Kate V. is currently a junior at SYA China and a blogger for the Campus Reporter program. She comes to SYA from St. Stephen's Episcopal School in Texas.
Arguably one of the greatest experiences at SYA is travel. In China especially, the places we go are extensive and allow us to get a look into the intensely varied regional cultures. This February, we traveled to Yunnan in South China. We stayed for many days in rural places close to the border with Vietnam and Myanmar. While the group interactions and tours are obviously powerful, in my (and many of my classmates’ opinions), the best experiences are the unplanned ones, the ones that lead you down a cultural rabbit hole and take you into unfamiliar territory, where you are completely out of your comfort zone. That, not guided museum tours and hikes, is what true immersion at SYA is, and those are the experiences that stick with you for the longest.
One of the experiences that was really impactful for me in Yunnan was when we were staying in Yuanyang, a small rice-farming village perched on the edge of a terraced mountain. A few other people and I decided to go explore the rice terraces before dinner. It had just hailed, making our walk along the thin walls of the terraces slippery and muddy. We were soon separated; we had to take different paths through the terraces to avoid falling in or knocking each other off the edge into the water. I ended up alone off to the side of the terraces with none of my classmates around me. I was walking next to a little creek that ran down the side of the terraces. Ducks rustled and glided on the surface of the pond, the sun was setting, reflecting on the mirror-like water of the terraces, and I was hiking appreciating the immense natural beauty and serenity of the scene. I wasn’t paying that much attention to what was going on around me until I heard a noise in the water.
An old woman, presumably from the village above, had quietly walked up next to me and caught a duck in the creek. When she saw me looking, she made eye contact with me and then said “别看 (don’t look)” while holding the duck. I looked away, and when I looked back, she had killed the duck. This moment really grounded me. It made me realize that even though, to me, the rice terraces were pretty place to hike and take a picture, they actually had so much more significance than that. They represented the village people’s entire livelihood and life. They were where they grew their crops, raised their animals, and spent most of their time. I felt a little arrogant and embarrassed as I stood on the muddy path; for a moment, I had started to view the village as something that was there for me to see as opposed to a living, breathing part of Chinese culture that is the center of many people’s lives. Although Yuanyang had recently been developed and dolled up for tourism, the authentic lives of the villagers still shone through if you looked hard enough. Despite the maps and signs pointing the tourists where to go, if you look a little bit further you saw the pigs and chickens in coops next to houses and the kids running around barefoot.
As the old woman walked nimbly back up the terraces, despite the fact that she was wearing small flip-flop like sandals (very unlike the stumbling and sliding I’d been doing in my tennis shoes), it reminded me that I need to try to appreciate and view the places that I travel through the critical-thinking eyes of a local instead of through the eyes of a tourist looking to have a surface-level experience. It is too easy sometimes, as a tourist, to get caught up in the superficial elements of a place or a culture that are so often displayed to foreigners. If Yunnan taught me anything, it was these three things:
Don’t travel like a tourist. Travel to immerse yourself.
Don’t underestimate the power of unplanned moments and interactions. They may seem insignificant at the time, but they stick with you and can be some of the richest parts of the experience.
Don’t forget to bring bug spray.
- Campus Reporters
- SYA China