Shelley in Xishuang Banna

30 Apr 2004

My friend and (previously) co-worker Shelley is currently making a long trip through the parts of China he hasn’t seen yet. I’ve posted about Shelley before, because I think he’s a really good guy with a lot of appreciation for Chinese culture as well as an impressive level of Chinese attained in only two years, and with no formal classes. Anyway, Shelley recently sent out an e-mail about his experiences and reactions to Xishuang Banna in Yunnan province. I’m posting an excerpt with his permission.

> I reached the village of Manpo (Bulang ethnicity) by early afternoon on Monday and had intended to push on. But while resting in a sort of community area I struck up a conversation with a man who could speak strained Mandarin. He was busily shaving his 4-year-old son’s head as he insisted I spend the night in his home. At first I politely declined since staying in Manpo would necessitate a second night in the region, but then I wasn’t quite sure if I’d be able to find lodging elsewhere by nightfall. So I followed this man, named Ai Zhai Xiang, up to his house. (The name of every man in the village begins with “Ai”, and every woman’s name begins with “Ni.” So I’ll just refer to him as Mr. Zhai from now on.)

> Before I go on I need to mention that Americans are very well-liked in the village because the recently built school (a cement-and-white-tile eyesore on the edge of the village) was built with 70,000 RMB from an American living in Kunming. Thanks to him and the (so far) polite travelers who have passed through, Americans have an outstanding reputation in the village of Manpo. The school, like all others in China, isn’t free though. It costs 5 RMB per student per day of instruction. It’s a large asking price for these villagers but there’s no cheaper way to get a Chinese teacher out to the village. I learned from another villager that their expenses usually only total 10 RMB per month because they make everything else they need. I never learned how much they make from selling their crops.

> My first impressions of Mr. Zhai and his life were pretty heart-wrenching. Mr. Zhai introduced himself as a farmer and told me a little about the work he does. He was shirtless the whole time I was there, displaying a few scars plus a significant oblong bump the size of a pill in the center of his chest. He explained that this is some sort of tablet with his name inscribed on it that his father inserted into his chest when he was very young. This is apparently not a village-wide custom, and in fact I never quite understood why he had this tablet other than it might have something to do with being raise to be a monk. (He said he “graduated” after a few years.) Mr. Zhai also sighed about how old he was, already having a 4-year-old son and a 4-month-old daughter. I figured him to be around 30. He corrected me, “23.” Almost nonchalantly in conversation he mentioned that his children are actually his 2nd and 4th; the 1st and 3rd passed away. I also learned that the woman he introduced as his mother was actually his step-mother; his real mother passed away when he was 4. He prepared a dinner (his wife went to eat with friends) of spicy fish, scrambled eggs with a weed-like vegetable, and a coarse “red rice.” He explained it was rice from his own field, the kind that Han Chinese don’t like to eat. “They like to turn it into white rice, but I like it better this way.” We also drank this sort of clear whiskey, like Chinese baijiu, but much more foul tasting. Still we toasted with smiles. He then rolled out a mat for me to sleep on that night.

> The second wave of impressions hit me like this: Mr. Zhai said that a few nights ago 4 American women had stayed at his home for two nights. He was encouraging me to stay longer but I explained that I had to move on. He also said that he had seen me on the road earlier when he rode past on his motorcycle. First thought, “Oh that was you?” Second thought, “Oh you have a motorcycle?” Then his younger sister came in with her friends; she had just returned from “the big city” (Damenglong, not actually that big) with some new clothes and was showing them off. She and her friends could speak very clear and standard Mandarin; they study at the new school. I started to realize that Mr. Zhai, a simple farmer, was branching out into the hotel industry. I wondered if the details of his life were mentioned to invoke sympathy and a charitable donation. They may still very well be true, but he might not have otherwise mentioned them.

> These two opposing waves of impressions crashed together to leave me with the following conclusions: I’m glad that Mr. Zhai makes money from tourists. I’m even glad that in a year or two the road through Manpo and the region will likely bring loads of tourists who by that time will be greeted with gaudy hotels, souvenir kitsch, and staged ethnic dances. Sure, there’s a part of me that regrets this quiet rural village being turned into a tourist trap, but that part is the selfish traveler in me. Because life in Manpo and much of Xishuangbanna sucks, a lot. Besides the beautiful natural scenery, there wasn’t one thing there that made me want to stay longer than I had to. I didn’t find it quaint to visit poor villages, see smiling, filthy children, or meet brightly adorned, old women (who were probably only 30) bent under a load of vegetables. Because for me this was a vacation but for them it’s just life, every single day, until they die at around 50 or 60 years old. I’d rather see Manpo as a tourist hellhole instead of an impoverished one. Some might say that tourism will ruin the Bulang culture, and they’re probably right. But if adding a hospital to the village and teaching some basic hygiene (such as, after you cut up that raw chicken be sure to wash the knife before using it on those vegetables) ruins their culture then so be it. Others might say that I’m too set in my ways as a rich westerner to appreciate the simple tranquility of village life, and they would be right too. I couldn’t handle living in Manpo for the rest of my life, but it’s not because they lack a McDonalds. I really don’t know if I could work a field with only my hands and some basic tools, then live for the rest of the year off its yield. But I do know that I really don’t want to. So I was grateful for every swig of my bottled water, every photo taken with my digital camera, and especially for the seat on the bus that took me from Bulangshan (21 miles from Manpo) to the city of Jinghong. And by the way, I paid 10 RMB for the night and two meals at Mr. Zhai’s home.

Shelley will soon be moving to Shandong province where he will be the director (?) of a new English school there. He’s looking for teachers. Watch Sinosplice Jobs for more info soon.

Related: Sinosplice Yunnan pictures (including Xishuang Banna)

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John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.

Comments

  1. Great posts, John! I’m just beginning to learn Chinese and am planning a trip to the book store for some books suggested on your site. Count me in as a Sinosplice regular! Also, I do webhosting so I think I may join the AdoptaBlog project, though I’m not sure anyone can “identify” with my blog :(.

  2. Great post, very thought-provoking.

    Although, Xishuangbanna has been in the Lonely Planet for many years, which is usually a sign that it has already degenerated into tourist hell, but Jinghong and the few other places I visited down there look nothing like a tourist destination. Jinghong has a few small Western cafes in one small corner of town, but it’s really just a pleasant little city, very ordinary, quite nice. Ganlanba has its Daizu Ethnic Culture Park (or whatever they call that place) and arseholes trying to get every toursit into their bloody tricycles for the (10 minute walk) trip from the bus stop to the park, but it’s still very much just a shitty little rural town.

    I have my doubts that Xishuangbanna will ever become a tourist hell like Lijiang. I can see the benefits to it staying the way it is, but I don’t want to condemn the people there to a life of poverty.

    I agree, Xishuangbanna is a beautiful place, but apart from Jinghong, I can’t think of any place there I’d want to live.

    Ain’t no easy answers in this world.

  3. I completely agree with Chris. For all the attention it gets, Xishuangbanna is still ridiculously low-key and quiet. Jinghong is one of the most laidback little cities in China.

    Lijiang was fine when I was there, but I heard from some friends that a few days after Spring Festival it became absolute hell, aka Charge of the Tour Groups.

  4. juicy

  5. Interesting perspective. Though my experience was pretty similar to Shelley’s but i had a much better impression of Xishuang Banna than anyone else so far (including the friends i was travelling with, who have since left but i’m still here).

    I was amazed that in the villages i went to, only a few people had even made it to Jinghong. Forget about overseas trips of even going to the nation’s capital. They also told me that village life was boring, but then again it’s also with much less stress or superficiality as you’d find in the west or the more developed Chinese cities, where everyone has dreams of making a fortune only to live a pretty miserable life scraping a living which I hope turns out better for them in the future.

    As one man told me in Jinghong, who was just fishing with his friend in the Mekong also with nothing better to do, “Shanghai’s big and expensive. No work means no food. In Banna no work but can always have food”. Don’t know how true it is, but from my experience the poor people here live better lives than the poor people in the other parts of China.

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