Firsthand Encounters: A Glimpse at “Real” China

The Yunnan Exploration Project is an academic component of SIT’s China: Language, Cultures, and Ethnic Minorities program. It gives students the opportunity to develop skills, such as travelling independently in China and conducting interviews, that will be useful to them on their Independent Study Projects (ISP). Students also complete a reflective essay about this project.

For her Yunnan Exploration Project, Ruth Donaghey (Providence College) went on a guided trek into the rural area outside Jinghong in Xishuangbanna prefecture. Because she intended to do her ISP on ecotourism, she used this opportunity to ask her guide Ainipa, who had grown up in the area, about ecotourism in Xishuangbanna.

On the way to Shaxi in China.

In this excerpt from Ruth’s essay reflecting on her Yunnan project, she describes her conversation with Ainipa and how it affected the way she thought about China.

We met our guide Ainipa at a bus station in Jinghong. Two hours on the bus brought us to Menghai, a far less developed area of Xishuangbanna. From there we began walking.

As we walked, I talked to Ainipa about ecotourism in Xishuangbanna. How do residents in these rural areas profit from tourism? He explained that families do not get paid directly from tourism agencies; rather, the agencies pay the village leader who puts the money towards the entire village, as opposed to just one household.

Ainipa spoke about how China is attracting more and more tourists. Tourists want to see “real” rural villages, the “real” countryside, essentially “real” China. Some communities have remained unchanged despite the increase in ecotourism. Other communities, however, have changed, sometimes building attractions in order to bring in more tourists and increase community profit.

I also spoke to Ainipa about his experience working in the tourism industry. Born in 1985, Ainipa grew up in the Bulang minority area of Xiding, Xishuangbanna. He attended primary school in his village but went to high school in the city. He had difficulty learning Mandarin, as his first language was Bulang. While Ainipa studied in the city, his family continued their life in the village, making a living off their plantation.

Ainipa faced some difficulty when deciding what career to choose. Plantations can bring in a decent amount of money, so for many young people from rural areas, the pay-off of education does not measure up to the profit from farming. Ainipa chose to study English, eventually becoming a tour guide. His knowledge of the area, and of medicinal plants, made him an ideal candidate for guiding eco-treks. Today, despite his success as a guide, Ainipa often debates whether he should return to his village to start his own plantation.

This narrative offered a personal encounter with an individual who has undergone what many young people in China are facing. In many ways, I was able to relate to Ainipa’s struggle to settle into one career path.

Ainipa’s narration, for me, symbolizes the growing contrast between rural and urban China. “Real” China is neither merely urban nor merely rural; it is a budding gap. Two nights and three days spent trekking through rural villages offered me a brief yet lucid image of the differences between China’s countryside and urban areas. At the same time, a brief glimpse at such a complex disparity has raised new questions, new inquiries, new uncertainties. Therefore, while my experience during the Yunnan Exploration Project period gave me a clearer image of “real” China, I still feel twinges of ambiguity when trying to understand the complexity of China’s growing gap between urban and rural life.

At Orientation in Tonghai

Ruth studied on SIT’s China: Language, Cultures, and Ethnic Minorities program in spring 2012.

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