March 2015

大家好!Hello Everyone!

Today’s blog includes some introductions and then the story of a trip to Liangshan Prefecture in Southern Sichuan. For this story you will need to know some of the players in our mini drama: Noah who is a UW Seattle student and my research partner and this story’s unexpected hero, David my little brother here in Chengdu and our “host” for this trip, Michael a resident of a small town in ZhaoJue and now a friend here in Chengdu, Simple another ZhaoJue/Chengdu friend, and Maria a student from NY who is studying Chinese at the Minorities University which is more commonly known as MinDa, and our surprising heroine GuGu Mu whose name I am spelling phonetically and whose family originally was from ZhaoJue but now they live in XiChang (she is also a student at MinDa but she studies art).

I begin my story with a reminder that my research in China through the UW Seattle and this exchange program is based upon the Yi Minority language and its preservation or loss in its own culture with the focus on those that live in Liangshan Prefecture which is considered an autonomous zone and includes ZhaoJue, XiChang, and many others. Noah and I took a bus from Chengdu to XiChang which took about 6 hours and is one of the most stunning drives I can imagine with its sweeping mountain views and elevated roads that overlook small villages and crop fields. It also boasts some of the longest tunnels in China, most likely the world.

Upon arrival in XiChang we were met by David and several ShuShus. A ShuShu is an uncle and that is a very loose title, it often means a person who is above the age of 30 who is part of the Yi community. I almost titled this story Everybody Needs a ShuShu because they are invaluable assets to any situation. In this case we climbed aboard the ShuShu’s motorcycles and headed about an hour above XiChang to David’s family’s house in SiHe a tiny area settled in the mountains just outside the “big city” of XiChang. These ShuShus are masters at avoiding potholes in an underdeveloped area with sketchy roads!

Immediately upon arrival at David’s house we were told that we could not bring out backpacks for the next couple of days since we were going to be on the move to several locations. We had to bring enough supplies for 2 days (which turned into 3, guess it was a good thing I took the monster purse I keep around for these situations). We then turned around and headed back to Xichang to take a bus to see David’s sister’s wedding. I have no idea what the area we were in was called, but it was a smaller town and we spent time with the bride’s family and then I shared a room with the bride for the night. We met a lot of really cool people at this event and I felt very fortunate to have met the bride and groom the next day for a late breakfast and celebration. Turns out that one of the big things at Yi weddings is changing clothes, well at least for the bride. She changed skirts in the car after being carried to the car by a family member, then she changed hats and skirts again at the location. She was super sweet and she said she was very happy to be with her groom and he also looked very happy when we got a chance to talk with him briefly at the table. For anyone that ends up attending a wedding like this in the future you can hopefully get treated to some expensive and interesting types of cigarettes which are handed out at favors to the guests from the family members. I don’t smoke but watching the different types was interesting, and by handing out, I mean they hand you the entire pack of smokes to show their generosity and happiness!

After the wedding we took a bus ride into XiChang and checked out an old street that had a temple and some interesting shops. David was in too much of a hurry for us to really enjoy ourselves, but we knew we needed to catch the next bus to ZhaoJue which could be a story in itself honestly. I am going to keep that part short since it was a barfer of a ride with the really bad road conditions, but the scenery was worth the entire trip. XiChang is towards the top of a large mountain range, but ZhaoJue is located above that, so we travelled up, and then looked down on XiChang. Truly spectacular views amongst the trees, that were then turned into glimpses of rivers with tiny villages and pastures of cows or water buffalos (whatever they are called here, it seems to be debatable) and sheep.

About the time we arrived in ZhaoJue I realized things weren’t going as planned. Granted there was no itinerary for this trip. Here is what I thought would happen: originally it was just going to be me going with David to SiHe and spending some time exploring his hometown and then I wanted to spend some time in XiChang shopping for Yi wares and if time permitted I would see if anyone else was in town to visit before heading back. I had planned on spending some time teaching English to David’s students as he is a teacher of Yi during breaks when students who normally are in school can attend his lessons since Yi isn’t taught in schools. Then Noah was available and we agreed this wasn’t necessarily a research trip, but more of a meet and greet or build good will trip. But adding Noah only meant I had good company and an opportunity to understand more of what was happening as his Chinese is far superior to mine. I had wanted to spend some time with David’s family, meet his mom, little sister and brother etc. Yep, almost exactly none of that was happening at this point in our trip.

Noah had been in contact with GuGu Mu prior to heading up to XiChang and we really wanted to spend some time with her and meet her family. They had gotten a small pig for a bbq celebration with us and we scheduled time to get with her upon our return to XiChang from ZhaoJue. That sounds simple doesn’t it? Sure it does…

Our arrival in ZhaoJue was in the evening and we were whisked away to meet people and see a small school where the headmaster was very welcoming and is one of David’s “brothers” (ShuShus are over 30, brothers are under that, sisters are under 30 generally and Ayis are aunts or women over 30ish). For some reason I have a hard time remembering this part of the story, but here is what I do remember. We checked into a hotel, dropped our stuff off, and then went out. I think we went to dinner with David’s brother the headmaster and several of his colleagues and friends. This is where we meet Simple.

Welcome Simple, oh how to do your personality justice?! Simple became my savior that night. Noah and I were invited to go hang out at KTV which is basically a party room with its own bathroom which is really convenient because most people are roaring drunk during KTV and having a bathroom centrally located is very important. The Yi people always spill some of their drink on the ground as an offering to their ancestors; simply translated this is disaster to my wheat allergy! Beer is flying, literally, through the room at and on me and I’m starting to itch so I tell David I absolutely have to leave and Simple offers to take me back to the hotel. Well, that was the original plan; you’ve seen how those are turning out right? Simple and his lady friend escort me out of the KTV building and into a taxi where he looks at me and asks if I want to go have bbq, “sure” is my immediate response since Liangshan has some of the best meat in China! I’m not even hungry, but who can turn down bacon over an open flame, psst…not me.

Diverted successfully to some tiny little bbq place we sit down to munch on some goodies and drink more. I’m very fortunate to find people who understand my allergy in this situation, they found me a bottle of plum wine to drink while we chatted happily about things like Obama, basketball and sports people I know nothing about (sorry Kobe!). I swear I met Michael at this time, but I’m still not entirely clear on that day’s events. Around midnight Simple and I realize David and Noah will be returning shortly to the hotel and they will find me missing. Of course my cellphone is dead since I had no time to pack the charger for this trip so we sneak off from the bbq to the hotel where I beat the boys back by less than 10 minutes.

Bless Noah for being such a sport! He was my champion and diverted the attention from me and was able to buffer me from the drinking at every meal and event. Since I can’t drink beer and there is really nothing else in China worth drinking I am not the best party animal. He caught me at the hotel that night and warned me that David and headmaster brother were going to a meeting and probably would come get mea t 7am to head out. That allowed me to prepare and get a much appreciated shower and relax a little in the morning knowing the plan. Sure enough, early morning comes and they come to get me, but I am a little surprised that Noah isn’t there with them. Turns out he was taking a much needed rest from the night of debauchery and would meet up with us at noon for lunch and our next engagement. No problem, buddy, rest, relax and feel better.

Ha-ha, ever been to something where you understand almost nothing? I could have held my own better at a physics convention, or anime event (I have no idea about either of these subjects, seriously none at all). So, here is what I can share about this meeting: It was the first meeting amongst the Yi people who come from various locations in China about the preservation of their culture and traditions. Yep, that is super important to my research, too bad I don’t speak Yi! Most of the conference was spoken in Yi, except for a couple of folks who spoke Chinese who I can’t thank enough for helping me piece things together.

Interestingly enough I found out while listening to a super nice young man speaking Chinese that not all the Yi people speak the same language, let alone use the same writing system. He pointed out that many in attendance could not understand the meeting because of this and that was why he was speaking Chinese. Later I caught up with him and got his contact information since he was the only person there that seemed to speak from the heart and showed any compassion towards his companions from different areas and groups.

Noah was able to join us for lunch and our next unplanned event. This time we were expected to make a presentation in front of a high school group at the small school our headmaster brother runs. Our speech starts in 2 hours, umm, what are we supposed to talk about? We were told it started at 2pm, so we planned to return to XiChang on the 4pm bus, and we knew that if we were running late we could hire a driver to take us down the mountain with GuGu Mu’s help. We also knew that travelling that road in the dark was out of the question. Well, Chinese time and clocks in general don’t mix well. 2pm turns into 3pm and we begin, but there are a lot of speakers and no one wants us to leave until the pictures are taken. I’m starting to get irritated with everyone saying, “10 more minutes” when I ask when it will finish.

Simple and David both gave speeches, and we met Action who is a gal from ZhaoJue who studied really hard to get into a great school in the South. About 4:30pm I’m getting pissed, because now we are finding out that everyone expects us to go to another celebration dinner in ZhaoJue not head back to XiChang. Noah prevented me from walking out the door and leaving without anyone knowing where I was going. He was very calm and despite also being frustrated was much more level headed than I was at that time. I told you he was the hero right? My Irish temper was definitely begging for me to rebel and do my own independent thing which might have been a little dangerous but at least I would have had my freedom.

Well, we made it through the meeting and the pictures at about 6:30pm and then went to dinner. I could also mention at this point that we were given a person to translate our speech, but she got really flustered and wasn’t able to help at all, so Noah again saved the day and spoke in Chinese for us. We decided to share a room that night so that we could make our escape to the bus early in the morning without interference and we did just that the next morning. We did call David from the bus after we were headed out of town to let him know we were going to meet with GuGu Mu in XiChang for that pig we’d been dreaming about. I unwound a little bit on our rough trip down the mountain and was looking forward to our time with GuGu Mu and her family.

Her family is awesome! They were so welcoming and just super cool. Her mom and dad sang a song for us, her uncle performed Tai Chi and everyone was relaxed and happy to have us. We really relaxed and had a wonderful time with the best food I’ve had in China, no kidding! That pig was delicious and superbly cooked, the strawberries were from their garden, and everything was perfect and peaceful. David joined us at the end of dinner and we headed back into XiChang for the evening at a bar after meeting up with Michael and walking around the lake in XiChang for a while. It was a beautiful day, filled with friendship and good will.

Michael turns out to be a young man from Liangshan who has one of the best smiles I’ve ever seen. His posture is disturbingly perfect and he is a warm and friendly person who Noah and I both enjoyed spending time with. He spent more time with us the following evening as well and was a welcome addition to our group. FYI Simple stayed in ZhaoJue and returned recently to Chengdu for school, we have dinner plans with him, Michael and Abraham another young man from Liangshan. All of these guys are wonderful, kind and intelligent people who I am honored to know and call my friends.

That night we took separate scooters to SiHe, but there were some mishaps with that too. Recall that nothing went as planned on this trip, why would that change now?! I guess that Noah and David’s scooter broke almost immediately after we headed out. My cellphone was useless since it was well past dead and had been for a couple of days now. So where are they? The ShuShu I was riding with was as puzzled as to our missing comrades as I was. So now it is midnight 30 and I don’t know where I’m going, or where my host and friend are. It was nerve wracking until they finally showed up after waiting in a really secluded area for about 20 minutes. Lesson learned: always have one working cellphone per bike.
That night was really cool; we stayed at David’s home in SiHe and drank wine under the stars in the mountains above XiChang’s brilliant lights.

Remember when I said I was expecting to teach a little English at David’s home based school? Yeah, he told me to prepare for about 40 minutes of teaching, turns out that I was expected to teach for 3 hours to two separate groups of students. Nothing like finding that out the day of! We also found out that Maria would be joining us and that she was also an English teacher for kids like I am in Chengdu so I knew help was coming. Things went well and we made fast friends with Maria and some other folks who came to join us for the lessons. I had not expected to be stuck at the house all day, and was a little miffed I couldn’t just go explore the area except for briefly during our lunch break.

That evening we went to town, met up with Michael and several other fabulous and funny people for dinner and spent the night in XiChang so we could catch the morning bus back to Chengdu. I left the festivities early due to my allergies and not wanting to have issues with KTV and beer again. I heard it was a blast though no one took pictures that I could find.

Maria and I have kept in touch since our return to Chengdu. She and I went to have some Pho at the Global Center and we have plans for early next month. I have several dinners planned with various people from this trip and I have some fond memories of warm and kind individuals who I hope to keep in contact with for a very long time. GuGu Mu has become a fast friend and looking at her artwork always amazes me, she is truly gifted. Her heart is filled with generosity and independence and I love her dearly. Simple and Michael will most likely be good interviews for our research, but most importantly they are our friends and I value their friendship more than their ability to help me find information. Noah proved to be a huge asset and a brother to me. He was always a friend, but after his cool head and willingness to buffer me from some of the situations we got involved in he became my brother. Anna, David’s little 16 year old sister who you read about briefly in DuFu’s Cottage is my sister now and I am trying to find a way to bring her to America to visit or attend school.

Life is never boring in China, and rarely do plans turn out as expected I’m finding. Maybe that makes the experience more real and exciting.

Ok, I’m sorry. I effectively fell off the face of the earth this last month or so, but to be fair I was busy getting pictures and doing stuff worth blogging about! Today I want to tell you about DuFu’s Thatched Roof Cottage. From here on out, I’ll call it DuFu’s. The reason it took me so long to write about him is because I kept writing Dufus, say that out loud and don’t laugh, I dare you! Basically, every time I tried to write I would bust up laughing and couldn’t continue. I’m not the only American that calls this place Dufus's Cottage though, I asked around when I couldn’t control my snickers in public.

For this blog I need to introduce you to John, Noah and Anna. John and Noah are also UW exchange students here in Chengdu and part of my program. We are a close UW family and when we have time we call each other up and go do things as a group. So my first trip to DuFu’s was with John and Noah (Noah is also my research partner and you’ll hear more about him soon).

Anna is my little sister here in China. She lives in XiChang and is technically David’s little sister so really that means she is my little sister too. I met Anna on my trip to Liangshan last month and she immediately became my family. She is a darling 16 year old with a huge and kind heart, and when I got back to Chengdu I invited her to spend a week at my apartment seeing Chengdu with me. Thanks to the family knowing me, Anna was allowed to come and get a brief introduction to Chengdu. I think I wore her out, but she got to do lots of fun things while in town with me including going shopping and drinking Starbucks at Wanda Plaza Mall. I think she really liked DuFu’s and the Global Center which is the largest building in the world regarding square footage according to Wiki.

Now on to DuFu! He was a poet, a prolific poet who had a really hard life back in the 700’s. I feel bad for saying this, but he wasn’t all that interesting to me. I can’t read his poetry, but many people in China think he was very important and his poems were significant to their history. What I do like about him was that he was supportive and sympathized with the impoverished people of China. That is extremely rare, in modern times and historically.

After DuFu passed on his house and land was owned by a concubine named Madame Ren (?). I will have a picture of her on this blog for you to check out. She was stunning. She wasn’t a concubine to royalty, but rather to a military man. She changed around the landscape a little, but kept the herbal gardens and trees that DuFu had planted in his time.

Who I did find interesting was Li QingZhao, a Song Dynasty writer/poet and one of the few exalted females in China’s history. I will have a photo of her bronze statue which is prominently displayed at the front of an exhibition hall at DuFu’s. Li was an outgoing noble woman whose family was very scholarly. She wrote of beauty, patriotism and women’s strength and courage. You can Google her to find her poems translated into English.

What Anna, John, Noah and I all noticed about this secluded park, was it was beautiful and naturally peaceful. You can hear birds, bees, smell the plum and peach trees when they blossom, and listen to the gurgling waterfalls throughout the grounds. DuFu’s place is one of peace, art and nature. It is amazing to find such a place, literally in the middle of a city that holds 9-14 million people. I hope if my readers get a chance to visit Chengdu they will choose to visit DuFu’s Thatched Roof Cottage. It is worth the admission price of $10 USD or if you are a student in China half that.