Monthly Archives: June 2011

Introduction to Luang Prabang, Laos (Days 3-4)

Visiting temples, of which there are many, in Luang Prabang. All photos courtesy of Ben Robinson.

So on June 20th, we flew from Vietnam,  a country with 86 million people to Luang Prabang, Laos, a city of 103,000.  Suffice it to say, our Southeast Asian excursion took a welcome slowing of pace toward lazy wandering through the deserted streets and temples, eating luxurious meals, and frolicking in some of the most gorgeous waterfalls around.  On day one, we hunted through sandalwood guest houses for our home for the week, finally setting on Sayo Xieng Mouane, which while a bit more expensive than some of the sparser digs, proved to be a wonderful choice, with its lush courtyard, friendly, helpful, and English-speaking owner, and rooms full of charm and character.  We bargained to $40 for two rooms for five people, and the owner saved us a considerable bit (and hassle, I suspect) on both of our out-of-town excursions. We ate a leisurely lunch that day at Morning Glory Cafe (excellent curries, and breakfast that we came back again and again for), and dined on street food, while hunting around for souvenirs at the Hmong Night Market.

Emily and I examine handicrafts displayed by locals at the Hmong Night Market.

Speaking of excursions, the next day, June 21st, we took a private van through the countryside, dotted with water buffalos amongst rice terraces and mountains 30 km out of town, to the large waterfall that can only be described as enchanting. We expected the waterfalls to be kitschy, given the caged bears at the entrance, but once inside we were entranced by the glowing blue waters, the rope swing swimming area, and the large waterfall at the top.  We hiked up to the top of the large fall, taking the road less-traveled, and only finding the stairs on the way down.  It was a perfect mix of amateur and challenging hiking–my husband acquired a leach at the top in the jungle waters, but the rest of us emerged unscathed!  Tips for other travelers: we paid 50,000 kip per person ($1=8000 kip) for a private van to and fro the falls, but there’s an additional entrance fee at 20,000 per person.  We arrived fairly early in the morning, and were the only ones at the popular swimming hole with the rope swing, but by the time we came back through, it had become a crusty backpacker’s playground.  Food was all outside the waterfall park, so either grab a sandwich on the way in or pack one.

Unforgettable beauty.

In the evening, Emily and I went for foot massages at the popular, Lotus on the main street, which was heavenly, and later met the guys at the Lao Lao Garden for barbecue and towers of beer, a great way to begin our time in this tiny town.

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Nanning–>Hanoi (First two days)

I left an abbreviated itinerary of our trip a couple weeks ago, and because we were enjoying ourselves so much, I didn’t get to posting anything until now that we’ve returned from our ten-day trip to Vietnam and Laos.

I’m starting with the highlights of the first two days (June 18-19), during which we traveled from Nanning to Hanoi. Then onto Luang Prabang, Laos (June 20-24), and I’ll do another couple of posts on the second half of the trip, which included Hanoi and Halong Bay, Vietnam.

First photo is by the amazing Ben Robinson, of which there are more to come!  If you’re looking for the UNESCO tour or the historic sites, you won’t find them in this travelogue.  My friends and I were and are much more concerned with food and fun than anything else, but please don’t hesitate to ask me about our trip, happy to share, as it was wonderful, albeit too short!

Our motley crew boarding the overnight train in Nanning, China, en route to Hanoi, Vietnam.

June 18-19: Overnight Train from Nanning to Hanoi, 6:45 pm- 5:15 am:  We took the soft sleeper from Nanning to Hanoi, which I would recommend- it’s cheap (228 yuan/$35/person), comfortable (we had one cabin to ourselves because there were 5 of us [there are 4 to a cabin], so we were able to blast our soundtrack to the trip- Robyn, LCD Soundsystem, MGMT– play cards, etc. to our content), and quick.

The only problem was, it was a little too quick!

Whereas everyone told us we would arrive around 7:00 am, our nearly empty train squealed into Hanoi around 5:15 am, making it difficult for us, in our sleepy stupor, to determine how badly the cab drivers circling at Gia Lam station were ripping us off.  Although we eventually did get them to use the meter, they took us on an unnecessary tour of Hanoi en route to our hotel, which resulted in twice the price the fare should have cost.  In the end, we paid 222,000 dong per taxi, where we should have paid 100,000 (around $5), so not a huge inconvenience.  We stayed at the Hanoi Ideal Hotel, which I wouldn’t recommend, although they did let us check in early at that ungodly hour!

Bridge over Hoan Kiem Lake in Hanoi, Vietnam.

June, 19: Our introduction to Hanoi:  The hotel was, however, in an ideal location, just off Hoan Kiem Lake.  We dropped our bags, grabbed a tasty bowl of noodles for breakfast (a version of pho, I think, but much more tomato, assorted tofu and meatballs, and wonderful herb grab-basket), and wandered around the lake, where on a Sunday morning it seemed all of Hanoi was either running, doing tai chi, lining up for back rubs (a group of old women would stand in line and then switch directions!), or dancing.

We didn’t last very long, due to our early start, but after a nap until noon, we headed out for an unremarkable lunch on what we thought was Cha ca food street, and off to the swirling, buzzing streets of Hanoi, lined with souvenirs and art galleries.  We stopped for an iced tea with lime alongside the locals, squatting by St. Joseph’s Cathedral, and buying donuts from a little old woman peddler who grinned and giggled as she tried to rip us off, holding onto our change!  Finally, we headed on foot to the French Quarter and located tiny, smoky Cong Caphe, where we had our first Vietnamese coffee revelation, sipping the strong brew with sweet and condensed milk.

Iced coffee Vietnam-style, with sweet and condensed milk.

For dinner, we took a page out of the Lonely Planet, dining at 69 Bar and Restaurant, which was loaded with tourists, clearly catering to Westerners in price and decor.  Still, the decor was mesmerizing (it’s set in a historic building, with a lovely loft, and aged wood), and the food quite good- we ordered spring rolls, sea bass in banana leaves, chili beef with lemon grass, and sipped on Tiger draughts.

Iconic Hanoi: the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum.

Vietnam and Laos in Ten Days

We’ve had a fabulous week in Nanning with our friends, and now it’s off to Vietnam and Laos for the adventure of a lifetime! Because of our time constraints, we’ll be hitting Central Laos and Northern Vietnam and won’t be able to do the rest of these countries. I’ll share our rough itinerary and if I have a chance to update it along the way, I will. We’re doing it on the cheap, so I’ll include some price info for those who are interested. Of course, it can be done cheaper, if you have all the time in the world, and unfortunately for us, we don’t!

First step: Getting our Vietnam visas. We got double entry and had to wait two days for pickup in Nanning, 500 yuan ($77) a piece.

Saturday, June 18: Soft overnight sleeper train from Nanning to Hanoi. Tickets were 228 yuan ($35), and supposedly we’ll be be woken up in the middle of the night at the border. Not looking forward to that, but with friends, the journey is less arduous, for sure.

Sunday, June 19: Arrive Hanoi, spend a day and a night in the city.

Bicyclists in Hanoi.

Monday, June 20-June 24: Fly from Hanoi to Luang Prabang, Laos, and spend the next four days in Laos. We found roundtrip tickets on Vietnam Airlines for $300 a piece, which seems pricey, but was a lot better than the going rates we saw (it’s not even worth posting how much money this is in Vietnamese dong since they have the most inflated currency in the world!). We also read in guidebooks that booking flights from within Vietnam would be more expensive. The idea here is to make the most of Laos, and then backtrack. We’re looking forward to checking out Luang Prabang, perhaps doing a slow boat tour, and some hiking.

Waterfalls just outside of Luang Prabang.  Photo by Ben Robinson.
Waterfalls just outside of Luang Prabang. Photo by Ben Robinson.

June 24-28: Arrive back in Hanoi in the afternoon, and spend another half day nearby. We’re hoping to book a cruise on Halong Bay for the next 1-2 nights, which we’ve heard great things about. This is the boat we’re looking at.

Floating along in Halong Bay, Northern Vietnam.

June 28-29: Overnight train back to Nanning. Total travel from Nanning: $447. We’ll let you know if it’s worth it!

Playing Hosts in Nanning

Our new home here in China, the southwestern city of Nanning, and capital of the Guangxi Autonomous Region, gets a bad rap in the Lonely Planet Guide. More specifically,

“Nanning is a hard city to really love. It’s got disturbing urban sprawl, no major sites, and even worse, doesn’t inspire the kind of enthusiasm among locals that sometimes wins over visitors…” (p. 641).

Ouch! The guide does go onto mention that the locals are actually quite friendly, and it’s a great place to sort your visa to Vietnam, but that’s about it. As for us, we’re happy to be hosting our first visitors this weekend, and a bit more enamored with the city than the folks at Lonely Planet.  Here are some of the features we’ve learned to love:

    • The Green City: This is Nanning’s nickname, and despite the urban sprawl that Chinese cities are known for, tropical Nanning’s major highways are lined with palm trees and lush vegetation. We live on the main artery through town (Minzu Dadao), and at either end are bodies of water.  At one, the expansive Nanhu Lake with its equally expansive and impressive park along the lake, and on the other, the Yong River, with its river boats and quaint stretches of farm land along the banks that resemble what I picture as Vietnam (I’ll tell you when I get there at the end of the month).
    • We’ve been to the Botanical Garden mentioned in the Lonely Planet, way outside the city and not worth the jacked up price (65 yuan a head!), although we did see some impressive butterflies and spiders. There’s also Qingxiu Shan Scenic Area, but I think time is best spent in Nanning walking along the rivers and parks that surround the bodies of water and taking in what really keeps this city’s air clean and makes it beautiful- the greenery, or as the locals say, lv hua (绿化).
A photo of Nanhu bridge, Nanhu lake, and the park area, just down the street from our apartment.
  • Food, of course!  Although the food in Nanning is know for being pretty qingdan (清淡), or bland, we love to eat and lunch on both the local staple, guilin mifen, and some of the out-of-province food, like the big plate of chicken at our local hui minority restaurant. Yes, Nanning is known for dog delicacies, but we haven’t felt compelled to try them!  We’ve also got a great dimsum place as Nanning is full of Cantonese-speaking peoples, and one of our personal local food favorites is Chinese fried corn (or literally “drunken ghost corn,” 酒鬼玉米).
My husband slurping down of bowl of Guilin mifen here in Nanning.
  • The people: Nanning people are warm and friendly, even if their Mandarin is notoriously hard to understand. There’s good reason for that given that many of them are Zhuang, Baihua, or Pinghua speakers, but what they lack in clarity (to my ear anyway), they make up for in charm. It’s a common site in China to see grandfathers cradling babies, older women line dancing in the square with uncanny synchronism, and Nanning is no exception to these.
  • The southern way of life here is relaxed- people take 1-2 hour naps in the hot afternoon wherever they are, right on the street, or in front of the pork they are selling at the market. People chat on street corners, laugh, show up late, and genuinely enjoy life. Because many people have migrated to the city from the rural Guangxi countryside, they are new to traffic, elevators, and modern conveniences. They are humble people who work hard, and are kind to those they meet.

I hope our friends will not find Nanning so hard to love when they come.  We certainly haven’t found it so.  What do you think?

Twenty-first Century Fieldwork

Malinowski in the field

A lot has changed for anthropologists in the field since the days of Malinowski and Evans-Pritchard, and mostly in a good way.  With the advent of internet technology and cell phones, it’s virtually (pun-intended) impossible for us to feel isolated, perhaps most saliently evidenced by my ability to post this blog entry from China.  There are a lot of great things about not being the only foreign tent in an isolated village, but there are also unique challenges that come with twenty-first century fieldwork.

For instance, while it’s comforting to confide one’s experiences of cultural clash with other foreigners, it’s also difficult to know how to balance these respites with both cultural sensitivity and cultural immersion.  As an anthropologist, I feel particularly sensitive to the rants we foreigners are known for in China, which include a running commentary ranging from disdain for Chinese etiquette and hygiene, to broader critiques such as China’s senseless traffic patterns, antiquated education philosophy, and of course, corrupt politics.  What’s difficult in these conversations is that I am having my own experience of being a foreigner, and I resonate with some of these reactions, but I’m also a believer in cultural relativism, and a student of culture, who wants to seek to understand cultural ideologies and systems before I form any sort of moral critique.  But my fellow expats aren’t going to wait a year for me to make an informed critique-they’ve got one right now, and if I’m going to be a good friend, I’ve got to lend a sympathetic ear!

Additionally, sometimes I worry that the frequent stepping in and out of  total cultural immersion that spending time with other foreigners threatens to disturb my genuine experience of Chinese culture altogether.  Ultimately, however, I know that all these experiences are genuine ones of living and doing fieldwork in China, and no navigation of them, whatever the practice or the conviction, will produce “perfect” results.  The difficulty is to get beyond the pursuit of perfection, live in a way that is true to myself and my academic training, and find a way to balance the beauties and the challenges of twenty-first century fieldwork.

If you’ve done fieldwork in the twenty-first century or live in a foreign country, what are your challenges with cultural immersion and cultural sensitivity, and how do you navigate them?

Bilingual Babies and the Culture Complex

We had dinner the other evening with a couple from Hong Kong who have adopted two kids from China, and are raising them in Mandarin-speaking China, speaking Cantonese in the home, and sending them to a school where classes are taught in English.  Their children actually inhabit a trilingual world, and in the highly competitive Asian academic context, their mother was concerned about how the challenge of learning three languages is effecting their ability to speak even one fluently, let alone the acquisition of other formative study and life skills for the future.

Now I’m not a child psychologist or early education expert, but my interest in early language acquisition, bilingual education, and cultural ideologies of early education has been piqued by a slew of recent articles about adoptive children’s language acquisition, bilingual brain power, and bilingual babies. Many of these recent studies tout children’s impressive ability to distinguish between languages even when they are preverbal, and later efficiently multitask, because they frequently access two cognitive systems at once. While there is a small delay for children who are adopted, it’s hard to say whether that delay is a function of orphanage environments and trauma (I think, likely), abrupt transition in language environment, a combination thereof, or other factors.

When it comes to language learning, Americans have come a long way from the ethnocentrist assumptions of the 1950s, which presumed bilingualism would produce a delay in language acquisition and harm children’s learning curve. And yet, when it comes to the cultural delivery of early education, it seems our prejudices still remain indignant and rigid.

I’m fascinated by Joseph Tobin‘s “Preschool in Three Cultures” Study, which compares early education environments in Japan, China, and the U.S..  It was first published in 1991, and then recently repeated and reissued in 2007. In related articles on early education, Tobin draws on a wide variety of cultural experiences in Chinese, Japenese, and French classrooms to question the basic tenants of our educational ideology in the United States, and posit that children, being prepared for corresponding cultural environments, tend to do quite well despite wide-ranging early educational experiences.

Take a moment to read about some of the classroom experiences in China and Japan and question your own assumptions about the best learning environments. Then, take a look at some of his anthropological conclusions and let me know your thoughts!

Things I’m Looking Forward to About Summer

Summer is almost upon us, and here in Nanning that translates to even hotter, even more humid weather.  Being a student at almost age 30 is mostly weird and a little embarrassing, but it means I get to enjoy a certain amount of child-like freedom in the summer, and my heart still leaps a little when June hits.  Here’s my rundown of what I’m looking forward to this summer, punctuated by a trip to East Asia, a slew of visitors, and a jaunt in Hong Kong:

  1. “Southeast Asia or Bust!”  Some good friends, my husband, and I planned to rendezvous in South Africa last summer for the World Cup.  When that didn’t come to fruition, we adopted the following slogan, and this summer, from our respective homes in Egypt, the U.S., and China, we’ll unite for a couple weeks to travel Vietnam and Laos.  Our itinerary is still very much fluid, so if you have some suggestions, please feel free to comment.
  2. We’re going to have visitors!  Of course, trips around China, means visitors to look forward to, and besides our good friends, we’ll have Evan’s parents out in mid-July, and plan to take them to Shanghai, Xi’An, and Beijing.
  3. Third Annual Nanjing Summer English Exchange:  Last summer Evan and I participated in the second annual Summer English Exchange put on by the Jiangsu Christian Council and The Outreach Foundation in Nanjing.  We’re looking forward to heading back at the beginning of July to see our good pastor friends that we met last summer, reconnect, and of course, practice our Chinese, while they practice their English.  The exchange takes place over ten days and includes about twenty American and twenty Chinese participants.
  4. Hong Kong:  I’ll be doing a couple weeks of archival research in Hong Kong in August, which will be a nice break from life on the mainland.  Not only does Hong Kong have some really impressive libraries, but it has been one of our favorite places to visit, for its food and modern conveniences!

On China and Reform

My husband and I were chatting with his parents this morning about our observations about China and the future. After living here for almost a year, and studying China for several years, I have my own humble opinions about how China can continue it’s astronomic growth into the future. If you’re interested, my suggestions for reform are as follows:

  1. Development of rural areas:  Over thirty years ago when China began its march into modernity, rural farmers were told that the development of the urban areas in China would come by their personal and familial sacrifice, and one day their hard work would be repaid. Today these farmers maintain notoriously poor, subsistence farming on menial plots of land, using antiquated technology, dangerous pesticides, and sell their harvest for little profit to sugar mills, and other factories, who are managed by corrupt elites.  While the national government has invested heavily in free trade zones, which bolster profitable foreign factories in the large cities, they have only just begun to build housing for rural farmers, and health care and education remain poor.  But the answer is not this drop in the bucket, aid and social services for poor farmers, but a relocation of industry and investment to the countryside, that would draw and sustain investment and labor.  While it it true that an agricultural revolution in China, like the one in the states, would ultimately eliminate jobs for many people, investment in all sectors of these village communities would raise the standard of living and create jobs fro China’s rural people.  As it stands, the economic inequality between urban citizens and rural citizens creates an imbalance that China cannot socially afford.  Additionally, families are being torn apart by the unprecedented migration by rural farmers into the cities, parents living apart from and  leaving their children to be raised by grandparents, and returning only once a year during spring festival.
  2. Development of skilled labor:   While recent statistics from China’s 2010 census suggest the gap between rural and urban residence has leveled, these statistics reflect the movement of farmers into urban factories and college students to the cities, and don’t reflect the hardship these temporary workers face, including low wages, an inability to break into the middle class, and provide a better life for their families.  When it comes to college students, their fate following graduation is almost as precarious with unemployment at an all-time high and a severe lack of skilled-labor jobs for the record number of university graduates.  In short, China needs to revamp its education system, creating a culture of independent thinking and investment, that will lead to a revolution in industry, that will create a majority of skilled labor jobs for their numerous college graduates, and raise wages for its factory workers and other unskilled laborers.  This shift will be both dramatic and difficult in that it makes China less reliant on foreign investment (something they need in the long term and definitely want overall), but it’s definitely necessary, in that it’s no secret that factories are experiencing a labor shortage, and high school and college students are increasingly disillusioned about the value of education in China today.
  3. Reform the hukou system:  One of the challenges to the type of rural and industrial reform I’m suggesting is the hukou system, an internal passport system that assigns local registration to Chinese citizens and makes migration, as well as, arguably, self-development, difficult.  Under the current system, it is exceedingly complicated for rural citizens to temporarily or permanently legally relocate to cities to work, and nearly impossible for them to bring their children with them and enroll in better schools and take advantage of opportunities offered in the prosperous cities that would allow for a better future for their families.  Now the hukou system prevents mass migration into the cities, but it also allows the government to monitor its citizens closely.  In an argument similar to the one Americans make about South American migration, the Chinese government fears that if the hukou system is lifted, rural peoples will migrate in mass to the cities, causing a national crisis.  While perhaps a valid concern in the short term, such an argument fails to acknowledge the government’s contribution to rural poverty and its subsequent responsibility to invest in its rural population.