At the end of November in 2018, enthusiastic eighth-graders from Shanghai American School were chosen to be a part of the Wildfires, the 23rd Microcampus group. I, along with fifteen other classmates, was chosen to spend 28 days in a small village named Xizhou, Yunnan province, in China. Away from my family in the populated suburbs of Shanghai, I set out to study, explore, and learn about this whole new environment, its culture, history, its secrets. Apart from serving this community, the two largest projects we must complete are called Service Learning and Inquiry Project. For the Inquiry Project, we must choose a topic that is most interesting to us. I chose the weather of Xizhou.
As I browsed through the list of possible topic ideas in Phase 0, I came across three that I was extremely interested in and can relate to, wood carvings, local recreations and hobbies, and the weather of Xizhou. Hobbies interest me because everyone has something they do to endure time. Wood carvings caught my eyes due to the wood carving product I was working on in art class a few days prior to topic selection. Weather also seemed to make me wonder about how the citizens there are capable of keeping good weather. Debating between my three options, I chose the weather. Having lived in Shanghai all my life, the weather is best in regards to measuring differences and similarities. I may not be an expert in the other two topics but it seemed to me that weather is a topic I will be able to provide the most information on when it comes to conversations. Another benefit of the weather is the number of citizens I am able to interact with. Weather does not just affect one person or a group of people. It affects most everyone, therefore I will be able to build connections with many different people within the village.
Within Phase 1, I created 10 Big Questions to guide my journey in Xizhou. These questions are not tied to me like super glue, they just serve to be the starting point of field research. Throughout the process, I understood that the 10 Big Questions will indeed be changed. I realized some questions did not match the situation and needed to be changed to make the most out of this opportunity.
In Phase 2, I was in search of helpful resources like the earlier ones I have after arrival. I reflected upon my background research and I have spoken to Microcampus founder and teacher: Mr. Tafel, Ms. Mai, Linden Centre staff members: Ms. Braverman, Ms. Wang, and Mr. Yang. They helped me with my 3-to-5s, 3-to-5 minute conversations with 3-to-5 adults. They provided me with information and advice on who I can have meaningful conversations with to help me better understand my topic in the context of Xizhou.
In Phase 3, I spent nine hours in total on field research, having conversations with farmers, local fishermen, restaurant owners, coffee shop owners, security guards, horse cart drivers, Xizhou baba makers, travel agents, tourists, and vendors and recorded my findings in Phase 3. The reason why I chose such a large range of villagers to interact with is because of my need to look at many different opinions and point of views. My topic does not directly affect one group, but most everyone. I found local fishermen, horse cart drivers, and travel agents to have the most interesting perspectives on the weather of Xizhou. Based on the people with these three occupations, I have decided to work on different perspectives, understanding how the life of each person is affected uniquely, not a single group exactly the same as another.
Throughout the whole Inquiry Project, I focused on three main areas, those that guided my 10 Big Question and initiated my experience. The first area I considered was factual pieces of information. These acted as weekly, monthly, annual reports. My sources talked about rain season, seasonal patterns, and temperatures throughout the year. The second section I examined was the personal opinions on the weather, thoughts and how people are personally or professionally affected by the weather. Some sample responses would be like, "I enjoy rain season because I dislike my job. If it rains, I do not have to go to work." Or, "My occupation is depended solely on the weather. If it is sunny, I will make more money from tourists that travel here." The last portion I studied was future changes to the weather. Similar responses are those where villagers think the future generations will benefit by planting trees or harm the environment by building factories.
Relating both the sources I found the most interesting and my three main areas of learning I created a thesis to guide the sharing of my information and how far I have come to where I am right now: In order to examine the perspectives upon the weather of horse cart drivers, travel agents, and local fishermen, one might consider the logistics, personal opinions, and future generation changes upon the weather of Xizhou.
II. Sharing My Learning
The video above demonstrates my learning throughout the 20+ days I have spent in Xizhou understanding my Inquiry Project. Watch the video attached above or click here.
My biggest take away from the Inquiry Project experience would be the ability to confidently express myself and understand others in the community. This is a skill useful in many aspects of my life, in the present and in the future. It encourages the idea of empathy where I am able to think in the shoes of someone else. After that, I become more aware of the current situation, need, and wants of the citizen I converse with. As for my topic being weather, I notice the initiation of a ripple effect. Bad weather, leading to fewer tourists, causing low income, and uneasy businesses. My action and speech have been more cautious since then, being more mindful that words are more than words and actions are more than actions. My audience is always larger than I think.
My topic changed during the course of my study due to the amount of information I wanted to receive. I wanted to be able to converse with as many people as I can within the village. According to that, I widened the range of questions by changing my topic from the weather of Xizhou to the weather and climate of Xizhou. Elderlies that have lived in Xizhou all their lives are able to tell me about climate changes, long term patterns. Younger members of this community or people from other cities are more likely to talk about short-term changes. If every one of every age group talked about the weather and not long-term effects, I will be getting the exact same information on the weather. Leading to many different perspectives, as a self-organized project, I wanted mine to include a lot of diversity and difference.
The most difficult part of my research would probably be the first step of my field research. It is quite difficult to find the first person I am going to converse with. Unlike typical topics like wood carving or pottery, I did not have a specific person or a group of people to talk with to get a start. Sure, 3-to-5's helped me with ideas of possible people to talk with, but I did not quite know who first. So I went back to the start, to my first assumptions, my first acknowledgments. To farmers and fishermen, those I knew from the start, are affected by the weather. I visited Sha Cun, home of Mr. Yang and met his uncle, Mr. Yang, a local fisherman. He gave me a lot of personal approaches to the weather and opinions. He was a helpful Inquiry Project partner to kick off my field research journey.
My major discovery was the changes in temperature patterns throughout the day. The day after I first arrived in Xizhou, I noted the change in temperature throughout. In the morning, it was quite cold outside, even when the sun is barely over our heads. At noon, we were sweating in our jeans and t-shirts and we stepped upon our shadow under our feet. At night, the wind jumps in, sending a chill breeze over the warm night air, balancing the temperatures. About halfway into the trip, dark clouds finally rolled into eyesight from Cangshan. It started to rain. But at the same time, the sun was also present along with some wind. Afterward, the rainbow appeared over buildings, off in the distance. I was surprised by the fact that so many different weather signs can appear on the same day during the same time. I spent quite some time, standing under the rain, observing changes in the sky.
Through field research, background research, and 3-to-5s, I was able to understand my topic better in many ways. Through background research, I learned different weather-measuring methods and created expectations on the weather of Xizhou. In my 3-to-5s, I was able to understand the groups of people that are affected or not affected by the weather in their own ways. In my field research perspectives became key compared to everything else. All three of these areas helped me challenge my assumptions and things I thought I already know. I used to believe that weather is a factual topic, the largest assumption and sums up my whole topic. Coming to Xizhou, I learned that the weather is truly subjective. From there, my perspective and all my understanding have changed and my project went from there.
Inquiry Project gave me an opportunity to branch out to the community and interact with people I did not know. Back in Shanghai, I would never have been able to walk up to strangers on the streets and ask them about my topic, let alone, for them to help me answer questions. I would not say the Inquiry Project forced us to interact but it allowed me to. It is more of a privilege than an assignment. People seem to always think about technology when talking about communications. Face to face conversations are more important than conversations using technology. Texts cannot show emotions and thoughts, while in-person conversations demonstrate feelings and it is one of the only types of communication that is worthy of time (opinion). These interactions, to me, are priceless and memorable.
I think I developed the most as a person while working on field research. Being outside with the community made me feel fulfilled with being a part of it. I find myself needing support on the first step, I have issues with willpower, needing others to take the leap before I do. But I do not have any issues gradually continuing on the process of the whole Inquiry Project. The results I receive from the Inquiry Project is quite impressive and satisfying. This made me more content with my work and it made talking to citizens easier. Although I worked hard beforehand to reach this point where I am at right now but it seemed to me that I was being gifted for just having casual conversations with villagers.
As a learner, I think what I took most out of are my learning habits and routines. As a learner, it seems to me that I can get on top of my work easily on my own (personal work). But when it comes to reaching outside of my comfort zone, I become a little unwilling or difficult to move the process along. This is an issue, hard to work with because when the time comes around I need to be able to take the first step or nothing will be complete. I need slight pushes and nudges along the way to start doing any work. It is the Inquiry Project that I noted these kinds of problems. Now I know myself better as a student and a learner, I am able to express my strength and weaknesses freely amongst group projects. Others become more aware of what I need in order to work effectively.
Before the start of this project, it would have been easier to select a topic if we knew the four pillars. These are the four pillars that guide the whole Microcampus program, every action we question, we can refer back to these four pillars to see if we are supporting the program. The four pillars are: expanding intercultural understanding, working through challenges, personal growth, and awareness of impact. Through all of these four pillars, it is easier to determine my Inquiry Project topic. I would have chosen something I am least familiar with to meet expectations on personal growth. Then I would see which topic allows me to understand the culture more and better. Through a difficult topic, it would be inevitable to face challenges along the way. Lastly, awareness of impact, what is something I, personally, can bring for the community? As my topic is not a physical thing like embroidery or antiques, I cannot provide this community with a finished product of a piece, instead, hoping have spent time conversing with the citizens, they will be happier because of a simple conversation.
Through the work I have completed, I believe others might create different products to share their learning. For example, they might create a cylinder model, divided into four sectors, each showing a different season and its colors. If someone else is handy with technology, they might create a simple handheld tool that is portable, not highly expensive, and easy access for anyone to use. This way, others will have a more effective method to measure weather (as I learned that Xizhou has rapid weather changes throughout the day). Apart from these two, others might create a Wikipedia article, all informative and write down everything they have learned throughout this Inquiry Project experience. Before all the product comes into place, the information and the questions they ask might be changed. The information might be all factual or all perspective. It really depends on where the student wants to drive his/her project.
I would like to say thank you to my parents, who allowed to take this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to spend twenty-eight days in a village to learn, explore, and try new things I might have never known before. It taught me tons about culture, history, and differences. These are things I would take with me for a lifetime. Secondly, I would like to thank Mr. T and Ms. Mai, for looking out for us, guiding us, mentoring us, taking care of us, and the opportunity to come here. Mr. T and Ms. Mai are the reasons why I am here learning and exploring. Third, thank you to all the villagers who have helped me with my work, without their timing and willingness to do so, I would not have been able to end up where I am right now. They are the reason why I have a final product right now. Lastly, the fifteen other Wildfire members. Thank you for the support, encouragements, and smiles every day through the last 22 days. It made a huge difference.
Inquiry Project was such a large part of my life for around four months. Starting from topic selection up to where I am right now, I gave in plenty of effort and time into doing it properly. This project changes my mindset about my topic completely and assumptions were proven wrong. I learned more life skills in this one month in Xizhou than if I was back in Shanghai for a month. Since I was chosen to be a Microcampus member, I felt fortunate. Now I am prouder than I ever to announce myself as a Microcampus participant and an alumnus in the future.