As my host mom in Asuncíon brings out my secundo (the main dish after sopa-soup) with her empty-toothed smile, I can’t help but inwardly moan about how big the portion will be and how I will need to finish it all out of politeness. The dish arrives– it is rice, potatoes cooked with meat jerky, and boiled cauliflower. One bite into the rice, and it surprisingly tastes like home. Home as in China, and the familiar taste of a grain that is usually an irreplaceable part of my daily diet. The texture of each grain is full and substantial, and the rice has a fragrant aftertaste that I have not encountered for the past two and a half months.

It’s strange that an environment so different from where I come from can remind me so much of home. As we were picking rice our second morning in the community, my host dad asked me if rice crops in China grew as high as they did here. I was stumped and could only apologize that I had no idea. When we had our charla, or chat, with the community leaders, one of them asked us whether we came from the campo (countryside) or the city. At that moment, I realized how different our realities were. Growing up in a big city like Beijing, I’d never even walked among rice crops before. And even if I had grown up in the countryside, I would not have had coconut trees in my backyard nor lush tropical vegetation a few steps away from my house. My host mom maneuvers and weaves palm frond with dizzying ease, while all I can do is stare and give up all hope of remembering which frond goes between and under which frond.

But as the tune of the pop song ‘We Are Young’ comes up on the family radio, as I look up at the tarp of my family’s temporary shelter and see the words ‘USAID: FROM THE AMERICAN PEOPLE,’ and as I spot the Spider-man blanket being hung out to dry on the clothesline, I realize that we are not so disconnected after all. To think that my life at home is completely unrelated to and different from the life of this indigenous community on the banks of Rio Quiquibey is merely an illusion.

I have heard the expression that the Amazon is the lungs of the world. I have read about cap-and-trade projects in the Amazon, which allow large multinationals to buy ‘oxygen credits’ to fulfill parts of their carbon emission reduction requirements. Some argue that projects like these present a win-win solution: not only is the Amazon and the lives of its inhabitants preserved, but multinationals are also taking responsibility and measures to offset their damage to the environment. But is the protection of the Amazon simply a way to sustain the often-excessive lifestyles we (and I mean this loosely) lead at home? How does our actual desire to preserve the Amazon compare against our need to continue the ways of life we have become accustomed to? It assures me to see that the land of communities like the one we visited is being protected, but does that give me an excuse to continue the lifestyle I lead at home?

The reason my host family was staying under a temporary shelter was because of an unusual amount of flooding that happened a few weeks before we arrived. 12 families out of the 22 in the community lost their homes, animals and most of their crops, and about 5 families are now without boats–the only method of transport for a community that lives on the bank of a large river. Is it too pessimistic to speculate that such an unnatural amount of flooding is a result of global changes in weather patterns, caused in part by human activity? How can I really comprehend the gravity of my impact on the environment, when my life at home is so comparatively sheltered from changing weather patterns?

As I looked on at the first streaks of orange and pink that leaked through the morning clouds, as I gazed at the tall, spiny trees growing on the riverside sand beaches, as I spotted the silent outline of the distant mountains, and as I listened to the light chirp of invisible birds, I realized solemnly, that one day in the distant future, how easily all this could disappear.