Sunday, June 18, 2006

My nose will get me far in China. Small, speckly, round, and turned up at the tip: it stands out in an asian crowd. Most recently, and on three seperate occasions, this nose friend of mine landed me:

1. many smiles
2. a comparison to Victoria Beckham (charming! but not too realistic by standards outside China)
3. an invitation to return to stay indefinitely in Dayi to help launch a microfinance program (see below)

Kate and I returned on Friday from our trip to Dayi. We learned much about the Rabbit King's infamous rabbit breeding operations both from the King and Queen themselves as well as on location at ten different rabbit farms where the King's philanthropy and influence can be seen first-hand. In the course of interviewing these farmers, we learned that the Rabbit King had provided each of them with free rabbits (with the Heifer Project condition that they "pass on the gift"to another family), free cages, and 10 days of intensive rabbit husbandry training. All families with more than a year of experience showed us tangible examples of their improved financial status: another year of schooling for a child, a machine to produce their own rabbit feed, a new roof over their heads, or, in some cases, televisions, cars, and vacations to Beijing. Rabbit meat is very popular in Sichuan Province.

We sat in the homes and courtyards of these farming families flanked by wandering flocks of ducklings, curious children and grandparents, and piles of fresh fruit that was eagerly pressed into our hands. After hearing of their initial successes with rabbit raising, we slowly introduced the basic concepts of using micro-loans to help farmers jump-start their mini businesses (a possibility that our sponsor organization and the Rabbit King are eager to explore together). Much to our surprise, most of the farmers had experience with borrowing money- it was generally lent by family members and was almost always used to further invest in their businesses: a new machine, another ten rabbits, expanded caging, etc. They demonstrated keen knowledge of business and entrepreneurship, as well as hopeful, but practical views of their futures.

Said a woman single-handedly taking care of her farm, 5th grader, and 70-year old parent: "Of course I think the future will be better. I don't expect a magnificent building, but I do expect a practical, better future."

These are big words coming from a population that is in a financial crisis. A clash of interests has emerged in the name of environmentalism in rural Dayi County. The local coal mine pollutes the river that runs through may of the villages, and too much of the forest land has turned into plowed squares. The government, recognizing this, is taking back a substantial amount of the farm land and returning it to the natural forest, and in 2008, the coal mine will close forever. Environmentally, these are fantastic choices. Socially? Entire communities are losing their two primary sources of income. How then, are these farmers and miners remaining hopeful? Through their relationship with the Rabbit King, they say.

We noted that confidence, trust, and education - three important factors that play a key role in successful microfinance - were the three factors that farmers brought up in each interview. These farmers are confident in their own work and their ability to eventually live off of the fruits of rabbit breeding alone, citing the RK's trainings as one of the most important pieces in jump-starting their confidence in entrepreneurship. Through experience, they have learned to trust the Rabbit King and respond well to his personal involvement in their lives. The Rabbit King and Queen celebrate birthdays and Spring Festical with their beneficiaries. They worry along with families when a loved one is sick. And - most importantly (and impressively), they remain accessible at all times. When talking to the Rabbit King, one can count on being interrupted at least four times by a digital blasting of Beethoven's Ode to Joy coming from the cell phone in his pocket. He will smile, excuse himself, listen intently to a farmer's problem, then stay on the phone as long as it takes until the problem is fixed. Every farmer we talked to had personally called the rabbit King for advice - many did so on a daily or weekly basis. (When one considers the 300,000 farmers that have made their way through the RK's training school over the last 20 years, this becomes an impressive fact.)

The Rabbit King's work made quite the impression on me, and our work seemed to make a large impression on the Rabbit King and Queen as well. As we ate hotpot with them on our last night, the Rabbit King turned to me and said: "When we start this microfinance program, you must come back to help us. You and your nose. Both are unforgettable."

Monday, June 12, 2006

Just a quick note to let you know I'll be out in the rural villages (my favorite!) for the remainder of the week.

Tomorrow we head to rural Dayi for the third time since our arrival. We’ve been invited to stay for as long as we like in order to observe first-hand the operations of the Rabbit King and Queen (for explanation, see previous entries). While there, Kate, Gump (translator/yoga instructor/British-accented friend), and I will spend each day figuring out new ways to chuck ourselves into the nearby villages in order to interview the peasants about their experiences with rabbit raising and to check out their initial reactions to the concepts of microlending. (Is there a value clash here that we've not yet discovered? Where do shame, honor, and family values enter into all this? We'll see.)

Back online by Saturday. Love!
Sundays are brilliant. Lazy, slow, wide open to possibilities...

Wake up whenever your eyes open. Wander to the toilet/shower (one and the same in your little abode), squat, and think about the day ahead. Oh! You found cheese at the market the other day! Celebrate by making omelets and eating them deftly (as you do everything) with chopsticks. Put on a new red dress, pop open an umbrella for shade from the sun, and grab Kate and a cab. Off to the fish markets!

Ooooh everything squirms in little tubs. Chicken carcasses hang in a row...both graceful and grotesque. A toddler with a bare bum (the norm. think: pants with a little square cut out in the back) is fascinated by the duck head he has found in a nearby stall. Neither mother nor stall owner seem concerned with his activities. A kitten darts between the legs of old men playing cards. The smells of fish and blood and people hang in the air. Whew! Out to the open market.

Here: flowers! bags! hats! A China swept away with consumerism. We are the only white faces on this bustling street of shoppers, save the rows and rows of Caucasian mannequins modeling either the tops or bottoms of the latest fashions. (but rarely both. makes you blush for no apparent reason.) Skip the textiles, head for the cool water bottles.

Off to the Wuhou Temple in the Tibetan quarter of town. An ancient, serene place with paths winding in and out of temples and bamboo forests, with heady incense in the air and glimmering gold/orange/copper/ivory fish in the streams. It is shocking to find this oasis in the middle of a 4 million-person city. The architecture is whimsical in the manner of what a more curvaceous Frank Lloyd Wright piece might look like. Squares and rectangles stack together, up and up, before spiraling out into a swirl of a rooftop, or calligraphy, or a circular door. An employee with a woven hat and blue tunic re-lights the incense while a Chinese tourist prays on a red cushion.

Outside: the closest you've come to Tibet. Prayer flags flutter, shops overflow with silver and beads and woven garments. Monks draped in crimson and gold wander down the street fingering their prayer beads, then surprise you as they hop into cabs. The western edge of Sichuan Province is indeed a former territory of Tibet...and part of that culture has seeped into this Chengdu neighborhood. Eat up every detail and keep yourself from purchasing it all. (But ____ would LOVE this!!! Fill in the blank with the name of just about every person you know.) Wander up and down the rows for as long as you now-tiring feet will allow.

The day is done. Head home with a camera full of red incense, gold calligraphy characters, deep brown-black temples, green and tan shoots, and your stunned/enthralled/freckly face. An exemplary Sunday.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

I'm sitting in the second story of a cafe just outside the south gate of Sichuan University, looking out a window at balconies covered in potted plants and clothes that won't dry because it's too humid. Perhaps it is time to give a few more details as to how and why I've ended up on this continent.

The Sparknotes:

  • I spent part of last fall doing microfinance research with women's groupements in rural Senegal - love it! Something about putting the tools for poverty alleviation right in the hands of those who care most about it (the poor) just seems to make sense to me.
  • Met Randy Kritkausky, President of Ecologia ( at a J-term workshop. Instant mutual admiration for one anothers' work.
  • Received an email from Midd's Career Service Office outlining a grant for students with unpaid international internships. Don't have one, but think: why not? Forwarded it to Randy.
  • Next Day: Randy says: "Wow, YES!" He has just returned from a trip to China where he met The Rabbit King, a peasant entrepreneur who grew his business from a handful of rabbits to millions (his bank account followed suit). As his wealth grew, however, The Rabbit King took it upon himself to help hundreds of thousands of his fellow peasants out of poverty via gifts of money, rabbits, and animal husbandry lessons. He expressed his wish to continue sharing with more and more of his people, as well as his awareness of his finite funds. Randy shared some of the microfinance ideas that I had discussed with him in January, and the RK got excited. Back in the States, Randy wonders whether there is a way for me to personally share these ideas with the RK...after receiving my email, he offers me a summer internship doing just that.
  • While waiting for word on the grant, I learn that Oxford University's World Education Corps has decided to sponsor the internship. (Oxford?! Cool.)
  • Realize 2 things simultaneously:
    1. I do not speak Chinese (damn, no Wolof in China.)
    2. I have a best friend (Kate) who does...and who is still in China, without plans for the summer. I forward this info to Randy, who agrees that the internship must be offered to her as well.
  • Go to bed with a stomache ache. Wake up two days later w/o an appendix. A minor set-back.
  • Kate signs on!
  • I learn that I don't get the grant. Hmm... an amazing internship doing something I love with someone I adore, on a continent I've never visited? Not about to pass this up just because of a silly grant.
  • Bed-rest and Fundraising can go hand-in-hand.
  • Learn that James Martin (of Oxford's James Martin Institute of the 21st Century) thinks that what we're doing might make a great addition to his documentary. Considers sending cameramen with us. (I do a jig.)
  • Nearing my fundraising goal...
  • Middlebury's Alliance for Civic Engagement thinks this is an amazing opportunity! They sponsor it too. I have no idea what the internship title is, but I sense it is getting longer and longer...
  • The cameraman punctures a lung. Maybe no documentary after all (still waiting to hear on this one.)
  • Plane ticket prices go up! Without finishing fundraising, I bite the bullet, say a prayer to the heavens, and buy a plane ticket to China. (I also buy travel insurance that includes a section on Death and Dismemberment...huh.)
  • Fundraising goal achieved! This trip is actually going to happen...
  • Breathe in. Breathe out. Pack, kiss Vermont goodbye, board a plane, and... boom.

    And that is how this adventure came to pass.

    What now?
    The last few days were spent in meetings with a cast of international characters from the Ecologia staff and board; in boardrooms and tea-houses, fancy hotel lobbies and overgrown rooftops. I've gotten to participate in the inner workings of an international NGO. I've seen which nuances get lost in translation, and which core values need no translation at all. Common interests abound between leaders and students and executives - our meetings have helped them to see this more clearly.

    The Cast
    A pair of experienced movers and shakers from Middlebury, VT
    A Chinese businessman with $ and soul.
    An introverted Lithuanian with a knack for community organization
    A retired Economist and past UN board member (she very much reminds me of my Grandmother Young)
    A powerhouse of frenetic energy trapped inside a small Chinese woman's body (Ecologia's ground-staff in China)
    A Chinese Student fresh off of a semester abroad, and eager to remain in China. One who now, as her mother says, considers herself a "citizen" here...
    An eager (and appendix-free) student of international social engagement

    All but the last three have now moved on to other cities and continents to continue their work. Meanwhile, Liu Yang (Ecologia ground-staff), Kate (newly proclaimed Chinese citizen), and I remain to see what connections can be made between the work of the Rabbit King and China's microfinance culture.

And that's just a taste of it. Other endeavors include: Moving into my second appartment in a foreign city! Figuring out the hotwater heater! Fighting off the cockroaches! Making friends with the fruit women! Hanging the laundry! Hopping a bus and going wherever it takes us! is such an adventure.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Hot Pot 101

1. Spice! I tried to write a different #1 and it was shot down by every tastebud in my mouth. One can say nothing about Sichuan's prized meal before one discusses spice. It is wonderful, and hot, and world famous. Eye watering? Yes. Heart burning? Sure. Meal-slowing? Only if that means you are slowing down in order to enjoy the tingle a little longer. Our larger pot was spiced with several fistfuls of whole dried peppers, pods, and seeds. Individual bowls housed several tablespoons of fresh diced garlic swimming in oil for one's personal consumption. My mouth did a jig. Kate and I were both surprised by our ability to enjoy/handle the spice - Sichuan is known throughout China as the haven of all things spicy. (people leave with blisters in their mouth) I'm wondering whether they toned down the spice for the foreigners...

2. Big Bowl. "Yes!" I think as I spy this table centerpiece, "Thanks to Senegal, if there is one thing I can do, and do well, it is: navigate a communal bowl." How wrong I am. The bowls I am used to are filled with rice and fish and family members' hands...not hot oil and skewers. Ow. Ok, so this bowl may require a bit more finesse. Heated with a gas flame below the table (careful with those knees!), this large metal bowl bubbles and spits, contributing to the conversation as the...

3. oil hops in and out of the bowl and onto our hands and elbows and shirts, skirts, and faces. (A feat that, again, sent our Chinese staff into hysterics...we must be very funny people.)

4. Vegetables and Meats and Dumplings, oh my! Peppers and runaway mushrooms float on top. Thin wooden skewers plunge cabbage, sweet potato, spinach, and dumplings into the sizzling oils. Gelatenous noodles mingle with long stemmed mushrooms at the bottom of the bowl, and require nimble deep-sea fishing techniques with chopsticks and slotted dippers in order to be reached.

The meal lasts over fourty minutes, with Kate and I on the edge of our seats throughout. Where did all the beef go? How did the mushrooms get tangled with the noodles? The sweet potato fell in! Ah! Oil everywhere! Perhaps hotpot is not always quite so eventful, but as a newcomer to this bowl of hot oil and peppers burning wrists and mouths, I can simply say that this was like fondue as an extreme sport. (and I thought rugby was tough.)