Welcome note from Lisa Liang

If you asked me fifteen years ago, when I was about your age, where would I be and what would I be doing with my life in 2015, I probably wouldn’t have guessed that I’d be CEO of my own company, living and working in the rugged outback of southwest China.

In fact, I used to consider myself a city girl, born and raised in California, studied comparative literature in Los Angeles, then journalism in New York, spent a year researching press freedom as a Fulbright scholar in Taipei, and eventually ventured to Beijing to manage an arts and lifestyle magazine. It may have been that I had always envisioned myself residing within the realm of a writer. And I am. But that’s not all: I am also an artist, a photographer, an illustrator, a translator, a graphic designer, an entrepreneur, and a Where There Be Dragons instructor. And I will be in Beijing to greet you all when you arrive on June 7.

I suspect this may be the first time in the People’s Republic of China for many of you. But it may surprise you to know that this will be my first time teaching a Dragons course. Still, I am, hopefully like you, looking forward to our soon-to-be colliding of worlds and alternate realities.

China is, indeed, an incredibly different place. It both surpasses and rejects your assumptions and expectations. It has a different sense of time and space, of right and wrong, of meaning and value. Some of these differences are easy to understand; others may be not. And while you can come in with whatever generalizations you have, hopefully you will discover by the end of the summer that China ought not be thought of as East versus West, or Right versus Wrong, but simply appreciated as a thing of its own. If you can do this, you will find there is so much to enjoy.

I have been living and working in China for eight years. I think back on it now and realize what a big chunk of my life it has been, and yet it seems to have gone by fast. I arrived in Beijing in the run-up to the Olympics, was present during the Olympics, and stayed on after the Olympics. It was an extraordinary privilege to be in China, and specifically in Beijing, amid such a climate of great change. It still astonishes me today, coming back to Beijing now, fathoming how one single event had such a monumental impact on the city, the country, the psyche of its people. In 2007, there were only two subway lines; now there are 18. Previously seedy streets full of KTVs and DVD shops are now (real) Louis Vutton stores and Apple Genius Bars.

As fate would have it, I didn’t stay in Beijing long. Instead, at the height of my young and budding career as a magazine editor, I decided it was time to leave my good job in the city and head to the countryside, into the wilderness, towards the unknown. And since 2009, I have been calling Yunnan “home.”

Yunnan is, in my humble opinion, one of the most beautiful places in the world. It’s not just the natural environment, with its stunning mountains, bending rivers and epic cloudscapes, its lakes and forests, its high plateaus and tropical marsh lands. There is something else here that one finds alluring: The simplicity of the farmer’s life perhaps, still naive and pure, and so far removed from the complex, fast-paced modernity of China’s new cosmopolitans. Or perhaps its the richness of all the different minorities you encounter here, each with their unique traditions, religions and oral histories. Or it might very well just be the food — the wonderfully delicious, fragrant and tangy, fiery and scrumptious, mouth-watering food.

This last statement might very well be the truest, for as I write this on a plane heading back to China from Kiev, I am giddy with excitement at the thought of Chinese food, the bowl of greasy noodles that has been on my mind for the past few weeks. At the same time, I chuckle to myself because I had, in fact, eaten dumplings for dinner last night — Ukranian dumplings, so much like Chinese dumplings, but different too: cheese-filled and served with sour cream and jam. This also makes me recall, a few years ago, traveling in Uruguay and eating dumplings there, though there they are called empanadas and baked, not pan-fried or boiled.

At the end of the day, maybe we’re not all that different — after all, Italians eat rice, Uygers eat pizza, and everywhere in the world, people eat dumplings. Who knows? You might find yourself relating more to a Chinese farmer than you do to your own sister or brother. I know I do sometimes. And you know what? There’s nothing wrong with that. Not a thing.

So on that note, let me welcome you to China! Be prepared for anything — maybe even having your world turned upside down. Who knows? You might enjoy it. I know I do.



A hello from “Where There Be Dragons” instructor Daniel

Greetings from Charlottesville, VA!

I am so excited to explore China with you! My first exposure to China was on a community service-based summer trip in 1999, so I fully understand how meaningful and exciting this experience will be for all of you. Were it not for my trip to China the summer before I began applying to colleges, I would not be where I am today. As an undergraduate, I double majored in Sociology and East Asian Studies, and I spent my junior year abroad at Beijing University intensively studying Mandarin Chinese. Immediately after college, I worked at an NGO in Boston coordinating youth-driven initiatives seeking to create positive changes in the Chinatown neighborhood.

After two incredible years as the only non-Chinese staff member at my organization, I decided to return to China to help westerners get adapted to living and teaching in China. For over a year, I managed a volunteer program for WorldTeach, an International Education NGO based at Harvard University’s Center for International Development. I was the sole staff member in the country responsible for 43 American volunteer living all over Hunan Province. It was very exhausting and rewarding job.

After living in China for a few years, I decided to return to the U.S. for graduate school. A lot of my coursework and research related to economics and international development. (I really like economics!) While getting my M.A., I was also able to spent an academic semester studying Uyghur language and culture at Xinjiang Normal University in Northwest China. — Be sure to ask me about my time there.

Throughout my years of formal education, I have done extensive research on a variety of topics related to China. My academic interests have no boundaries, and I have written papers on everything from classical Chinese philosophy to modern urban planning in Shanghai. Although I have read a ton of books on the country, I still find that I learn the most from speaking to common people on the streets. I encourage you to do the same!

To steal a quotation from William Butler Yeats, I am a firm believer that “education is not the filling of the pail, but the lighting of the fire.” I realize that everyone on this trip will have different learning styles, so my goal will be to create a mature learning community, facilitate independent inquiry, and allow everyone to develop their own conclusions. Rather than try to fill up your “pails”, I would prefer to provide the basis for thoughts, discussion, and debates …and then leave it up to you to figure out what the “right” answer is.

My best advice for you is to not pack too much and begin to wean yourself from any addictions you have to the internet and mobile phones. I challenge you to be completely engaged in your surroundings each moment you are in China. If you are constantly worrying about lugging around heavy bags or freaking out because you cannot connect to wifi, you will miss out on all the magnificence that is in China.

Almost everything you think you need (toiletries, clothes, etc.) is available for purchase in China at a fair price. Just bring yourself, some quality clothes, a blank journal, any medications, and printed out pictures of your friends, family, and school. — People in China love seeing pictures of “real life” in the United States!

I have held residence in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Massachusetts, and California …and for the last 5 years I have been in Central Virginia. I currently work as a Mandarin teacher at a public high school right down the road from the University of Virginia. I absolutely love learning about new cultures, and my adventures have taken me through North America, Europe, the Middle East, and Central Asia. (I even spent a good chunk of time working with the U.S. Army in Kabul, Afghanistan!) My lifelong goal is to travel to a new country every year.

When I am not working, studying, or grading papers, I enjoy running, tennis, karaoke, and reading. I am currently reading “Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China” by Evan Osnos. Mr. Osnos is a staff writer at the The New Yorker, and he has written some of my favorite pieces on China. Please look over this book if you can.

I am VERY excited to meet all of you in China. As I already mentioned, it was around 16 years ago that I first stepped foot on Chinese soil, and I have learned so much about this country, the world, and myself over the years. I hope that 16 years from now, you will be sitting down to type a similar letter. See you soon!

Zai Jian (“goodbye”),

Daniel Stolkowski

Course Instructor

Daniel stolkowski@gmail.com

China 2015 – Ready To Roll

As the academic year comes to a close the China Program is gearing up to head abroad.  This summer we will be journeying to China 06-26 June.  The students spent the last few months preparing for their adventure by studying and researching a broad spectrum of ideas and issues surrounding China.  Each student  led a great group discussion on their topic centered around articles they chose for the group to read.  These discussions will provide the foundation for the academic and intellectual exploration that will occur while traveling through China.


The students are ready, excited and slightly apprehensive as they get ready to set off on their journey of culinary, cultural and intellectual exploration!