Posts Tagged With: Cross-Cultural

Living in Remote Mosuo Village: Building Homes and Slowly Understanding Local Culture


The Town of LJZ–Host Family’s House on the Right

The next morning, I felt a lot better, but my stomach still felt like a squished up raisin. I felt like I was not going to eat anything today or even for the rest of the week. I walked downstairs to the main living where I found the family, Lidy, and PM eating breakfast. I sat on a mat next to Lidy and faked eating rice. Molly felt sick to her stomach today, so she didn’t join us. After breakfast, PM and Lidy were at a loss. They didn’t know who to visit or what to do. Their goal for this visit to LJZ was to collect local songs–the two of them would be considered ethnomusicologists. They decided to meet with an old friend up the dirt road. I walked with them, when all of a sudden they stopped in surprise. The house next door had been half demolished. They walked in and asked what happened. The family told them the earthquake from the year previous destroyed parts of the house, and they finally had time to rebuild. They were rebuilding the main living area, but the two stories of rooms were still intact.

We asked if we could help them out and they agreed. Sometimes the families are too polite to allow guests to help with construction, but fortunately they were okay with it! We hiked up our sleeves and began shoveling dirt into baskets, soaking the dirt with water, collecting stones, and compacting the dirt in a wooden contraption that made walls:


Compacting Dirt into the Beginning of a Wall

We did this for the rest of the afternoon with breaks between where we ate second breakfast, lunch, and second lunch…I felt like I was in the Shire! Too bad I could barely eat any of it. During the lunch breaks, I would observe PM talk with the locals. At one point, she was talking with a revered Daba priest, who lived in the household. She was asking him if there are any songs about building a house. In the next moment, the Daba priest started singing a song Lidy and PM had never heard before. The song is sung when the house is almost done. It is often when the men compact the dirt with the tools pictured above. I do not have the lyrics, but he helped us translate the meaning. It was about pounding the dirt and pulling out the earthworms from the earth…     ~A lay lay, A lay lay~

We clapped after the performance and soon found ourselves back outside doing work again. We worked until it began to get dark. Someone mentioned that there was smoke in the distance. We looked up to the sky and saw a stream of black smoke rising behind the nearby mountain. The fire looked close. We asked what locals do about fires, but they said not to worry. Whenever there is a fire, the population that lives in that vicinity takes care of it. Since the fire was behind the mountain range, it wasn’t LJZ locals’ problem. However, the Yi minority live on that side, so it is their responsibility to extinguish it. It still made PM and me a bit uneasy. What if the fire spread over the mountain?


We finished the first layer of foundation and then headed out to another home for supper. Before going to the home, I checked on Molly. She was not interested in going. I gave her some more water and hurried to dinner. It is impolite to come late. Before leaving, I took this shot of our host’s home:


Host Family’s Home–Courtyard and Main Living Area

To the left that is not pictured is the home’s temple. In and around Lugu Lake, locals believe in both Tibetan Buddhism and the Daba religion. The temple was a Tibetan Buddhist shrine. To the right that is not pictured are the second story rooms that PM, Lidy, Molly, and I were staying in. I walked downstairs and found one of the daughters. While she was asking where I was going, one of the elder sisters called out to her child and Lidy (who was also at the home). We found the elder sister outside of the front door looking up to the sky in fright. She hesitantly pointed at the orange moon. She had never seen an orange moon before and told Lidy that maybe it would be best not to leave the home tonight. The elder sister thought the changing in the moon was very ominous. Their society circles around the moon and lunar calendar. Their lives and the moon are in cycle.

I told Lidy that the moon was orange because of the smoke from the fire. The smoke was distorting the moon, changing it into another color. The daughter translated that to her mother, who still felt unnerved, but allowed us to leave for dinner. We raced down to the lower edge of the village to the other home. The matriarch ushered us in and showed us where to sit, at the lower hearth, with a roomful of men. PM, Lidy, and I were the only women sitting in the living area, besides the sisters who were making the food. Since we were considered as primarily “guests” and not “women,” we ate with the men.  The women and children would eat the leftovers afterwards. However, a grandmother (a highly respected figure in the household) entered the room and sat next to me. She overrode the “women and children” category. I wish I understood Mosuo language because she was making the entire room laugh. At one point, I asked what he name was:

She said, “Namu.”

I responded, “that’s a really pretty name!” She was a bit confused with my response and laughed. I guess what I said cannot be translated well into the Mosuo language. They don’t say things like that…so she decided to play with my response.

“Well then, you can have it!” (Someone was translating her words for me)

A man called from the upper hearth: “But you are not a living Buddha, you cannot just give out names, Grandmother Namu!” He and everybody was laughing at the grandmother’s ridiculousness.

“Well, for this very moment, I’m Living Buddha Namu, and I bequeath you the name, Namu.” The entire room was exploding with laughter. I was laughing too because the grandmother was acting very dramatic. I thanked Namu Living Buddha for the name.

My first name in the Mosuo language now is Namu. I do not have a last name yet. 

Most of the men in the village speak Mandarin. This is because they had worked in cities in their youth. We chatted with them and each other for the duration of dinner. I do not remember exactly what we talked about, but I do remember the men being very keen in answering any of our questions. They are all so friendly! The young men sat in the back of the room and chatted with themselves, except for when they would look over at us and giggle. I had a feeling we would have visitors again tonight.

When the men finished eating, they said their goodbyes and headed back to either their natal homes or their partner’s homes. In this culture, men stay in their female partner’s home at night and come back to their natal home in the morning. In their natal homes, they most likely have their own room, but it may be next to the pig pen or not very well maintained. The women, however, are given the better rooms, so that they can receive visitors. When the men left, the remaining women and children came in and ate with us. It felt like a weight was lifted from their shoulders because the room was suddenly filled with the chatter and laughter of women and children. We chatted with them for the rest of the night. When we thought it was getting a tad late, we thanked the family for the feast and headed back home around 10pm.

Before going to bed, I asked PM and Lidy if men visit Molly and I tonight, would it be okay if I brought them to their room and chatted with them? Molly was not feeling up to dealing with visitors that night. They said it would be fine. Later, while I was writing in my journal, I heard footsteps in the courtyard and then heard the creaking of the wooden stairs. They came back. The brick was knocked over once more. I turned over to find four young men again. They seemed a bit more courageous with the help of some beers. They said their hellos and asked if they could sit down. They mentioned they wanted to see the twins. I translated for Molly, who was hiding under her covers saying “Mu ni, Mu ni (No way, No way).” But, Molly said it was okay to give them a quick look and then popped her head out of the covers. I walked over and showed them how we looked very similar. The boys were in awe, they had never seen twins before! After that, I escorted them to PM and Lidy’s room, where we continued conversation for more than an hour. It was fun to talk with them with PM…she likes to joke around. In the end, of course we didn’t “walk marriage,” so we politely rejected the boy’s requests. They were perfectly okay with the rejection and left. They seemed to have enjoyed the conversation and I did too.

I talked with Lidy and PM a little longer about their experiences in the field and then headed back to bed. I have chosen an interesting culture to study!

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Exploring Lugu Lake: Sunrise, Talking about the Middle East, and Going to a Remote Village


Lugu Lake at Sunrise

The entire room of four bunks woke up to the banging of symbols and drums at five in the morning. We were sharing a room with the French anthropologist, PM, and a Chinese girl in her twenties. The drums and symbols would come in intervals of around three minutes…just like the snooze on an alarm clock. But, this alarm clock could not be turned off. I rolled around multiple times until I gave up falling back asleep and got up. From underneath her sheets, PM told us this was a New Year’s ritual. The monks came all the way from the temple to bless each household in the area. The intervals were the monks walking to the next household. Molly (who had waken up too) and I both thought it was pretty cool to hear their system of entering the New Year. However, the Chinese girl on PM’s top bunk was not having it. She was whining and crying, saying how they could be making such a racket so early in the morning. PM explained to her it was a ceremony, but she didn’t care. She wanted to go back to sleep.

This is a small example of the difference between Western and Chinese tourists. Chinese tourists often seek comfort when they travel. So, even though this Chinese girl was experiencing a unique introduction to Mosuo culture, she didn’t care. It didn’t even cross her mind. I think Western backpackers would instead wake up and investigate–like what Molly and I did!

We got dressed and walked out onto the dark cobblestone street. I saw that the mountain range in the distance had a thin layer of gold peaking through. The sun would rise soon. The monks had moved away from the hostel and were hidden in the alleyways. We could still hear the clanging of drums and symbols as it bounced off the houses and mountains. We then moved towards the lakeshore and awaited the sun rise.


Tourists Taking a Boat to the Middle of the Lake 

We could have paid 10yuan to take a boat with the other tourists to the middle of the lake, but we just relaxed on the shore. It was a beautiful sight…

Afterwards, we joined an Algerian for some breakfast. We talked about being foreigners in China. He lived in Beijing pursuing a Ph.D at one of the universities. We then brought up stereotypes. Molly and I joked around with our American identities as we throw in obnoxious accents while talking to him. He laughed and talked about how people don’t normally have a fundamental understanding of Islam in China, or even in the US. Bouncing of this, Molly brought up a funny story that I thought I would share:

When I was in elementary school, there was a girl named Rukia. One day at lunch, I sat next to her and started devouring my lunch. I noticed she didn’t have anything in front of her, so I thought I would share my sandwich and applesauce. But, Rukia said she couldn’t eat because it was a special holiday. I was flabbergasted and responded, “There’s a holiday where you DON’T EAT?! What kind of holiday is that?” She explained to be the meaning of Ramadan. I thought it was cool, and also she got out of lunch early to go to recess…so I did it with her for the rest of the week!

The Algerian thought that was really funny. He then brought up the tensions in the Middle East and the influence of the “Arab Spring.” He also talked about North Africa’s and Middle East’s relationship with Israel. I do not normally have the opportunity to talk to people from this part of the world, so I thought it was great to listen to his side of the issue. He was a very friendly man, I would never imagine him being cold, or impolite to anyone. But, he said that he would not be friendly with an Israeli. Algeria and Israel’s relationship is very contentious, which showed in his response. I thought about what he said and realized that I do not have any of those kinds of feelings towards a country’s people. No matter where someone is from, or what they believe, I would treat them the same. So, hearing this from someone so friendly and understanding, was eye-opening. That kind of feeling of animosity is something I do not understand.

I grew up in a country where the media promoted hatred between “us” (the US) and the “Muslim World,” but that never affected me. I wonder how Algerian media represents Israel? What led to such contentious relations to the point that the Algerian man can’t even talk to an Israeli? This may be something I’ll need to investigate after studying Chinese culture. The Middle East and North Africa is a part of the world I am not familiar with at all. Next language on my list: Arabic!

It was time to meet PM at the hostel. We said our goodbyes, shared numbers, and went on our ways. PM invited us to join her and her good friend/informant, Lidy, to a remote village that was 3-4 hours away from Lugu Lake. We joined them and their friend, who owned a car, to the neighboring small city, Yongning, where we would catch a truck to the village. We had a couple of hours to spare, so we walked around the market and talked with locals. Afterwards, we sat in the sun, waiting and waiting for the truck to come. He finally did and we were off to the remote village of LJZ.

We bumped along a dirt road for 3 hours, stopping at places where he dropped off supplies to other villages. At one point, we stopped at an Yi village. I hopped off to find a nice grassy area to go to the bathroom and then walked around the village. I ran into older Yi women who were wearing large black headdresses. The headdresses are so eye-catching…large, black fabric creates circle behind their heads. Their black garb matches with the headdress, which adds to the aesthetic. It’s really a beautiful outfit.

I did a full circle around the village until I reached the truck again. That was our last stop until the final destination, LJZ. We finally made it to the village right before sunset. PM and Lidy led us to the house we would be staying in…it was beautiful: two stories with a courtyard in the middle! The family had just finished dinner and ushered us in. We ate dried pork and fish in a soup, potatoes, and rice. We were then escorted to our rooms where Molly and I fell asleep like babies…it was a long day!

It wouldn’t be until later in the night when I’d realize eating the pork and fish soup was a bad choice…

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Cross-Cultural: Celebrating Thanksgiving in Harbin

For Thanksgiving, CET organized a trip to go to Harbin’s top buffet. They said that the year before they had turkey! Unfortunately, there was no turkey, mashed potatoes, and cranberries this year, but I still ate to my heart’s content. They had foods from all of China’s regions (Taiwan, Guangdong, Sichuan, Northeast, etc.) , as well as international cuisine (Japanese, Korean, Western). I joked around with classmates and chatted with teachers. It was nice to take a break, and get to know my teachers out of the classroom.

High-class Buffet–Japanese Section

Western Section–Pierogis?

The Western section had fruit pizza (pineapple, mango) and sausage pizza, meatballs, pasta, and something that looked like pierogis. From the Western section, I mostly ate pizza. Most of my plate’s contents included Guangdong dimsum, fried shrimp, and all-you-can-eat Haagen Dazs icecream!

Mengnan Eating her First “Thanksgiving” Meal

All of our roommate’s tagged along to participate in our Thanksgiving dinner. They were curious to know what we did on this holiday. They thought we were joking that we just eat a TON of food, chat with family, and then go to sleep. At some point in the middle, we give thanks. Since we didn’t eat any traditional Thanksgiving cuisine, many of my classmates plan to make their own mashed potatoes…I’m going to make a pumpkin pie!

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Cross-Cultural Exchange: Halloween Celebration

Happy Halloween!

My classmates and I carved our own mini pumpkins.

Nearing Halloween, none of my classmates organized an event. So, like what my Resident Director once said, “Once an RA, always an RA.” I sent out an email to everyone and organized a costume party and trick-or-treating event. It was a school night, so I made sure not to make the event too jammed-pack with Halloween goodness. My suite-mate bought three pumpkins (one for me, her, and another classmate). On Halloween, we carved them. I didn’t have time to carve a mouth on mine. See the really traditional one? A Chinese roommate carved it. His first carved pumpkin ever…he did so well! He won the pumpkin carving contest.

Me and Frida Kahlo (Elise)

Binder Full of Women (Ziiing!)

My roommate eating a caramel apple for the first time

The Chinese roommates really enjoyed the event. They laughed at all the costumes, helped us devour the plethora of candy, vote for best pumpkin and costume, and joined in when my classmates made an impromptu “scare house/dorm room.” I was really happy to give my classmates a little taste of home and give the Chinese roommates some understanding of American culture…even though it’s a bit strange!

My night in a nutshell

It may have been the best Halloween I’ve had in years…and it was out of the country! Good memories.

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Fall Break: Russian Border Towns, Grassfields, and Enhe Village

Our “Bread” Car: Setting off on our Third Day of Travel

We woke up early and set off to the Russian border towns that line northern Inner Mongolia. The hours of travel often consisted of us sleeping on each other in the morning. Then in the afternoon we would have lively conversation filled with stories, games, and riddles. Our conversations were in half Chinese, half English. I always seemed to be laughing endlessly from our conversations. I am really glad I road-tripped with my classmates!

Before hitting the border towns, we stopped in a small town and ate the most delicious 馅饼 (meat-filled pancakes) and then dropped by a forest. The branches were frozen with thin slices of ice that looked like small, white butterflies. That with the contrast of the freezing river and bright sun was a beautiful site.

Frozen River and Ice Butterflies on the Branches

After hours of telling stories and watching the tall of snowy hills gradually transform into plains of yellow grass, we finally hit the Russian border. We stopped by the river that divides the two countries and looked onto Russia. I imagined the map of the world and Russia’s gigantic mark on it. I always imagined the East part of Russia as a desolate, snowy place. As I looked at Russia from Inner Mongolia, I realized both sides are about the same: small villages, snowy winters, and pretty landscapes. However, I never thought about the mixing of cultures at the borderlands. While we visited the border towns, the people didn’t look Chinese or Russian, rather in between the two.

Looking into Eastern Russia

We stopped in a village outside of Shiwei district and walked around the area. Dare, Xuezi, and I took a long walk along the river. It was soothing to be in a tranquil place. The sound of the rushing river, the frozen top crunching against the icy shore…the wind brushing against the last remaining leaves…cows mooing…birds singing. We got back into the van and started our drive to that day’s final destination, Enhe, another China border town. While driving there, I looked out the window and took a picture of the scenery:

Horses Grazing on the Yellow Grass, Russia in the Background

The land changed dramatically from our previous days. Now it became flat fields of grass and dirt with cows, sheep, and horses grazing them. I wonder what it looks like in the summer? I will definitely have to come back during the summer season. After a couple of hours, we made it to Enhe. We found a quirky married couple who owned a small inn. The husband was a talker and the wife was a kind women that said: “You pay whatever you can afford.” The husband did not entirely like what his wife said, but reluctantly agreed. We really appreciated the thought.

While the husband stoked the oven that would heat our rooms that night, we walked around the Russian town, talked with locals, and watched the sun set over the village.

Sunset over Enhe Village

After watching the sunset, we walked back to the inn and prepared for dinner. The wife set up a hot pot night for us. We all fit in the spacious living room/dining room and ate Chongqing-style spicy hot pot, as well as conversed with them. At the end of the dinner, I sat next to Sun Aiyi (Aiyi means “aunt,” a polite address to a women much older than you) and talked about her family and life in Enhe. Her grandma was from Russia, traveled to China, and then lived in Enhe. Sun Aiyi’s family has lived in the same place since then. Her daughters are all married and moved across the country with their husbands (Sichuan, Guangdong, and another city). That night, I drew a card for her and made everyone sign it. She loved it.

Dinner with New Family

After dinner, we prepared to go to sleep. While the guys were sleeping, Dare and I stood outside in the brisk air and stared at the stars again. The Milk Way was especially bright, as well as the thousands of stars around it. We chatted and stared at the night sky for a long time. For me, the Milky Way is special. I rarely see it…so when I do, I can’t take my eyes off it. It’s similar to my relationship with the ocean. I don’t want to leave it…

That night I could not sleep. Dare and I were sharing a bed in the room with the oven, so it was a bit hot. I got up, wrote in my journal, and then walked to the outhouse in the back of the yard. At 4am, the stars were even more exceptional. I had never looked at the stars that late. The Little Dipper had moved to the middle of the sky, circling around the north star. Orion was halfway through his cart-wheel and Cassiopeia’s crown was balancing on its side. I wish I had seen such beautiful night-scapes when I was younger…but I guess it has led me to appreciate them more now.

I finally fell asleep at 4:45am.

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Exploring Harbin: Jewish New Synagogue Museum

My One-on-One professor, Dr. Wang, switched our Friday class to Monday (National Day). He brought me to the Jewish New Synagogue, which was built in 1921 and used to be the largest synagogue in Northeast China. It has been converted to a museum in 2004 to remember the once flourishing Jewish population that resided in Harbin in the early 1900’s.

New Synagogue (Jingwei Street, Daoli District) Photo borrowed from here.

This post’s goal is to organize my thoughts about my experience at the museum and prepare me for my speech and paper that’s due next week.

Joseph Levikin designed the building so that it could hold up to 800 worshipers. A part of the synagogue also took the position as the Harbin Jewish Publish Library. The synagogue was used from when it was built to around the mid-1950’s. In the mid-20th century the majority of the Jewish population moved (to where, I don’t know…Israel and Europe?). The New Synagogue Museum has three levels:

First Level–Art and Photo Gallery: First half consists of traditional-style water and oil paintings of Old Harbin. Painting included St. Sophia Cathedral and other religious or European style buildings around the city in the early 1900s. Second half of the gallery consisted of modern-day photos of Harbin and modern art pieces that expressed Harbin culture. This gallery’s goal seems to compare the different time periods (early 1900s to today) and emphasize on the recent increase in economic development. Many of the modern photos showed tall skyscrapers, vast public parks, a tall television station radio pole, advanced bridges, and European-style buildings juxtaposed against Chinese city backdrop. The first level did not talk about Jewish history.

Second Level–History of Jewish Entrepreneurship: Entering the second level entryway, there was a 7-foot tall Menorah and a semi-circle hall that introduced the history of why 20,000 Jews escaped from persecution (xenophobia) and landed in Harbin. A quote introduced the second floor:

“Harbin is a city in China where some 20,000 Jews lived for many decades. Most importantly, they encountered no antisemitism among the Chinese, such as [was] prevalent in other lands. [F]rom the Chinese people they encountered no anti-Jewish bitterness or violence. As one result, former Jewish residents of Harbin called themselves ‘Harbintsi'” –Israel Epstein

The second floor (and the entire museum in general) emphasized the fact that the Jewish population in Harbin were never discriminated against. Discrimination is a sensitive topic in the CCP. Contemporary debates continue about whether the Chinese government is or is not discriminating against the populations in Tibet, Xinjiang, and Mongolia. With this in mind, I understand why the museum emphasized on this fact. This fact in history is a good model example for how China’s promotion towards societal harmony–和谐 harmony–and a peaceful nation. Whenever one can brag about one’s achievements, brag; however, always keep the bad parts hidden. I thought Peter Hessler made a good point in Oracle Bones: “One important fact about propaganda: the key information isn’t what you put in, but what you leave out” (Hessler 2006: 113). I’m not saying that the Chinese were actually cruel to the Jewish population. The frame that is being used to describe the non-discriminatory behavior towards the Jewish population in this modern museum can be analyzed to understand how the Chinese government (who put money into this project) wants us (the viewer) to perceive the Chinese nation. Is this museum’s goal to show Jewish history, to promote China, or both? What is the museum organizer purposely leaving out that rekindles modern day phenomenons?

The majority of the second floor’s display showed the entrepreneurship of many Jewish “Harbintsi,” including the opening of many pharmacies, schools, mills, and other industries. There was also a section that showed the “average” life of a Harbin Jew, but the life they showed was extremely extravagant: long, intricate wooden tables and desks, sculptures, paintings, figures…there was a Menorah made out of jade (syncretism).

Third Level: Upon reaching the top of the stairs, the wall leading to the main hallway was covered with dozens of picture frames of “Famous Jews:” Einstein, Spielberg, Gershwin, Salk…We then enter the main hall, the displays continue with the entrepreneurship theme and then moves on to the daily lives and culture of the Jewish population. It emphasized on the arts (violinists, pianists, etc), education, and outdoor activities (sledding, ice skating). My favorite part of the exhibit was the individual stories of the well-known Jewish members of the community. There was an entire wall of their stories. It gave the “Harbintsi” a face, than just a name.

Everyday Live of “Harbintsi”

The final part of the exhibit was the current state of the Jewish population–which is non-existent. However, descendants of the Harbintsi still come to Harbin to see their childhood homes and/or visit their parent’s graves (in the Jewish cemetery outside of the city). Also, the end was the collaboration the government and Jewish population in creating the museum. Unfortunately, I had to skim this portion of the exhibit.

My classmate, Emily, joined my professor and me to the exhibit. She is Jewish and was able to give us more information about her religion past the displays and exhibits. I really appreciated her company. After the walking through the museum, we walked to Zhongyang street and had a delicious lunch at East Dumpling King. We ate all sorts of dumplings (vegetable, beef fried, and pork soup dumplings), slices of pork, pickles, spinach, and other scrumptious foods.

Happy Birthday CCP!

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世界观不同- Different Worldviews

Looking at the world from another point of view.

In the U.S., our maps show North America and Europe as the largest and most dominant regions on the map. South America, Africa, Asia, and Australia are off to the side or on the bottom of the map. Actually, the average American world map will show Africa being much smaller than it actually is. China’s world map shows the opposite, Asia is in the middle and resides next to the vast Pacific Ocean.

How did you feel seeing a map that is different from the one we have grown accustomed to?

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