourism and immigration of course!)

TA DA! Problem Solved! …Yeah right. But you can see how without the buttress of religion or tradition, the younger Naxi generation does not easily protect their environment as they had in the past.

This makes me wonder though: what do the Elders think they can still teach the younger generation? And, why aren’t they doing it—have they lost hope? Each Grandma/Grandpa we interviewed said, “The older people always told us that…” and to them they listened. And So, my question is:

Are they being those same wise older people to their younger inheritors of beautiful Lijiang?