by Michael LoStracco, religion department and international student sponsor
We arrived in China as tourists, but we left as guests, having learned one immeasurably precious value through our service-learning work, that of intimacy.
Upon our arrival in Beijing, we were immediately swept up into the manic rush of the sprawling capital city. High on the North China Plain, Beijing is an endless city, seemingly boundless across spans of history, geography, and imagination. We spent our first three days in China visiting some of the most important Chinese cultural heritage sites, including the Great Wall, Tiananmen Square, and the Forbidden City. Our group spent some time among the crowded and storied hutongs—the historic and quickly vanishing warrens of squat residential buildings and outdoor markets that characterize some of the oldest parts of the city— but mostly we were whisked from site to site, trying to see all that we could see in our short time there. We were fortunate enough to have some relatively clear, sunny days, which are few and far between in Beijing, with the notable exception of being caught in a rare hailstorm while visiting the Temple of Heaven. During our time in the capital, we dined in popular restaurants and slept in comfortable hotel beds. Pleasant, yes, but distant: our group was eager to experience China, to work and live within communities, to meet and come to know our hosts.
From Beijing we flew three hours south and west to the provincial capital of Guiyang, in Guizhou, a province populated by the ethnic minority Miao and Dong peoples. From Guiyang, we drove another three hours to the prefectural seat of Kaili, a smaller city of approximately 500,000. Along the way, we were introduced to smaller cities and towns, each known for its contribution to Miao and southern Chinese culture.
Our service work began in Kaili, where the transformation from tourist to guest began to take place. Our group worked closely with the English language students at the University there, helping them practice their conversational English, teaching them new English words and phrases, and playing language-based games. But beyond the instruction and play, something else was taking place: the students began connecting across language barriers and cultural differences with humor and curiosity. Lessons and games turned into conversation and discussion, which then led to games of basketball and table tennis. A transformation was taking shape before our eyes, though few of us were aware of it at the time. Through smiles and laughter and sweat, a deepening understanding and bond was being formed. We were getting closer, more intimate, with our hosts, the country and the culture.
From Kaili we hiked roughly nine miles through the Thunder God mountain range to the rural Miao village of Baibi, home to a community of subsistence farmers and their families. The hike was arduous, and the group struggled mightily to complete it, but after four and half hours, we finally arrived and were greeted with the blasts of firecrackers, bamboo pipe music, and saucerfuls of warm Sprite, which were ceremoniously served to us by elder women in colorful traditional custom. Exhausted and famished, we had dinner together and rested, preparing for our first full day of work the following day. Our project in Baibi was to build benches and planters made of brick and concrete at the local elementary school. All the work tasks were to be done manually: all the hauling, lifting, mixing, laying, and smoothing was to be done with our own bodies, by our own effort and sweat.
With gloved hands and aging tools, our group enthusiastically got to work the next morning, straining our bodies in the southwestern China sun, diligently completing each task and earning a righteous exhaustion. Along the way, we learned from the locals how to mix cement, lay brick and handle shovels, hoes, and trowels without straining ourselves. Our hosts were patient with us, and we learned from each other in ways beyond language. Because school was still in session, we even had the opportunity to work with some of the children at the school, whose bright smiles and brilliant curiosity taught us all something about spontaneity, generosity and unselfconsciousness. Each afternoon and evening we shared meals together in the village secretary’s home, bowlfuls of delicious locally grown and raised vegetables and meats, wok-fried to sumptuous perfection, served over heaps of white rice from the rippled hillsides around us. The food and the time spent together eating and resting were nourishing. Slowly, over the course of five days, we were growing more intimate with each other, with our work, and with the community that hosted and supported us.
Upon completing our service-learning work in Baibi, we continued on to the larger Miao village of Xijiang, which has developed over the last four years into a domestic tourist hotspot. It is no surprise why: The picturesque village is tucked away in a lush valley surrounded by green hills dotted with spruce and cedar and lined with verdant terraced rice paddies. Xijiang offers colorful demonstrations of commerce and culture and is quite bustling, a big change from sleepy Baibi. Our group entered the village through one of its massive gates and proceeded to hike on up into the hills to meet our host families. Fortunately, our large luggage met us at the top, taken there on mule back.
Our work in Xijiang began the following day, and unfortunately the mules wouldn’t be able to help us with our commute to the work site each day, which involved a steep and rigorous 30-minute hike. As challenging as the hike alone was, the view it afforded was surely worth it: for miles all around one took in a vista of rolling, rippled deep green hills veiled in a soft grey mist, a mist that rolled on through the valleys like a tide. The scenery was gripping, beautiful, causing one to pause every few steps just to take it all in.
Once we got to the work site, where we our job was to help repair and revive an old overgrown paddy, the hard manual work resumed. Our group jumped to it, taking the shovels, hoes, and buckets and getting to the laborious task of earth removal, digging up mounds of grass and dirt to both flatten and clear the ground and to get at the clay we would use to make cement. Again, the locals modeled how to work and use our tools properly, so as not to burn-out or injure ourselves. We watched and listened closely and followed their lead. In pairs, some of us took to the task of creating an embankment which would effectively retain the water in the paddy and prevent too much run-off and possible mudslides. For three days we engaged in demanding physical labor under the cover of mountain cloud and mist. We shared stories and jokes with one another and found ways to interact and laugh with our local guides. In the afternoons and evenings, our group parted ways and returned to our homestays, where we had our meals and rested. Again the service-learning work pushed us physically, but as we were beginning to realize, we were being challenged in other ways as well.
The elders in the village of Xijiang gave us a heartfelt and colorful send-off on our final night, performing several traditional songs and dances, much to the delight of our group and the small children of the village. We were even invited to share something of our own, which we did, singing a rousing, if out-of-tune, rendition of the George School hymn. The next morning we set out for Guiyang, the provincial capital, stopping along the way to hike through an incredible natural preserve with three gorgeous, crystalline waterfalls. Once in Guyiyang, our guide Michael took us to visit a popular park in the city center, inhabited by wild macaque monkeys who happen to have an appetite for processed snack foods and bottled water. Hiking uphill to the center of the park, we came to an ancient Mahayana Buddhist temple and monastery. There we were greeted by the fragrance of incense and the billowing smoke from joss sticks lit to carry off supplicants’ prayers and intentions to the heavens. We were shown around the main temple to Shakyamuni Buddha by a monk who explained the ornate decorations and statuary, and some of us were moved to make offerings of our own. Considering it was our final night in China before a long day of travel home, such offerings seemed appropriate.
Throughout the trip we held meetings for worship, and before bed on our final night together in China, we met one last time. Gathered there, the ten of us in a small hotel room in Guiyang, sitting in a circle on the floor, exhausted and eager to see our families after a long journey, it struck me just how close we had all become, and not just with each other, but also with the country, its people and the virtues of service-learning work. This led me to reflect on the nature of intimacy, of closeness, and how in our ordinary life back home, we are hardly intimate with ourselves, our work and each other in the ways we are when traveling in a distant land and doing hard work, especially in a rural, mountainous region like Guizhou, so far removed from anything familiar to us back home.
Through our traveling together, on planes and buses and vans, we had come to trust and rely on one another for safety, for company, for the relief of laughter. Hiking together— up and down the Great Wall, through the mountain wilderness and countryside—brought us closer not only to each other but also to a sense of China’s great history, to its immense and immeasurably beautiful natural environment and cultural heritage. Working together, whether in the classroom or out in the rice paddies, brought us all closer to a sense of ourselves, what we are capable of, what our bodies can do and the limits of our exertion. Through our work and sweat we gave of ourselves in service to others, from whom we came to learn how to do just that, humbly and graciously. Through the food we ate we became closer to the land, eating that which was grown and raised locally by our hosts, in the places we saw and worked in. We became more intimate with agricultural life, with the sounds and smells of animals that are uncommon in the suburbs of Philadelphia. Most importantly, through our entire trip together, we became thoroughly conversant and intimate with difference: the differences among individuals in our small group, the differences of geography, and language and culture, the difference between who we were at the start of the trip and who we had become by its end. We had arrived as tourists, feeling distant and perhaps alien to the unfamiliar sights, smells, and sounds of a foreign land, but through our service-learning work and being nurtured by the openness and kindness of our hosts, we had become guests, feeling close to the land and its people, learning the value of giving of ourselves and being open to receiving from others.