Tuesday, September 18, 2012


When I applied for the Sigur Center Grant in February this year, I had already been in China for over eight months, since early June of the previous year.  At the time, I was enrolled in my second semester of study abroad through the Associated Colleges in China program in Beijing.  Having lived in the People’s Republic of China for so long, a key interest of mine was to examine the contrast, whether culturally, politically, or economically,  between the Communist-ruled Mainland and Taiwan. Furthermore, I was interested in learning traditional characters and furthering my level of Chinese proficiency. Because of the opportunities made available by the generous Sigur Center Grant, I can report that all of my goals were fulfilled. Yet the grant allowed me to do more than just go to Taiwan. Below, I will explain both my experience in the official program in Taiwan, as well as time in Yunnan for the two months prior to that, made possible by the Sigur Center Grant.

The program I was admitted to, and for which I applied to the Sigur Center Grant was the short-term Summer semester at National Chengchi University.  The program did not start until July 1st of this year. The ACC spring term ended, however, at the end of April. During the two-month gap between semesters I traveled to Yunnan province to take summer language courses at Yunnan Nationalities University.

My time in Yunnan was my first opportunity to use my newly attained Chinese skills while living entirely independently in China. I first toured the north of the province for about two weeks, during which time I traveled to Xianggelila. My arrival to the so-called Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture marked my first time being in a historically Tibetan region. 

 It was there that I was able to witness first-hand the current state of Tibetan life in China. The first thing that I noticed was the infrequency of written Tibetan on public signs and advertisements, either entirely gone in the case of road signs, or placed in small font beneath the Chinese characters. Oral usage of the language, too, was evidently on the decline, for example the taxi drivers in Deqin city who, although all ethnic Tibetans, generally spoke a mixture of Mandarin and Tibetan with one another. Everywhere, too, were the signs of the Chinese authorities’ efforts to pacify and integrate the region with mainstream Han society. It was precisely because of major infrastructure projects pushed rapidly over the past few years that I was able to take the harrowing bus ride from Xianggelila to Deqin, the furthest one can go towards Tibet without a special permit. All along the highway currently under expansion are signs urging residents to strive for a strong and harmonious society, which can only be achieved through ethnic unity and peace.  Alongside this are other signs urging the opening up and development of the region.

I also had the opportunities to talk to various Tibetans while I was in Yunnan, who gave me some insight into the Tibetan issue. One taxi driver I met had pictures of the Dalai Lama on his dashboard, and explained that he considered the man to be a great spiritual leader. A Tibetan college student, however, thought him instead to be a traitor to the Tibetan people. She further elaborated that her family thanks the Communist Party every day for liberating them from the Dalai clique, and for bringing wealth and development to the Tibetans.

I began to notice striking differences culturally and philosophically between college-educated and non-educated Tibetans in Yunnan. Another college student, who had never left Yunnan province before, when asked where she would go in China if she could only visit one place, replied that she would visit Yannan, because she loves Chairman Mao. What the two students above and other young Tibetan students I met in Yunnan had in common were fluency in Mandarin with limited proficiency in the Tibetan language, and political views largely in line with the official view.  Less educated Tibetans that I met were more likely to speak Tibetan as a mother language with limited Mandarin ability, and also to have a stronger sense of ethnic identity, which would seem to suggest that secondary and higher education in China today is a powerful tool for advancing the ideological and practical goals of the state.

By studying Chinese in Yunnan, I also had the opportunity to meet a diverse group of Chinese language students from across Asia, including students of national and social backgrounds significantly underrepresented outside of the region.  Indeed, the majority of foreign students at the university were a mix of Laotian, Vietnamese, Thai, Cambodian, and Burmese. One friend was actually from Kachin state, a member of the Jingpo minority group that straddles Kachin and Yunnan provinces. Her family originally had been entirely in Yunnan province until her side of the family fled to the Burmese side during the Great Leap Forward.

Nevertheless, I was able to use my connection to her family members still in Yunnan to tour Dehong state in southwestern Yunnan for over a week. I first went to the Yingjiang county seat to stay with the family of her aunt, who works as a Burmese language interpreter for the county government.

  From there I proceeded to Kachang township, which is located along the mountainous border with northeastern Burma. In Kachang I was taken on a motorcycle tour of the area by a friend who works for the township government, though we had to slog the vehicle through mudslides blocking the road.

 Even in such a remote area, the signs of China’s efforts to integrate the nation through infrastructure and communication links are everywhere. Almost all parts of the area now have full cell phone coverage, hydroelectricity, and especially important, roads of a high enough quality for freight shipping. All along the roads towards Burma are massive sawmills, supplied by trucks carrying in what is frequently timber from old growth forests across the border, such as is depicted below:

 Almost all of the Chinese side is deforested, save for a rare few protected trees.

After winding our way down the mountain roads, often having to cross landslides blocking the road, we eventually made it to the Burmese border.

 Just across the river, the contrast and separation between modern day China and Burma is striking. On the Burmese side there are no power lines, and no running water. The village directly across the friendship bridge consists of a cluster of bamboo shacks built precariously along the edge of the hill. 

All along the hillside, too, are fields that have been burned through from the jungle to provide subsistence levels of agricultural production.  

The villages around Kachang consist primarily of Jingpo. The Jingpo, interestingly enough, practice a form of Baptist Christianity brought to Kachin state in the late 19th century by American missionaries, which subsequently spread from the Burmese Jingpo to their counterparts in Yunnan.

Later in the week I traveled to the official border crossing between China and Burma, in Ruili, which is one of the largest centers of trade between China and Burma. There, another friend of mine who works in the jade industry was able to drive me around to sites of interest. The town is fairly lacking in sites, though, except for the numerous Burmese jade markets selling exorbitantly priced items, and the raucous border checkpoints. 

  Security is extremely tight in Ruili, which is, of course, situated so near the Golden Triangle. As a foreigner,  I was required to register at the police office, and undergo questioning. Upon leaving Ruili municipality, all traffic at the time, including my bus, was stopped at a military checkpoint in order to undergo extensive inspection. All passengers on the bus were interrogated in an effort to weed out potential drug runners. In addition, the soldiers searched every possible opening in the bus, including the air conditioning and ventilation system, undercarriage, and every single passenger’s luggage. Ironically, the only person whose luggage they did not inspect was the one foreigner aboard, thankfully, since I had a lot of tea packaged in black plastic bags, which would have been a hassle to prove that it was simply tea. After returning to Kunming, I had to immediately prepare for my most important trip, my twenty-four hour train to Guangzhou, from where I then proceeded, at long last, to Taipei, to begin my official summer program.  

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