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Photo by Sampor Burke, Mekong Semester.

First Days in China

Since arriving here in the Eastern hemisphere, I have felt hesitant to share my personal experiences on a public forum, fearing that it would detract from their meaning. Living in rural cattle communities and rice farm villages has distanced my connection with the black hole which we call the internet, and though it has been refreshing, it has also left me disillusioned with the idea of “posting”. I’m also sure that my choice to abstain from the yak board thus far can be contributed to my swift judgements of any group practice as contrived, whether it be my 5th grade science fair or even my high school graduation. So by acknowledging both my hesitations and unreasonable faults, I am hoping to recenter on the idea of what sharing is, and move forward reminding myself that the importance lies in the intention behind my words. To my parents, thank you for tolerating my irrational vindication with organized effort, and I hope you appreciate this short insight into our first few days in the great Chinese world.

Our crossing from Cambodia into Laos didn’t immediately seem so obvious, aside from the official border and custom procedures. As time passed, and we ventured into more urban areas, the differences between the two countries became more evident, especially in lifestyle pace and government operations. Still, it felt clear to me that we were in the same cultural realm of the earth. Driving into China though, the immediacy of change was astonishing. A Chinese mega hotel complex was being constructed on the Laotian land outlining the Chinese border, and could likely be considered the most luxurious development that I had seen in-country. My first impressions led me to expect a world not only different to those we were leaving, but of any place I had traveled before.

For a short moment, I doubted the coming experience which was China, a place I’ve known little about aside from it’s common description as a crowded powerhouse. Soon though, my skepticism passed and my mind returned to excitement and impatient curiosity. Watching out of the window, egg shaped buildings began towering out of the ground as we neared the city of Jinghong. They were quickly followed by ornamental apartment complexes and racing Dragon boats, a mixture of rapid urban development and ancient cultural practices preserved in modern day. Everything felt new to my eyes; even the Mekong ran faster and stronger than I had ever seen it before.

The next few hours consisted of desperate attempts to accustom myself to the unfathomable. The city was hot and sticky, and stocked with ever-moving people, vehicles, and voices. The laid back Laotian way of life had been replaced with Chinese rush and lack of hesitation. The spit hocks hitting the sidewalk, the raw hunks of meat on the market, and the never ending stream of selfie requests from locals left me substantially confused, even with regard to my own emotions. The coming day we continued our loose routine, commencing the day with lessons and concluding with the Jinghong botanical gardens. Walking along the floral ponds, there was great space to contemplate the urban identity of Jinghong and cities in the United States.

Our last day in the city was the eve of the Dai New Year. My mind still felt victim to the Jinghong chaos, and I hadn’t yet grasped what I expected myself to need to feel comfortable. Our group spent the day along the Mekong, watching the New Year preparations in the midday heat. As the day neared its end, we followed the crowds back down to the riverside for the night festivities. After an hour or so of exploring the evening market, eating cotton candy, and playing carnival games which clearly had no end, we retired to dinner at a restaurant overlooking the Mekong.

The swarming people along the river began to send floating lanterns to the sky as the sun set, riddling the dark with swimming balls of orange. We all sat in awe, transfixed on the slowly rising lights. It could almost be described as apocalyptic, floating orbs of fire looming above us, but instead of fear, this fire represented the wishes and celebration of our new world, and the new year.

We went down to join the tradition of sending off wishes into the coming year, still star struck by the lanterns, filling up the sky one by one. Together, we joined to open and light the lanterns, eventually pushing each up into the air. The fear of being unable to understand the bustling and busy lifestyle of China suddenly dissipated, and the noise of the crowds became white and comforting as the reality of this festival dawned on me. Tens of thousands of people, the people who spit on the sidewalk, the people selling street meat, the people asking for selfies, had come together to send their hopes and dreams off in unison. The discombobulated practices of many city inhabitants were working together indirectly, just as the many dream filled fire balls join for new hopes of love and prosperity. As we concluded our time at the Dai New Year, our days in Jinghong, and began our weeks in this new country, I gave thanks for the chance to dissapear in the hectic life in the Chinese city.