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Getting to know Ningxia

One of the things I love about this year is how many opportunities it is giving me to explore Asia. This second year of my degree is a time for me to conduct research and write my master’s thesis – a task that I am (slowly, but surely!) working towards. For the most part, however, this research and writing is being done on the road – as I’ve started to take advantage of travel opportunities and go beyond Beijing to understand more of the country that I’m starting to call home.

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In a bit of a spur-of-the-moment decision, I decided this week to travel to Ningxia. Ningxia, or more fully, Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, is a northwestern region bordered by Inner Mongolia, Gansu, and Shaanxi. I hadn’t heard much about Ningxia before I started making travel plans, so I was excited to read up on the local history and culture. Though the geeky side of me wants to share everything that I’ve found, the travel blogger in me realizes that I’m probably not going to keep your attention if I spend too much time talking about the policies behind how Ningxia became recognized as an Autonomous Region, or about the trajectory of Islam in China and how Hui culture and identity was developed within the Mainland over the past eight centuries. 😉

Maybe I’ll save some of those thoughts for a future blog post, or even an academic essay… Instead of boring you with those details, I’ll jump straight into the travel and tell you about what I got to see in the past week and what I’d recommend to other travelers coming to Ningxia on their own!

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My trip was made possible by Tong Cheng (同程旅游); a group that is working in collaboration with local tourism initiatives to promote international tourism in Ningxia. Tong Cheng covered my expenses to make the journey from Beijing, handled all of our travel logistics, and brought us to some of the best sites in Ningxia. I could hardly pass up the opportunity to have such an adventure. 🙂 The past week has been a whirlwind tour, so I figured I’d just share some of my favorite places and favorite photos with all of you.

Hui Culture Park

The Hui Culture Park was the first destination for this trip. It is, without a doubt, a really interesting and complicated place. (I’d love to learn more about The Culture Park, and perhaps write an entire essay on its development.) The site was opened in 2005, and has been awarded AAAA Tourism Ranking, though many sections of the park are still under construction. It is intended to put Hui culture on display, and share the group’s cultural traditions with the world.

Our group was shuffled into a small building to see a short performance that included song and dance. The space was cozy – no larger than my dining room – and the twenty-person audience took up the second half of the room. Our group made up the plurality of the crowd, with some folks clustered together on wooden benches while others stood to take photographs. There was no elevated stage, but the performers held a captive audience as they sang long throaty ballads, or danced in upbeat numbers. The sequins on the performers clothing – colorful renditions of traditional Hui costume – threw golden light onto the walls as the women spun in circles.

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I walked around several buildings within the complex, including an enormous mosque. While we were there, a guide led gave a lecture to another travel group about the site and Muslim history. Since the talk was exclusively in Mandarin, I couldn’t follow everything that was said – but I was kept captivated by the colorful interior of the building. The architecture was an interesting fusion of Chinese and Islamic styles, and seemed to be a favorite part of the site among Chinese and international visitors alike! Many people took photographs of the tessellating tiles, and I craned my neck to look at the golden dome at the center of the building. While we were inside, a Hui couple even came with a professional photographer to take a series of engagement photos!

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China Western Film Studio

We started our second day with a visit to the China Western Film Studio. It was a little cold in the morning, but I warmed up quickly while walking around… though the cup of hot milk tea I kept in my hands definitely helped! 😉 Many Chinese films have used the film studio as a backdrop to their scenes: fans of “Red Sorghum” might recognize some familiar places!

I haven’t seen the films that have come out of this studio space – but will add these movies to a list to watch when I get the time! I think it will be fun to see the classics, now knowing that I’ve walked in the same streets. Despite not having seen these movies yet, I had a really good time. Signs around the complex showed movie scenes in the exact places they were made, which made it easy to get caught up in the excitement and imagine bustling film crews and popular movie stars.

While I loved wandering around the various studios and looking around, my favorite part of this visit was watching other visitors jumping into the sets and acting out scenes of their own. There’s something really funny about the stark contrast that this set-up creates: the playfulness of adults, set against a backdrop of historic scenery.

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In one case, I got to see a group of women jump into a line of angry looking mannequins, who seemed to be queuing to issue complaints to a local magistrate. Each mannequin figure was dressed in old-styled robes, with muted blue colors that have continued to fade with time since the studio installed them. The group of Chinese tourists that jumped into the scene was dressed in electric colored sportswear – which really made them stand out when compared to the dusty scene around them. One woman shouted “快一点儿!” (Kuai yidianr! Go faster!) with a smile that betrayed her mock outrage, as she pretended to shake her fist at the plaster and papier-mâché figurines around her.

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One section of the park was styled after a Republican Era city: complete with old style advertisements pasted to the walls, and little shops selling mock-vintage trinkets. This was the liveliest section of the studio that I saw: a number of food vendors set-up street stalls, and more people seemed to be milling around and taking photographs. Here’s one photo I snapped of a woman barking out commands to a line of mannequin soldiers. Her traveling group, a large collection of middle-aged women, laughed loudly in the background.

Horses!

Our group arrived just in time to see the 4:30 pm showing of the 烽火西夏 (Flames of War of the Western Xia Dynasty) play. We didn’t see much of the complex here before making our way to the arena, but I’m glad that we didn’t miss a moment of the performance. Riders on horseback showed off a variety of tricks – jumping on and off their mounts, pulling off handstands, and looping around the enclosure to show off for the audience. After the actors had given this brief introduction, the show was ready to begin.

I’ll admit, this was a slightly confusing plot for me to follow. The troupe divided into two groups at opposite ends of the theater, and began battling one another. Narration was blasted over loudspeakers, including dialogue and dramatic sound effects as the actors crossed swords. Surprisingly enough, the language classes I’ve taken thus far have not prepared me to follow battlefield vocabulary, so I had to rely on the rest of my group to help piece the narrative together. As I understand it, the story described the fall of the historic Western Xia Dynasty (which occupied the Ningxia area and ruled from 1038-1227) to the Mongol Empire.

Though I am a History & Archeology concentration, even I can find medieval history to be a little bit boring at times… however, if every reading I had to do was presented like this, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have the same opinion! Despite not understanding everything word-for-word, the show was awesome to watch and something I’d recommend to anyone who comes to Ningxia!

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Shahu – Sand Lake

My last day in Ningxia was spent at Shahu. Shahu, or “Sand Lake” is an enormous area with natural wetlands and wildlife, as well as a rolling desert with tons of things to see and activities to do. The park covers more than 80 square kilometers (about 31 square miles) of land and lakes.

When we arrived in the morning, the entire area was covered in a thick cloud of mist. Visibility was low, so we stopped for an early lunch at a restaurant across from the entrance as we waited for the sun to dissipate some of the fog. Though I was skeptical that the skies would clear, by noon the visibility improved and entire area was transformed completely! 🙂

We rode in several speedboats to cross the eponymous lake, which wove in between the tall reeds and gave us an exhilarating tour of the wetlands. Once we reached the sandy shores, we got to do a bit of bird watching and then a number of recreational activities. I’ll admit – I’ve seen some of these same activities in other places that I’ve been to, but I’ve never taken advantage of them. That all changed at Shahu, where in a single day, I got to ride a camel, sled down a sand dune, parasail, and hop into a miniature tethered hot-air balloon. (Seriously, this was a chance to cross off a half-dozen things on my bucket list!)

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A picture can say a thousand words, so I’ve shared some photos instead of writing everything down. Though you might be able to find these same activities elsewhere, if you find yourself in Ningxia and just want to have a fun-filled day, I’d really recommend it. 🙂

I could keep talking about Ningxia for a long time – and I’m sure that for some friends, I’ll be sharing stories, photos, and food in person soon! (My backpack is heavy with dried locally grown goji berries!) This post has been easy to write, in part because I’ve been able to include so many beautiful pictures that the official photographer had taken while we were traveling! I’ll spare you some of the promotional group photos from this trip, but I’ll share a photo of our cozy hot-pot dinner on our last day to give you a sense of the warm-hearted treatment we got.

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As a bonus, I’ll even throw in the goofy photo that they used for our introductions.

(Ai-ya! Hopefully that ID picture won’t come back to haunt me later in life.)

Up next… I’m off to Japan! I’ll save some of the details of that trip for when I make my next post – but I’ll be excited to share my thoughts and photos from Osaka, Kyoto, and Tokyo with each of you. ❤

Lots of love,

Kristen

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What I’ve been Chengdu-ing

I’m wrapping up a trip to Sichuan Province, where I got a chance to spend some time in Chengdu and Emeishan. Chengdu is particularly famous for its pandas, and Emeishan (while less well-known) is a site of special Buddhist significance. Like the other mountains I’ve visited in the past year, Emeishan is sacred in Chinese Buddhist tradition and is also a recognized national park & UNESCO World Heritage Site. This was my first time traveling to Sichuan, though I hope it won’t be my last! I found this trip to be incredibly lovely, and I’d look forward to coming back and seeing other parts of the province.

I did my best imitation of a panda during my time in Chengdu – lazing around most of the time, and breaking up the day by eating meals and desserts. My diet here has, thankfully, been more varied than the panda’s standard bamboo fare. I’ve gotten to eat some delicious food and drinks at a number of restaurants and teahouses, which have included mouth numbing spicy hot-pot, mind-blowingly good dan dan noodles, the mild flavors of Tibetan yak-milk tea, and the sticky sweetness of a enormous bowls of bing fen dessert.

Though Sichuan food back in the States often gets simplified to hot & numbing spice of Sichuan pepper, there’s a lot of diversity I’ve been able to see in the past week that I hadn’t known about before. I did still really enjoy going to a local spice market, where I got to see spices being measured and sold in massive quantities. (p.s. James, look out for a package of peppercorn coming your way!)

I was really excited to get the chance to see pandas on this trip. The soft and cuddly power of panda diplomacy has definitely proven itself effective in my case. I loved watching the pandas at the Washington Zoo grow up, and recently came across a funny article that talked about the process of moving American born pandas back to China. Two panda cubs that were raised in the U.S. were repatriated to China in 2016, and experienced culture shock when coming to the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, as they had to adjust to Chinese language and Chinese panda food. I empathize with these pandas in more ways than I can count.

Seeing the pandas was definitely one of the highlights of my trip. Back at home, the panda enclosures at the zoo are quite large and you never really get a chance to see them up close and personal. The Chengdu Panda Base is home to a number of cubs and fully-grown pandas that you can gawk at. It was, in a word, panda-monium. I have to thank my Aunt Joy for helping make this visit happen! I was almost discouraged from going when I learned you could no longer hold pandas for photos (I know, I know, I’m a complete tourist!) but I’m so glad that I went! Unfortunately, I don’t have too many pictures of myself with the pandas themselves, but here’s a photo with a blurry bamboo-eating blob in the background to prove that I went. 🙂

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The second part of my trip revolved around going to Emeishan (峨眉山). I’ve spoken in other posts about my experiences of going to Wutaishan and Putuoshan. There are four sacred Buddhist mountains in China, and each mountain has a connection to a specific bodhisattva that holds significance in the Mahayana Buddhist tradition. Emeishan is another of these sacred mountains, and is worshipped as the bodhimanda (place of enlightenment) of Samantabhadra bodhisattva. The last of these mountains, Jiuhuashan, is on my list of places I have to visit before I leave China!

I took the gaotie (high speed rail) to go from Chengdu to Emeishan. The trip is about 150 km, and took a little more than an hour. I spent one night in a cozy hotel before I departed for the mountain the following morning – I brought a small bag with me, which included my basic essentials (passport, wallet, camera, change of clothes) and left the rest of the bag with the hotel to retrieve when I came back.

And then I walked.

A lot.

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For reference’s sake, I’m including a photo of one of the maps to the park. You can zoom in to read it more carefully & follow the route I took along the trail if you’d like. If it helps you navigate/get a sense of place: I began in Emeishan City, and entered the park at the place on the far-left of the picture marked 天下名山. From there, I went along the route to the left, and then walked up the mountain.

If I follow the measurements laid out on the trail markers, I walked about 20 kilometers within the park on the first day. I saw Baoguo Temple, Fuhu Temple, Leiyin Temple, Chunyang Hall, Shenshui Tower, Zhongfeng Temple, and Guangfu Temple. There were, at times, flat roads for car traffic that connected the scattered villages that surrounded some of these temples, and I saw a few motorcycles pass carrying people that had grown tired of walking. For the most part though, I wandered around on meandering footpaths with countless stone stairs, and I didn’t encounter all too many people.

I called it a day when I reached Qingying Pavilion, as it was starting to rain and grow dark. I took a room at the monastery for the night. Technically, foreigners aren’t allowed to stay in monasteries overnight – and I have heard of people who were turned away from monasteries and needed to find alternative accommodations on the mountain! Thankfully, this wasn’t a problem for me and I was able to take a bed in a basic room for 40 RMB. There were 4 beds in the room, and if it had been peak tourism season/a Buddhist holiday, I would have likely shared with other women travelers. I think that I was the only female overnight guest (not including the laypeople who were accruing merit by living in the monastery longer-term and volunteering in the kitchens), so I got the room to myself for the night.

I woke up early to the sound of a morning gong, and left the monastery by 7:30 to start walking. Qingyin Pavilion is located at a fork in the path, and I took the leftmost route to walk towards the Natural Ecology Monkey Zone. Emeishan is known for the Tibetan macaques that live n the forests, which have gained a reputation for being “流氓” – or hooligans. These monkeys are incredibly clever, and have gradually lost fear of people… this means that you have to be wary when they approach if you’re carrying snacks in your hands or bag, as they might try to grab it from you!

I wasn’t carrying food with me, which might explain why I didn’t see any monkeys between Qingyin Pavilion and Hongchun Ping. (As far as critters go, I did see a toad that was bigger than my hand, and some really massive snails. I’ll spare you the slimy photos, but they made me laugh when I saw them.) Despite not seeing the monkeys, the walk was really beautiful and took me pretty far uphill where I could see the mountain fading into the clouds both above and below me.

I kept walking for a while after passing the temple, but decided that I’d return the way that I came instead of continuing onwards to Xianfeng Temple. On this stretch of the mountain, it seemed like the walking path was the only way to travel, and the sites were becoming more and more spread out with 10+ kilometers between them. Because I wanted to make it to the mountain’s peak and the temple at the Golden Summit, I retraced my steps back to monastery where I spent the previous night.

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What I like about nature, and about Buddhism, is that it offers rare opportunities to be alone with your thoughts. Hiking through Emeishan was an extended period of walking meditation, which let me focus on thinking simply and breathing deeply. Over the past few days, I’ve been struck by this feeling of connectedness – an all-encompassing sort of compassion that extends beyond my body and into the world around me.

I know, I know. I sound pretty crunchy-granola right about now. But this has been the first time that I’ve been revisiting some Buddhist thought since my retreat this summer, and the time has allowed some of these ideas to precipitate into stronger sentiments than I originally felt when leaving the monastery. It doesn’t hurt that I was surrounded by all sides with the enormous quiet of the forests and mountains – a majestic kind of lush greenery I didn’t fully expect. I don’t think that I can easily put it into words – but I felt moments of real awe when I was walking around on that second morning. I want to say that it puts into perspective the bigness and smallness of the world – there was something equally exquisite about being dwarfed by the mountaintops dissolving into clouds, and admiring the veiny variegation on the petals of a flower left as an offering on the lap of a statue.

This kind of experience leaves me feeling a humbling gladness, and I am thankful to be alive.

Now, I know that most of my family & friends aren’t here to read me waxing poetic about my place in the universe, so I have to thank you for sticking with me. I’ll carry on with the rest of my Emeishan adventure, which (I hope) will hold your attention since it does pick up the pace quite a bit.

When I came back to Qingyin Pavilion, I walked towards Wuxiangang in hopes of catching a bus that could take me up the rest of the mountain. Though I enjoy walking, the Golden Summit stands at an impressive 3077 meters (which makes it the tallest of the Buddhist mountains in China!) and I didn’t have it in me to make it there alone. The path to Wuxiangang was fairly commercial – plenty of small stalls where one could buy souvenirs, tea or snacks, and locally harvested mushrooms.

An old man walking beside me asked me if I was “少数民族”, which is a way of describing ethnic minority groups in China. Sichuan is home to a number of ethnic minorities in addition to the Han majority, and over the past week many people have asked me which minority group I am part of. I told him that I’m “混血儿”, or mixed-race, which started up a conversation about what I was doing in China and what I thought about traveling around the country.

As this was happening, I finally got to see the monkey I had been waiting for! A family of Tibetan macaques crossed our path and one caught a whiff of food being carried by a woman walking ahead of us. The monkey jumped in front of her and tried to grab onto the woman’s leg. She was (understandably) startled and dropped her bag, at which point the monkey grabbed a package of crackers off the ground and retreated to the fence, where it opened the plastic with ease and started snacking.

I was surprised to see this happening up close, and snapped the two pictures I’m sharing here. While this was happening, another monkey got the idea that I might be carrying something as well…

Friends know that I take a canvas tote bag almost everywhere I travel – it was a gift from my brother, and features a giant screen-printed soft pretzel on one side that absolutely screams “PHILLY!” On the other side, I’ve been building up a collection of sewn patches from the different countries I’ve visited. I didn’t have food in the bag, but maybe these monkeys are smart enough to know that soft pretzels are freaking delicious, and they came up to me and gave the bag a tug. The old man I was talking to had been paying closer attention than I had, and poked the monkey a few times with his walking stick to get it to move along. Had he not, chances are that I would have been left chasing this monkey across the mountain to steal back my things.

We had a good laugh at the situation together – even though our conversation had been progressing slowly because of my Mandarin level, I think that absurdity transcends language barriers pretty well and made for a nice moment to share. He told me how he was originally from Beijing, but since he retired he had been traveling often and taking cross-country road trips. By the time we reached the parking lot, he offered to bring me up the mountain so that we could continue our conversation a bit longer.

So, that’s the story of how I almost had my passport stolen by a monkey, and how I ended up hitchhiking with a Chinese retiree.

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We drove together for a bit under an hour. We talked a bit about life and different travel experiences – and he may or may not have attempted to set me up with his 38-year-old son. (A classic move.) It was a fun experience to slowly make my way through the conversation, phrasing and rephrasing things in order to make myself understood.

We parted ways when we made it to the Zero Kilometer Parking area, as he had plans to stop for a meal and a rest. I thanked him and took down his phone number (when he returns to Beijing from his current road-trip, perhaps we’ll meet for a tea), and then bought a ticket for the bus to take me the rest of the way up Emeishan to Jeiyin Hall.

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It became colder and damper as I got further up the mountain, and I was left thanking Buddha for UNIQLO’s ultra-light down jackets. I walked between Jieyin Hall and the Golden Summit, which felt more like swimming through 6 kilometers of thick mist since there was a light rain and it was high enough to be walking through a layer of clouds. At times, the trail ahead and behind seemed to disappear.

At the top of the mountain, there’s supposed to be a beautiful view of the clouds on clear days. It was not a clear day. What I saw was mostly grey, and even the statues closest to me had fuzzy outlines as if they were exchanging their borders with the atmosphere. At the scenic viewpoints along the mountaintop, you could look over the edge and see precisely nothing.

Maybe this would have been a letdown, but I think that there’s something funny and very Buddhist to the whole situation. Striving for something (whether that’s wanting material objects, or desiring the experience of beauty) is its own kind of intoxication, so it’s possibly for the best that I couldn’t see anything at all.

At least, that’s what I’m telling myself as consolation for walking all the way up without getting a picture to show for it. Estimating from the trail markers, I walked another 20-25 kilometers uphill on my second day, for a total of 40-something kilometers (nearly a marathon!) between the two days. Instead of a photo of the transcendent beauty of Buddhist enlightenment, here are two pictures from the peak that show a different kind of ~transcendent beauty~. 😉

Hehehe. Couldn’t have this ending on too serious of a note, could I? Anyway, I won’t drag this out longer – thanks for following along, and I’ll be looking forward to updating you on the next leg of my adventures. I decided to change my return flight to Beijing to give me a chance to see Chongqing for a couple of days. I don’t have many set plans while I’m there, but I’m sure I’ll figure it out as I go.

Be in touch soon.

Lots of love,

Kristen

Time in Taiwan

I just returned to Beijing after spending nearly three weeks in Taiwan! I was participating in a summer retreat for the Asian Future Leaders Scholarship Program, organized by the Bai Xian Asia Institute (BXAI). The organization sponsors Asian students studying at colleges and universities throughout Asia – and Peking University is one of their six anchor universities. I’m not an Asian passport holder, and therefore wasn’t eligible to be a full-year BXAI Scholar, but I was invited to participate in the summer program along with a couple of other classmates from Yenching Academy.

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Each year, BXAI chooses a new campus to host their summer program – and this year, the program partnered with National Taiwan University in Taipei, Taiwan. This year, there were about 120 students participating in the program – 16 of which came from my master’s program. Our first few days in Taipei were spent waiting out a typhoon warning, and waiting for students who had experienced flight delays due to the weather. We were housed in the Taipei Teachers Hostel, which was just down the street from the Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall MTR Station, and two stations away from the main NTU campus. I spent these first few days wandering around the neighborhood, and spending time in the numerous cafes that were a stone’s throw away from my front door.

Once most students had arrived, we piled into busses and traveled to Xitou – a nature education area owned by National Taiwan University. (A fun fact – NTU owns 1% of the island of Taiwan, and 99% of this land is in Xitou!) The area was really beautiful: a kind of overwhelmingly green space that you don’t get to see much of when you’re in big cities in Asia.

While in Xitou, we divided into several small groups, and I was put into Group G. There was one other boy from Yenching in my small group – though I hadn’t gotten many chances to talk with him over the past year since he was a member of the first cohort (one year above me). All in all, it gave me a lot of chances to interact with some new people and make some new friends. We stayed in Xitou for four days, and participated in a variety of (really silly!) team-building activities and games. I had a lot of fun. 🙂

Often times, our group would use Mandarin as a common language during meals or in small group discussions. I think that my listening skills have really improved over the past year, and I was surprised by how much I could follow. I couldn’t always respond in Mandarin, but it was always easy to ask questions about what was said, and respond in English. If anything, the language differences helped me think a lot about what I wanted to say and how I wanted to say it. I think that it is really easy for native English speakers to take up a lot of space in conversations when you’re speaking with people who might be using English as a second, third, or even fourth language. Being outside of my language comfort zone was a really good reminder of the value of waiting and listening, rather than always formulating “what am I going to say next”.

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When we returned back to Taipei, we jumped into a bunch of activities and lectures hosted on NTU’s campus. The central themes for this year’s retreat were sustainability and entrepreneurship, and most of our programming related to these topics. Some highlights for me included a panel on sustainable urbanism with four scholars/practitioners from Taiwan and Hong Kong, a visit to an eco-friendly shampoo company, and a public speaking workshop that gave classmates a chance to give 5 minute presentations on any topic of their choice.

Though we had busy schedules during the day, we were lucky to get long lunch breaks and have our weekends and evenings mostly free. During these times, I was able to connect with some friends from back in the US, and felt really lucky to have so many people looking out for me from across the ocean. (Big shout-out goes to my family from the PEER Mentoring Program at Penn – not only was I able to meet my own mentor from my freshman year at Elephant Mountain, but I got to meet my mentee’s mom and cousin and got quite the whirlwind tour of Taipei’s street food!)

I also made two short trips outside of Taipei city – one to Jiufen with my friend Dongwoo, and another to Yangmingshan and Tamshui with my friend Johnny. Jiufen is an interesting place – it has a history as a gold mining town, but has reinvented itself as a tourist attraction with claims of inspiring Hayao Miyazaki’s animated film Spirited Away. Studio Ghibli hasn’t supported the claims, but the idea of it continues to draw people in droves to photograph the narrow alleyways, the food vendors, and the teahouses bedecked in red lanterns. Even though this all made Jiufen an incredibly crowded place to visit, the complexities of manufactured heritage and tourism were interesting in their own rights, and I quite liked taking the time for a cup of tea here.

Traveling to Yangmingshan reminded me of a daylong road trip that I took through Big Sur two years ago. While my friend and I drove down the California highway, we passed through low-hanging clouds, sweeping in from the Pacific Ocean. Visibility was low, but there was something mysterious about being at that height in the middle of what seemed like nothingness. The same was true for Yangmingshan: clouds surrounded you everywhere you stood, and though you knew that the landscape continued much farther, it dissolved into a grainy grey nothingness.

Landscapes like this aren’t common occurrences along the East Coast, so there is something kind of breathtaking about the cool moisture and sense of emptiness. On the other hand, there’s really not much to do at a variety of scenic spots scattered across the mountain when everything looks identically grey, so we didn’t really end up hiking or seeing too much… you win some, you lose some I guess! We took a minibus back down the mountain and then decided to go to Tamsui to grab a dinner and see the sunset. (Note to self: avoid taking standing room on minibuses in the future. The ride seemed like a cross between a rollercoaster and a Final Destination film.)

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As the program wrapped up, we began to prepare for group presentations and the closing ceremony. I was glad to spend more time with friends new & old, as some of my classmates from Yenching are accepting other opportunities in the coming year and won’t be returning to Beijing. I’m looking forward to when our paths cross next: for most, it’s likely that will be throughout Asia (I’m hoping to reunite with members from my group in China, Japan, and Hong Kong during the next year) though I’m keeping my fingers crossed that I’ll also get to play host for friends who may someday visit me in the United States.

I’m now writing from back in Beijing. I’ve got to say, it’s nice to be able to unpack my bag after being away from the city for almost two months. All the plants on my windowsill survived thanks to a rotating cast of plant-sitters, and there is something particularly cozy that I’ve missed about having a familiar bed and a collection of succulents to greet you in the mornings. In the next couple of weeks, I’m going to be helping with new student orientation for the incoming cohort of Yenching Scholars, and I think this should keep me busy into September.

For now, I’m thinking of what I want to do for the rest of the year. I might be participating in a research project in Southern China later this autumn, but there’s some delays with organization I’d be working with and the partnership with local government that make this not so set in stone. Beyond this, I’m hoping to do some research for my thesis, work on my Mandarin, and travel when I can. Whatever happens, it’s shaping up to be an exciting year and I can’t wait to share more of it with you all.

Lots of love,

Kristen

Zen & Cicadas

How to describe the past month? I’ve still got a backlog of things I’ve written from the end of my first year with Yenching, and my brief but lovely return to the United States. For the time being, I’m trying to put things into words so that I can help organize my own thoughts about studying Buddhism, living in a monastery, and leading a (semi) monastic life throughout the month of July. You’ll have to bear with me, as these reflections don’t necessarily have a lot of structure or continuity to them. For me, this month was a frustrating, beautiful, stressful, complicated, etc. etc. etc., period – all in all, a time of “cultivation”.

The monastery where I stayed was a ride away from Ningbo (a city two hours from Shanghai by train), and surrounded by tall bamboo. At night, you could hear the sound of the cicadas humming, and over the first few days all I could focus on during our meditation sessions was the wind moving through the leaves.

Our program was housed in a guest building at Jin’e Temple (金峨寺) and we slept four to a room. The room had an elevated platform with four tatami mats arranged side-by-side, and one more space next to the window that we cleared so we could do yoga. I got on well with my three roommates, and continued to feel thankful for their knowledge and personal perspectives when I had questions about Buddhist practice.

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Our day-to-day schedule was normally fairly fixed: waking up around 5:20 each morning for tai chi, standing meditation and then breakfast. We typically followed breakfast with classes on Buddhist history until 11:00, and then had lunch and a small amount of personal time before we moved into afternoon meditation. From there, we learned about the intersections between Buddhism and other parts of Chinese culture through lectures given by the Abbot at the monastery, or guests teaching calligraphy, painting, music, and tea. Our evening meals were called “medicine meals”, and were followed by walking meditations and dharma talks. Finally, we ended each night with evening prayers in the main shrine building, and then typically had one hour to prepare for bed at 10:00.

These routines didn’t deviate significantly – though during our silent retreat all activities (barring meals and dharma talks) were replaced by extended meditations sessions. We typically lined up in height order five minutes before each activity, and lateness or pre-approved absence was not acceptable. I felt frustrated on occasion because of this structure, and though I’m sure there were others that appreciated the discipline, I felt sometimes at odds with a system that didn’t give a lot of room for flexibility or privacy.

One of the most notable parts of the month was our seven-day silent retreat. This was my first period of silent retreat, and it introduced me to a number of rules regarding communication. Beyond speaking, we were instructed not to listen to music, sing or play music, create artwork, gesture or write to others, make eye contact, etc. The list went on. We were allowed to journal about our experiences with meditation, but discouraged from journaling as a means of reflecting on other topics.

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In a way, I saw a profound loneliness in this – it felt like we were resisting human instincts of forming communities, and of sharing moments of joy as well as sadness with one another. Spoken and written language, of course, is a vital way in which we communicate, but during this week I also thought a lot about how non-verbal contact expresses emotions and ideas.

Constantly trying to practice equanimity meant that I was often monitoring my reactions and trying to look at my emotions as if they were not my own. For anyone who knows me, it should not come as a surprise that I found this to be enormously difficult. I am (for better or for worse) a sensitive person, and I use my emotions to guide many of my decisions and shape my views of the world. Though I think I’ll come to appreciate the introspection that this silence forced me to have, at the time it made me feel really vulnerable and disconnected.

Throughout the month, another ongoing internal dialogue that I held was questioning the relationship this program had to Chinese culture, and investigating the feels that I have for and about China. I’ve talked before about the foreignness of being a multiracial Chinese person in China, and what that means for how I see my life in this county and my connection to its traditions. In a way, I think that coming to this program may have been a way of searching for authenticity – though my family is not Buddhist by any means, I’ve taken classes over the past year in Buddhist history and hoped that connecting classroom learning with lived experiences would reveal a dimension of Chinese culture I hadn’t previously seen.

With that said, some of our afternoon cultural classes felt basic and geared towards an audience with limited interest or knowledge about Chinese arts. The spectacle and performativity of it all made me feel upset, as though it was saying that China needed to be made palatable to a Western audience in order to be acceptable. I know that this nervousness and anxiety stems in part from my own feelings about race, but there were few forums in which I could raise these concerns and felt heard, which heightened my discomfort about the dynamic.

What did it mean that a number of non-Chinese people were coming together to practice Chinese Buddhist meditation, but not necessarily knowing what their engagement was with their cultural surroundings? Or that every night the group would gather to recite sutras in Mandarin, but did so atonally, awkwardly, and incorrectly? Or that our program relied on volunteer staff who themselves had varying degrees of experience with China or the Chinese language?

I felt these concerns acutely and painfully – though I’ll underscore that this was not because I felt that my peers in this program were bad people, or that the engagement with dharma material was shallow, or that the staff were uncritical. Quite the reverse actually: my classmates (and especially my roommates) were the people who helped me challenge and process these thoughts, and our discussions helped me to understand new depths about meditative practice and Buddhist teachings, and the staff was intelligent and selfless in many more ways that I could be. But for all of this, this gap existed between my expectations and reality, and that chasm was filled with convoluted thoughts on orientalism, ethnicity, spiritual identity, and appropriation.

I don’t know if these feelings could have been resolved over the course of the program (especially given that these seem to be tied to the same questions and frustrations I’ve always felt about my multicultural background) but I’m glad to have had the opportunity to have more informal conversations with students and especially with staff after the official conclusion of the program. These didn’t exactly give me answers – but did give me a lot more to think about and ways in which to think. I think that there’s a tendency to shy away from negative emotions or a desire to escape challenging situations, and this experience is helping me investigate how this manifests within my own inclinations and aversions.

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At the moment, I don’t identify as a Buddhist and (to be honest) I’m not sure if I ever will. I came into this experience wondering if it might be able to help me reconnect with Quakerism, a practice and tradition I value but haven’t been able to have an outlet for while in Mainland China. While I’m committed to spending the next year in China, I find myself more and more invested in the idea of finding a Quaker Meeting to join wherever I end up next. I miss the community that was associated with shared practice, and the familiarity that it brought with it.

I ate a mostly vegan diet at the monastery, though there were a few days where we were served milk and eggs at meals. In some ways, this took me back to the period when I was vegetarian between ages of ten and fifteen. It was harder this time around, and wasn’t always pleasant – around the middle of the month it really started to take a toll on me: I lost weight, had very little energy, and occasionally felt full-body aches. I’m not sure I had a balanced diet at this time, and began taking daily iron supplements. Though I might try to eat less meat/animal products in the future, I think I’d need to be able to depend on a more non-animal protein options than what I was getting at the monastery. I’d love to find a healthy balance with this, as returning to the life of a layperson has meant that processed foods and animal products are surrounding me in excess.

I’ll write down one a last thought about my takeaways for the time being as I realize that this is extending almost indefinitely. It surprises me a little bit, but right now, I don’t think I feel very much like an introvert. Perhaps some of my friends might find this self-assessment surprising, especially for those who didn’t know me as a child. But internally, I guess I continue to identify a lot with the younger version of myself, who was bookish and prone to crying. Disconnecting from a lot of social media starting from the start of the month, and then trying to distance myself from the physical in-person contact during the silent period really made me crave contact, and I felt a wave of warmth when silence was broken and I could finally share with others. Realizing that my personality has shifted in some ways over time, and that the dichotomous introvert vs. extrovert labels didn’t seem to hold quite as much weight as they once did was interesting.

As I’m (finally) coming to a conclusion, I realize that I talk throughout this about loneliness and sadness, and the various types of internal conflict or self-doubt that I’ve been feeling throughout the month. It might seem negative, and while I can’t say that my experience uniformly positive I think that this period in my life is one that I’m going to come to appreciate more and more as I get more time for reflection. All of it might be wrapped up in or precipitated by a subtle kind of mourning: a realization of intransience that is so central to the practice of Buddhism.

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As a child there was something precious about summertime cicadas – I could hear them from my bedroom at night, and finding the amber colored shells still connected to the trees in my backyard during the day seemed like a type of treasure. This year, in the heat of a Southern Chinese summer, I got to meditate a bit more on what this all meant to me. Right around the end of July, I started to see more cicadas dying, and their whirring songs seemed a little less robust than they were before. It wasn’t positive or negative, per say, just a state of being and an observation on how things change.

The title for this post comes from a pair of newly learned Chinese homophones: 禅 and 蝉. Both characters are pronounced chán. The first, 禅, refers to Chan Buddhism, often understood in the West as “Zen” as the Japanese reading of the same character, and the second, 蝉, means cicada. The past month has taught me a lot about both of these things, I think.

Love,

Kristen

Finding 永和里

Word might have been passed through the grapevine already, but I wanted to let you know that I’m currently in the process of finding the Moy family village. My program allowed us to organize independent research trips. Originally, my group had planned on traveling to Hong Kong, but new restrictions on research travel destinations forced us to think on our feet and come up with a new location. In a crazy turn of events, I ended up bringing two classmates to Guangdong Province to try and trace my family’s trajectory from China to the United States.

We arrived in Guangzhou a couple of days ago, and had an interesting time walking around the city. My Great-Uncle Tow had said that the family had once owned an apartment near Central Park, and we walked around the area to get a feel for the place. The park still stands though they’ve gotten rid of the gate that once enclosed the gardens. We’ve heard that parts of the park have expanded over time, and that the installation of the subway system caused the old apartment to get pulled down. The subway station at the park is huge – there’s a giant underground mall there now which reaches down three floors.

After leaving Guangzhou, we made our way to Taishan – the town closest to our family’s village. It took us two hours by bus to get here, and the ride was really pleasant. We booked a hotel close to the bus station here in Taishan, and were able to take another public bus route to get to the Moy family village.

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永和里 (Pronounced Yong He Li in Mandarin, and Wing Wo Lei in Cantonese) is about a 30 minute walk away from the bus station. The road to the village is paved, although you can still see a lot of hallmarks of village life. Lots of farming still takes place in the area, and while electricity has reached most homes it’s not necessarily a given that every home has plumbing. Each village along the way typically has a public bathroom, and many also have other common spaces/public services (like schools, village canteens, etc.) that serve the whole community.

Something that interested me a lot about this area (and our village as well!) is that there’s a massive number of Chinese abroad that still have connections to these villages. Wing Wo Lei currently has about 150 residents, and an estimated 300 people abroad that continue to support family members living in the village. Many public amenities are donated by Chinese abroad – such as the school that GongGong & Uncle Tow’s father helped build.

The house where my GongGong was born still stands – and has been unoccupied since our family left for America. Because nobody has been tending to it, it has fallen into a state of disrepair – though I’m shocked by how much has been preserved. The beams in the roof have fallen through, and there are a number of plants feeding off the rain and sunlight growing wild in what would have been the central room of the house. There were still some pieces of furniture left over in the first and second floors, and a few ceramic pieces and bottles sitting in cabinet shelves.

It’s a strange but beautiful thing for me to come back to this home during Qingming Festival – a holiday devoted to the cleaning and sweeping of graves, and the remembrance of ancestors. I think that there’s a strong sense of identity in China that gets wrapped up in places and memories of people – almost as if you cannot truly find direction moving forward without having an idea of where you came from. What a surreal experience it has been, to have the opportunity to stand in the same house where my grandfather was born over a century ago.

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Our family name “梅” (Pronounced Moy in Cantonese, and Mei in Mandarin) translates as “Plum”. It’s a surname that’s shared widely among the villages surrounding ours – though in the United States, I can’t say that I’ve ever met another Moy that wasn’t a close relative. So it was a lot of fun to come through these villages and say that I was part of the Moy family and that I was from 永和里, and to have some people recognize the name and the place.

I made two visits to the village – the first time was spent wandering around and discovering which building had been my GongGong’s home. I had gotten some details about the home from my Uncle Tow, and had asked questions to a woman in the village that we met when walking around. She wasn’t certain which building we were talking about, so she took us to the home of the village head. As we were walking, I looked at one of the homes and just felt certain that it was the one I was looking for. There was a kind of resonance – seeing a sight from an old photograph, remembering a place that you’ve never seen before in person.

We went to the house of the village head and together we were able to come to the conclusion that the building that I had passed was mine. They let me get into the house to look around, and then into the old school building. I was told that the old school building is going to be taken down sometime next year to make room for a new public dining hall for all of the people in the village – so I’m especially happy that I was able to come back now and see it while it was still standing.

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On the second visit, we once again wandered around and took in the sights. I was able to convince the village head that I wasn’t afraid of heights, and he brought out a ladder for me to climb onto the roof of my GongGong’s home. Afterwards, he invited us back to his home to have tea and dinner with his family. I had a lot of fun playing with the children in the village – chasing them down the alleys in the darkness as we played hide and seek or tag. A nice thing about being around children is that language barriers don’t really matter quite so much – I can hold some simple conversations with them, but they’re generally more impressed with the fact that I can pick them up and spin them around. Being surrounded by laughter like that is a really simple & lovely pleasure.

My classmates and I are going around other areas in the south of Guangdong for the next few days, and then I’ll be heading back to Guangzhou on Friday so that I can catch a flight to Hong Kong where I’m going to take a long weekend vacation. I really do like the village a lot though, and hope to make more trips back sometime soon. For now, I’m happy to be in touch with the people there over wechat. I needed to rely a lot on my classmates to help me translate when I was in the village, but having written text messages to exchange gives me a lot of time to compose what I want to say and talk to them myself. It can be slow, but it’s rewarding – and it’s making me really motivated to become more fluent in speaking and writing.

Lots of love,
Kristen

Myanmar: Mandalay and Bagan

Sorry for messing with a chronological posting order, but I’m just getting to sorting through some of my photos and the notes that I jotted down earlier this trip! The following talks about my time in Myanmar (a leg of my trip that I’ve already completed!) and I’m currently writing from Vietnam. I’m also simultaneously posting about some of the things I’m seeing (and eating!) while I’m traveling between Ho Chi Minh City, Hue, and Hanoi, so sorry for any of the confusion that might happen as a result!

After Thailand, Marta and I flew to Myanmar – taking a flight from Phuket and stopping over in Bangkok for a few hours in a layover. We made it to Mandalay and stayed there for just over a day, which gave us a chance to get a glimpse at the city. We walked around Mandalay a fair bit, even though we were only there for a little more than 24 hours. We landed at 12:30, but going through immigration, withdrawing money, and catching a bus to ET Hotel ended up taking a few hours so there wasn’t much left of the afternoon once we had unwound at our hotel.

We walked to a restaurant called Aye Myst Tar, which offered a full menu with a lot of options neither of us had tried before. We were pretty obviously lost, and (more than once) had to ask the waiters to explain what some of the side dishes were. Our meal was really delicious, and left me totally stuffed. Before coming to Myanmar, I had only tried Burmese food once – so it’s been a really positive experience to expand my understanding of culinary traditions around the world. It’s no secret that I love tea, so I’ve been thrilled to be in Myanmar where leaves from the tea plant are both brewed as a beverage and eaten in salad form! Consider me a very happy camper.

In Mandalay, we had time to see the Mandalay Palace, which we had walked past the evening before. While there, we asked another couple of travelers to take a picture of us, and we ended up starting to talk and going out to lunch together. I really like how friendly folks are, and being a twenty-something backpacker seems to give you enough in common to strike up a conversation and become temporary friends. We didn’t have much more time for sight-seeing after we parted ways with the rest of the group, so we did miss out on Mandalay Hill and U Bein Bridge, but I don’t really regret it.

Our hotel helped us book a bus to Bagan, and we left Mandalay around 4 pm. We passed time on the bus by snacking (I swear, Marta is the ultimate travel companion because she insists on buying chocolate wherever we go) and watching Children of Men. A co-worker gave the movie to me over the summer, though I’m just getting around to watching it now. While the film was quite good, I have to say that it felt pretty unnerving to watch this while we were on the road – there are multiple scenes with violent car chases, and the uneven rocky roads taking us to Bagan certainly made you feel like you were part of the film. We got to Bagan in one piece, and settled into Innwa Hotel.

Two classmates from Yenching were also in Bagan, though we only overlapped for the first night that we arrived. After some back and forth debating where we should meet, Marta and I caught a motorbike taxi over to their hostel where we spent the night hanging out. Mikk and Luyolo gave us some suggestions for things to do and places to see, and we took down the name and location of a temple where they had caught a particularly beautiful (and semi-private!) sunrise and sunset.

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Bagan is noteworthy for its many sacred spaces – more than 2200 temples and pagodas stand today as holdovers from an architectural frenzy that lasted between the 11th and 13th centuries. During the heyday of the Kingdom of Pagan (which would go on to eventually become modern-day Burma), 10,000 Buddhist temples, pagodas, and monasteries were erected. For three days, Marta and I explored the temple ruins, and caught a number of breathtaking sunrises and sunsets. Without exaggeration, I think that these couple of days can claim the titles for the most beautiful beginnings and endings that I’ve seen in my life.

In the mornings we’d wake up at 4:30 am, and rent the e-scooters from our hotel reception that we’d use for the rest of the day. With vague ideas of where we were heading, we made our way down the roads that frequently forked and turned from pavement to dirt, and dirt to sand. When we found a temple that would give us a good vantage point, we’d slip out of our shoes and climb narrow staircases and perch on the stones and wait eagerly as the deep blue of early morning to give way to the warm blush that comes with the dawn.

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There’s something really quite magical about mornings in Bagan – there’s a heavy mist that hangs above the earth, and when you’re on one of the many temples scattered throughout the archeological zone, you’re just a little above it all so you can see the grey of the fog dissolving as the sun breaks over the horizon line. Once the sun has started its climb, a modest army of hot-air balloons is launched and they take lazy paths across the landscape.

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Most people in my life can attest to the fact that I’m not usually one who wakes up quite so early. But I loved the routine of waking up, wandering around, and then returning to our hotel once the sun had risen. We’d eat breakfast on our rooftop, sipping teas and coffees to shake off the morning chill, and then take a few hours of down time before heading back out to explore again under the sun.

We rented e-scooters every day that we were there, which is (in my opinion) the only way to cover a lot of ground. Marta and I managed to escape injury while driving, which is no small feat considering that neither of us has been behind the wheel much before. I loved zipping through Bagan this way, and peeling off from the main roads whenever we caught sight of a temple that we liked and wanted to check out.

Sunsets felt just as otherworldly as the sunrises did, and altogether too brief. In fact, we spent our first evening chasing the sun, racing against the clock as it dipped beneath the faraway mountains. We caught the colors streaking the sky, and took in the last of the retreating light with drinks along the Ayeyarwady River, at a bar attached to the Bagan Thande Hotel. So, even on the nights where we missed the main attraction, we still got a chance to appreciate the beauty of Bagan. Other evenings took us to different temples, and each sunset was gorgeous and gave us new and different panoramic views of the archeological zone.

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My favorite vantage point for both sunrise and sunset was the view recommended to us by our classmate – the Winido Temple. It was fairly close to the hot air balloon launch point, so we got to see the balloons take off and fly away. We never had a wholly private sunrise/sunset to ourselves, but I’d consider the crowd at Winido to have been a modestly sized group that didn’t distract from the views that we were taking in. While I can understand the appeal of a private sunrise or a private sunset, I also think that it’s nice to be able come together and share these moments with total strangers. In the moments leading up to the sunrise and sunset, there’s a quietness that spreads over the crowd where you’re all there waiting for the exact same thing. It’s equally calming and electrifying to have this sense of common ground with people from all walks of life, and I’m pretty blessed to have experienced it here.

I’d like to say that there’s a lot of beauty in the world. It’s something that I guess I forget about when I’m entrenched in routines and get such tunnel vision that I fail to see the bigger picture. So I’ll take this as a small reminder that there’s a whole lot more going on out there.

Overall, I feel really glad that I got to make this trip and doubly glad that I got to share being here with Marta, who is one of my closest friends from China. It wouldn’t have been a trip without taking a few moments for personal vanity and snapping a couple of portraits here and there. So here are a couple of shots of Marta and myself that I’m pretty fond of.

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We ended our time in Bagan after three days, as Marta needed to make it Yangon to catch her flight back to Beijing. So, we took a nighttime bus to Yangon, which departed at 9 pm. I was glad for this – the overnight travel meant a night that we didn’t need to find a hotel for, and leaving late gave us a chance to catch one more sunset.

I hope to return here someday, but until then I’ll have to keep myself satiated with the huge number of photos that are now saved to my computer. While I hope to be able to share some more of these pictures with loved ones in the future, it’d be a dream come true to share the experience in person and have the chance to see some of these sunrises and sunsets together. Missing you plenty.

Love,

Kristen

Seeking Shade in Pathein

Pathein, a city located on the Ayeyarwady river delta in Myanmar, makes it into the margins of travel guides in footnotes about stops to make when traveling south to the beach, or in reference to the scattered workshops in the city that produce handmade umbrellas. It is the fourth largest city in Myanmar – a surprising fact given the calm low-density feel of the place (a sharp contrast to the bustling city of Yangon just 190 km to the east). Few buildings reached above three stories, and many facades proudly proclaimed mid-century vintages in dates elevated on their concrete walls.

When I found the first mention of Pathein in a tour guide, there was something that told me I needed to see it for myself. I don’t really know why, but I’ve had a long-term love for umbrellas. There’s something fun about them, I suppose: strong but delicate, functional but beautiful. I like the contrasts they present, the not-quite contradiction there is about them. A few photographs of these umbrella workshops sent me on a string of online searches for information. I quickly found that the city was a little bit more off the beaten path than I was used to, and if I wanted to learn more I was likely going to have to go there and see it for myself.

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The trip to Pathein was straightforward enough: I bought a bus ticket the day before, and only needed to arrive at the station a half hour before departure. Our bus pulled out of the station close to 10:30, a little later than the original 10:00 schedule. We made a few stops along the way to pick up passengers and took a half-hour long lunch break, but other than that experienced no delays. We arrived a little after 3:30, and I wandered along the Strand Road until I found a guesthouse to book for the night.

Wandering around was a nice way to spend part of the afternoon and evening, though it didn’t turn up much in the way of the mysterious umbrellas that brought me on this quasi-pilgrimage. Sometime after the sun had set, I started to feel a little bit dejected. I tried unsuccessfully to find the workshops I had dog-eared when the inspiration for this trip first struck, but none of the addresses were registered by my usually trusty Google Maps. (As a millennial, I am thoroughly dependent on my smartphone in more ways than I like to admit, so this was a horror and made me feel acutely betrayed by technology.)

New days bring opportunities for new runs and new adventures. I’m still working towards a goal of running 50 miles while on vacation (though Yangon has not been a kind city to run in), so I headed out first thing in the morning to explore some side streets and head out towards Kanthonzin Lake. The meandering route that I took led me past a line of Buddhist monks collecting morning donations, a local school, and a public playground. And then, suddenly, I was in front of the Shwe Sar Umbrella Workshop.

I looped back to Shwe Sar to see where the magic happens an hour later, after I had finished my run and taken a much needed shower. I was ushered in and promptly handed a cup of milk tea to welcome me to the workshop. The owner, Ko Min Naung, was happy to answer whatever questions I had and let me poke around and take photos of everything that was going on. He told me that umbrella making was a family trade, and that the business and workshop had been in his family for several generations. He traced the history of the craft to a forefather who worked for the royal family in Bagan, under the last king of Myanmar. Their workshop migrated first to Mandalay and then to Bagan, as the family fled from colonial troops expanding the reach of the British Empire in Asia.

The frame of the umbrella is made entirely out of bamboo, while the top and handle is crafted out of lathe-turned mango wood. The woodworking took place at one end of the workshop, where an enormous machine hummed and spun out curled wood shavings that lifted up in the air and stuck to cobwebs hanging off the corrugated metal walls. I’m sure that my old woodshop teacher would have been taken aback by the machine’s set-up: one part circle-saw, one part lathe, powered by a single cord that dropped from the ceiling and rotated a motor that revolved a rubber fan belt longer than my legs.

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These frames are threaded, and fabric coverings are later added over the ribs. Silks are used for parasols – a more delicate accessory, only intended to protect from the sun and not other elements. Cottons are used to make the canopies for more durable umbrellas, which can be used in both Myanmar’s rainy and dry seasons. The fabrics are painted with different designs – silk parasols were given delicate floral motifs, which Ko Min Naung told me made them popular among visitors from China and Japan.

The cotton umbrellas were decorated with traditionally styled graphic patterns in black and colored washes. I was most interested in these traditional cotton umbrellas for both their aesthetics and multi-purpose functionality – while I was looking around, a number were unfurled in the garden to receive a waterproofing wash, which ranged in size from child-size accessory to patio-sized coverings.

To waterproof these umbrellas, a paste is made from a local variety of a persimmon fruit. While persimmons of a Chinese variety are sweet, pulpy, and popular in various dishes and desserts, I was told that the local cultivars were bitter, firm, and not as frequently used for culinary purposes. The sealant had a slight golden color to it, which spread thin over the umbrellas and gave off a clean familiar smell that was not unlike wood stain.

I couldn’t resist buying one more souvenir (as thoroughly impractical as it will be to get back to Beijing). Ko Min Naung agreed that the blue one that I had been admiring was a good choice, and demonstrated a stoic faced pose for me.

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When it was time to say goodbye, he lit another cigarette and took a few minutes to find a guest book that had accumulated the signatures of a number of visitors to the workshop. He came back with not only the guest book, but also a pair of hand-carved bamboo drinking cups, which he insisted that I take as a gift. (Really, I’m running out of space, and now definitely keeping my fingers crossed that they don’t weigh my backpack at the airport.) Paging through the notebook, I saw a combination of notes in both Burmese and foreign languages – some that I could recognize, some that I couldn’t. I added my own email and my address back in the US, and I’m hoping to stay in touch.

As a final favor, Ko Min Naung insisted on making sure that I get back to the guesthouse without walking or paying for a taxi – so we said our goodbyes and I hopped on the back of a motorbike driven by a family friend who had been sitting around the workshop that morning. As we sped back to the Strand, I couldn’t help but think that it has been a weird, but wonderful, string of events that led me here.

I have to say that traveling to Pathein has undoubtedly been one of the highlights of my time in Myanmar. It gave me an opportunity to have conversations – and not just about umbrellas! As soon as I arrived, we began with easy small talk about how people around the world take their tea, and later about my education in Beijing, my travels thus far this winter, and Ko Min Naung’s family. I was shown a picture on a phone taken of an old photograph, a brother who had moved to America a few decades before and set up a business in Connecticut. I was told that I should visit, next time I was back in the United States. I was told to remember faces, to visit again, and that friends of mine would be welcome whenever they came. It’s wonderful to feel so warmly received, especially at times like this when I am traveling alone.

I’ve spent the last few days bouncing around Yangon, and hope to catch up a bit with writing some more about the places I visited & post some pictures soon. For now, I’ve been putting my finishing touches on this while in the airport, and I intend to post everything tonight when I arrive in my hostel in Ho Chi Minh City. While in Vietnam, I’ll be meeting up with a few more friends from my program, taking some cooking classes, and staying with my cousin Claire! So I’ve definitely got a lot that I’m looking forward to. 🙂

Until the next update, I’m sending you all the best,

Kristen

No Ban, No Wall.

I began this post as a letter to my loved ones, and then more words came and I was left with something that was hard to contain in a single email. So, I’m sharing this with you here, and now, because I like you and I love you, and I want to begin a conversation together. If we don’t’ see eye to eye, please feel free to reach out to me and we can exchange thoughts.

I just wanted to share something that I’ve been thinking about, and encourage you guys to consider supporting some of the organizations that have been mobilizing against Trump locally and nationally. It would mean a lot to me if you would give this some thought, and start having conversations about this at home and with others. I wish that we could be having his conversation in person, but I’ve tried to collect some ideas that I’ve had and would love to talk to you guys some more about these things if you’re interested.

My friends are immigrants. 

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Going to Penn gave me a huge network of friends that hail from all over the world. I’m really lucky to have learned from their perspectives in my classrooms and conversations, and owe a lot of my personal growth in the past four years to the places (like PAACH and the other cultural centers) that gave me a chance to explore and develop my interests. I have friends and classmates who were undocumented, and friends and classmates who arrived legally from the countries that are now targeted through immigration bans. My friends are afraid, and that scares me. We’re an interfaith community that is rich with diverse traditions and love for one another. I want to believe that love trumps hate, especially at a time like this.

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More recently, I’ve been lucky enough to be part of Yenching Academy, which brings together scholars from around the world to study together here in China. This is something that has also continually expanded my perspective and broadened my definitions of diversity. I’m fortunate to be here, but I can’t help but think that this chance to build international friendships becomes increasingly unlikely in an America that is driven by xenophobic policy and where thinly veiled hate-speech (and sometimes, hate-speech that is not veiled at all) becomes a norm.

We are immigrants.

I am an American today because my great-grandfather was an undocumented immigrant to the United States. He broke the law to enter this country, crossing a border that was tightly regulated by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. My family was fortunate that he was able to make this journey successfully and eventually set up a life and advocate for his wife and children to join him. His case, while not unique, is extraordinary to me and speaks to the resilience and resistance necessary to exist as an immigrant in the country that I now consider home.

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The Chinese Exclusion Act was an inherently xenophobic law, rooted in the belief that all Chinese immigrants were morally depraved, unassimilable, and their culture was fundamentally incompatible with core American values. It was the first immigration law that targeted specific ethnic groups, but was by no means the last. Immigration bans today continue a sad tradition of intolerance and underscore the role that white supremacy has had in defining who is allowed to enter the country legally and become American.

Though I know most of the research that I’ve done has focused on tracing our Chinese family’s roots, and learning more broadly about Asian immigration policies and practices, there’s a lot also to be learned from the history of Irish immigrants and their reception to the United States. When the droves of Irish immigrants through Ellis Island, they were not faced with the same degree of scrutiny as Asian immigrants to the West Coast’s Angel Island. This was an enormous privilege. Still, the Irish faced discrimination and mockery for bringing their foreign faith to America’s shores, and living conditions in Irish tenement slums were far from easy.

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A political cartoon featuring caricatures of Chinese and Irish immigrants, devouring Uncle Sam. 

I think about touring through Hoboken with my Grandfather, having him point out buildings throughout the neighborhood where his family lived before they shuffled to yet another tenement for not being able to make the rent. These neighborhoods are now gentrified, housing the chic New York City commuters that have little in common with the Irish barge-workers barely two generations before. There is enormous privilege granted in the ability to assimilate into the United States – anti-Irish sentiment cannot be compared to the continued racism, xenophobia, and discrimination against immigrants and communities of color today. Still, we have to remember what history has taught us: that arrival has never been simple, and that coming to America is never a decision made easily. Nobody leaves home unless they believe that the world that they are moving to is safer, more prosperous, and more kind than the one that they are leaving behind.

The pictures above feature my paternal and maternal grandfathers – both the children of immigrants, and in the case of my GongGong, an immigrant himself. I encourage other friends to consider family immigration narratives and to contemplate how processes of inclusion have long been built on the forcible exclusion of others. Please do not be complacent: intolerance cannot be taken as a norm.

Where we can support:

I’m donating to the ACLU today, and hope that you’ll join me and support organizations that work to ensure that all people seeking a home in the United States will be treated with respect and dignity.

We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give. – Winston Churchill

American Civil Liberties Union

Donate to the ACLU today to help protect the rights and liberties of people across the country. Right now, we’re:

  • Protecting free speech and the right to protest
  • Defending reproductive freedom
  • Fighting anti-LGBT discrimination
  • Advocating for expanded privacy protections

This vital work and more depends on your support. Make a donation to the ACLU today — help us fight back.

The National Immigration Law Center

The National Immigration Law Center will fight against unjust new immigration laws and policies at every turn, using the courtroom if necessary. We will not back down. We will not stop fighting for justice and dignity for all. Join us!

National Immigration Forum 

In these divisive times, it is more important than ever to remember that immigration is about people not politics. Your gift helps provide new Americans with the opportunities, skills and status to reach their fullest potential.

If you have other organizations that you’re passionate about, and that you’d like to see included on this list, please reach out to me and let me know! I’d love to have this as a working list of groups supporting immigrant issues, and know that there are many gaps that need to be filled.

Give what you can. For me, while I’m away from the United States, financial support is one of the greatest things that I can offer because I cannot physically stand in solidarity at protests. For friends and family members who are still students, recent graduates, and otherwise not in a position to donate money – there are so many ways to help. Showing up and being present is just as important. Making calls is important. Giving your time and energy when and where you can is important.

Much love. Holding everyone in my thoughts right now.

Kristen

 

Happy Lunar New Year!

Lunar New Year, also referred to as the Spring Festival (春节), is one of the largest holidays celebrated in China. It’s a time rife with traditions, and often entails returning home to be with your immediate and extended family. Back in the US, I often celebrate the Lunar New Year by cooking for my friends, visiting Chinatown to watch the lion dances and other performances, and going home with my brother to eat with our parents. Festivities spill out into the days and weekends bookending the actual holiday: city permits play a role in determining street closings for Chinatown celebrations, class schedules and midterm dates dictated our free times to return home, and friends availabilities were something to consider when planning multi-course meals.

This year, life has seemed to stop and revolve around the Lunar New Year. Being part of Peking University has meant that the academic calendar is catered to Chinese festival dates, and so we’re given ample time off to celebrate the holiday which falls in the middle of the break between our semesters. Though I think it would have been interesting to ring in the Lunar New Year in the Mainland, I decided that I needed to get out of Beijing and have been traveling through Southeast Asia for the past three weeks.

I’m currently writing this post to all of you from Myanmar. I’ve got a lot that I want to write about this country and the different cities that I’ve seen thus far, but I thought I’d try to send some new years wishes out to everyone first. While the holiday is frequently referred to as “Chinese New Year”, it’s an important holiday for many people in different countries and ethnic diasporas. Officially, Myanmar does not celebrate the Lunar New Year (New Year in the Burmese calendar actually falls in mid-April), I was lucky enough to be in Yangon’s Chinatown to get a taste of what I’m missing back at home and in Beijing.

 

For a few basic Chinese phrases to share with you, to prove that I’m still studying even though I’m on vacation:

  • Happy New Year: 新年快乐! Pinyin: Xīn nián kuài lè. A quick and easy way to wish a happy year ahead in Mandarin.
  • Since my family is Cantonese, I’m more familiar with the phrase “Gong Hey Fat Choi”, or 恭喜發財.

Special traditions that are often observed during the New Year often include cleaning the kitchen before the new year begins (to appease the Kitchen God), buying new clothing (Chinese people pretty much invented the “New Year, New Me” phrase with this one), and giving Red Envelopes (红包 , or Hong Bao, are filled with lucky money and given to bring prosperity in the new year).

Wechat, a popular texting app used in Mainland China, has also brought some fun new takes on some of these traditions. I’ve loved sharing and receiving red envelopes with friends through the app, which can randomize the amount of money that is in different envelopes for friends in your groups. It becomes a bit of a game to see who can open the envelopes first, and who gets the most from a given envelope. Stakes are always pretty low, given that we tend to split 10-20 RMB (about 2-4 USD) between a group of 10-15 people, but it’s silly and a fun way to stay in touch with friends who have gone on different trips for the winter holidays.

Anyways, that’s all for me. 新年快乐! Happy New Year,

Kristen

P.S. According to the Chinese Zodiac, this year is the Year of the Rooster. When in Thailand, I encountered two GIANT plaster chickens and decided to get a photo with them. I’ve already posted it to Facebook but thought that I’d grace you with this one a second time, in case you’ve forgotten what I look like (or, more importantly – forgotten how good my puns are).

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cock-a-doodle-doo! it’s time to stop monkeying around. I’ve got egg-cellent news: the year 2017 may have already ruffled your feathers, but a lil birdy told me that the year of the rooster promises not to be so fowl. Wish that I could be home with family and friends for the Lunar New Year, but sending my love (& paltry poultry puns) to all of y’all.

Time in Thailand

The first stop on my trip this winter was Thailand. I arrived in Bangkok with Marta and Agustin on the 12th of January, and we went around Bangkok, Phuket, and Phi Phi Island together. It’s a pretty radical shift to leave the cold of a Beijing winter behind and exchange it for the heat and humidity of Thailand in January. Can’t say that I’m too homesick for the pollution and weather back in China when I return.

Our time in Bangkok was probably the most exciting for me – we walked around the Grand Palace, and some of the temples. I love how colorful architecture is here – the tiles on the high steeped roofs, the mosaics, the golden statues. All of the color and ornamental design made it into a visual feast.

Speaking of feasts… I’m loving the food here a lot. Not sure if I’ve eaten my weight in Pad Thai and coconut milk yet, but I’m getting close. Marta is a fan of banana pancakes here, and I’ve developed a certain weakness for rolled ice-cream and Thai iced coffee.

Besides our time in Bangkok, the rest of our trip was spent in total relaxation at beaches in Phuket and Phi Phi Island. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen water so blue or beaches so white before. My apologies to the Jersey Shore, but the beaches back at home really can’t compare. Even though there are plenty of tourists here, it’s not hard to find a nice place for yourself to swim or lay in the sand. The water is pretty salty as well, which makes it so easy to float – I think it would be easy to fall asleep like that, surrounded by the hum of the water all around you and the soft rocking of the waves.

Really, I have to say that this feels pretty perfect. I started running again when I was in Phuket, which has been a welcome addition to my daily schedule. I haven’t been so physically active back in Beijing – the smog definitely saps my energy and will to exercise. So having a run in the morning for a few miles really helps to clear my head, get some energy out, and feel more in touch. I’ll have to figure out a routine back in Beijing, but for the purposes of this vacation I’ve set a (very attainable!) goal of running 50 miles over the 40 days that I’m on the road.

My last two days in Thailand have been spent on Phi Phi Island. It was raining a little bit yesterday morning, which made for a slow start to the day, but perfect weather for hiking around and finding the island view point (after a series of wrong turns)! Glad to have gotten a gorgeous panoramic view before I left. This afternoon, I’ll be taking the boat back to Phuket where we’ll spend another half day, and then our group will split up. Marta and I will be flying to Myanmar, taking an early morning flight from Phuket with a short layover in Bangkok. Agustin is going to be spending another day in Thailand, and then returning to Beijing (and later, going to South Korea and Japan).

In Myanmar, we will be seeing Mandalay, Bagan, and Yangon. I’m looking forward to exploring and updating you about that trip soon!

Love,

Kristen