Tag Archives: Culture

Travel Guide: Yunnan Province

I recently had the privilege to lead a group of grade 11 students on a week-long journey through Yunnan Province in southwestern China. As on the trip to Battambang, Cambodia that I led for this group as grade 10 students, we worked with the JUMP! Foundation, who continue to be my favorite people. They develop, design, and manage the program along with their partner schools and it’s an honor to work with them each year.

This trip was the first time many of our students experienced what it’s like to be a backpacker. We traveled with packs and on overnight trains, moving to multiple locations throughout the trip. There’s a lot of travel in one week because we spend the first and last days transitioning between planes, trains, and buses but it was a phenomenal experience. 

After a series of opening activities (JUMP! programs involve lots of running around and games, which are really fun, as well as group reflections that are valuable) and another bus ride, we arrived in our first base, Jianchuan.  The town itself is quite small and there was no restaurant in town large enough for all 63 of us so one of the restaurant families opened their courtyard and invited local chefs to cook the three meals we’d be eating there. The food we had all week was truly extraordinary and a major highlight for some of the students and even the staff.

JUMP! had told us about Bai, the minority group that we’d be spending much of our time with on the trip. China doesn’t have the best history in its treatment of minorities, but Bai language, culture, and style of dress remain vibrant and distinct. Learning about and from the Bai people began almost immediately. After some food and our first shower in 36 hours, we headed to a traditional pottery workshop and learned about the ancient art of black pottery that is famous in this region. Interestingly, it’s the use of pine wood in the kiln at the comparatively low temperature of 500°C that makes the pottery black. 

Walking through Jianchuan the next day was like going back in time. The main road of the ancient town was part of Tea Horse Caravan Road that connected to the Silk Road and although no longer a merchant spot, it’s still a functioning street.

Our morning activity was a scavenger hunt following a hand-drawn map through Jianchuan Old Town. We began at the central town square . . .

. . . with the goal of investigating the local economy . . . 

. . . a beautiful shrine . . .

. . . and a local park with pagodas.

From Jianchuan we headed to Shaxi where we’d spend the next three nights. Shaxi is a very small town and a bit like a fairytale. Like Jianchuan, it’s part of the Tea Horse Caravan Road, which is really cool. I even did some shopping there!

We had time to wander through town during our stay and it was so serene and beautiful. 

The countryside was equally beautiful and we went on a bike ride through the fields across the river.

In keeping with the connection to nature, we hiked Shi Bao Mountain the following day. It’s a beautiful pine forest with grottos, temples, and views of Shaxi and the fields beyond. My stereotypes of China had been fading since our arrival and I voiced that for the first time with my students up on the mountain. I wasn’t the only one thinking that way. 

At the summit, we had a picnic linch of the rice rolls and rice balls that we’d made that morning, which had been really fun.

Then we spent the rest of the day in a tiny Bai village, Bao Xiang Si-Shi Long. “Bai” means “white” and many of the homes and buildings were painted white and then decorated, which was quite charming.

Much of the afternoon was spent learning a song in the Bai language. Bai bears no similarity to Mandarin, so it was a challenge for everyone. Our hosts also taught us a traditional dance and performed it for us in full traditional dress at a bonfire later that evening. Two singers performed the song that we’d painstakingly learned after transliterating the Mandarin characters and then we tried to show them what we’d learned of their dance. Try is the key word here, but the Bai people have only recently started teaching their language to outsiders so it was an honor to be included.

A major endeavor during our time in Shaxi was a fascinating anthropology research project that had students learning about local concerns as a result of migration, modernization, and the mixing of immigrants to Shaxi and the Bai locals. Students then followed a hand-drawn map around town to conduct interviews, mostly in Mandarin, to ask a series of questions they’d devised to learn more about the problems. Then, they were tasked with coming up with viable solutions, which prompted excellent group discussions about the appropriateness of walking into a culture and trying to be of help. On the last day of the trip, students presented their proposals to each other and the group voted for three of the ten presentations to give to some of the locals they’d interviewed. I certainly learned a lot and I know the students did, too. And as always, food was a highlight.

The end of our interview day was one of my favorite experiences of the trip, probably because it was so simple. We went stargazing! We don’t see stars that often in Singapore because of light pollution and cloud cover, but the sky in Yunnan was clear and bright. It was cold, too, winter cold, but we headed to the rooftop of our hostel after dark to lie there and simply look up. We gazed in silence for a while and then played a game of “I Wonder”. At the end of the day, I wonder how we all happened to be there.

Our final activity the next afternoon was a really nice follow-up to the stargazing, meeting people, and group reflections that we’d done throughout the week. My group’s leader and I also taught a few meditation techniques that our students enjoyed. So when it came time to hike an hour through the rice fields for half an hour of silence and solitude, our students were ready and looking forward to reconnecting with themselves and how they’d changed during the week.

And all too soon, we were back on buses, the overnight train, and the plane home. As a staff, we high-fived at the happy faces and safe return. As an educator, I delighted in seeing my students grow and mature over the week, developing new friendships and connections with others. And as a person, I was happy with the crisp air, bright sunshine, learning, and laughter that made up every day.

In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks. -John Muir

Free Hugs

A few days ago, I was walking through Union Square and saw a cluster of people (two men, two women, multiple races, 20s or 30s) holding signs that said “FREE HUGS” in large, colorful letters.

Before even actively thinking about it, I knew I was heading straight for the people with the signs.

I walked towards a man with a bushy brown beard who asked, “Need a hug?”

I made a sound that was somewhere between an embarrassed chuckle and a nervous giggle and replied, “Yeah.” (Truth be told, I can really always use a hug.)

We hugged, I thanked him and wished him a great day, and he sent me on my way with a sticker.

IMG_0598
Pretty good advice! Though not so secret if now printed on stickers.
Of course, I thought, noting the URL in tiny letters. Does anything simply come from the goodness of the heart? But then I looked up LightSourceTemple.org. If you’ve clicked on the link, you’ll notice what I noticed – the domain has expired. LightSourceTemple.org doesn’t exist.

So why give out free hugs? For a laugh? For fun? A dare? A cult initiation? Or because the world can be really hard and sometimes people just need hugs?

While I can’t answer what those four people in Union Square were aiming for, I can explain why I not only accepted the free hug, but also wanted it.

I believe very strongly that there is a lack of physical human connection in our society.

I’ve thought about this a lot but it struck me anew when I was recently in Israel with our eighth graders. After just a day away from school, in a completely different environment, open affection was acceptable and the norm. Even more illuminating, much of this behavior came from the Israeli staff who we met on the first day of our trip. It was perfectly fine to drape an arm over a colleague’s shoulder for no apparent reason. It was fine to say good morning with a kiss on the cheek. A touch to someone’s back was simply a way of saying hello.

We don’t do enough of that in the US.

While in Israel, I read Dacher Keltner’s Born to Be Good, which contains chapters on smile, laughter, touch, and love, among other things. He writes about oxytocin and its effects on our behavior, attitudes, and relationships. Humans need positive physical contact in order to bond, trust others, and feel happy. In more than one place in his book, Keltner blames the Puritans for the lack of lack of physical touch in American culture.

I mentioned the book during a conversation just before walking through Union Square and seeing the free hugs signs. A friend was talking about his frustration with the repressive nature of American society and how we don’t really permit deviating from the prescribed course of action (school, more school, job) to allow for authentic personal growth or exploration. Thinking of Keltner, I suggested use of the word “Puritanical” to describe typical American attitudes towards uncharted paths and lack of conformity to the few molds we have deemed acceptable.

All of this was on my mind when I walked through Union Square a couple days ago. Though the free hugs people don’t know it, they appeared with their signs at just the right time for me to say yes to their hug.

As a rule, I try to be as open with and responsive to others as I can. Accepting and being truly delighted by the free hug was just another way of trying to form a connection, however brief, with someone who was willing to be open, responsive, and vulnerable to those around him. Back in February, I sat down to talk to three men on a bench in Central Park for the same reason. When a college student who started a conversation with me at a nail salon last week asked if she could interview me for a school project, I gave her my phone number with true pleasure. I’m trying to make the world better, one positive interaction at a time.

We are all humans. Whether we like it or not, we are all in this together. If we can’t reach out and touch one another, what’s the point in living at all?

Singapore x3

This past weekend was my third trip to Singapore. Every time I go, it gets harder and harder to come back. Every time I go, I am more convinced that Mitch and I need this to work. The type of life we could lead in Singapore is what we thought we’d find when we moved to Southeast Asia. We didn’t do nearly enough research about Seremban itself, unfortunately. Some of my friends have given Seremban a funny, accurate, and crude nickname and they’re right. (Hint: Starts with “sh”, ends with “itemban.”)

I don’t have much to show from this weekend in terms of photos because we spent quite a bit of time in museums. We saw an amazing da Vinci exhibit at the ArtScience Museum that included 13 original pages from the Codex Atlanticus, da Vinci’s largest notebooks full of sketches, inventions, mathematical formulas, and notes to himself. The exhibit itself was interactive, too, with challenges to build and think like the great Leonardo. I highly recommend it if it ever comes by wherever you are. We spent a little bit of time afterwards at the Asian Civilisations Museum but we were both pretty tired of standing by that point, so we’ll have to visit again another day. It does a really objective and sensitive job showcasing Asian cultures. I don’t think it’s supposed to be free, but it was! Finally, we happened upon the 2014 World Press Photo Exhibition. It’s true what they say, that a picture’s worth 1000 words. That’s even more true when each picture includes a caption explaining the circumstances behind its taking!

Now onto the few photos I took:

Skating rink inside a mall - I'm not convinced that's real ice because it certainly doesn't look like real ice!
Skating rink inside a mall – I’m not convinced that’s real ice because it certainly doesn’t look like real ice!

Cavenagh Bridge is Singapore's only suspension bridge and it's been there since 1870! This sign made me giggle.
Cavenagh Bridge is Singapore’s only suspension bridge and it’s been there since 1870! This sign made me giggle.

Mitch with a very reasonably priced tiramisu and two delicious glasses of wine at Boat Quay. Please note that the tiramisu came in a jar!
Mitch with a very reasonably priced tiramisu and two delicious glasses of wine at Boat Quay. Please note that the tiramisu came in a jar!

On a very personal note, I love seeing Jewish life in Singapore. It reminds me that there are parts of Southeast Asia where I can be myself.

Possible a JCC?
The home of Singapore’s Jewish Welfare Board

Synagogue
Singapore’s main synagoI also really enjoyed seeing a church across the street from the Jewish buildings.

Church
I also loved seeing a church around the corner from the Jewish buildings.

We’re off to Surabaya, Indonesia this weekend to visit a volcano! I will definitely have pictures of that!