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Photo by Sampor Burke, Mekong Semester.

With the group in Xishuangbanna

Dear Friends and Family,

My name is David Haffeman and I am writing to you from the beautiful village of Manzhang in the Southern part of the Yunnan Province. Manzhang is a small community traditionally centered around rubber and tea production that has opened its doors to visitors and has developed a model of ecotourism. Here we will experience our first homestay of the course and enjoy the relaxed pace of life in this rural setting. Together with our community coordinator, Madeleine, we have been sharing in the mix of Chinese and traditional Dai cultures.

As you may already know I am a veteran Dragon’s instructor and I have stepped in to support the group while Jessica Armstrong is away to rest and recover from her injuries. As a member of Dragon’s risk management team I have been following this group closely over the past week and a half. I have been able to step into the instructor role fully prepared to support the group during this stage of the course. Since I met the group yesterday at their hostel in Jinghong I have been grateful for how accepting the students have been in welcoming me as a new instructor. These are truly special students that have shown incredible resilience and a desire to re-engage with the course.

Madeleine has received a Fulbright grant to do research on tourism in ethnic communities in Xishuangbanna and has been working in villages in the region for the past year. Madeleine has been so generous to share her knowledge of regional ethnic cultures with the students and facilitate meaningful experiences with the community. Her passion for community interaction is clear as she continues to engage the students and support in every way as we navigate this new culture.

Our homestay in Manzhang has been the perfect experience to get the group back in the groove of a Dragons course. The village is quiet, quaint, and we are able to come together as a group while also offering the students the ability to explore individually. This region is famous for Pu’er tea and today we all harvested tea leaves in the surrounding hills. Our untrained eyes garnered us friendly chuckles from locals as we were not as adapt at selecting the perfect quality tea leaves. One of the village nainai (grandmothers) then showed us how to roast the leaves, roll them, and set them to dry in the sun. By this afternoon our freshly harvested tea was ready to enjoy as a perfect end to our first day together in Manzhang.

Friendly faces and the welcoming nature of this community has abated our initial anxiety of the challenges of verbal communication with host families. Students are sharing in the homestay experience in groups of three and we meet together during the day to recount our tales of charades with families and to learn more about customs and norms of our generous hosts. Today Madeleine and Marcus gave a much appreciated lesson on Mandarin survival phrases to use with families for as we head into our second day with our families.

These students chose to join Dragons because they wanted an experience that would challenge them and allow them to fully immerse themselves in the complex cultural landscape of Southeast Asia. We are immensely proud of this group of students and instructors that, despite great odds, have remained resilient and unified in their desire to continue this journey.