At the end of September a group of seven students from Princeton University’s China Bridge Year Program arrived in the remote village of Bangdong, perched on the slopes of the Upper Mekong River (澜沧江) valley in Lincang Prefecture in China’s southwestern Yunnan province.
Participants in the China Bridge Year Program are Princeton undergraduates who have deferred their first year of courses at the Princeton campus in order to experience China firsthand and get intensive Mandarin exposure by living with local families in Yunnan’s capital city, Kunming. The students also take part in additional shorter home-stays and service projects in rural areas of Yunnan.
Dali Bar Co-Founder Colin Flahive and Village Progress organized the students’ homestay and service project in Bangdong through contacts made from earlier work with village schools and health officials in the area.
Below is a reflection written by one of the 2016 Bridge Year China students, Nikhita Salgame, regarding her homestay experience in Bangdong.
Standing by the river, the Master declaimed, ‘How it flows on like this, never ceasing day and night!’
More like: Standing by our itinerary, we declaimed, “How it [this month of travel] flows on like this, never ceasing day and night!” In all seriousness, we had quite the nomadic first month here in China. Now, having been in Kunming for over two weeks, our slowly developing routines here stand in contrast to those packed four weeks.
I woke up to a loud “Chi fan!” (eat!) from my homestay mother, or Ayi, outside my bedroom door. It was the fifth day of our homestay in the small tea-farming community of Bangdong, where we’d be spending the next two weeks. The strong rays that shot in through the window upon lifting the curtain made it clear that today’s “shadow day,” during which we were to shadow a member of our families for the whole day, was not a candidate for cancellation as the last rainy shadow day had been. So after a breakfast of rice and numerous vegetable dishes, I trudged along behind my 54-year-old Shushu (homestay uncle), sheepishly recovering from a couple of slips on the dirt trail outside the home and emerging onto a sloping hill face of tea leaves. At first, it didn’t look too hard. I watched Shushu sling a bag over his shoulder, position himself in front of a tea shrub, and begin picking. So I did the same, until I realized that I had no idea what I was picking or how I was to pick it. I watched again for a couple minutes- he was picking the two leaves after the bud, right? The smallest 3 leaves? The youngest? I finally decided that proper technique would come only through observation, so I put on my baseball cap and awkwardly stood by him watching… And how his hands moved! In an almost mechanical fashion with slight disruptions to adjust body position, his hands snipped stems faster than our bus driver to Bangdong had whisked around oncoming traffic in the same lane. His pupils were connected the leaves with an invisible rope of efficiency. Both hands moved harmoniously, unruffled by mosquitos and external sounds. A couple minutes passed, and a bag was already quarter-filled!
For hours that day, I stood under the sun looking over at my Shushu’s fascinating skill. Time could not have moved any slower for me, and I’ll be honest, it took a lot of internal motivation for me to keep on attempting to pick that first day. But my Shushu was unfazed by the passage of time; not once did he look at a watch or his phone. The leaves in his bag, the rhythmic divisions of his picking- that was his clock, I soon learned.
That evening after dinner, I decided to sit next to him on the wooden table in the courtyard of the home. As opposed to my constantly smiling Ayi and energetic homestay brothers, my Shushu didn’t say much throughout my time there. The fluorescent light illuminated his wrinkles as he sat on his self-designated stool, facing away from me and towards the night sky. He alternated smoking from his cigarette bong and filling his cup of perfectly warm green tea that he drank (his two favorite nighttime activities). He didn’t move from there for two hours, occasionally opening to speak with family members but mostly fixated on the wood of the bong, the sky, or the tea. Just as it had earlier that day, time passed incredibly slowly for me watching this. I tried studying the Mandarin we’d learned that day and reading, but I couldn’t keep my eyes off of Shushu’s satisfaction doing ‘nothing’.
How could this be the same man that was so rapidly snapping stems only hours prior? In the fields, his time was a division of healthy, sellable leaves, but out here at night, it was regulated by bubbling water and thoughts. While I undoubtedly struggled with squatting toilets and language difficulties throughout our first month in China, I struggled more with the interaction of my dimension of time with those of the people whom we met. Confucius’ observation is a simple one, but it highlights a universal truth about flow- no matter its speed, it continues. We hiked for long hours over mountain passes, engaged in relaxed conservations with an unforgettable keeper of a guesthouse in Shaxi late at night, energetically shoved ourselves between townspeople on the back of a bouncing truck coming from a market in Bangdong, etc., and throughout all those experiences, we were really adjusting ourselves to paces of life.
We’re back in Kunming now, but as the river flows day and night, it’s odd to think that my Bangdong Shushu’s life will continue to do so as well. And so will those of all the faces we’ve encountered, each in their own respective manner. Perhaps you were only observing nature, but thanks for the lesson on the elusive nature of life, Confucius!