The moon illuminated everything around us. The power of a full moon is actually awe-striking. You could see all of the details of our campsite, the mountains that cradled us, and the valley that hung below. After dinner we filled up our water, packed up any remaining items, and began our walk up the mountain, Kalinchowk. Earlier in the day Adrian had come across a two-story once-home that rest on the spine of the ridge, just a short walk from the temple where the days events had taken place. He convinced us all that waking up in this spot would give surely give us the best opportunity to see the sunrise as the moon sets over these mountains. I agreed with excitement, but was not particularly looking forward to the straight up hill (more like up mountain) hike. I had walked up to the temple during the day in hopes to catch a Shaman doing puja and had had to battle the windy snow as it came down on the mountain, my assumption was that the night would likely feel the same with a slight temperature drop.
We departed from camp head lamps ready and bundled up. I almost never used my headlamp; every stone, every step was guided and illuminated naturally by the moon. The wind did not blow; it was perfectly still, entirely silent. I was not hot and I was not cold; I was amazed by the crystal clear sky and the beauty of the valley as it shrunk below us. After about forty minutes of walking we reached the spine, the point where the valley and mountains on the other side come into view. My jaw literally dropped as I let out a gasp. Earlier that day when I had walked up to the temple the clouds had masked the surrounding area. Looking out I only saw foothills and grayness. Now, the moon literally glowed against the mountain ranges that lay beyond. I am having an incredibly difficult time putting words on what it felt like to first see these giants. It was amazing to me that they had been hidden all day. That I was completely ignorant to their existence and now here were some of the tallest points on the earth starring back at me.
As everyone took turns coming in and out to stare at the scene and get themselves settled inside. I just stood and took it in letting myself be affected by the power and mystery of what lay in front of me. I thought about the mountains, I thought about Nepal, I thought about home, and I thought about how it was my 19th birthday and that in my 19 years of live this was something really special. It is rare that our breath can be taken away like that, it is the power of a special that scene can make stop everything – make you forget what you are doing and make you just sit down to feel the power of that moment.
In our time of global interconnectivity, impressions and conclusions can be formed about a country without ever setting foot within its borders. The amount of journalism and research available today afforded me a basic knowledge of this country’s major political and economic issues before I joined this program. I knew who Xi Jinping was and had a basic grasp of his recent policies. I knew that GDP growth estimates for 2014 were around 7.3%. I knew about the role that China’s real estate boom has played in that growth. But as I soon realized, Wall Street Journal and Economist articles have their limits, and it is only through personal and firsthand experience that one is able to formulate a genuine understanding of the social and cultural fabric of a nation and a people. The basic interactions and subtleties of daily life, which have to be seen and experienced in order to be understood, are imbued with the most fundamental truths and the most finite complexities of a culture.
With this idea in mind, I have sought, over the past two months with Dragons, to fill that gap in my understanding by seeking out the cultural undercurrents that really drive this country more than 5 year plans and propaganda initiatives and GDP growth targets. I do not pretend that my brief travels here have allowed me to understand completely the immensity and the vastness that is China, but I feel that this experience has provided me a lens into a few invaluable truths about this country and its people.
For me personally, the most interesting among these realizations concern the present circumstances and future prospects of China’s generation Y. From casual conversations over dinner with my home-stay parents to in depth discussions with my teachers to shared stories from my classmates, my time in Kunming allowed me to begin to grasp the enormity of the challenges that face China’s youth today. Alexa told me about her home-stay sister who was adamant in her desire to become a “global citizen” and to achieve “perfect English,” and who was more than willing to spend countless hours doing homework or attending evening tutoring classes. All at age eleven. Schooling only becomes more rigorous and competitive throughout middle and high school, culminating with the hellish insanity of the GaoKao that effectively decides a student’s future university and career prospects. Aaron (my Mandarin teacher) expressed his concerns regarding young college graduates, who remain far from relieved of the parental and social expectations that weigh heavily upon them from a young age; these same burdens simply taken on different forms and stifle budding ideas of independence. Young men are expected to find a stable, well-paying job through which they will be able to afford the house (something increasingly difficult in the context of China’s exploding real estate market) and car necessary to marry. Young women, meanwhile, are under pressure from their parents to find the partner with the house and car who will provide financial stability, often seen as more important than emotional fulfillment. Conversations with friends of my home-stay parents, some of them bachelors, confirmed and reinforced this challenging dynamic. Perhaps most alarming element about this entire ordeal is its utter uniformity and singularity – so many of China’s youth are plunged into this ultra-competitive rat race, encouraged by cultural and familial pressures, whether they like it or not.
All this provokes serious questions about China’s millenials and the consequences they may endure as a result of this environment. We have all heard of the shortcomings of China’s “Little Emperors” who are smothered with attention from parents and grandparents determined to provide their child the best chance to succeed in life. Aaron even joked that some Chinese students, having spent their lives doing little else than studying and homework, arrive at university unable to dress themselves. There is certainly a small grain of truth to this hyperbole, but I believe that the greatest challenge for China’s generation Y will be to find some sense of identity within the utter chaos of modern China. At the moment, these young people are undergoing nothing short of an identity crisis. They are caught between the traditions of the past and the influences of the future in ways that their parents could never truly understand. I was shocked by the extreme interest in American TV shows and prestigious European brands. But to associate oneself with empty pop culture platitudes and to affiliate oneself with brands is not to form an identity. It has to be far more personal than that. It seems that the ambitions and dream of China’s millenials are too often informed by exterior expectations and influences rather than individual preferences.
So where does China’s true identity lie? In my experience, it is found within the social structures that have been the foundation of Chinese culture for so many centuries. The most genuine, authentic elements of China that I have experienced have all centered around family, friends, and guanxi. Its rooftop shaokao with my homestay family and their many friends. Its my homestay mother baking me cookies and cakes to share with my friends at the program house. Its my homestay mother’s answer every time I tried to thank her for her infinite generosity: “we are family – forget about it.”
Today, we live in a constantly accelerating world. With so much at stake, there is hardly any time to take a breath. Our governments and leaders push us toward goals we can hardly fathom or truly comprehend. We pave over Beijing’s legendary hutong for new roads and shopping malls. We transform historic cultural minority villages like LiJiang into gaudy tourist centers. We turn ancient, secluded monasteries into phony and pricey tourist spots. All for what? For Xi Jinping’s China Dream?
Dreams are important. We all want to believe in the better tomorrow behind the hills, the brighter future beyond the distant setting sun. But in our mad rush toward the future, we should be wary of forsaking the foundations of our past. China’s youth will have to bridge that gap.
Looking back, it seems a decent amount of my time here has been spent in bafflement, not knowing how to react to obvious, every day situations, which to me are completely foreign. The first time a truffi I was riding, of which I was the only passenger, pulled into a gas station I remained seated inside, oblivious to the fact that all passengers are required to leave the vehicle before its tank can be filled. The driver waited in confusion for at least a minute before informing me of the rule. I keep getting overcharged trying to buy single bananas and peaches when the custom is to stock up for the whole week, but I still can’t figure out how much a “libra” actually is. I accidently say “Buenos dias” well after 12 o’clock and “Buenas noches” when it is decidedly still la tarde. I fear for my life every time I cross the street and have caused a significant number of rushed taxi drivers to honk in surprise. Basically, I often resemble a small child or an idiot.
Watching my host mom navigate such situations with complete ease and familiarity evokes much admiration and awe. Every evening, she guides six cows effortlessly back to our yard, using only a special click of the tongue. Meanwhile, I tug hopelessly at the rope around my single one’s neck to keep it from trampling the neighbor’s corn. One of the most incredible and exciting thing I have witnessed was my mom selling baby ducks at the concha, Cochabamba’s enormous, labrynth-like central market. Early in the morning we plucked our 18 fuzzy, flailing patitos from their swampy corral, plopped them into bags, and boarded crowded public transport into the city.
(“Open the window Martina, we don’t want the whole truffi to smell like duck”
“Oh, right, of course”)
Upon arriving at the market we beelined for the area apparently dedicated to unofficials vendors of farm animals. The entire street was packed as over a hundred women displayed their bags, squirming and squacking with every sort of animal. I imitated those around me in completely ignoring the group of police officers shoving the crowd, shouting “Move along ladies! You can’t sell here, you need a stand! Come on, move!”. My job was to hold open the bags as countless people peered inside, poking, prodding, inspecting the ducklings and offering prices. My mom’s job was to firmly reject them and makes sure in the chaos no one stealthily transferred a patito from our bags to theirs.
(“No senora, lo siento, 30 pesitos, son grandes, sanos, no van a morir, 30 pesitos”)
Still, it wasn’t more than ten minutes before someone came along with the right price. Our little animals were grabbed hastily by the necks and tossed from our bags to lady’s. Now our job became to rush around the market, buying as much as we could with our newly acquired dinero. My host mom moved swiftly through the packed isles and despite being twice her size, I had to jog and skip to avoid being lost in the endless blocks of identical stalls. Some rope, rat poison, veggies, oats, and a box of baby chickens later
(“Do you think I should get these chicks? Look they seem healthy, what do you think?”
“I have no idea… what about a kitten?”)
we’re back in the truffi, heading home. The whole excursion has taken no more than an hour but I’m exhausted. Surely she has been buying and selling in that market all her life, making it second nature. Still, I can’t help but be impressed by her ease and savvy in that overwhelming, indecipherable place.
Later, a dinner conversation about northern Sweden’s endless winter nights and sleepless summers leads me to realize my h0st mom has never heard of the equator. This and her conviction that elephants inhabit the Amazon leave me pondering different types of knowledge and their relevence. Never having had the luxury (or misfortune, depending on your perspective) of attending the 12 years of school I did, she lacks awareness some things I would consider common knowledge. Instead she has learned skills essential to her life and livelihood, something I feel painfully lacking in. She speaks three languages, can calculate the price of eggs in an instant, and knows how to feed her cows in order to produce milk of exact ideal fat content. I prefer not to draw conclusions about her type of education and its impact on her life and happiness. Instead, I rejoice in the fact that our different backgrounds give us endless opportunities to learn and teach.
You say write a yak. Make it thoughtful; make it sincere. Put a little heart into it and give a precious glimpse of my current overseas life to loved ones back home, future students, and passionate professionals. But what is there to write about? I could write pages about minutes; I could write sentences about days. Every passing moment I spend here in Nepal leaves an everlasting mark upon me. I could attempt to express the profoundness of a simple, everyday moment. I could try to eloquently paint my words into a beautifully clear image of my experience. Yet, the reader would never know that experience. They would not know all the subtleties that occurred before and during it, making it unique. They would not know how my background in America caused me to perceive the event in my own individual way. Conversely, I could relate a strikingly, obviously, powerful moment. Anyone reading it would be wowed, and it would be a much more tangible experience to describe. Yet, the grandness is all the reader would focus on. The depth so crucial to that event would be lost, and all the smaller changes which occurred within me would be overshadowed by the one greater one.
So, I can’t say that I know what to write about. My drum teacher’s smile, the woman who cooks ears of corn on my street corner, the hazy mountain views, the struggles I’ve overcome while learning so many new things, the books I’ve read, the books I haven’t read, the dust-hurling wind, the dogs on the streets, the markets- big and small, the restaurants, the home-made meals, watching the other students grow around me, the conversations, half a century of Western influence in millennia of Nepali tradition, and so many more topics deserve this spotlight. I feel like I’m continually learning and experiencing so much during my time here in Nepal that to romanticize one particular event carelessly tosses other ones into an artificial shadow. Although we all fall prey to doing so sometimes, I particularly dislike wasting words. My words here could not possibly accurately describe a single emotion I’ve faced on this trip. We place so much emphasis on vernacular and semantics when really perspective proves most important. No two people could interpret these words precisely the same.
Do you want to know what it’s like in Nepal? Come here. Walked the trails I’ve walked, see the sights I’ve seen, share all the ups and downs of the experience along the way. Yet, even then, you would never come close to realizing what my personal experience is here. Have your own experience. Write a “yak” about the daily life you lead in whatever Western town or city that you call home. Students are posting all over this board their own incredible stories. They may make you feel happy for the students, or maybe they spark a twinge of jealousy. Maybe you’re just checking up on your son or daughter because you’re concerned and want to make sure they’re well. But who is checking up on you? Who is asking you to dissect the profound from the superficial, inspire new perspective-taking, and share your own personal experiences with the world wide web? Learning from others can be a very effective tool, but at the heart of it all, you have to learn from yourself. So stop staring at your screen and go enjoy your life. I’m going to enjoy Nepal.