Update from Richard Chang - China
As I boarded the sleeper bus for the overnight ride to Yuanyang, a mystic Chinese township home to the most glorious rice-paddy terraces in the world, I could feel the adrenaline flowing through my hands and out through my legs. The bus was packed and humid, and I felt like I was suffocating in the sweat and body odor of those around me. But it didn’t matter.
We were traveling to one of Yunnan’s most famous destinations, an area dominated by minority groups, particularly the Hani people, known for their straw huts and colorful clothing but also poverty. As I was on the bus, questions inundated my head: What would the villages look like? Would the rural areas be as undeveloped as many have said they were? Would the place be full of tourists? Were the rice paddies as beautiful as what we saw in pictures? I didn’t know what to expect, but I wanted to keep an open mind and heart to be accepting, appreciative, and reflective of all that I saw, felt, heard, smelled, and experienced.
As the bus rolled in on a quiet Saturday morning into Old Town Yuanyang, the first glimpses of Yuanyang’s most celebrated sights came into focus—magical, mysterious, and marvelous rice paddies. The paddies were stacked one on top of another, almost like stairs, with pools of sparkling water on each level. The bold mountainous background contrasted beautifully with the gentle terraces, making the scenery look like a carefully thought-out painting. There were thousands of terraces, and it was unlike anything I’d ever seen.
Not surprisingly, that afternoon our group trekked down for a hike into the rice paddies. After about an hour of trekking, we somehow found ourselves walking into a local Hani village. We didn’t know if we were welcomed in this village, so we found a local and asked him if it was okay that we come and look around. He smiled and said it was no problem; the tension I had felt at entering an unknown village dissipated instantly.
As we walked into the village, the smell of dung, hay, and livestock all mixed together wafted through the dense air. The houses in the village had roofs made out of hay and were built out of a mixture of brick, mud, sticks, stones, and clay. Black smoke came out of the chimneys and the walls were lined with cracks, evidencing their age. Wandering chickens accompanied by little yellow chicks wobbled besides us. Smiling kids ran around, playing, yelling, and laughing. As we made our way through the narrow streets, we had to walk cautiously to avoid the incoming oxen, cows, and donkeys. The animals would stare at us with their liquid grey eyes, and we would stare back. We saw elderly women in their unique minority clothing—coats with stripes of red, black and purple; long black pants that had a pattern of bright colors near the ankle; hats with jewelry and luminously colored embroideries dangling from them—carrying wood to their stove to cook dinner. It was a serene village, yet I could tell it was very poor. In spite of their poverty, it seemed to me, as I saw the kids laughing, elderly ladies smiling, and the middle-aged men so welcoming, that it is not necessarily how much wealth we have that determines our happiness and fulfillment; it seems to depend more on our attitude and heart.
As we left the village and walked closer to the rice paddies, I couldn’t help but think how different life was here. Children here do not have iPhones or iPads; much of the food, clothing, and materials that they have they grow or make themselves. Nor do the children have the same educational opportunities that those in the cities do. And as I reflected, I was humbled and asked myself, “How would my life be different if I was born in a rural village in Yuanyang instead of in the US?”
It was 6:42 in the evening when we finally reached the rice paddies, with the sun close to setting and its warm, golden rays extending in all directions and reflecting brilliantly off the many pools of water on the rice paddies. As we walked in between the rice terraces, the sky exploded with colors at the setting of the sun —an intimate pink, a tranquil blue, a peaceful green, a majestic yellow— and I felt lost: in beauty, in wonder, in gratefulness, in hope. While I was standing and watching the sunset, I thought about all the things I’m grateful for: my family, both the one at home and the one I have here in the form of the six other Princeton students with me; the opportunity to come and learn about such a fascinating country as China; and the relationships I’ve made here. That memory, of beauty both internal and external, stays with me still.
On our way back to the hotel, we ran into two little girls from the village we had just visited and their mother and we shared some sugar cane we had been enjoying with them. When the girls received the sugar cane, smiles blossomed like lilies on their faces and their sparkling eyes lit up with appreciation and happiness. The look on the two girls’ faces when they received what felt like such simple gifts will forever be ingrained in my mind. Their mother seemed very grateful that we were kind to her daughters. I realized that despite the great cultural, language, and religious barriers people of all ethnicities and races have, those barriers can be broken down with kindness. Here were two radically different cultures coming together in thanksgiving and peace—a scene that needs to be seen more in this world. It’s giving what one has, even if it’s not much, that can make a difference in another life.
We spent another day exploring the area and as the trip concluded, I reflected on what I learned and how magnificent the sceneries were. Although the trip was only three days, I felt that it was life changing, teaching me to be more thankful and exposing me to a world that I had not experienced before. Never before had I seen children laugh and play so cheerfully despite the poverty around them; never before had I realized the simplicity of kindness and the extent of its impact; never before had I understood nature’s ability to mold one’s heart. And never will I forget the smiles on those two girls and the lesson they taught me.