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Photo by Sampor Burke, Mekong Semester.

What is China?

It’s not the crowded streets and stores I remember in Beijing. It’s not the cars reversing at 80kmh on the highway during the summer of ’08. It’s not the Great Wall or the Forbidden Palace, floating with tons of foreigner like myself. This isn’t the China I remember.

This China is dumplings and twenty-four tunnels. It’s the Pu-er chá (tea) and hair cuts. The Chinese medicine infusion foot baths. The confused looks on people’s faces when I say I’m not Chinese. It’s the taxi driver taking a video to show his friends that he drove for some foreigners. Wechat and Alipay. It’s the school kids shrieking when Soybeans says hello back. It’s Dai New Year. It’s the “Sit down. Sit down,” and “Eat more! Eat more!” It’s walking along the river with three people I just met, collecting roots for lunch. The water splashing on the 13th. It’s the bubble tea. The strawberry shaved ice with strawberry ice cream–that’s not dinner. The red bean buns for breakfast. It’s my reflexologist falling off her stool from punching my leg too hard. The five Nike stores within 500 meters. It’s smog and chicken feet. It’s tattoos and ear wax cleaning at the night market. It’s the Jinhuo people. The Chinese tourists taking photos with the blonde American. The Golden Peacock Group. The “ugly” drum dances. Modernity vs tradition. The red ants and their eggs. The ethnic village theme parks. VPN. Durian. It’s the tea cakes. The sleepy village in 2014, bustling city in 2019. It’s the Akha people. The tea masters. Tea peasants. Tea bosses. Pick tea. Dry tea. Fry tea. Roll tea. Dry again. Steep tea. Drink tea. Celebrate. This is Xishuangbanna.