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Fall 2014 Semester

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Watching Wasps

Mekong, Yak of the Week
Please Select
by: Petal Niles

The chainsaw revs as the men leap to their feet and rush out into star studded darkness. Gathering at the edge of the patio, the women’s eyes light up as they watch the men move out into the trees beyond the compound. A chorus of gleeful giggles and hurried words greets my ears as they tell me in Mandarin that the men are off to fetch “ma feng.”

This is night one in the village and I have no idea what is going on. My only hint is that Gong told me we will be having something quite special for dinner. I wait with the women in electric anticipation of what “ma feng” could possibly be. I don’t wait long before the men return with an entire wasps’ nest. Everyone laughs at my shocked expression as I stare at the smoked out structure still attached to the branch it was built on. Laying out plastic rice bags, the men begin by using twine to separate the layers of the nest. They parade each layer around and let everyone admire the paper white coating that hides the young wasps and larva below. Larger wasps that had not escaped when the fire smoke first began wander aimlessly and harmlessly over the remains of their home.

With the nest fully deconstructed, the men, women, and I start to extract the larva from their lodgings in the comb. As I work I get to know my new relatives and laugh with them over sour papaya that we eat, and I avoid (truly the most sour fruit out there), as we work.

I learn from my grandpa whose Mandarin is  mostly understandable that the family actually ‘farms’ wasps up above our family home. When they find a small nest in the mountains, they bring it down and let it grow until it is large enough to set a fire below and harvest the inhabitants. Some of the nests they eat, but they often sell them for a fine price at market. They also keep bees for honey, and like many of the other families, have their fair share of chickens, a smattering of pigs, and a couple cows.

The next morning, after helping to clean the larva, the older wasps and larva are cooked in pans over the open fire that serves as the family’s stove-top. It’s pretty tasty overall.

After this first experience in the cuisine of this village, I have come to learn more and more about their diet and farming practices. In the mornings, I often go out with my sister to the family’s farmland and help gather beans, various squashes, greens, and corn. They also grow tobacco, tomatoes, walnuts, bananas, bamboo, and a few other crops. I have also helped to forage for mushrooms and to pick tea leaves. I have learned about how corn is mostly sold as pig feed and how tobacco is dried and prepared for market.

Animals and crops are a large part of daily life here in the village and it has been interesting to field questions like “how many pigs do you have?” or “how do you usually prepare a whole chicken you have just killed, plucked, and butchered?” My answer to these is an unavoidably, “I don’t.” But along with these questions I am also asked questions about life in America like “Are light or dark skinned people preferred? Do you have rocks? Does everyone speak the same type of English? How many minority cultures are there? Do people gamble?” Some of these questions are easy, but some of them force me to pause and consider complexities I am not always asked to consider. And then there is always the challenge of explaining things I do not always fully understand in a language I do not fully know to someone who has little to no context for the things I am trying to say.

The experience reminds me that while we must take time to really listen to the answers someone gives us to our questions, to really understand something requires taking time to try and observe for ourselves the things we have questions about. By living with people, by being in their country, and by watching their actions I am allowed the opportunity to set aside what I have read, what I think I know, and what I have been told in order to simply practice the art of observation. Through this practice, I learn about myself by recognizing my assumptions and seeking to understand where they come from. In the long run, I hope that by practicing observation, I will come to be able to see with new eyes things I thought I knew back at home.

 

“Who am I, and what am I eating?”

Himalaya A, Yak of the Week
In-Field
by: Abby Morical
Student
IMG_3547

I knew before I came to Nepal that there would be so much to learn in this new place, as with all new places. I assumed I would discover things I didn’t even know I didn’t know. I could not have expected, however, the sheer volume and variety of such moments and experiences. I’ve said it before but I’ll say it here again: I know nothing.

An exemplary situation depicting this played itself out last Saturday, laundry and shower day here due to the water deficit. I was on my absolutely last clean outfit, if it can even be called that, seeing as I was wearing long underwear and my scarf as a sarong. In any case, my perceptive aama approached me and asked if I knew how to do laundry… I had no idea what to say.

Just to get the record straight, I have done laundry before. I’ve been using washing machines for years now, cleaned my clothes in sinks, and even did a fair job scrubbing shirts in buckets in Peru. I did not, however, know if any of the ways in which I had done laundry were also the way she did laundry. It turns out they weren’t, not quite, and that was one of the most-welcomed lessons I’ve had here.

Similarly, I didn’t know that mountains weren’t mountains unless they had snow on them (see picture above). I didn’t know that I didn’t know how to use a squat toilet, or even a regular toilet sans toilet paper. I didn’t know that feral cows hang around public places– not cows being led around by cow-herding folks– but just cows chilling with the stray dogs and monkeys. I’ve found it’s easiest to let everyone around you know that you know absolutely nothing, so they’re more likely to take pity on you and make sure you get off at the right bus stop. In this city, we travelers are all tiny children.

I assumed that there would be many foods I didn’t know that names of, but have also found that there are many foods I can’t even describe the taste of! My acquired method of approaching foods here is sitting down and saying “Well, this isn’t daalbat, and I’ve never seen anything like it, but I’ll give it a shot!” Often times I have to ask not only if something that looks like sauce/gravy/soup/??? is vegetarian, but also what it goes with/on/how. An example of this phenomenon rearing its funny head took place when Adea (Aditi), Sagar (Sam), and I went to a sweet shop near our houses in Kapan. We picked random items off the menu and then split each in thirds and tried them all. There was something white and spongey that an unbelievable amount of sugary juice gooshed out of, some lumpy thing that was crumbly and impossible to cut yet stuck to your teeth, and a number that tasted strangely of cheese. We laughed the whole time, and decided to try everything on the menu before we leave Kathmandu.

A last example of me being an ignorant but curious fool took place during my first day at my thangka painting ISP. We started out, as all new thankga painters do, with learning to draw the Buddha, or more specifically, the Buddha head (see picture). And I thought I knew how to draw a head! Ha! Fooled again! Instead, I was introduced to a complex structure of measurements using ruler and compass to find the exact position of the nose, mouth, eyebrows, hairline, etc. It took us at least 30 minutes to make one, and we had to make at least six to be considered proficient.

I’ve got the head down pretty well now, but don’t worry, I’m not at a lack of not knowing things. I’ve still got the body, clothes, and literal, spiritual, and cultural background to go.

Much love,

Bee (Apsara)

A letter home

Indonesia, The Best Notes From The Field, Yak of the Week
In-Field
by: Larkin Barron
Student

Dear Home:

Dear Door – I remember so well the way your handle pressed in my palm, the precise weight against my arm, the exactly pitched creak of your melodious hinges. In my mind you open to a world of sights and smells; the familiar flowers, stone floor cold on my feet, memories of times when you were the gateway to a sanctuary, the warm embrace of safety.

Dear Bed – You are so much more comfy than I ever appreciated. How could a simple mattress, so much more than 2 inches of padding on a wooden panel, bring so much joy? How I long to sink into your welcoming folds and lie there till all exhaustion has fled from my body and mind. I would jump on you… or just fall asleep. Bed, I miss you most.

Dear Shower – Sorry to say it, but I’ve actually replaced you. Yeah, I mean hot water can be nice, maybe calming, maybe relaxing, but I honestly enjoy cold water in a bucket. I’ll pour it over my head in one slow gasp of refreshing, and feel cleaner than I ever did with your electric spigot. Although… I never was this hot and sweaty at home.

Dear Phone – Okay. There are times when I wish I could escape to facebook. Music! Music I especially miss. I wish I was able to use GPS, but sometimes in order to see more you must carry less. I’m relieved not to have you. Distraction, I think, would only be degenerative. I don’t want to be stopped from living fully. I don’t want to miss a flash of color or smell of spice. Any moment lost could be a lifelong memory missed.

Dear Car – The freedom you brought. The familiarity of the streets, the joy of the journey from house to home. As much as they try, Becoks will never be as liberating. More fun, maybe. But driving here in Yogya would just be to much. The flocks of motorbikes, the general lack of stop lights or stop signs or really any kind of direction, the men running with food carts, and wait did I mention the millions of motorbikes? I’d probably just start walking.

Dear Kitchen – The taste’s you’ve given me throughout my life are a world away from these chilly – filled, rice mounded bowls of deliciousness. Food styles so different I can’t even compare, though I’m starting to realize that not only is it possible to eat rice three times of day, but it is, in fact, a cultural expectation.

Dear Non-Quick Dry Clothes – I don’t even remember what you feel like. My shoulders and knees are so used to being covered, the idea of wearing shorts is almost scandalous. I have so much respect for the strong women and men who are able to wear jeans, long sleeves, and head scarves in this kind of heat. That’s some kind of devotion.

Dear Mountains – You used to rise above my home like beacons of adventure, calling to be explored. Now my skylines have changed and are filled instead with houses, universities, the buildings and shops and hectic complexes of a busy and wild and full Indonesian city. Grain fields have turned to rice patties. Only the lush green remains the same.

Dear Odi and Zeus, My Beloved Golden Retrievers – You remain the most amazing dogs in my life. I dream about scratching you golden backs and watching you run with the ebullience only a happy dog can fully express.

Dear Family – I carry our memories with me.

Dear Friends – I think of you and smile.

Dear Home -

I have come to believe that you, home, are a deceptive concept. I don’t believe that one house or one place can be the joy of my heart simply because it has the predisposition of being the setting for the majority of my memories. If home was just one thing then, to me, it could never be a house. I think that it must instead be a state of heart. Not a state of mind or state of being, but a way that your heart feels when you are given ease and joy by your surroundings. That moment when the smile comes from the inside, the outer shells collapse and you know, in your heart, that you are home. I have had to say good bye to you Door, Bed, Shower, Phone, Car, Kitchen, Clothes, Mountains, Dogs, Family, Friends – you factors and beings that have been my home. I chose to do this not out of spite but out of an inner compulsion to stretch my boundaries. To expand my mind. To fill my heart with the sights and sounds of the unknown, even if it meant squat toilets and bucket showers and fleets of loud, filthy motorbikes, or a new language and a new diet and a new state of being. I did it because sometimes one home isn’t enough, and when the heart says its time to go exploring, well, who am I to disagree. So, home, I have left you behind. But in many ways, in almost all the ways maybe, I haven’t left home at all.

Love,

Larkin

Defining the group, defining myself

China, The Best Notes From The Field, Yak of the Week
Please Select
by: Daniel Wang
Student

Hey y’all, ni hao!

Dan here – we made it to China, safe and sound. And we’re friends! If you were worried, we actually all like each other. A lot. As I’m writing, Mady’s sharing her Mahjong talents with the group, Annina’s journaling while taking bites from a massive Chinese pear, and a few of us are down by the playground, hoping to pick up some art tips from a group of local teens. We’ve only been here for two days, but it’s been two days of new friendships, amazing homemade local dishes, and preparing to learn about China – and about each other – over the next three months.

So I’m the team’s first “Yak-er” (we all have jobs, from Most Honorable Chairwomen, a student leader, to “camel,” who is in charge of hydration), and I could share the details of our flight (safe), our drive to the hostel (beautiful), the activities we’re doing (most weird, all fun), but since I don’t have so much time I’d rather do something else. I’d rather share what China is to me, why I’m coming on this trip, and what I hope to leave this trip with. Hopefully, our Yak posts can go beyond just the details, and let you see China through our eyes, through the window of what’s important in each of our hearts.

On the way to the hostel, driving past groves of trees, dusty villages and with the majesty of the Great Wall across the mountains ahead of us, we were told to ask ourselves what China meant to us, what this trip meant to us. And honestly, thinking about it made me a bit anxious – it always does.

See, I grew up in a Chinese immigrant family. My parents moved to the states in their early thirties. And I’ve never truly understood what it means to be Chinese.

When I was younger, my Chinese-ness was something to be ashamed of, to be hidden, as if my personality could somehow erase the color of my skin. The words of the people around me told me that I should be embarrassed for being Chinese, for that difference. When I performed well in school, it was chalked up to my race, and when I didn’t, I was told I wasn’t Chinese enough. In fifth grade, while watching a cartoon documentary of Chinese railroad workers, my classmates only laughed as they watched the Chinese caricatures slaving away, and ridiculed their rice-picking hats and their slanted eyes. They mocked Chinese accents, apparently not aware that my parents and our friends and relatives spoke in those ways. I mean, it’s just so tiring – having to prove that you’re more than their preconceptions, every single time you meet someone. These are pressures, and hurts, that no one should have to deal with.

But still, especially when I was young these experiences had their effect. I refused to participate in Chinese school. I tried to break the stereotypes around me by purposely underachieving in school, trying to fit in. I rejected my heritage, and learned to deal with feeling uncomfortable in my own skin. And the Chinese side of my life often made it no easier. Unable to speak the language, it was so, so hard to build any sort of relationship with my cousins, my grandparents, no matter how hard I tried. Though Americans would often toss me into the vast box labeled “Chinese”, in China, with my clothing and hairstyle and body language, I can stick out almost as much as I do in the US. They call me an ABC – an American Born Chinese – and though my skin may look alike, they don’t think I belong. Even a stranger on the plane told me, with no humor, that I should accept that I’m not “really Chinese.” I’m not sure he knew what words like that mean to me, and so many young people like me – as I searched for a feeling of “home”, of community, he’d me the same casual rejection I’d been trying to escape.

So that’s why I come to China – I’m trying to discover and define something about myself that has eluded me for my entire life. In the past few years, I’ve learned to be proud of my heritage, of my family, of the struggles my ancestors overcame to give me the life I have. I’ve found the value in hearing their stories, and sharing them with others, so that they’re never lost. I’ve fought to bring the pride and strength in self that I found too late to other, younger Asian Americans. But I’m still not even sure what that phrase – Chinese American – even means. How Chinese can I be if strangers here hear my English, learn of my birthplace and reject me? How American can I be when the word itself seems to be defined by whiteness? And, more importantly, how much of either do I want for myself? I don’t know yet, and I may never be sure, but the only way to learn is to dive straight into those fears, those doubts, those questions, and keep on pushing those mental boundaries. And what I learn, I want to bring back home, to the kids who grew up just like I did, with the same doubts and hurts, and help them find a little more about themselves as well.

LAST THING! I want to add a little note from all of our happy campers, to the people they love back home (you).

Mady: Hi mom. Pet the dogs for me!
Jimmy: Hi mom. I’m warm enough.
Sam: Hi mom. I’m not dead. (He skinned his knee though. He’s thinking of amputating.) (Not really.)
Margot: Hi mom. I still haven’t found an ATM here in the country side.
Andrew:  Hi mom. I didn’t need to bring two jackets.
Jeremy: Hi mom. I’m alive.
Pete: Hi mom. Is the towel in the tiny little compartment? Also, bored from having nothing to complain about.
Max: Hi Quinn. And mom. The food is awesome.
Elena: Hi mom. I’m not starving.
Annina:  Hi mom, I wasn’t sold into slavery in Beijing.
Ethan: (He would have said “Hi Mom”, but felt too uncreative.)

We really miss our moms.

Dads are cool, too.

Well, I hope this post helped you learn a little bit about me, and I’ll try my best to post a better summary of what we’re all doing in the next few days. But you can trust that we’re all having fun, building an amazing family, and learning more every second. Talk to you soon!

Oh, and hi mom.
Dan

Cleaning Up Our Acts (of Service)

Picture of the Week, Princeton Bridge Year China 2014-15, Yak of the Week
In-Field
by: Will Simon
student
Shibaoshan

The second morning of our stay in Shibaoshan, Chaz, Blaine and I decided to hike to the top of the mountain. The air was full of fog which thickened as we got further up until the views off the edge of the mountain were made invisible. We were amazed to find that there was indeed a temple at the very top, and a return later in the day revealed spectacular views of lush Yunnanese landscape. But a remark Chaz made brought our attention to a subtly disquieting element of what we saw:

“Do you think we should come back up with a bag to pick up all this trash?”

It struck me as a great idea. In the midst of so much natural beauty and spiritual serenity, one could not walk more than a few paces on the hiking trails without encountering a cacophony of candy wrappers, soda bottles, and other miscellaneous trash. When we broached the idea of picking it up to Jesse in the morning meeting, he said little until asking later on if the group approved and, upon hearing an affirmative answer, asking, simply,

“Why?”

The question was troubling. Our motivations seemed clear: to clean up a place of great beauty and religious significance (especially to China’s Bai minority), to give back to a place that was giving us so much, to remove what seemed to us completely out-of-place. A major component of our trip is service, but we had not yet engaged in it. Yet discussion revealed the problem with our reasoning: the “seemed to us.” For that judgment was dependent on a set of cultural values and assumptions which, we had to acknowledge, local people might not necessarily share. This was made particularly apparent by heaps of trash and piles of bottles to be reused or sold we observed on the temple caretaker’s compound on top of the mountain. Perhaps the reason refuse was left on the hiking paths was that there was no readily available way to dispose of it.

Nevertheless, we decided to go through with Chaz’s idea, hoping to dispose of the trash we collected in small bins we had seen at the base of the mountain. Trying to pick up all the trash within sight of the path on our way down, however, felt at times a bit useless. In some areas the trash was so widespread or difficult to access that we just had to settle for the most conspicuous items on the path and move on. About halfway down the path my group was working on, our bag reached its maximum capacity and we had to stop. Before that, though, we walked past a group of local 20-somethings lounging on the path. Our group happened to be composed of people who were all clearly foreigners, and as we passed the locals and our eyes met their slightly confused stares it was hard not to feel a tinge of awkwardness, and perhaps even guilt. Who were we to think it was our responsibility to clean up the trash in somebody else’s country? Did we think we were somehow better than them?

Over lunch afterwards, we had a discussion that raised these issues and many more. We decided that our motivations and mindset in going about this or any other service project are very important, perhaps essential to the meaningfulness and efficacy of the project. The idea was raised that the most effective service will flow naturally from a genuine desire to help others, and we agreed that it would have been much better for us to have talked more with the temple’s caretakers beforehand, to ensure that our actions corresponded to areas in which they really needed and desired help.

Another troubling aspect of this first service project of ours that we discussed was that when we got down the mountain with our bags full of trash, the temple’s caretakers informed us that the trash would have to be burned. Sure, we had made much of mountain’s hiking paths indisputably cleaner, but, as a result, toxins would be released into the local atmosphere. This brought us back to the question of futility. If the garbage was burned, and a few weeks’ or months’ time found the trails equally dirty, would we have made a dent?

The answer we arrived at, despite our service’s problematic nature, was yes. Some pointed out that every bit of trash removed makes people less likely to litter in the future, and that setting a good example here or anywhere in the world has the potential to create a ripple effect of more positive behavior in others. Others noted that good habits of behavior, however small, have the potential to shape the values of society and thereby the decisions of the institutions that most affect it. Having the right attitude and motivations can make even small acts of service powerful agents of change.

Every week each group member is assigned a specific duty, and it is the responsibility of the “Sage” to provide a few words of wisdom at morning meetings. A few days ago, Blaine, our current Sage, quoted Daniel Handler to say that “It is not the diamonds or the birds, or the people or the potatoes; it is not any of the nouns. The miracle is the adverbs, the way things are done.” As we commence a year of service and learning, we should consider the importance not only of what we do but of how we do it.

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