13 students and 2 faculty leaders are heading to Beijing and beyond this Thursday! To follow along on their three week adventure, please visit the International Programs’ Twitter Feed and the China Program “Yak Yak” Board.
15 students and 2 faculty leaders arrived safely in Beijing this morning and enjoyed a warm reunion with their exchange students from Beijing No. 101. To follow along on their adventure these next three weeks, please follow the International Programs’ Twitter Feed, the China Program “Yak Yak” Board, and Mr. Goldburg’s personal photography page.
“What are we doing tomorrow?” they asked that morning as we prepared to head out to Lashihai.
“Tomorrow,” I said, “we are going to the village … and we’re going to pick up trash.”
As these words penetrated the atmosphere, I could see the light going out of the eyes of some of our students. More than one mouth was held slightly open. There were no cheers, no smiles, no shouts of excitement. Just a long and conspicuous, uncomfortable and awkward, uninterrupted silence. I explained on.
The village where we were going, Nanyao, got their water from deep in the mountains, from a beautiful spring that swelled up from the earth and was protected by sacred rocks and prayer flags. The water was clear, cold, transparent, and drinkable just as it was. Not only did it serve Nanyao Village, but many others in the valley.
There was only one problem: the area surrounding the water source was a complete and utter mess. Littered with bottles, wrappers, cigarette butts, takeout boxes — any kind of trash you can imagine — this beautiful water source was, unfortunately, one big fat ugly eyesore.
Part of the problem was that it was a popular place, not just for tourists but also for locals who seemed to come here to relax, unwind, have a barbeque, play cards. Tourists, meanwhile, were taken up here by the local guides, usually on a horse, then taken back down again, but more often than not lessened by the burden of their bits of inconvenient-to-carry trash.
Litter is not a problem particular to Yunnan, or to Lijiang, or to Lashihai. In fact, litter is what I would consider one of modern China’s biggest problems: As the country opens up and gains more access to consumer goods, it is also discovering it doesn’t have the infrastructure to cope with such consumption, or the amount of trash that such consumerism incurs.
So that is why I, with crossed fingers, swung this idea of picking up trash by our Norfolk squad, and though unsure at first, I was delighted to see that by the end of our morning meeting, heads were held up high, eyes squinted with determination, as if to say: All right. We’re ready. Squad, let’s do this.
We had our three Fellows — Will, Ryan and Alix — lead the way on this project. Borrowing from what they had learned as Chesapeake Bay, Global Health, and International Relations Fellows, respectively, the three quickly mapped out a plan of action: Will would lead the clean-up team while Ryan would survey the community. Meanwhile, Alix would come up with the concept behind our campaign to clean-up this important and invaluable resource.
If there’s one thing or concern or worry that seems to unite the youth the world over, it’s an awareness of the fragility of our natural environment. After all, it is the youth that is to inherit this world, or whatever is left of it. And it is the youth that seems to understand that we all need to pitch in and take responsibility for our actions, and our carbon footprint.
I was so happy and proud to see our Norfolk squad, waists bent, crouching down, filling trash bag after trash bag with garbage, and slowly watching the beauty of the nature reemerge from the ashes. There was no complaining, no feeling squeamish. Every student put in an effort, and by the end of it, we had made a genuine difference, a difference that was manifold.
Not only did we clean up our physical surroundings, I think it was Connor who said it best, that this activity made us all walk away feeling like better human beings. The local Naxi women came up to us to thank us for doing what they wished they had time to do, but could not manage because they were so absorbed by their everyday struggle to make ends meet. Tourists that passed through as we went about our pick-up took note of what we were doing, with one girl even saying, “how embarrassing! These foreigners have come all the way to China to pick up our trash?”
And so, if this project made just one Chinese person more aware and responsible for their consumption patterns, I would say it was a success. If this project made it’s own participants more aware of the difference even a small group of students can make, I would say it was a success. If this project could make one old lady happy to see her homeland restored to the days of her youth, I would say it was a success. And if this project had people walking away feeling like champions, I would say it was a success.
And so it was: A success. Though hopefully not the be-all and end-all, but rather, the beginning of what could potentially be an international phenomenon, a revolution to save the planet, a calling out to all people to be responsible human beings for the sake of our collective future.
The day of our Lashihai water source clean-up project (June 21) really was one of my favorite days of the entire trip. I’m not a mother but I feel like I was bubbling with what must have been a sort of motherly pride at watching her kids blossom into responsible, thoughtful, hardworking human beings and compassionate young adults.
Norfolk squad, if you’re reading this, it means you’ve arrived back home. You’re comfortable in your own beds, surrounded by the people you love. I hope this experience of picking up trash stays with you, as with everyday you’ve spent in China. I hope you never forget the memories you’ve made here, your accomplishments and your growth. Thank you for coming to China, for being open-minded and willing to get downright good and grimy. I’m so extremely proud at how far you all have come. Truly, it was a privilege to have been your instructor.
Squad Leader Liang, over and out.
On our last day, I had the opportunity to get a blind massage or a massage preformed by a blind person. Blind people are said to have heightened senses which lead to a better massage.
The man is partially blind, as are many who give blind massages. I lie face down on the table. He starts with my shoulders and moves down my back to my legs and feet. Then I flip and he gives me a head massage. In blind massages, the masseuse focuses on pressure points and does an array of massage techniques on and around pressure points. It was not nearly as relaxing as a spa in America, but nonetheless was one of the best massages I have ever had.
I think that it is natural to have fear. Fear is a very human thing. There are rational fears and irrational fears but it is all fear just the same. But fear only goes as far as you let it and fear is a very personal thing. The truth is, we fear what we don’t know, what we can’t control, what we don’t understand, and a lot of times we allow our fear to dictate how we act. Coming into this trip I had my fears just like everyone else. The small scale fears like not being able to shower, the bathrooms, the food. And the large scale fears like the hike, the homestays, or just the unfamiliarity of being in a different country with a different culture. The Beijing 101 homestay was personally the most meaningful experience I faced on this trip. It challenged me in a way I had never been challenged and forced me to change my routine ways in order to temporarily adjust to something new. I was upset at first to learn that I wouldn’t be staying with Chelsea, the student I’d hosted in February and already had a tight relationship with. Instead I was going to stay with Azalea, whom I’d never met before. I had no idea what I would be walking in to. Shortly after our long walk to the subway, she told me that we would be eating dinner close to her apartment but instead of staying there, we’d be driving about three hours away to live at her grandparents house. After the subway ride, we stood on the streets of Beijing waiting to catch a taxi to the restaurant. As we stood there panic starting to set in. I wouldn’t be close to my friends for the weekend, there wouldn’t be wifi in the house, and I was honestly just terrified of being on my own in such a strange place. We got to the restaurant and the family was immediately so loving and understanding, and when we arrived at the house they continued to bend over backwards to provide for me. The first morning was a struggle for me, I hadn’t spoken to anyone and I felt so disconnected and feeling disconnected only made me feel more out of my element. The first day, after a long walk to the market, we went to a café to get wifi so that Azalea could do her homework. While we were there I had the opportunity to FaceTime a friend back home. To see a familiar face and hear a familiar voice changed things for me. The panic disappeared and all it took was something familiar, something that was home. The rest of the homestay was wonderful because I learned to find familiarity in things that otherwise wouldn’t be familiar unless you look. Small things like the salad her father made me, and even the father himself, who reminded me of my own father, brought me a lot of comfort. I realized that even though life here is so different than life at home, the experience is meant to teach us how to learn and grow by accepting things that aren’t familiar to us. We have to learn how to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Like I said, we fear what we don’t know, so instead of rejecting what we “fear” and avoiding it, we should learn it, then we won’t need to fear it.
As my trip to China comes to a close, I have started reflecting on the culture, my experiences, how I felt at different stages during the trip, and the impact of my being in a foreign country for three weeks. Have I changed like they said I would? Have I become a leader and grown as a person? I will let my parents decide that 🙂 but I do remember a certain pivotal point in my trip – when we climbed a mountain outside of Lijiang. We started with a greeting from old stone steps crawling up its side. As we slowly made our way up, the people and houses below became smaller, the green of nature became thicker, and our voices became quieter as we retreated into calm thoughts in our heads. I focused on my breathing (for I have a very convenient case of asthma) and watched my feet steadily conquer each step. A quick glance to the view below became an awestruck stare at the sight of the city. A divide of the old farmhouses and the new, cement fortress was clearly visible. Humanity is quickly stretching its industrial- hungry hand over the city of Lijiang. I then remembered something the taxi driver had said while we were entering the serene landscape of the old town, after driving through the city. He looked back at me through the rear view mirror; a quiet glow covered his face. “Brace yourself. Beauty.” His statement now danced it’s way through the trees but crashed against the concrete city walls. Hard. Another observation grew in the back of my head. People are so puny. The houses could be crushed by my thumb. On the ground we feel so powerful- so important. But we are dolls in our dollhouses. Being able to look down surrounded by the power and height of nature reduced people back to people. All these thoughts overwhelmed and even bothered me. But why? What is wrong with this? And then it dawned on me. The problem with humanity is vanity. That was it. But what does that mean, self, what does that mean? We try to tame and claim the world with our cement souls. We feel the need to grow and grow and with that we destroy the most pure form of beauty- nature. We all had desperately wanted out of the bright rush of Beijing and were visibly happier climbing through the woods. And the man driving the taxi even felt compelled to warn me of the beauty. We destroy something so pure. Something that was able to tame my group’s homesick hearts. Nature doesn’t need a snapchat nor Instagram filter when one is standing in it’s palm. We can find joy in the chirping and buzzing sounds of its pulse. Nature is like God’s canvas. I imagined him choosing each color and detail so meticulously, and, with a thoughtful smile on His face, making a masterpiece. Society promotes narcism. All these selfies and tweets. Why can’t we just live our lives. Really live them. Feel emotions – not for social media’s masked show – but for our hearts. We all fight to make it big. To the hustle of the cities with Wall Street and fortune. But as we walked, I noticed the many graves planted under the powerful, protective shadow of nature. So we fight. Fight to be powerful and claim our thrones behind a desk of high stature but in death we want to be guarded by natures wings. So I just want to give a reminder, as the world goes to iPhones and selfie sticks – go to nature and match your pulse with hers. Remember that people are so small and that maybe what society promotes is wrong. That vanity- thinking our bricks and buildings are more important than nature, or even hiding a frown behind the right Instagram filter – is a way to live life without soul. Find peace in being present without a picture to prove a point. Joy will come through contentment in self. You don’t need to live to prove yourself to society. Live for life. For smiles and tears undocumented to the world. Bring the soul back to society. People need it. Soon Lijiang’s divide of city and old town will be gone – for it will all be claimed by our sledge hammer battle cries. But I can always hike to the top of the mountain, look down, and see – the undeniable and utter smallness of humanity.
The past couple of days we went on the 3 day hike to Tiger Leaping Gorge. It was a little challenging, but everyone made it to the end and it was so worth it. It had some of the most beautiful views I have seen all trip, but now the last leg of the trip is approaching and the program is coming to an end. While many of us are going into the Lashihai home stays pretty scared, I think it will be a great experience for us all. None of us have met our family’s before and it’s a much different living style than in Beijing, but everyone always says the home stays in Lashihai are their favorite parts. It is our first night here and I am already having a blast. The food is amazing, the house is beautiful, and the host family is so welcoming and nice. Over the course of the next two days we are dedicating our time to helping the village and its people. As many know, in China there is a huge shortage of clean water. I learned today that only 8% of the water that makes up the world is drinkable and with China being so populated, clean water is a huge problem. Tomorrow we are going to be looking at the water source in the village and are planning to go around and conduct a needs assessment. Myself and 3 others will go around to 20 houses each and ask a series of 18 questions pertaining to problems such as clean water or even to the problems dealing with the schools and trash. We don’t want this to be a one time thing. We want this to be the base of a bigger project for the future students that participate in this program. We believe we can actually make a difference, but a solution to these problems isn’t going to magically appear. This weekend will be an amazing experience and have no doubt that we as a group can make a change.
Today we all had an opportunity to sleep in after a tiring hike yesterday, and most of us were up by about 9:30. Before our departure from the hostel in Lijiang at 2:00, we explored the bustling streets for a place to eat brunch. Connor, Will, and I ended up finding a small cafe where we had tasty English breakfasts and coffee. Once we returned, all of us reconvened in the main room of the hostel for a meeting and discussion about Chinese culture. We also discussed a service project that we will be doing in the Naxi village over the next few days. The project is geared towards trash collection and water preservation, as the local springs are vital to the community and they most therefore be kept clean. Some of us will be picking up trash and putting up signs to prevent further pollution and encourage better habits. I will also be leading a needs assessment similar to that which I conducted in Haiti this November. We hope to continue service projects in this community when students come to China in the future, and by conducting a needs assessment we can get an idea for what projects would make the most impact and be the most sustainable. Once everything had been planned out, we left the hostel to head to the village where we would also begin our second set of homestays. We arrived about 40 minutes later at a main house in the village to be immediately welcomed with tea and walnuts. Before long our host families arrived, and we all went our separate ways with our host parents. Zach and I would be staying together this weekend, and after a five minute walk we arrived at our house. The house was very nice, with spacious rooms and a beautiful courtyard. When we arrived we were taken on a small tour of the house by our host father, and we were amused by the plethora of livestock the family owns. While no one in the house can speak English, I have continued to be impressed by the hospitality with which we have been received at every place we have gone. Our hosts have continuously gone so far to make sure we are comfortable and enjoying ourselves, and this family has been no different. Tonight we had a delicious rice, potato, cabbage, and pork dinner that was obviously fresh from the village and maybe even the fields behind the house. For once we could actually see where our food was coming from, a rare experience back in the United States. For the rest of the night we hung around the house relaxing and watching tv with the family. Today was a great start to the weekend and I know we are all looking forward to spending more time with our families.