In March of 2017, 6 students embarked on a 28-day journey to a village in southwestern China. The purpose of the trip was learning how to take appropriate risks and stepping out of one's comfort zone to have a glimpse of true China. Prior to the trip, all students chose a topic of high interest to which they will expand on over the course of various sessions of first-hand interactions with the village's community. My chosen topic was Xizhou's perspectives on tea and its culture.
I chose my topic mainly because of prior interest in the subject, partially because of some urge from my family, who all had a liking for tea. Before my arrival, I had inferred that since Yunnan was home to one of the largest tea industries in all of China, communication would not as big of a problem as tea would probably be a familiar topic to the citizens there. Learning more about this unfamiliar Yunnanese village through the lens of an interesting yet familiar topic sounded fantastic to me, and I was impatient to start.
Some of the resources that I had used during my researching prior and during the trip are either research websites on SAS databases or local contacts and experts. The researching online came before the departure, while most of the contacts and experts, gathered from my 3-to-5's, are accumulated upon arrival at Xizhou. The local contacts include teahouses around SifangJie, tea plantation uphill from Dali Old Town, local folks who drank on a daily basis, and staff at the Linden Centre with expertise.
I chose to acquire these sources because they are relevant to my topic and would contribute to my research in many aspects. Another important reason is for strengthening communication and social skills by talking to other human beings about our common ground. Some key contacts that I had multiple conversations with and gathered essential information from include Mr. Dang, Mr. Yang, Mr. Huang, and Ms. Zhou.
The kinds of questions that I want to answer during the course of making my project are categorized into various topics. Generally, all of these questions are designed to find out all the aspects of the difference in how locals view tea and tourists view tea. It could be in regards towards the type of leaves, the amount of leaves, the packaging and presentation of their tea, the cultural traditions of the Bai community, et cetera.
In order to understand the village of Xizhou's opinions on tea, one must consider the perspectives of the locals, the perspectives of the tourists, and my personal perspective.
Sharing My Learning
My final product is embedded in this page as well as in the Microcampus hard drive. Here is the direct link.
The process of this inquiry project has been a stressful, productive, growth-inspiring, and unforgettable experience. It did not merely give me a deeper understanding of the village's views on tea, but it also strengthened my communication and empathy skills, taught me how to gather the courage to talk to others. I have grown so much in terms of feeling confident in myself and regarding others, it is almost insane—I cannot believe that just over nine hours of communication led me from zero to one-hundred. Just because of my inquiry project, I have developed as a person at a rate that would not be possible back in Shanghai.
Upon my arrival in the village, my topic remains relatively broad. I came here only knowing that my inquiry project subject will be revolving around tea, and maybe the traditions and ceremonies that the Bai ethnic group has. Though, as the days progressed and I made more conversation with more and more people, I started to comprehend how these so-called traditional practices are actually just to attract tourists and visitors. During 3-to-5's, Mr. Tafel advised me to steer away from that subject and focus more on the role tea plays in the daily lives of the villagers, and that truly made me learn that, as I stated in my final product, that a region’s true culture shines through the everyday life of the people that live there.
There was a period in time near the beginning of my inquiry work timeline in which I fell into a state of panic because I had no idea what I wanted to research in regards to tea. I knew that we were supposed to narrow down our topic to something very specific sometime during the process, but I did not know what I should focus on among the variety of tea subtopics available. Another problem is communication. During the first few inquiry sessions, I had no clue how to word my questions and completed insufficient preparation for communication. I constantly felt paranoid that my contact is growing bored or irritated of the conversation, but later learned that that is just one-sided and most of the times, it is only as bad as one makes it out to be.
One of the biggest "a-ha" moments was when I finally came to a realization on what I should narrow my topic down to. After compiling a multitude of such diverse opinions from tourists and villagers alike, I finally came to a decision that I want to focus my topic on the perspectives of the people living in the village. Among the many other tasks that I had on my plate, one had been checked off and it felt satisfying to do so. It was akin to a weight being lifted off my shoulders as I finally had solved a dilemma that had been nagging me the previous days, and I felt, for the lack of a better word, great.
One the main purposes of our inquiry projects is to give us a deeper understanding of our topics by giving us a hands-on, direct method of learning. If it were not, then our entire project would be sitting in front of a screen for hours at a time, scoping out information from the internet. The form of learning and gathering information for our inquiry projects contrasts greatly from the usual education method back in Shanghai, causing me to believe that I had learned more in a mere four weeks than I did in my previous thirteen years of life. Directly conversing with an expert is so much more genuine than harvesting information from a website, and I believe that this project allowed me to learn more about perspectives on tea than I ever could on a research paper.
As I have mentioned before, this technique of acquiring information that we practice here in Microcampus allows us to make day-to-day interactions with the community in and around Xizhou, since executing this method of learning forces us to climb off our butts and go outside into the village to actually do something. Every day, we are making meaningful connections with the various villagers that we meet and maintaining these relationships day after day, while also earning more information concerning our inquiry topics. I hope that Shanghai could adopt some of these methods used in Microcampus; that would make learning so much more meaningful.
This project had also inspired a whole ton of self-growth. Over the course of the nine inquiry sessions, I realized that I am perfectly content with living outside the bubble. The entire experience in itself has unearthed some of my character that I would have never known that I had if I was back in Shanghai all along, and taught me valuable life lessons that would apply to me not only for these 28 days, but also for the years to come. This showed me how worthwhile learning could be, if only done in the correct way—that would be through first-hand experience, experimentation, and face-to-face interaction, rather than reading off from textbooks and websites.
The entire process had caused me to realize that I learn so much more effectively when given the chance to interact directly with the world around me. It may cause discomfort, awkwardness, and panic at first, but as time passes, it progressively becomes better, and it is only at the end do I realize how much valuable traits I have picked up through the course of this process. It is incredible how much one could learn in 28 days in the real world as opposed to thirteen years inside a classroom encased in a bubble. As I have mentioned before, I do hope that SAS along with other schools could acquire some of these teaching and learning methods.
If I could go back in time to the beginning of the inquiry process to give myself one significant piece of advice that would benefit me greatly in the long run, I would only have one thing to say: it is only as terrible as one makes it out to be. When the all of us were just starting off, we were all entangled in a state of utter panic, genuinely believing that we were not going to make it through these four weeks in one piece. When the all of us were out for our first inquiry sessions, we—well, at least I was—all thought that we could never carry out a good, fruitful conversation with somebody else without insulting them or saying something horribly wrong. When the all of us were nearing the end of our inquiry process, we were all so overwhelmed with stress, especially with service learning, wellness, and pitching in work thrown in the mix. However, now I learned that everything is going to be fine. It was only as terrible as we made it out to be. If we thought it was not that bad, then the entire process would prove to go smoother than it had.
If someone else were to continue and build off of my research project—first of all, I am honored. Second of all, if I were to be building on my work, I would go narrow the topic down even more to one specific aspect of tea and compare and contrast the perspectives of the locals and the villagers towards this particular aspect. Said aspect could be a specific tea routine, ceremony, a specific type of tea, a specific brewing method . . . the possibilities are endless. I touched on one aspect of my project that had probably been done before, and that was San Dao Cha, or the infamous three-course tea ceremony. It is a tradition that is unique and tied to this village, and I have found that are varying opinions on it; some good and others not. Though, if one wants to challenge oneself, then one could choose another aspect of tea in the village that is not as well-known and harvest some opinions, then incorporate one's personal opinion into it as well.
There are many individuals whom I would like to thank for making my Microcampus experience as uncomfortable and awkward and unforgettable as it could possibly be. First of all, I would like to thank all the helpers from the Linden Centre—Ms. Zhao, Ms. Qi, and Ms. Song. Their input and assistance have urged my inquiry process on until I have made something that I would look back on and be proud of. A show of gratitude to all of the contacts that made time out of their days for me to make conversations with them—Mr. Zhao, Mr. Du, Mr. Dang, Mr. Yang, Ms. Dong, Ms. Zhang, Ms. Wang, Ms. Yang, Ms. Yang, Ms, Yang, Ms. Zhou, Mr. Wang, Mr. Cheng, and Mr. and Mrs. Huang especially, for brewing tea for the bunch of us and giving me dried blueberries. Special thanks to 杨奶奶 for being so sweet and helpful to me and my groupmates. Kudos to my family and friends for being my mental and emotional support back home, not to mention nagging me consistently for a phone call and a chat—and also especially my parents, who paid a ton in order for me to attend this experience. I would like to thank all of the students of the Microcampus Superior group—I have bonded with them in all the ways imaginable and I will carry all of their irritation and complaining with me wherever I go. At times, they are incomprehensibly frustrating, but they were the only sources of familiarity on this trip and I appreciate them for being there. Last but definitely not least, a massive thank you to Mr. Tafel and Ms. Mai for organizing and putting together this unfathomably incredible experience that I will bring with me for the definite rest of my life.
Microcampus has been an experience that I cannot describe with all the words that I could comprehend. It was not a smooth journey, nor was it all fun, but it has instilled experiences in me that I could never have received if I had stayed in Shanghai the past 28 days. I have learned how to step out of my comfort zone, out of the bubble in Shanghai, and to make connections all by myself and cherish them for the years to come. I unearthed so much of my character and my capabilities; it is almost as overwhelming as it is incredible. I will not ever disregard any of the values I have learned during this process, and I could only hope that Xizhou learned from me as much as I learned from it.