Where are you – and what are you doing – on your PiA fellowship?
I live a comfortable and pretty exciting life in a small Chinese village. Xizhou lies between a forested mountain range and freshwater lake in Yunnan a few km north of Dali, surrounded by garlic or rice paddies depending on the season. It’s a very photogenic place, and word is getting out about Xizhou. Xizhou is special because it has a high concentration of well preserved and nationally protected architecture, the quality of life and quality of its infrastructure is high for such a small population, and the economy is still largely agricultural.
The company I work for, the Linden Centre, operates as a boutique hotel with a mission to share this unique part of the country’s culture and traditions with Chinese and foreign guests through interactive activities and education.
I fit in as a cultural liaison. My role includes office work like marketing, improving our social media presence, personally emailing clients, engaging with our partners in education programs, and updating the company website. The job also requires guiding and translating for guests during cultural and outdoor activities. Different things get asked of you every day though, I’ve been on my hands and knees measuring courtyard spaces for dance classes, have given a tour of the Linden Centre for a TV show, have taken wedding pictures, and rearranged the furniture for Thanksgiving dinner. I’ve even had opportunities to create projects for myself, stay tuned for our Linden Centre brand product line of Bai architecture inspired jewellery, scarves, and cologne!
I think most of what I do is probably not in my job description, this place really keeps you on your feet. I bring value to the Linden Centre by being friendly, informative, and by interacting with guests. I think personal interactions are what make this company and our staff unique. The Linden Centre thinks of itself as less of a hotel and more of a center for cultural exchange and I feel like a contributing factor.
What inspired you to sign up for round two with PiA and the Linden Centre? [PiA fellows can apply for second year fellowships after their first year - Chris spent his first year on PiA teaching English in Shihezi, China.]
I have a lot of answers for this question, and I’ve noticed that I answer differently depending on who’s asking, they’re all true, and the reason I’m here is a combination of a few factors. I’m going to organize this based on the intended audience.
Linden Centre guests. “I’m actually here as a Princeton in Asia fellow, trying to use this year to create a permanent partnership between the LC and PiA and a yearlong rotational position for PiA fellows of the future. It’s fun because I get to wear lots of hats as an LC employee and it feels good having helped create something that can benefit both organizations and the communities they serve.”
Friends and family back home. “I’m still in China because my life is still interesting here. There isn’t really an opportunity to do something like this in Oregon, I’m busy, I get to go hiking a lot, I was just in a Buick commercial, and I’m getting a very unique smattering of professional experience here that would way more difficult for someone of my age and skill set to have access to in most places.”
What do you miss about your first post in Shihezi?
I miss teaching Greek Mythology to my Freshman students at Shihezi U. I still think about this one class where we talked about the meaning of Echo and Narcissus and got really deep about the importance of knowing yourself as a foundation for loving others. Seeing my students making progress in speaking more freely and creatively (baby steps) was really validating, and those discussions were powerful, I still think about them sometimes. Life in Shihezi was easier sometimes, that town was so isolated, fewer variables, my day-to-day responsibilities didn’t take too much time and I read and thought deeply much more often than I do now. In some ways it was like this wasteland of a blank canvas; you could do a lot with all that free time. There are certainly restrictions, but you could learn to play guitar, speak Uyghur or Russian, write a science fiction novel, not that I did any of those things, but you totally could. I think of Shihezi as this cocoon-like place where I bided my time and thought about what I really want to do with my life.
Can you describe your experience in Asia thus far in three concise and varied words?
Formative. Frustrating. Lucky. So Lucky.
What activities do you participate in during your spare time?
My spare time is very precious. I’m happy that I’m paid to take guests hiking, but I like to go on more extensive trips on my off days. I’m a camper, and I do that sometimes. There are good rocks to climb across the lake, they’ve got bolts and routes and the whole shabang over there. The beer is really good here, I’ll go to Dali old town to see music and get a DPA every once and awhile after work. The most consistent thing I do is poker, every thursday night with a core group of four Dali rats (all ex-Linden Centre employees) and whoever is at Sun Island Bar that night who wants to play, it’s a nice little something I look forward to each week. I hang out a lot with my coworkers so it’s been fun to make Dali friends, who ironically enough used to work where I do now. We have a lot in common.
What is the most significant thing you’ve learned during your time on PiA?
What you do and the way you do it is important, not just for the sake of your reputation but there are people who will look up to you as a foreigner living professionally in their home. My job right now requires me to always be ‘on,’meaning when I’m at the hotel, even if I’m officially on break, I must continue to be available, helpful, and look/smell presentable. This is especially true for teachers, whose students will look up to you and hang to your every word (or, at least the words they can understand) and come to you for advice. It’s common for people to feel a need to start over or reinvent themselves when growing up and moving through big phases of early adulthood (new high school, moving to your college town, first job out of college, etc) and PiA has given me a good opportunity to start being kinder and more selfless. Distance yourself as far from the Ugly American. It’s okay to be aimless, just try your best to be a good person, it may seem like you go unnoticed but you’re probably making a quiet but positive difference in people’s lives.
What has been your most embarrassing moment in Asia? (So far … there will be more!)
I have a really good pooping-over-a-waterfall-only-to-realize-there-were-people-at-the-bottom diarrhea story (don’t we all?), but I don’t think that one’s super appropriate for the internet.
If you could invite three people, dead or alive, to come to a dinner party in your host city, who would you invite and why?
Elon Musk, Mohammad, and Jon Stewart. I would imagine this meal going something like: Elon and Mohammad duking it out about the current state of organized religions and the role they play in foreign affairs and meaning of life and the future of mankind, meanwhile, Jon Stewart would mediate, eventually give up, and privately crack jokes to me.
What is one goal you have for the last six months of your fellowship?
I want to make cologne whose essential oils have been distilled from naturally occurring things from the Dali valley (lavender, honey, honeysuckles, hemp, rice, roses, pine, etc) and I want it to smell good and I want people to use it because it’s an objectively high quality product.