November 05, 2004 | China as a River
View of Kunming from the program house living room/classroom
We went to a show here, a dance with the theme of Shangri-La. Quite lovely with its Tibetan singing and dancing, but also over produced in that gaudy Chinese way, and laden with cultural stereotypes. A show is entertainment, but with a lecture and discussion we've done on Chinese minority identities, I can't help but think about the de-politicization of minority cultures in their representations in China. Isn't it good to celebrate these cultures and promote ethnic- and eco-tourism? Is it bad with the over-simplification, as this kind of packaging changes cultures, and Tibetans benefit less from the tourism development than the Han? No easy answers. After the show, Carina surprises one of the performers and a group of onlookers with her accurate rendition of a typical Tibetan drinking song, and we have an invitation to visit his home and performing group back in Zhongdian, or Shangri-La. How nice!
Kirstyn continues in her ISP quest of looking at advertising in China, noticing that the advertising strategies are more sophisticated than they seem at first. She's designing a survey to get first hand impressions from people on select ads. Not an easy task... China's rampant consumerism brings new tastes at a dizzying pace and our group is constantly surprised by it here, a modern and hip and quickly developing city. What to think of China's capitalism? How to take it all in, especially all the DVDs at a fraction of their price in the states? Where is it all going?
Most of our students have concentrated their studies on more traditional and known arts of China. Katie and Lindsey are progressing at a truly impressive pace with calligraphy, Meghan as well with brush painting, producing lovely xie yi (sketching the idea) flower and bird paintings. Steve has advanced to weapons in his kong fu studies, and Sam continues in his study of tea ceremonies and the rhyme and reason of "Cha." But these traditional arts are also constantly changing, perhaps coming to a renaissance as the Chinese middle class enjoy more leisure and appreciate cultural sophistication. The ancient arts and philosophies continue, the ideas that drew some of our students to China, but are presented to them in this bustling city, wrapped up in the flowing force of it, incongruities n'all.
The loudspeakers employeed by the cell phone stores 21 floors below drift up to our program house each morning. What can you do? The Chinese understand the sentiment of "wu nai" very well, which roughly translates as "to no avail," but not as a sense of powerlessness, rather it's often necessary to let go, in the face of great and natural forces of change. Being in China can be inundating and overwhelming, even in a city as pleasant as Kunming, with a program house as lovely as ours. We all have to go with the flow, grateful for being here, this moment. One never steps in the same river twice. Yet each moment in time is connected to all the ones that come before it, and all the ones that follow.
Many have likened China to a river, from the documentary River Elegy 15 years ago to Peter Hessler's River Town. Each of the students are each taking a sip, a dip, using it to water their own plot. This China can do, a drop in the bucket. It's beside the point, our students realize, to really understand China. Rather than seek the answers, they are living the questions.
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