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108 braids... the devotional representation of a sacred Tibetan number. Photo by Rebecca Thom, China Semester.

Spirited Away

I woke up early this morning in the Baoxiang Temple, before the sun rose, before the fog cleared, and before the fearless monkeys went out on the prowl. This particular temple hugs the foot of a large cliff, a reddish tan pile of pancakes with dark streaks running down the sides and stairs cut into the rock. Half way up and through the drizzle of a waterfall are two large Buddha statues looking out over the temple and valley. The narrow steps get more interesting as you go higher from there. They split in different directions and dart all over the cliff face, sometimes going under or over small stone bridges. In places you have to do a double take to figure out their physical geometry: they are real life optical illusions. There is a small, ornate building near the top of the cliff, at the end of one such set of stairs. From there, the surrounding mountains are just the right scale: not so big that they look like a two dimensional photo, but big enough to induce a shiver when you take them in all at once. The wind carries the clouds quickly through the valley as they navigate the terrain in real-time, at eye level. This place does away with the restrictions of being a small human in a way no other place does, while simultaneously reminding you of how miniscule you are. I pause for a few hours, then return.

On the way back down, everything is bathed in morning sunlight. The Buddha’s smile gleams. The waterfall sparkles. Down at the base, all the buildings have put on their brilliant daytime show. Every white space has a painting of some mountain scene and every roof, porch column, window, and door has intricate wooden decorations. The carvings range from simple patterns to fully fledged scenes with people and animals, and they are all unique. A bell rings, signaling breakfast. I cannot help thinking that I’m in a real life Spirited Away as I walk through this quiet, though hardly abandoned temple towards a table full of food. After everyone has arrived, we sit down to eat.

Life in the group is refreshing and comfortable. Sometimes I forget that we hardly knew each other a week ago, yet are going through some of the most difficult stresses of travel together like we are old friends. Perhaps it’s because of the common sense of adventure and the love for new experiences that brought us to Bride Year in the first place. Probably it has something to do with the structure and guidance that the program provides. And there is certainly a sense in which we can bond over being foreign. The significant changes in routine (I am thinking of the squatting toilets right now) are cause for deliberation. Conversations about differences between countries are easier to have with English-speaking Americans who can relate. At the table, we talk about back home just as much as we talk about China: sometimes it’s about quirks of our home state, sometimes it’s our favorite movies or songs, sometimes it’s memes from the states that we introduce to our Mandarin teacher (Jesse will probably censor that one). Sometimes there’s a feeling that we are still on a little piece of the United States, just broken off and floating through a strange new place. Earlier in Kunming I was surprised at how few foreigners there were, until I realized that there were six right in front of me for all of my waking hours. Traveling in a group helps us process what we are seeing more thoroughly, but it also provides comforts of home that need to be delicately balanced with uncomfort. Each member of the group takes on an individual role: covering food & water, managing transportation, etc. This system forces each of us to go out on a limb rather than stick to our friends. In our daily check-ins, we often talk about ways we can engage more. Intentionally seeking out small conversations with other Chinese helps too. We are told that being immersed will greatly improve our language skills (or in my case, create them) and help us learn about a culture much more than we could from books. But you cannot just be immersed, you have to immerse yourself. The hardest challenge is working with each other without relying entirely on each other, and I’m still working on that.