Tag Archives: china. Amdo

Heading to Shangri-La

On my second trip to Asia, Michelle arranged to have me travel with a young student of hers, Dawa Drolma. Extremely intelligent, she was, of course, equally provincial. From a small village in Qinghai Province, she graduated from Qinghai Normal University* in Xining, a very large city in the far west of China, but she had no travel experience. She did, however, speak English very well.  It was a tough job for her in many ways.  The Chinese spoken in the regions where we spent much of our time was difficult for her to understand, so communication was exhausting. As her main task was to function as translator, it must have been quite frustrating.  Also, we encountered some strange happenings that could only befall illiterate strangers…us!  But those stories will come later in the story.

Yunnan Province is rich with the remnants of many indigenous cultures.  In China, there are 55 ethnic groups co-residing with the predominant Han Chinese, and 25 of these can be found in Yunnan. Wanting to see  cultural diversity, the trip was planned accordingly, dipping south west into the lowland rice and tea regions, where the Yi, Naxi, Bai, and Mosuo societies can be found*.  Bordering Vietnam, Laos, and Burma, this canyon-filled landscape is verdant and lush, with the vast diversification of natural species gracing a habitat that has plenty of water and sun.  But in the northwest, Yunnan borders the Tibetan Autonomous Region, the place most of us call Tibet. It is this part of China where we find the Diqin Plateau and mountains soaring to the heavens.  Kawagebo Peak ascends a mighty 22,110 ft (6,740 m).

On my itinerary of “must sees” was a town called Shangri-La, basking at an altitude of well over 10,000 ft. It is supposedly the paradise James Hilton referred to in his 1933 novel, Lost Horizon, but I was attracted to it because of its historical Tibetan town.  As it turns out, Dawa Drolma’s very best friend from college lives there. Visiting Dolma turned out to be life changing


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Michelle in China

My niece graduated from UC Davis with a degree in Women’s Studies. During her time at school she spent a year in Spain, and investigated as much as she could of European culture in her spare time.  After graduation she expressed a desire to explore cultures in the so called Eastern Hemisphere and signed up with Volunteers in Asia, a good-will program out of Stanford.  She was assigned a post teaching in the far west of China, a very long way from home and family.  We were all a bit freaked, but as it turned out, her journey sparked adventures for all of us.  Her assignment ultimately had her teaching English to Tibetans who had made it to the Chinese University in Xining.  There was much that was eye opening, not just the typical foreignness, but from her perspective, the consistent diminishment of women was visible everywhere…including her classroom.

Michelle 2005

Michelle 2005

It was soon apparent that her female students were not actively participating, and thus not doing very well.  Upon inquiry, she discovered a cultural roadblock. Asking questions in front of men is not admired in the traditional Tibetan culture, thus all of the young women were thwarted in their efforts to keep up with the guys.  Rising to the occasion, she suggested they come study with her on the weekends.  Several did, and not only did their English improve, they formed a women’s group to delve deep into what it means to be female in a Tibetan world.  Out of this endeavor came an insightful book, Heavy Earth, Golden Sky: Tibetan Women Speak About Their Lives, edited by Michelle. http://www.tibetanreview.net/women-in-tibet-in-their-own-words-sans-politics/

A book written by Tibetan women with stories from their lives.

A book written by Tibetan women with stories from their lives.

These women ultimately formed a very productive non profit organization, Shem Women’s Group.  Facilitating fundamental improvements for their villages by getting grants, they purchased solar panels and solar cookers, provided potable water to spigots in villages, and even built a bridge.

The unwavering powerhouse behind this group was, of course, Michelle.

Posted in GENESIS, STILL CRAZY AFTER ALL THESE YEARS (china 2015) Also tagged , , |