I’d known from textbooks, as well as some of my own observations in Kunming, that Yunnan Province is an extremely diverse one, the most diverse in all of China. It is home to 26 out of the 55 registered ethnic minorities in the country and is significantly influenced, both culturally and otherwise, by its Southeast Asian neighbors, Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam. Despite what I had already known, though, there was no possible way of predicting what I experienced during our four-day trip to Xishuangbanna.
Xishuangbanna is one of China’s Dai autonomous prefectures, meaning that a significant portion of the prefecture’s population is of the Dai ethnic minority. Located in the far south of Yunnan Province, Xishuangbanna shares borders with Myanmar and Laos. It’s a tropical region, so we enjoyed some beautiful 80 to 90 degree weather during our four days there. We left early Wednesday morning and spent the day on a bus; we didn’t arrive at our first minority village until around 11:00 that night.
The Daizu Village
Our first two nights were spent in a Daizu (傣族, meaning Dai ethnic minority) theme park. The theme park was created to resemble a Dai minority village, so the guesthouse we stayed in was similar to a true Daizu home. I knew the guesthouse we would be sleeping in for the first two nights wasn’t going to be like the university dorm I’m used to, but I wasn’t fully prepared for the Dai village. We slept in small rooms on the second floor of the building, which was a little like a large barn loft, something that is typical of Dai-style homes. The amount of insects and four-legged creatures, which are my biggest phobia by far, was the most difficult thing for me to get used to in the village. Showering with a lizard or two on the wall next to me was not an easy task! Despite the minor challenges, though, it didn’t take long for me to become accustomed to our living arrangements.
We spent the majority of our two days in the Dai village speaking with the residents as part of a surveying assignment for my ethnicities course. We also had the opportunity to experience a Dai ethnic tradition: the Water Splashing Festival. This festival is traditionally held once a year as a New Year celebration. The Dai will dress in their best clothing and splash buckets of water at each other, both strangers and friends alike. The Dai people highly value water; for them, it holds a religious connotation, representing purity and good intentions. The theme park holds a miniature Water Splashing Festival every day, where tourists can dress in Dai clothing and splash each other in the park’s central fountain. The park was especially crowded that day, so lots of Chinese tourists joined us in the mini festival. Learning about the community’s lifestyle and culture was especially interesting because I didn’t have a lot of knowledge about the Dai minority prior to our trip. Nearly everyone we met was happy to share more about themselves.
After two days in the Daizu village, we piled into two vans and drove for about three hours to Nanpen (南盆), a relatively small Aini minority village south of the Daizu village. Unlike the Daizu village, Nanpen is not a theme park, but an actual village located in the mountains. There were no tourists other than our study abroad program, and so this portion of our trip felt much more authentic. We split up into groups of three to five students and stayed with families within the village. Everyone we met was so friendly and hospitable, which made the experience even more enjoyable for me. Most of our time was spent just getting to know more about the Aini people and their cultural practices. We asked several families our survey questions, but also spent a lot of time during meals speaking with both young and older generations. The kids were especially fun to talk to, and they didn’t mind when I spoke slowly or asked them to repeat themselves in Chinese! We played basketball and other games that we brought along as gifts for the kids in the afternoon, and we sang and danced with the others at night after sharing a meal together. Even though we couldn’t understand the music they sang, they loved when we joined in. The excitement was more in sharing a homemade meal and connecting through music.
As cliché as it may sound, spending just two days in the Aini village was a life-changing experience for me. I can’t say that I’ve had a lot of those, but living in that village and discovering a lifestyle so incredibly different from my own was the most rewarding experience I’ve ever had. During those two days, we had no cell service and no Internet, and to my own surprise, I was completely satisfied with being so removed from the rest of the world. I felt content with what I had, not really needing anything else. That’s how everyone in Nanpen seems to live – modestly, using what he or she needs without always wanting more. Their lifestyle is lacking in the modern luxuries that a city life provides, but from what I observed, they don’t want to change that. Nearly everyone we surveyed receives a majority, if not all, of their income from farming. People spend a portion of every day outside, where the weather is always sunny, whether it’s feeding the animals that roam freely underneath the homes, walking up the hillsides to pick tea leaves, or gathering the vegetables that are served at every meal. Nanpen is such a close community, where everyone knows just about everyone else, and people enjoy the work that they do because they work together to benefit the village. Most of the kids complete high school but never study at a university, and as we discovered through our surveying, even those who do complete a university-level education usually return to the village, never leaving the lifestyle into which they were born. To me, that reveals quite a lot about the kind of community the people of Nanpen have created. After some reflection, the most accurate word I can think of to describe everything that I experienced during my time with them is “beautiful.”
My experiences in Nanpen differed pretty significantly from those in the Daizu theme park, but I feel as though I’ve learned a lot about both minorities from my time in Xishuangbanna. I’m grateful for the time I spent with both minority villages, and I hope that I’ll some day have an opportunity to see them again.