Reality check-ed in Yunnan

“Not one of my brighter moments.” I kept saying to myself as I roamed the grounds of a Theravada Buddhist temple in downtown Jinghong city.

My boiling frustration had turned into embarrassment as any attempt I made to converse with a temple goer or the numerous orange clad robed monks was met with rejection. The people here had no issue with staring at me unabashedly or taking photos a few feet from my face, but actually talking to me? That was a whole different issue. “Nee-how!” (Chinese for ‘hello’) I would say to one with a smile and then follow up with a “hello how are?” Every time was responded to with a smile, a puzzled expression and sometimes a blush that was immediately followed with walking away. My mind began dwelling on the obvious consequences of my decision not to take a Mandarin Chinese language class before I embarked on my trip to Yunnan Province China. I always took pride and boasted of my ability and tightly ingrained, innate philosophy to work things out on the go or ‘wing it’ as this way of doing things is most usually called. I always believed in the power of ‘trust’ over preparation despite being lectured that the latter is one of the most essential tools in any endeavor.

But how on earth I would be able to convince anyone that not taking at least an introductory language course in preparation for my field study in a country and region where knowledge of English is notoriously known for being atrocious, was a good idea, is completely beyond me. In fact, it was well assumed that at least a small knowledge of Mandarin was an obvious prerequisite in applying for a research grant to study Theravada Buddhism among the Dai people, according to one of my anthropology professors at university.

Yet here I was, in a region and amongst a culture that I had read about and studied so fervently during undergrad, unable to get the information I so desperately needed to write my ethnographic report. I could walk around all day, exploring the small Dai villages in the river valleys and noting some extremely old and impressive Theravada Buddhist architecture, pagodas and temples. But until I could make a local connection and establish a relationship with the Dai community, my whole expedition and project would amount to nothing and the label, ‘arm-chair anthropologist,’ would still hang around my neck.


It’s all too easy to travel all across the world nowadays. Yes, money aside, never has there been a more popular and efficient time for people to hop on a plane and end up in a completely foreign culture in a matter of hours. Instagram and other social media platforms has degraded and dulled the once remarkable experience of visiting a foreign land and exploring all that it has to offer. One who is unexperienced in travel and exploration can scroll though thousands, millions of photos of people exclaiming, ‘Look at me! Look where I’ve been!” and come to the conclusion that there are no interesting places left to explore, that humans have in fact, seen and been every where possible in the world. Now that is not to be completely cynical and say social media can’t be useful and that there aren’t any instagrammers who truly do visit a place for other reasons than just party or to snap a pic that will give them their desired attention. But in order to authentically learn about a foreign land and culture, one must do more than just ‘go there.’ It is absolutely essential to interact and develop a relationship with those who live there. Any one can visit a foreign nation but not all dare to explore them.

If you don’t interact with the native populace, but you still suffice to claim knowledge and opinions on a region and culture, you very well may be labeled an arm-chair anthropologist, as the term was thrown around in the anthropology department at University. The term refers to scholars who say they know a thing or two from reading a few books and articles from the comforts of their home country but never directly engaged the culture on its own turf. No doubt, the term amused me quite a bit and I realized that it could defiantly be used outside the realm of anthropology but when I arrived in China to begin 3 months of travel and exploration with my language handicap evident, I began to wonder if I was potentially in danger of being just another visitor and not an explorer.

Surrounded by the thickly forested mountains that are a signature of Xishuangbanna, Jinghong has a reputation as being a much more laidback and quiet Chinese city. I suppose this could be due to its strong southeast Asian vibe and its much lower population than its closest neighbor (relative in size) Kunming, which is a messy, chaotic seven million plus mega city. Then one can compare Beijing, Shanghai, or Chengdu and the differences become night and day. Because of this stark contrast to the rest of China and the SE Asia feel, one would think that this would attract more western visitors, since they routinely flock to neighboring Thailand and Vietnam. But as I found out rather quickly, this is not the case and they are few and far between in this southern most region of Yunnan Province China. So if I was to make a local connection, I probably was not going to be able to make it through a western expat or traveler who I’d suffice would be a bit more linguistically prepared than I.

My language problem was compounded by the fact that the Dai people (the ethnic group whom my project was based on), spoke their own language, so I was not only trying to find someone who was bilingual in mandarin and English but could also speak native Dai on top of that. How wise my plan of ‘winging it’ must of sounded when I explained the dilemma to some Dutch travelers a month and a half later while traveling northern Thailand. Despite this monumental issue, I had some luck early on when my host at the hostel I was staying at turned out to be of Dai descent and also able to speak English. She was helpful in many ways and specifically, in reiterating to me the importance of the Dai cultural heritage to this region, Xishuangbanna and directing me to the language school in Jinghong. There, I was able to find an English literate teacher that instructed me 2 hours a day for a week and a half long survival Mandarin course. I mean hey, it’s better than nothing right? As is becoming more common among the Dai people, my host had chosen industrial life in the city and has married a man who is Han Chinese. So while she would not be able to go out in the small villages and monasteries with me and interpret, she was also able to direct me to two local western style cafes that could possibly get me in touch with some interpreters. Before I chose to do this however, I defaulted to my own natural way of doing things and chose to ‘wing it’ which could, by this point possibly be called, doing things the hard way and decided on trekking out to Dai villages by myself and seeing what I could muster alone.

On what turned out to be an especially sun scorching day, I trekked out on bicycle to a Dai village located 60 kilometers from where I was staying in downtown Jinghong. The ride took me through some gorgeous scenery along the renowned Mekong river, which holds a special place in the Dai people’s heart as a life giving river. As I toiled through some tough uphill terrain and could feel my skin searing from the hot southeast Asian sun, I began fighting a bundle of mixed feelings that made themselves known to my conscious. “I might be in over my head here,” I could not help but ponder as I fumbled through changing the gears on my bike and realizing that this could turn out to be just as much as an athletic endeavor as it would be an intellectual one. “Maybe I am not the explorer I’ve always thought I was,” was the thought that I found to sting the most and had the hardest time in shaking off. Almost my whole life, I always seen myself as an explorer and adventurer. It’s what I lived for I thought, and while I wasn’t the one who had racked up the most passport stamps out of every person I knew back home, I always had this unsatisfiable curiosity about the world that was hard to find shared in my friends or peers.

It led me to choose a major that’s name would raise a lot of eyebrows when I would meet new people or when introducing myself to girls at college bars. And it led me to apply for this grant from an organization whose very name is ‘The Explorers Club.’ The more I pondered this thought, the more thoughts and possibly ‘realities’ came to mind in support of it. “Maybe I’m just a poser, a wannabe.” I am just one’s average American Midwestern Kid with average grades who clearly does not have the qualifications to be conducting an ethnographic study in this part of the world. And I am person with a history of health problems that don’t bide well with an adventurer’s lifestyle. I have struggled with chronic fatigue, brain fog and a host of food allergies for most of my adult life that have forced me to adopt habits such as going to bed early and an avoidance of drinking alcohol (a particular habit that I have found to stir quite amount of confusion in many British and Australian travelers that I met in Thailand).

I mean really, for God’s sake, what business does a pale skinned American boy with food sensitivities, have in travelling Yunnan Province China of all places?! There’s no Whole Foods to be found here, or gluten free sections at the night markets. Along with my super bright idea of winging the language barrier, “this whole trip was going to be an unavoidable disaster,” I thought. Well not so fast, I should’ve told myself in hindsight. As it would turn out, my philosophy of ‘trust’, was not an altogether unguided one.

My bicycle trip out to a Dai village in the river valley, did not turn out to be a complete waste in regards to gaining valuable information to write my report. I observed magnificent Theravada Buddhist temples and architecture. I realized how important spirituality is to the Dai peoples way of life by the staggering complexity and obvious intense effort that went into building these temples that are completely for spiritual purposes and not for tourism. Unlike many other temples within Asia, there were no fees to see them and no signs in English to cater to westerners. I witnessed unwatered down, authentic Dai spiritual practice and saw monks pleasantly surprised and intrigued to see a westerner in their midst. I was also able to see the prevalence of old wood houses mixed with a few modern suburban homes that were beginning to intermingle together amongst the village, revealing an adherence to the old way of doing things but also an unshunned introductory element of modernity. All this was great, every thing I was experiencing and witnessing, but my initial predicament still remained to be resolved and it was time to take the correct initiative to solve it. After getting to know and speaking with employees at Meime’s Café in downtown and also with my Chinese language teacher, I was finally able to get in touch with Buddhist monk who was able to speak English. Up to this point in my trip, I had seen and been around many monks, but to have an in depth personal conversation with one, is much different than conversing by nodding, smiling and respectfully bowing with a hands clasped gesture. I was very nervy the day I was to sit down and talk with him. I suppose partly as a result of the influx of Eastern religions and mysticism in the western world, I saw Monks in my mind as possessing a strong mystical and spiritual aura and considered them to be very ‘put together’ people. A little to my surprise, when I sat down with ‘Charlie,’ I found him to be (robe and shaven head aside) very much a normal person. Not to say that my preconceptions were wrong, not in the slightest, but I found him to be a very pleasant and easy going person, who shared freely the story of his life, his aspirations, perception of his cultural background and way of life.

This is one of the amazing benefits of travel and direct subjective experience, it tears down the doors of separation that naturally provokes some speculation, and instead paves the way for authentic knowing. I could have read about Theravada monks all I wanted too, but meeting one in person and getting to know his life experiences and perception of monkhood and Dai culture, there just is no comparison. My meeting with ‘Charlie’ led me to get to know a few more monks in the Jinghong area and over the next couple weeks, I enjoyed very much getting to know them. Making all these local connections culminated in obtaining the knowledge and the answers to my research questions that I arrived here with and allowed me to write a very satisfying report. The personal connections I made also allowed me to eventually meet a Dai individual who I was able to hire as a translator and guide. Sam, as is his English name, drove me far south outside the city of JInghong and close to the border of Laos, where we visited more Dai villages and also an Aini village as well. Thanks to his translating, I was able to speak with more Dai individuals and monks and through our conversations, I was able to obtain an even greater intellectual grasp of life here in Xishuangbanna. Sam is as kind as he is knowledgeable and our personal conversations ranged from his family life, to his view of China as a nation and his opinions on the Communist government and the cultural revolution that drastically effected minority groups and spirituality in the 60’s and 70’s. At the end of my time in Xishuangbanna, as Sam and I were enjoying some spectacular Tea in an Aini village, I came to authentically realize that as corny as the saying goes, it really is all about the people you meet and not just the places you go.

I learned many things during my time in China but a few points defiantly stick out. My advice to anyone who is planning a trip to remote areas of China; brush up on your Mandarin before you go, even just a few weeks of study can go a long way. I learned that ‘winging it’ is probably a belief and philosophy that I should reevaluate but also, having an attitude of ‘trust’ is perhaps not something I should throw away all together. Trust, as I mean trusting one’s self, and proper preparation is one of the best combinations an explorer/traveler can have. My belief that there is defiantly a difference between visiting a place and exploring one was reaffirmed. One cannot authentically know a land, if one doesn’t come to know its people. I am not sure if that is a famous quote or not, it sounds like it could be, but I defiantly found this to be reality. So I profess, put forth the effort to make a local connection, in the end you could come home with a lot more than just a few souvenirs and a thousand likes on your social media account.



2 thoughts on “Reality check-ed in Yunnan

  1. Really agree with you about the necessity of knowing some of the language, although I was in Xishuangbanna many years ago before I starting learning Mandarin. Although I traveled a lot in the past, now I prefer going to one place, staying there, studying the language and getting to know the place on a slightly deeper level. Will have a blog post about that first trip to Yunnan in approx. one month before I head to Dali for another language course.

  2. I really like Dali! Thats awesome you are going there.You should consider checking out Wu Wei Si Shaolin monastery while you are there. Unfortunately, due to being an American and in light of the current political situation, I am a bit hesitant to go back to China right now. I really love Yunnan too so its a shame

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