The View From Here: Two weeks in China

As I sit in the Beijing airport wishing I could find a Star Trek transporter to take me home in less time than my plane will, I realize that I have been keeping a blog of sorts for my family, and perhaps a few friends might enjoy it as well (just in case you have insomnia or a desire to revalue your highly progressed sanitation systems). I was in China for a bit over two weeks. The first working on a Quest for and the second a mix of personal travel and a visit to a remote village with our “fellows,” young people who are trained by Leaders’ Quest to bridge the rural/urban divide in China. Enjoy!


And so it begins…

Week one, the Quest in China is over. I met countless business leaders, toured auto factories, and met bankers, doctors, local artists and NGO leaders. I facilitated more discussions than I can imagine and did the usual coaching sessions on the bus. But the highlights for me:


Sunday: I did Tai Chi in the park with a master and his blind pupils who performed better than me.! I learned to make dumplings in a traditional houtong – and went to the Forbidden City for the first time since I was there when my son was 5 ( to put that in context he is now a full-time executive!). It’s the only place in Beijing that has not changed. There is a Starbucks at Tiananmen Square.

Monday: Met a Chinese doctor who diagnosed a participant’s psychology by listening to her pulse for ten minutes while we watched. She was totally freaked out. He was proud as it was his “first western body.” Of course the remedy – tea and Tai Chi. In the evening we had a Leaders’ Quest 10th anniversary party, 80 guests. I knew 50. Guess I have more Chinese friends than I realized.

Tuesday: Spent the night sleeping three in a bed in the home of a Chinese peasant farmer after meeting with the fellows that we support through our foundation, stayed up late with the farmers and Quest participants watching the stars, drinking wine and telling off-color jokes about marriage that somehow translated across cultures. When I arrived, an organic farmer in the middle of a field asked me if I could get his son into MIT. Don’t underestimate the ambition of the Chinese!

Wednesday: I explored the modern art galleries and ate real Peking duck and flew to Chongqing which now has 32 million people and ate hot pot dinner in a restaurant where everyone is called ‘comrade’ and the Chinese revolution is now a marketing scheme.


Thursday: I spent the morning with students in a second-tier university in a third-tier city (to use the local jargon) and found that their English was better than mine and their questions included how to handle conflict of interests in business and how to have a happy marriage. In the hilly city of Chongqing, men from the rural countryside come to the city and carry peoples’ belongings in baskets balanced on a pole that they put on their shoulders. Some of our group asked these men to tea. They asked us about how the foreign financial crisis was effecting our business as it was surly affecting theirs! I saw the social housing project that is China’s model for affordable homes and sat on the seat where Bush, Clinton and Kissinger sat when they came to this “secret” (read “mile long”) area of homes. I also saw the model penthouse with a private pool that is the fashion for the new middle class. We had dinner in a private club where the calligraphy brushes were made of cheese and the plants were actually canapés and then we had foot massages in co-ed but private rooms – however the definition of foot goes from toe to ear.

Friday: I saw a dancing dog, a monkey on a leash, I met a living Buddha (and he was loving the chocolates we gave him and he took more pictures of us than we took of him), I danced on the stage of a Chongqing nightclub with an NGO leader from Thailand, a private equity advisor from England, the head of all British Airways pilots and the woman in charge of muffins for Starbucks.

In the end, on a mountain top, after meeting the living Buddha our group shared what they learned from the week. China of course but lots of great comments on challenging expectations about people – not the least of which was about each other. People realized the suffering of others and the inequities in the world. They also realized how important friendship and laughter is.

I finally slept this morning and now am flying to Yunnan province. Traveling with Laura “the Brit” who is moving from Seattle to Australia as she shifts from running food strategy for Starbucks to strategy for Qantas airlines, and Philip the Buddhist from Chengdu.
While Yunnan province is “rural” as in agricultural, it’s hardly as rural as the farming area I stayed in just three hours off the highway from Beijing during the Quest. This is a beautiful region with the landscapes that inspire tacky (and fine) Chinese scrolls and the homes are sturdy and large, not like the caves shared by family and hogs outside of Chongqing last year or the peasants sleeping three and four to a bed like where I stayed last Tuesday.

The towns I have visited in the last three days are known for snow-capped mountains, lakes with lovely boats and a huge pick up/disco scene. Imagine serene sights by day and Tibetan karaoke by night. This region is where Chinese travel for holiday. It’s kind of a wacky lifestyle and while I would hardly say I am roughing it, an old fashioned sit down toilet and some heat would be good. I have had more variations of Chinese food than I can imagine and I may just start to crave a bland piece of fish.

It’s been colorful, loud and very smelly – did I mention cold? I was traveling with the very spirited food strategist from Starbucks who has been great fun. We even find a coffee factory here and that was a trip. Watch out for changes in the Starbucks near you.

I am now traveling alone (briefly) to Guiyang where I will meet my LQ partner and dear pal Kenzie and go up to Leishan mountain town tonight and onto the Miao village tomorrow where along with some other local pals, we will join the Miao new year’s celebration that happens every 13 years. I have been to this village before and can attest to its tradition and remoteness – or at least that was the case two years ago but in China things change fast!
The minority groups I came to Yunnan to see this weekend are only in traditional dress at the market – where I went yesterday – but these last three days have been more a cultural lesson in China does Miami or Yellowstone than it has been on preserving the sovereignty of minorities (though I have learned that creating these resort towns is the way to generate alternative income other than rice and corn and thus preserve minorities…)

While I may have come seeking the exotic, the exotic was me! I have not seen another Caucasian since I left Chongqing and English is barely in evidence (hence total dependency on my pal and guide Philip).
I have had internet access up until now but as we go up to the Miao’s that will likely change. Or not as this is China. And everything is possible and everything “depends.”

It took us 3.5 hours from the Guiyang airport to get to Leishan. That was in part due to a missed exit, the fact that the Chinese only put exits where there are towns, the towns are an hour apart and while I endured the driver trying to drive backwards a couple yards on the highway in the dark, when he tried to turn around and drive in the wrong direction on the road I lost it. Fortunately Kenzie agreed it was suicide and told him we would pay extra to drive in the right direction.

We arrived late but in time for hot pot and a climb up five flights of stairs to my room that of course has no heat but does have a mah-jongg table! Kenzie and I have beds but as its new year’s, it appears that the fellows were too late to find some. Tomorrow we all stay in the farmer’s house but tonight we are in “town” as the big parade is tomorrow. Everyone is up partying in this town which two years ago had nothing and now is being discovered as a tourist place (domestic tourist that is so still not much toilet paper, beds or heat – see above). Alas. China only “looks” civilized in places.

And now. Bed. Heavy drinking out of bowls tomorrow.

New Years’ Eve

Most extraordinary on multiple levels. The Miao community of course, traveling with 18 people of whom 15 are twenty-something year olds (our fellows) and all the youthful exuberance that goes with it, a different experience of the Chinese domestic travel “market,” the sheer beauty of the land, the fresh food we are eating, the chance to stay in farmers homes, the challenge of sanitation and cold and the effort to stay sober when double bowls of rice wine appear at each interaction.

There continues to be no Caucasians and as Kenzie and I are the “elders” we are quite spoiled – our bags carried, front seats etc. I have never heard or seen so many firecrackers and fireworks as I did tonight – a combo of war zone noise and beauty. I joined a Miao couple and their extended family for dinner – we bought and carried in the beer and live chickens. Hard to imagine any way a Westerner would get access like this. The fellows are brilliant kids who left jobs in accounting and advertising and architecture to better understand rural life. They are very thoughtful and fun to be with.

The Miao farm and more Miao New year

The lights are out because soon enough the roosters will be up and so will we. Today was a wild mix of tradition and modernity. There are a number of Miao villages and I have returned to the one I visited two years ago. This Miao village which LQ first started visiting in 2006 when it had no road now with the focused efforts of Action Aid and the Leaders’ Quest fellows, has a road, women who are more confident speaking up in the village and out to strangers and domestic violence has reduced.

Nowadays the women tell each other if their husband is beating them and all the ladies confront the man and tell him if he does it again they will all come into his house (and then he will have to kill a hog to feed them – after all you have to take care of your guests). The Miao are sweet but uneducated and the men didn’t know it was wrong. The Miao people have thrived with the development assistance they have received. The community organizer is now a party member and soon the village will have solar panels. Since I was here in 2009 you can’t believe the difference. That’s the bittersweet part.

You can see that China is “discovering” the Miao or shall we say re-valuing them. As a result there were intense traffic jams going up the mountains today as family members and a few domestic tourists poured into town to join the festivities. Animals – alive and dead – came out of car trunks and people in heavy costume careened through pot holes almost knocking over men and women walking along the hill road with sticks on their shoulders balancing the chickens. We were guests of a different family today as our fellows are well-respected in the village. We were readily integrated into family festivities after our breakfast of New Year’s buns cooked this morning by the farmer’s wife.

The remains of last night’s firecrackers left what almost looked like a rose petal path along the road. When we entered our hosts’ home we were greeted with a hanging pig head and incense burning. We then ate sticky rice with our hands and silently ate our pork slices balanced on our wrist (so not to offend the ancestors to whom the pig was offered). I faked what I could as I can tell you even for pork eaters this was not appealing.

Every generation was there and while the middle aged wear silver crowns and breast plates the elderly wear towels on their heads. I wonder when one makes the switch. The next generation wore leggings with their silver crowns and the kids are on computers but the village shares a common pit in the ground as a toilet and we all ate food made in a communal wok powered by giant coal tablets.

You have to do everything twice so we had two lunches in two different rooms and each toast means you drink twice – and there are lots of toasts. After lunch, there was a family picture. Of course we were in it! We had after dinner wine and discussed urban/rural challenges with the men before buying out all the scarves from the women’s cooperative in town (run by an LQ fellow in full costume).

Ah yes, as we are 18 traveling together we are riding the local bus to town-life chickens, hog legs on sticks and me. Somehow I ended up with a press pass to the parade in Leishan which was the tourist effort for those who had no access to the real celebration we just came from. Great costumes and people watching but it made me appreciate what I had been invited to experience first-hand.

For dinner we had our 6th Hot pot meal since arriving in the hills and at my request it was at a restaurant that does not serve dog. Boy, the Chinese like to eat, but cutting everything into small pieces means it goes a long way. I would however kill for a chair with a back that was higher than a stool.

The growing boys and girls in our gang insisted that following dinner we stop for street food at the “potato lady.” She served some odd pancake with cloves, French fries and “your grandmother’s potatoes” which did in fact taste like my grandmother’s potato kugel. Given that plus the New Year’s tradition of drinking out of a ram’s horn, Kenzie and I are further convinced that Jews and Chinese are much more related than most think. Just look at the focus on food (and don’t look at the difference in hip size).

The “kids” with us are great, they call me Auntie Mel – most were my translators in the past and they are all LQ fellows. They give me the best seat, fill my tea cup and carry my bags! Love this respect but it must mean I am getting old. After potatoes we went to the town square to join all the spontaneous dancing. A walk along the river and then another local bus to the farm where we hiked (in the dark) to a (real) old lady’s home and she tried to sell us embroidery.

It’s party time now in our corn storage loft cum bedroom and the many other visitors are smoking and drinking more. In my communal room its freezing so I am under the blanket typing and will now hit send and say good night!

Last day in the village and on to Guiyang then Beijing and home

Shame on me for trying to sleep with two blankets, two is too much and they could not balance on me so now my feet are sticking out and the broken window over my bed is still blowing cold air on my face. Woke up in the night thinking that farm land always reminds us to take what we need, and use everything for something if you can. Maybe I was trying too hard to be warm, taking too much or maybe I would have woken up anyway as there is a racket of rooster noise joined by what sounds like disco music although when I try make out the words I realize they are Chinese and what’s more there are hundreds of people pouring in for the town dance, but first noodles – lots of them and we share these abundant noodles in a big room on the farm where everyone carries their thermoses and fills them up with teas and various potions as there is a tea for everything that ails you. Thank goodness Kenzie brought me packets of Nescafe. I can stand no shower, an outside toilet pit and the cold but this lack of coffee thing is really a challenge. Just try going to a Chinese pharmacy and asking for something for your headache (I have one from lack of caffeine). It’s like going to a psychoanalyst’s session, they want to know the cause and a headache could stem from many reasons!

It’s really sunny today so we go for a walk through the paddy fields and sit on the covered bridge. Since we all have so many questions, one of our fellows Liu Yan who is part Miao and who has learned more about her heritage as an LQ fellow than she did from her family gives us an impromptu lecture. Liu Yan grew up in the city but joined our fellowship to learn more about rural life-and to connect with her past. She explains that there are long skirt Miao tribes and short skirt tribes. The short skirts have a harder life, live higher in the hills. I ask why they have short skirts and she explains that it is to attract the strongest men. I then ask how they can tell which men are stronger and such a story unfolds! It appears that the Miao women at age 16 start sleeping with various men trying out partners until they find the one that is the best. If they get pregnant it is aborted through a special drug administered by the town elder. Why? Well you don’t know who the father is do you? Once you pick your husband and have a child, the first child is like the ‘throw away’ you still can’t be certain that it is pure so it is given less inheritance and the smaller room in the house. Yes, I did ask about venereal disease and was told that in fact they don’t have as much as the long skirt Miaos who are living closer to the urban areas where the men go into town for work and bring back AIDS. Long skirts and short skirt Miaos have quite the rivalry and they don’t intermarry. They would sooner marry a Han (the majority tribe).

The Miaos have been very open to us but the story is that the first LQ fellow five years ago that went to work in the village was made very drunk and then carried to the mountain top – the locals did not trust him. Now of course he boasts that he never cooks a meal as they all value the teaching he has done for their children – most importantly teaching them to not be afraid and in fact to be excited by learning. By contrast the Miaos we have encountered are so hospitable they don’t even seem to ask why I am in their home, they just start feeding you (kind of like my Aunt Roz). They also can be quite punishing and believe in witchcraft. I am told that a driver violated the rules (of what I don’t know) and witchcraft was done to him (by the benevolent women) and he lost his ability to speak (an LQ fellow vouches for seeing this). He had to find someone to lift the spell. I wonder if he was the same driver who tried to drive backwards on the road from Guiyang to Leshan the other night, if so he clearly did not learn his lesson.

In the international rule of boys and girls, as Liu Yan gets excited sharing her knowledge the boyfriend of one of the fellows who was traveling with us jumps up and in a very animated way starts a debate about the ‘impossibility’ of the Dong’s claim (another minority group) that they have a secret medicine that you take when pregnant to insure that you have a boy and a girl child (the minorities can have two even though at the time of this writing there is a one child policy). I needed no interpretation to see my son in this young man. Whether he was accurate was immaterial, he just required equal time if not more in the discussion and he commanded the stage. “Sammy” was essentially dancing with hand language to make his points and the girls were getting frustrated as they had lots of stories to share about their field work. What interrupted us was more music from the hills, this time it sounded like flutes and bagpipes. In fact it was a Miao wedding processional marching through the fields. So much silver body decoration (well actually white copper I am told). After riotous picture taking, exhausted we returned for … hotpot (of course) cooked by the farmer. I have had multiple hot pots over the last two weeks but never the same ingredients or taste and each time we warm our stomachs with the soup then put in the food, boil and dig in with chopsticks cleaned in (!?!?). After noodles everyone pulls some surprise treat from their bag – oranges, giant pamillos, little bags of chocolate, and of course various forms of digestive aids made from any one of a number of Chinese herbs but in candy form.

Another walk through the fields while the young guys from the tribe make as much noise with their motorbikes as possible. So much for serenity, they want their macho modernity. The farm we are sleeping in (which is a different place than the mountain town we went to for New Year’s) is China’s foray into agro tourism and the Miao villagers all share in the profit. They fought the government’s desire to take over the village and make it a heritage site. Thank goodness they did. My experience in Yunnan was that when the government “preserves” the minority culture they create a homogenous domestic tourist Disneyland along with fast food yak meat in multiple forms – yes, bite-sized pieces wrapped in foil, a favorite of said son noted above. I have a few packets in my suitcase.

Over lunch the fellows share their stories, why they chose to join the Leaders’ Quest Foundation program – as I mentioned, they were architects, accountants, junior advertising executives and yet each, growing up with some privilege in the city had a desire to understand their country’s agricultural roots, recognizing that when Mao sent intellectuals to the countryside there was a rationale as we all must learn what it means to make something from our own hands and to connect our survival with the earth. They are smart, passionate and very grateful to have found a community of ‘dreamers’ – other young people who also envision a future for China that is not based on a rush to consumption. Not all their peers back in the city agree with their choice to work for a year in the rural villages but they adore our local foundation leader Lan Ying (also traveling with us) who is truly the pied piper of both rural villagers and urban university graduates and the fellows benefit from the training LQ provides that enables them to see themselves as leaders and agents of change in the rural communities. Most are very modest about their accomplishments. Although we might call someone a catalyst when they teach the kids (the future generation) of a village to collect the garbage and respect the beauty of the environment by keeping it clean, they simply see themselves as doing their job. They tease me and say in American it would be “awesome, amazing, extraordinary, great,” for them it’s “decent.”

Kenzie and I hated to leave but our “kids” carried their “Aunties’” belongings to our truck and we drove the bumpy road for 3.5 hours back to Guiyang where again, two years had made a massive difference. All the signs had English, the stores had brands that “looked like” famous ones from the States, KFC was everywhere and people drank lots and spoke loudly and smoked even more. The stores were over lit and all the muzak played extra loud. It was a city of “muchness” and in comparison to Chongqing, very immature. Since last year Chongqing had noticeably cleaned its air and lessened its traffic (all according to plan) while Guiyang seems to have taken the overflow from its neighbor. Staying my final night in the international chain Novotel was confusing. It did have windows that were sealed and toilets that flushed but the hot water was questionable and the drains didn’t work. Asking for a gin and tonic (Kenzie’s favorite) resulted in a fancy bottle of unidentified yellow liquid being produced. Kenzie jumped into coaching mode and led our eager bartender through the steps – actually finding a bottle of gin and creating our cocktails. A final dinner in a “fancy” place filled with smoke, with dirt on the floor, a waitress who could not figure out how to open a beer bottle and yes, another wedding. Hint – the brides wear red in China and they love flowers.

A few hours of sleep and now I am in Beijing airport having taken the early morning flight from Guiyang here. All the China flights ran on time but now Continental is delayed and Amex Platinum is not recognized in the business class lounge as promised. Hum … how organized are we Westerners after all? Rereading my notes from the past week one would think I am obsessed with toilets, caffeine, alcohol and heat… well come to think of it there’s nothing like a little travel to connect one to their priorities.