Hello, ni hao, sabaidee, suasdey!
A warm welcome from rainy Seattle, where I am relishing the tall evergreen trees, emerald moss, and moody, textured skies that I grew up around. A very different climate than the ones we will encounter along the Mekong, but one as central to my being as the Mekong river is to the communities on its banks. I hope you are all enjoying the familiarity of your own homes, wherever they may be, while also preparing to embark on a journey to new and unfamiliar places, relationships, and ways of living.
My name is Madeleine Colvin and I will be one of your three instructors this spring along with Gai and Jeff. Though I am from the Seattle area, I was raised across many cultures. My mom is from Taiwan and my dad is from Texas. Growing up, I celebrated the lunar new year at home, while also learning to shoot rifles at summer camp in rural Texas. My maternal grandparents came of age during Japanese colonization of Taiwan and with them, I ate sushi and viewed the cherry blossoms each spring (hanami). I diligently followed along with their Japanese TV dramas, despite not understanding a word. My paternal grandmother immigrated from Czechoslovakia and every winter, she would send us large batches of handmade kolaches. Generation after generation, my family members moved wherever life took them, raising their children in foreign places, in foreign languages. Perhaps because of this, I have never felt tied to one place. Moving around in the world, I know I carry the implicit understanding and blessing of those who did so before me.
My desire to learn about the world led me to study International Relations at Pomona College in southern California. Upon graduating, I received a Fulbright grant to conduct research about tourism development in ethnic minority villages on China’s borders with Myanmar and Laos. I left dry, sunny California and found a new home in the subtropical rainforests of southern Yunnan province. The year I spent living in rural villages in Yunnan’s Xishuangbanna region was both the hardest experience of my life and the most rewarding.
The months I spent living in ethnically Jinuo and Dai villages had me constantly rethinking my notions of what it means to be an “ethnic minority” and a “rural villager” in today’s China. I’ve never been so in awe of a community or cried so much at the pure generosity of strangers. Though most people ask either about my research conclusions or about the “wild” and “exotic” things I saw and ate, my fondest memories are the most mundane moments—watching TV after dinner with my family while the kids played on their parents’ phones, joking about tourists with my favorite village grandmas, relishing the delicious sound of torrential rain on a metal roof. Catching and eating giant spiders is not profound, nor is presenting research at a conference; feeling at home halfway across the world is.
I hope that during our semester together, you can experience this unlikely feeling of being at home so far away from home. There are few things more beautiful than making a friend across the so-called “barriers” of language, culture, and nation. For me, at least, it’s why I travel, why I take the risk of seeking out unfamiliar and initially uncomfortable experiences.
My journey with Dragons began in a village by the Mekong river. After serendipitously bumping into a group of Dragons students in Kunming, I started helping instructors organize village homestays in one of my host communities, an ethnically Dai village not far from the banks of the Mekong. Living in tourist villages had left me quite cynical about tourism, but I was so impressed by the respectful and reciprocal cultural exchange that I witnessed while coordinating Dragons homestays that I applied to become a Dragons instructor myself. This will be my third course with Dragons, after summer and semester courses in China.
I have wanted to lead the Mekong semester ever since a group of Mekong students came through my homestay village, buzzing with stories and excitement about their travels. Living on China’s borders with Southeast Asia has instilled in me a desire to delve deeper into the intertwined histories and cultures of China, Laos, Thailand, and Cambodia. I am grateful for the opportunity to finally do so this semester, alongside all of you.
Traveling together will be inspiring, annoying, challenging, overwhelming, energizing, and exhausting. You will be pushed and you will be uncomfortable. I encourage you to pack lightly, seek out many different perspectives in learning about the places we will visit, and think about what you want out of this experience. This is your course—what will you make of it? What do you want to learn? How do you want to grow?
Thank you for your courage in signing up for this program, and to those who support you in this adventure. I can’t wait to meet you all!
(The photo above is me with my favorite grandma from the Dai village in Xishuangbanna where I organized Dragons homestays)