16 Puxi SAS students arrived in a village of Yunnan province known as Xizhou on March 9, 2019. They will stay there for 4 weeks, studying a topic that they have chosen prior to the trip. These students are known as the Wildfires Microcampus group.
The topic I chose was Local Legends/ Spirits/ Stories, because I enjoyed listening to legends and learning about the impact of it or the reason it exists. We originally had an entire list of possible topics to choose from, and we narrowed that into our 3 top choices before finally picking one as our final choice.
We had 9 sessions of field research total, where we would visit recommended contacts given to us during our Phase 2 3-5s conversations, accompanied by teacher support with each outing. The contacts I have received included people like Mr. Du or Ms. A Ling, and also places to visit like Da Ci Si or Sha Cun Benzhu Miao.
Some of these contacts or places would yield successful information, but other times, I would run into a dead end either due to the people there refusing to talk to me or I could not find anyone at the location at all. During successful sessions, I would learn a story as well as what the impact of the story is, along with some context of the characters and gods within it. Sometimes, however, all I would get is a name of a story or a recommendation to visit a different temple. No matter how it turned out, I would still learn something from the experience.
The kinds of questions I tried to answer were questions that would help me understand what the overall story is about, some of its origins, and most importantly, what the impact of it is. For example, I would ask for the person to list some stories they know, and then ask whether or not they know if the story is a myth or an actual event, and then if it had influenced Xizhou tradition in any way.
Sharing My Learning
I have completed a video, view it here.
What I took away from this experience is to not be shy when asking questions; approach people and to not be afraid to ask the people at the location. That way, you will not miss any information that the person could know. Having to go up to people and simply talk to them has pushed me out of my comfort zone, and I feel that now, I will not be so afraid to converse with others anymore. I also found out that even to a single, small village, the culture goes deep. There are so many different celebrations with a variety of traditions and rituals that I never thought was even possible. It really taught me that there is so much more to a place than what meets the eye.
My topic did not really change throughout the course of my study because I know that I have chosen a strong one that I would stick with, since I am really interested in it. However, after a few sessions, I did tweak my list of questions a little. Since I already knew quite a few stories, I changed my first question from "What is the most well known legend in Xizhou?" to "Can you list a few well known legends that you know?" This way, I could both get a few titles of stories and ask further on the ones that I did not know. It also felt remarkable that after around 4 or 5 sessions, I completely abandoned my list of questions and just had a normal conversation with people.
The most difficult part of my research was, like stated before, coming up with the courage to approach people first and converse with them. Of course, there were other challenges as well, such as understanding the person through their Bai accent or trying to find people who knew information about my topic. There were many times where I had to continue to smile and nod dumbly despite not being able to understand a single sentence the person has just said. There was also this one time where I asked down an entire road of shops and none of the owners knew a single legend.
One of my "a-ha" moments, or a moment that I felt success on, was when I finally understood the origin of Xizhou's Benzhu. Upon taking some scattered notes on the story and hearing the teacher support retell the story in simpler terms, I managed to be able to piece the entire tale together and understand how and why Duan Zong Bang became the Benzhu. After that, whenever anyone mentioned the Benzhu, I had an easier time following the story as I knew who he was and what he had done.
By researching this project, I had come to know my topic better in more than only informational ways. I found that indeed, the stories would alter depending on the area or even the person. I learned about traditional rituals, and how certain gods or myths were associated with which places. This had given me a first person experience on what I could only learn in books back in Shanghai.
Having to visit many places helped me interact with the local community. I had visited every temple in walking distance, along with one that was in a nearby village that I had biked to. So whenever someone mentions a temple during their conversations (and trust me, that does happen) I would know exactly which one they were talking about. Also, when I do not gain any information from the temple, I would visit nearby shops to ask the owners. This had also helped me establish a connection with the civilians of Xizhou.
This project had helped me understand myself better as well. I had always assumed that I was not too important of a person; that the impact of the things I did were nearly invisible. Now, I realize that that is not true: when I talk to someone, sometimes I can see clearly that they enjoy having a conversation with me. They would go on talking for minutes, even going around the area and showing me items related to my topic. I know for a fact that they will remember a certain SAS student from Shanghai that had stopped them in their routines to talk to them for a few moments.
Coming to Xizhou had made me find out that I could be a lot braver than I think I am, as long as I take the initiative to step out of my comfort zone. This applies to physical challenges that we encounter, or to mental ones such as confronting strangers. Many things could be resolved this way if one overcomes the mental roadblock and simply make it happen.
If I could go back in time to the beginning of this process, I would tell myself to not be afraid. Back then, I was feeling really afraid; about the schedule, about talking to people, about the final project, about keeping on top of SAS essentials. I found that I could do a lot of things if I was not worrying about actually doing the thing. I feel like I could get some more stuff done if I had saved myself some energy and time from worrying.
If someone were to build off of the work I had already done, I would recommend them to reach out in a different direction. I have focused mainly on the impact of the story on the overall culture, but if the next person could focus on how the legend has impacted the personal lives of the people they talked with, some more interesting and different knowledge could be gained.
I want to thank everyone who had lended a hand in helping me move this project forward: Mr. Tafel and Ms. Mai, for setting up the program in the first place and taking care of our wellbeing, all the teacher support that went with me on the trip to make sure I stay safe or help with translation, and finally, all the people I have talked with during my field research for being patient with me and providing information.
Microcampus had made me grow as a person, and I hope that the next program can continue to provide the same, once-in-a-lifetime experience to students.