From March 10th, I embarked on a journey called Microcampus and crashed the first glass of champagne on the rail of the boat. Microcampus is a middle school program where a group of students have the opportunity to explore the village of Xizhou for 28 days and study a topic of their high personal interest. I became a part of this experience in November, and that was where I started my Inquiry Project.
Originally, I chose my topic, "Antiques that connect with the Tea Horse Road", to learn about ancient domestic trading and the antiques that connect to this trade route. I believe that every single piece of antique has its own background story and that it remains there for me to uncover. However, during my stay at Xizhou, I shifted my focus from antiques and the antique business to the trade route itself. Now, my project is concentrated on the history and purpose of the Tea Horse Road, together with its interconnection with antiques and the tourism industry.
My main local sources include Mr. Zhu, Mr. Yang, Mr. Yang and Ms. Ma, and Mr. Brian Linden. Mr. Zhu offered me information through the form of antiques, since he has the largest collection of antiques in the Xizhou village. He also explained to me about the usage and purpose of antiques that connect with the Tea Horse Road, which gave me an impression of the Tea Horse trade lifestyle. Mr. Yang, the antique dealer, gave me the first set of information that contradicted with the cultural significance of Tea Horse Road. Mr. Yang and Ms. Ma both offered me emotional support; although neither gave me too much information, their support led me to success. As for Mr. Brian Linden, he was the one who offered me the chance to look into a completely different domain of the Tea Horse Road, and inspired me to shift my focus. I chose these sources due to their expertise and interest in the topic.
The type of question I have been trying to answer is how antiques in Xizhou can reflect ideas and lifestyle along the Tea Horse Road, as well as the long-term impacts of the trade route itself. Later, I decided to also question the relationship between the Tea Horse Road and the tourism industry. This will gradually lead to my thesis statement: To fully comprehend the significance of the Tea Horse Road, one might consider looking at the public understanding, the Sigley hypothesis, and my own perspective on the topic.
Sharing My Learning:
The final product that I created is an Imovie presenting three views/perspectives/understanding revolving around the history and purpose of the Tea Horse Road. Click here to see my final product.
One big thing I took away from the inquiry project experience was how to approach real-life, and the failure occurrences outside of the "bubble". Back at school, we seek information from the internet or from the teachers. Our common "failure" would be failing in a project or failing in a presentation. However, here at Xizhou, when we are outside the "bubble", success and failure is highly dependent on the way we socialize and communicate with others. Real failure happens when we miscommunicate and exchange contradicting ideas. This creates conflicts and prevent all win-win situations. One day, during my field research, none of the antique shops I visited were open and the only opened one harshly declined my offer for interview. I stayed depressed for a long period of time. Only later I realized how I was using the mindset I used back at Shanghai, when I was given information and deprived of opportunities when I had to obtain my own resources. It is abnormal to have consecutive perfect days in real life, normal for people to interpret life as a roller coaster, where the turbulence can be intimidating but thrilling.
Before I came to the village of Xizhou, I planned on investigating about antiques and the antique businesses' past and future, as well as learning about the Tea Horse Road. Later, I wanted to stick with only antiques and collectibles, due to the lack fo information on the Tea Horse Road. However, one conversation with our host, Mr. Brian Linden, completely shifted my focus. He led me on to investigate how the cultural exchange on the Tea Horse Road might be exaggerated or even fabricated. This allowed me to widen my scope and increased my personal interest in the topic even more, despite the hardships within. In the end, I decided to incorporate history into the picture, because history plays a huge role in chronological confirmation and antique dating. Looking back at the very beginning, I would have never expected to learn so much about the trade route and expanded my research into aspects of globalization and mass tourism. I guess this demonstrates how life outside the bubble can be interesting and random, and how other people may influence your life forever.
The most difficult part of my research was my attempt to gain information on the Tea Horse Road. The trade and economics of the Tea Horse Road were often forgotten, even by the descendants of the most important traders in the past. All the aspects of the Tea Horse Road were dramatically underlined for commercial reasons, making it hard for me to understand the true significance of physical and cultural exchange. Fortunately, most of the antique store owners were happy to share their antiques relevant to the trade route, and that time period of history. These puzzle pieces eventually came together and painted a picture. However, I would not describe it as accurate, since it also had my own interpretations.
My two "a-ha" moments came from the field research. One was my conversation with Mr. Brian Linden. This was when I found out about the Sigley hypothesis and the discoveries already made about the Tea Horse Road, and when I decided to shift my focus completely. This was risky for me, as most of my information I gathered beforehand would prove to be completely useless and most of my efforts beforehand to talk about antique business would prove to be futile. However, I decided to follow this trace because I could not wait to discover the truth behind Tea Horse Road and its interconnections with the tourism industry. Another of this moment was when I visited Fengyangyi during one of the Sundays at Microcampus. Although not much information was gathered, the site gave me an impression of how non-local tourism developers exploit the label of the Tea Horse Road to win fast money. They completely distorted the history behind the Tea Horse Road, when people of the past would ride on mules and transport tea to the Tibetans, in order to create an "exotic" horse-riding site. This determined my final perspective, and provided me with evidence circling around the vagueness of concept.
This project definitely informed me of my chosen topic. Before, I knew nothing about the Tea Horse Road, apart from its existence as a tourism label. Now, I understand some basic concepts of mass tourism, commercialization, globalization, antiques, the antique business, and the history behind the Tea Horse Road itself. This also explored parts of human nature and human greed, and the ethics behind whether or not it is morally correct to alter traditions in order to gain financially.
In the meantime, this inquiry project allowed me to have meaningful conversations with many interesting people living in the Xizhou community. The 10 big questions allowed me to begin a conversation; gradually, I learned to let it flow to wherever the conversation wants to go to. Although the study of antiques and history are limited to some local contacts and resources, I still managed to optimize with those individuals and maintained a good relationship with all of them, either by saying hello everyday or occasionally chatting with them during free pitching in time. I love how they would wave back, or invite me to sit down and have some tea. This reminds me of how I created so many bonds and connections with friendly and loving people in the Xizhou community that otherwise, without my inquiry project, I would have missed. I learned about some of their struggles, past, and families. One of them, Mr. Yang, had recently encountered hardships within his family. I hope that my comforts and visits had helped.
In addition to connecting with others externally, I also learned about myself. Usually, back at Shanghai, I connect with people through the form of communication. At Xizhou, I realized that I can connect just as well, if not better, with silence. Silence became a bigger and more important part of my life that I value. Silence, during work time, interviews, conversations, or even socratic seminars became less awkward and embarrassing. Instead, it evolved into something that allows people to think, to resonate with, and to connect with.
Throughout the inquiry process, as a learner, I learned that stress, in most cases, is useless. In the last few days of Microcampus, I had to balance out time for impending due dates and expectations. I would, as usual, stress myself out in order to find motivation from within. Only this time in Xizhou that I realized that I have to become self-aware and trust the process. As long as I commit 120% to all my work, I would be finished without any stress. As Mr. Tafel would say, "Use the time we spend to stress to relieve the stress, or by working."
If I could go back in time, some helpful advice would have helped me make this experience better. First of all, to narrow down my topic. One of the bottlenecks of my topic was the Tea Horse Road, so to not waste my time during inquiry field work, I studied a wide range of topics with antique dealers, including the antique business and finance, the antique authenticity analysis, the antique popularity and value, and so on. These aspects of antiques mostly proved to be useless as I approached my final product. If I closed down on only a few directions, I would have more relevant discoveries and even more bullet points to write for my outline. Another piece of advice I would have found helpful is to visit some of the local contacts twice. This would have given me more information overall, as making more solid connections can reveal more private or personal information. Unfortunately, most times we do not have the time and energy to visit double contacts. Instead, I decided to keep saying hello, as I think a simple wave of hand and a single smile can be just as powerful as a face-to-face conversation. This sometimes allowed me to become closer to my sources.
If I was someone else or if I were to continue the investigation, I would still have many directions I could choose to expand knowledge on. First, I can start talking with the Muslim community and their perspective on the Tea Horse Road. As they are descendants of the Hui ethnic group that controlled the Tea Horse trade, they might be very passionate and knowledgable about the subject. They will more than likely voice their opinions on the current preservation of the history. Another path I can take on is compare the preservation of the Tea Horse Road to other cultural heritages undergoing the same situations. This will allow me to see whether or not the Sigley hypothesis applies to most cultural heritage preservation issues in China. The third direction I can choose from is to find more antiques relevant to the Tea Horse Road outside of Xizhou. This would definitely take more time and limit research results, but I think it would be interesting to compare the antiques inside and outside of the Xizhou community.
As the inquiry project approaches its end, I want to thank everyone who has supported me along the way. This includes Mr. T and Ms. Mai, who daringly brought the 15 other voyagers and I outside of the bubble. Thank you for bringing all of us to this hospitable village of Xizhou and taking care of us in this magnificent adventure. I really appreciate all the time and effort you spent for making this experience so wonderful. I also want to thank Mr. Chen and Ms. B, who has done so much work behind the scenes and carried out most of my teacher supports. Then, I want to say thank you to all my local contacts: Mr. Du, Mr. Yang and Ms. Ma, Lao Mao, Mr. Yang, Mr. Brian Linden, Mr. Zhu, and Ms. Dong. Thank you for offering me your best: welcoming me and accepting me. In the meantime, a special thanks to Mr. Gary Sigley, a mysterious friend who has propelled my whole research forward. I also want to thank everyone in the Voyagers crew, for carrying me with you through the roller coasters of Microcampus. Last but not least, a thank you to out host, the Linden family, and of course, the Xizhou village itself. Thank you so much for your commitment and patience. It is all of you in Xizhou that made Microcampus possible and such a great experience.
This adventure that lasted for the previous 28 days has been the best experience anyone could ask for; it helped me grow as a learner, a student, and a person. The chance given to us to "come outside of the bubble" has transformed me completely as an individual. A last thank you to everyone who made this experience possible. I will never forget about my stories happening here at Xizhou, as it has been the life-changing ones.