Thursday, July 5, 2007

The Unexpected Roommate and the Unicorn: Adventures in Liuku, Take 1

It's strange to be writing my blog entry about Liuku Trip 1 when I'm back here now, doing Nujiang Trip 2. Says something about my blogging skills, too.

Anyway: when we left off I was on a bus from Lanping, where I had a Western friend, along with several other Chinese friends, some of whom spoke English, to Liuku where I didn't know anybody and had never been before (a first for me.) Luckily, it didn't stay that way for long. As soon as I got off in Liuku, two people appeared eager to help me-- a Lisu man and a Pumi girl about my age. They got me into a hotel (at Y45, or $5.50 a night a little more expensive than I'd have liked to be paying, but less than I paid in Lanping with Tania) and had dinner. The Lisu man had things to do so he got my cell phone number and went his way, promising to bring me to his Lisu village outside the city sometime in the next few days. I was left alone with the Pumi girl, Xiong Li Mei, who was to become my closest friend in Liuku and also my ad hoc translator. She sort of... clasped on and never let go, which wasn't exactly a problem for me, although it occasionally was a little bit suffocating. She stayed with me in my hotel for the first three nights, not needing anything, not even a toothbrush, just curling up and falling asleep-- until I convinced her I really could stay in a hotel by myself.

My friend/guide, Xiong Li Mei, in traditional Pumi dress

It turns out that Xiong Li Mei's story is pretty remarkable. She grew up herding goats for her family, who live in the countryside outside of Lanping, where her mother is crippled but they can't afford a wheelchair. Until the age of 11 she didn't go to school, but she wanted to learn so badly that she kept bothering her parents until they brought an older brother home to herd in her place, and sent her to school. She had to stay in the equivalent of kindergarten for 3 years because she couldn't read, but once she gained literacy she completed first grade through 10th or 11th grade in 6 years. Now she goes to a vocational school in Liuku. Pretty amazing.

The hotel I stayed at was nice, if not particularly remarkable. The one thing I wasn't really big on were the cockroaches. Insects don't bother me most of the time (except in extenuating circumstances-- see below), but cockroaches kind of creep me out. I ended up having a peacable relationship with my cockroaches, however, as long as they kept out of the way while I showered and didn't get into my stuff. I'll admit (although it will make some of you think I'm crazy) that I talked to my cockraoches some. I made deals with them about not bothering me while I was peeing, not coming up onto the bed to steal my mini-muffins. That was the only time of day I spoke English.

The city of Liuku itself is fairly boring, Chinese stock, but the setting was beautiful with the Nu river roaring through and big emerald mountains (You can't really see it in these piectures, but I don't know if I've ever seen a place as green as Nujiang valley) looming all around. The Lisu population was also really interesting to see for the first time, mostly in Western/Han dress but with the Lisu bag, very characteristically colorful woven, stitched, or beaded, acting as a nametag to the world that said "I am Lisu, hear me roar." Or something to that effect, anyway.

Liuku, a city of mountains and a big ol' river

A Buddhist temple on the outskirts of the city

The first night, Xiong Li Mei took me to her vocational school, where her classmates, who are all studying music/art/minority skills (they get tested on things like piano playing, dancing, singing) welcomed me by singing songs from their respective minorities (Nu, Lisu, Pumi) and playing the piano. They were all really, really really excited to meet met (more on that in a minute.) But it was a really cool way to start out the experience, feeling just a little bit like a celebrity, or at least someone important and worth getting excited over.

The next week and a half was a whirlwind of research, mostly faking it: I've had a cloud of amateurishness riding me for months now, and that was the beginning of it. I spent a lot of time feeling like I had no idea what I was doing and worrying about what would come out of it. The anthropological experience is so infuriating sometimes, which is something no one told me about beforehand. The whole thing is based on finding contacts through other contacts, a chain of people-who-know-people which is actually perfectly suited to the "guanxi" (relationship) structure of Chinese society. But what was so frustrating was how many of said contacts were duds. Out of ever four phone numbers I procured, two were out of order, one was incorrect, and maybe, if I was lucky, the fourth person could help me. Oh yeah, and: the first night in town, I managed to lose my cell phone in a cab, and with it the chance to go with the Lisu man I met on the bus to his village (I never saw him again.) Big bummer. Double bummer: the aforeblogged pickpocketing of the phone I bought to replace said lost-in-taxi phone not two weeks later.

Be that as it may, I did manage to talk to over 70 informants in the 3 weeks I spent in Lanping and Liuku, which is pretty damn good if I may say so. In Liuku I talked to government officials, scholars, went to two vocational schools and a middle school, started conversations with people on the street. I talked to many of Xiong Li Mei's school friends, and got to see her school more thoroghly. It reminded me in a lot of ways of a summer camp-- the dorm rooms looked like camp cabins to me; the outdoor warmth of it all (Liuku is pretty much never cold, although I was there in warm season).

A dorm at Xiong Li Mei's school

At the school, I was treated as a major VIP-- actually, throughout the entire city it was that way. I was the only white person I saw for the entirety of my time in Liuku, the only save Tania and some friends in from Lijiang in Lanping. People openly gawked when I walked down the street. I was treated with huge cheers and endless questions about America at Xiong Li Mei's school, people were dying for my phone number, they wanted to know my taste in boys (which was an odd and embarassing question to answer in front of a class of 35.) When I went to the school to teach a class or two of English (I felt very clever for coming up with a curriculum regarding "how to tell a story" and then asking the students to tell me one they knew) people crowded around in the halls to see me speak. It was very, very surreal.

I felt like a unicorn, as in "You really exist?" Xiong Li Mei would tell her classmates and relatives about her new foreigner friend and they actually wouldn't believe her, would insist she was joking. I imagine it will be that way when I go to visit Xiong Li Mei's home village in a week or so. I will be the first white person her parents have ever met. They have also never seen a computer-- Xiong Li Mei has asked me to bring my laptop along.

I also interviewed a Pumi singing expert, a Lisu historian, a Lisu Cultural Bureau worker (who has also helped me find contacts this trip), and many random friends I met along the way. People were drawn to me by my skin, like a beacon, especially those who could speak any English. A shopkeeper, a teahouse owner. One night Xiong Li Mei and I went out for drinks with a math teacher, two soldiers, and two office workers, all about our age. That was a lot of fun, and I got stories into the bargain. Another night I went with Xiong Li Mei to a square alongside the river to watch the people dance, as they gather to do in many places in Yunnan (see my photos of Lanping.) Eventually, she convinced me to join in, which was fun for the short time before I went home and collapsed (field work is really, really tiring.)

Another day, I went with the Cultural Bureau worker to a Lisu church (as I may have mentioned before, many people, especially Lisu in the Nujiang area have been converted to Christianity for generations, since China lost the Opium Wars and missionaries poured in.) It was an intensely interesting place to be, with people coming from the city and the countryside. The entire service was conducted in Lisu language, including a beautiful hymn the assembled people (about 75) learned from scratch, building part by part until they eventually sang in 3-part harmony. With the music swelling all around me I felt this odd combination of closeness and distance and was aware of the forces that conspired to make the occasion-- imperialism, missionary work, smuggling (the Bibles are brought in from Lisu territory in Myanmar.) Fascinating.

A Lisu church (that's Lisu language in the middle)

Worshipping inside the church

It rained every day I was in Liuku, which was extremely frustrating because I was continually being told that I shouldn't be going up the valley (where the other two Nujiang cities of Fugong and Gongshan are) during a rainy period because of the danger. But then Xiong Li Mei and I went to a little village called Luzhang one day for a day trip, and I saw the danger for myself when it started to rain while we were there. On the minibus ride back rocks from the size of tennis balls to shoe boxes were scattered across the road. Not really a fan of the idea of one of those landing on car in which I am a passenger. I was really mad about not being able to go to Fugong and Gongshan, however, and sulked for a few days before regrouping to work my resources and figure out what I could do, which included the aforementioned English classes, as well as another field trip into the countryside.

On the last day before I was scheduled to depart for Kunming, the sun finally came out and I was able to get some nice views of the city not veiled in rain. I took a walk with some new friends to take pictures. That night, the city was filled with flying ants, which I'm told is fairly common after a protracted period of rain. Butterfly-sized bugs everywhere, and I do mean everywhere, I looked. At least 250 around every street lamp, and I really wish that was an exaggeration. Flying around doorways, clustering at the riverside, invading teahouses and convenience stores, waddling on the street. Every step I took I crunched body casings and antennae under my feet. Wings brushed me on all sides. I felt like I was bathing in bugs. It was truly disgusting. It is a credit to the Sanitation Department that there was not a flying ant to be seen by the next morning.

Next time: Liuku fieldtrips up the valley.

1 comment:

Julia said...

Oh wow!!!! What a great entry. I'm so glad you're making friends. I know you were worried about that. I can't imagine what it must have been like being the unicorn, but wow. Yeah, that sounds surreal like whoa. The written language looks like nothing I've ever seen before, certainly not Chinese. I'm curious what it sounds like spoken.

How was your visit to your friend's parents? What did they think of the computer?