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China Search for Meaning 6-wk
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    [post_content] => The questions we ask ourselves on this "search for meaning" (eg. How should I lead my life) are incredibly shallow, as our responses are necessarily shallow. We attempt to find a best answer that reflects our lives, ideals, or opinions, reducing the question and limiting our understanding of the topic. When we decide on essential questions, we are already holding ourselves back by creating certain wording to express meaning. Such "essential questions" can not be formalized, nor spoken, but experience might give insight that informs our lives, ideals, and opinions. Pure analysis in the mind may aid us, but a possibility of true enlightenment is completely unrealistic. In addition, the idea that there is a singular best answer, or any superior response is subject to the thinker's biases. Instead, we should approach a topic with a focus on finding many answers. Though certainly not a perfect mode of attack, this style allows one to discover alternatives that can be used to increase understanding of the question, but never real meaning. We might see how others approach an essential question, and such experience informs our personal ideas and subconsciously changes how we act. Any conscious analysis of our experiences limits us, so it is necessary to act spontaneously according to one's identity. Pure, initial analysis in the mind is incredibly useful, but one must never expect completely mastery of a subject, as the very idea that we know more than others prevents meaningful progress. Therefore, live your life fully, have incredible experiences, and maybe you'll like where you find yourself in the end.
    [post_title] => The Questions We Ask Ourselves
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China Search for Meaning 6-wk

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The Questions We Ask Ourselves

Charlie Aresty,China Search for Meaning 6-wk

Description

The questions we ask ourselves on this “search for meaning” (eg. How should I lead my life) are incredibly shallow, as our responses are necessarily shallow. We attempt to find a best answer that reflects our lives, ideals, or opinions, reducing the question and limiting our understanding of the topic. When we decide on essential […]

Posted On

07/25/15

Author

Charlie Aresty

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Day 7 8 of no showering

Hair = Disgusting and greasy

Nails = Full of fecal matter

Skin = Rugged & Sun-burnt

Experience = Incredible

On the third and final day of our nomadic, Tibetan home-stay we decided to take a moment to reflect on our experiences here. Upon arrival, we were whisked away to our home-stay family's tent, which overlooks Qinghai Lake, after a long and exhausting hike up the mountain that they lived on. Now to those unfamiliar with the movements of the Tibetan nomadic movements; the nomads typically arrive in this area of China as the winter subsides and the spring thaw begins and stay here until August. As a result of the limited stay in the area, the nomads setup camp by constructing their tents with a combination of tarps, metal, rope and clay. They then spend the greater part of their time here herding their cattle and supporting themselves through several different ways that will be discussed later in this summary of our time amongst them. Alas as hunger overtook us, we asked for food, which in turn resulted in a serving of milk tea, bread and tsampa. Tsampa, a food known only to the well-traveled among us, can only be described as an unusual concoction consisting of yak milk, yak butter and a powdery substance that has yet to be determined. At night, we herded the cattle in and cooked dinner with our home-stay family. This night, the first of many, had us trying to break through the language barrier by learning the basics of the language from the family as we pointed to objects in rapid succession while at the same time we scribbled down all that we could so that we could reference back to it throughout the upcoming days. Once we were tucked in at night by our home-stay parents, it was only a short time before we awoke early the next morning to begin a day of tending to the cattle, tending to the fire, cooking & dinner where we once again engaged in our exchange of cultural norms and languages and our tucking in for the night in preparation for the day ahead. This would be the basis of our stay here as we repeated the things mentioned above the next day and the nomads continued to do this throughout their stay there and elsewhere once they had relocated to avoid the chilly winters of Qinghai Lake.

For some this apparent lack of complexity and entertainment that has come to define Western culture (and increasingly the rest of the world) has led some to deem this group of people as hopeless barbarians. Who's lives, they believe, are primitive and unfit to be written in the annals of history when compared to the more 'meaningful' lives of those who have accumulated wealth and prestige at the expense of others. Although once one gets past this common misconception, one realizes that the beauty of this lifestyle lays in its simplicity and the care that one another has for their community. Since the onset of the Italian Renaissance and the development of the idea of individualism, Western civilization has been driven by the idea that life is about competition, whether it be the damning qualities of capitalism or the idea of all or nothing in the attempt to become a 'self-made' man. The idea that we as individuals have to be better than our fellow person is prevalent throughout society, whether it be in school, sports, or social status; chivalry is dead. Tragically, the nomadic lifestyle is dying. As globalism spreads its tentacles all over the globe and indeed further inland in China, it suffocates the aspects of society deemed 'unnecessary' to the 'growth' of the country, thinking of growth in a purely economic sense. Ever since Mao's Cultural Revolution and Deng Xiaoping's economic reforms, China has been keen on preserving its economic viability at all costs. As a result when the question: Do we preserve our cultural heritage or continue to fuel our economic growth? The answer has always been continue to fuel economic growth. Major cities, such as Shanghai & Beijing, have seen much of their cultural heritage stripped away, such as the destruction of Beijing's city walls for the vast new boulevards and subway lines of the ever expanding city, in favor of accelerating the economic growth of the cities. Now this harrowing reality is beginning to hit even the most remote places of China. Qinghai Lake is, increasingly, becoming a tourist site with 'traditional' nomadic tents (fitted with flat-screens and beds with Egyptian cotton) for the scores of domestic tourists that have flooded its shores. Ironically, our desire to better understand the nomads only furthers their lifestyle's decline as their young and able seek to discover a world told to them through the words of foreigners. The Chinese government, to add to their long list of grievances with the ethnic minorities of China, has begun to fence off the Tibetan nomads' roaming grounds and have systematically forced other nomads, such as the Mongolians in Inner Mongolia, to settle in the newly built cities that now occupy their former roaming grounds. The New York Times recently wrote that despite the official records of the government, which state that the majority of the former nomads are much happier now, ethnic groups, such as the Mongolians, barely have the means to make it through each month through the now dwindling state subsidies on food and other necessities. One such Mongolian complained that he had formerly been able to feed his family and make it through the winter without issue, yet now he hardly has the means to feed his family. Is this the future that is destined for the Tibetan nomads? A world in which there is only a sliver of a chance for success? Where the world seems to be inclined against them? Only time can tell.

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Milkin’ Yaks and Makin’ Stacks

Hakan Stanis & Jillian Hess,Picture of the Week, China Search for Meaning 6-wk

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  Day 7 8 of no showering Hair = Disgusting and greasy Nails = Full of fecal matter Skin = Rugged & Sun-burnt Experience = Incredible On the third and final day of our nomadic, Tibetan home-stay we decided to take a moment to reflect on our experiences here. Upon arrival, we were whisked away […]

Posted On

07/25/15

Author

Hakan Stanis & Jillian Hess

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    [post_date] => 2015-07-24 15:34:40
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    [post_content] => La Mian is love

La Mian is life

La Mian is the venti caramel macchiatto that you wish you had

La Mian spends its summers at Camp Laurel

La Mian is America's Next Top Model and not named Ebony

La Mian's got a secret can you keep it

La Mian has awkward sleepless nights

La Mian is literally a bowl of noodles

La Mian is the dangerously spontaneous tickle time

La Mian prefers squatty potties over western toilets

La Mian is the tension in certain taxi situations

La Mian is your friendly neighborhood Panda who you foolishly tell your room number to

La Mian is this mandatory Yak

La Mian is the cookie that you throw at the puzzled, young, timid, Asian female almost always lurking in her corner bed, in the hostel room you wish you had to yourself

"Maybe she was born with it, or maybe it's la mian." -Jillian Hess
    [post_title] => The Search For La Mian
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The Search For La Mian

Michael Dunkelman,China Search for Meaning 6-wk

Description

La Mian is love La Mian is life La Mian is the venti caramel macchiatto that you wish you had La Mian spends its summers at Camp Laurel La Mian is America’s Next Top Model and not named Ebony La Mian’s got a secret can you keep it La Mian has awkward sleepless nights La […]

Posted On

07/24/15

Author

Michael Dunkelman

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    [post_date] => 2015-07-23 11:38:33
    [post_date_gmt] => 2015-07-23 17:38:33
    [post_content] => China always takes me by surprise. Of course there are those aspects of food, culture, or aesthetics that are strongly consistent and present almost everywhere, but each and every day I have spent here I have stumbled upon something completely new, something that moves me or makes me smile or affects my understanding of the diversity whose sum is this incredible country. On my past trips to China, I was mostly only exposed to the Westernized areas, complete with luxury hotels and meals in fancy restaurants. Even both of the homestays I previously participated in were with relatively wealthy Shanghai families. These were certainly wonderful and valuable experiences for many reasons, but I was not able to see or experience so many of the parts of Chinese food and culture that are integral to what it means to actually live here. On this trip, I have been striving to find windows into the ethos of this complex place through conversations with those I meet, maintaining open eyes and an open heart everywhere we go. While I am still merely a visitor here, I have thus far been able to interact with this land and people in a much deeper way than I have ever done before.
The pace of this trip is a major part of why I have been able to attempt to understand both the facts and the intangibles of life in China. Though there are days of intense travel – I am currently on a 25 hour train ride from Xining to Chengdu – and we are visiting places all across the country, we settle down in each place for at least a few days, giving us a chance to slow down and reflect on the more active or adventurous days. When traveling, the first day in almost any place is often full of discomfort, confusion, awkward interactions and communications with a homestay family, a lack of understanding of what a place has to offer, no certainty as to where to get the best local meals, etc. I make mistakes that day; I eat a street over from the market street, I miss the view of the mosque or the ancient wall, I am unable to figure out that my homestay mother is merely being polite when she refuses help with getting dinner together. The second day is another day of learning, of becoming accustomed, but I am slightly more comfortable, slightly less afraid to help feed the baby at my homestay, pick up the tsampa with my hands, go to a local restaurant alone, or speak Chinese with a woman on the street. And I am grateful for my first days of discomfort because they taught me to leave judgment of this place, its people, behind. I can experience fact and feeling – there is surely objective truth – but I remind myself not to take an aspect of the lifestyle here and compare it to my own in a way that invalidates or demeans it. I remind myself also of the humanity of each person I encounter, that they are living with the same basic needs as I am: to survive, to be happy, to find meaning. Through my discomfort, I become intensely aware that there is value in integrating myself at the first possible opportunity, having confidence in myself and in the intentions of others, exploring the area and not going to the first store I see... and that every second I am not throwing myself head first into this discomfort is a second wasted.
I felt this progression during my first homestay, with a Tibetan family in Rebkong. At first, I found the homestay to be rather challenging – the family had a four year old child that had it out to torture me in just about every way that I was uncomfortable with. As I became more capable and developed a greater friendship with the little girl, my interactions with the family also became easier and easier. By the last night, I was showing them pictures of my travels so far in China, telling them about my parents and my life at home, and feeling extremely comfortable integrating into their way of life. I felt waves of affection and gratitude moving between us, and the air was rife with respect and understanding. It was a cross-cultural connection that seemed neither to mock nor challenge in either direction, and instead was full to the brim with humanity and curiosity.
Since our trip centers on religious and philosophical traditions in China, we have had the opportunity to see and experience many communities of faithful Buddhists, Catholics, and Muslims. While for one who does not initially understand the traditions or their meanings, going through the motions might produce no personal spiritual effect. As I have learned more from my instructors, my host families, and from visiting more places, I have tried to interact with Buddhism on a more individual and spiritual level. Our first visit to a Buddhist temple, the Lama Temple in Beijing, felt this way for me, especially since it was a place that has recently become more of a tourist attraction than a religious site. It was crowded, and it seemed as though everyone had a professional Nikon around their neck. I saw people posing in front of Buddha statues, holding their thumb and index finger together and closing their eyes as though they are deep in meditation. There, as I took incense and knelt down on the cushion in front of the first temple to have a moment of personal serenity, I felt a burning sensation on the back of my leg. I looked to see a burning stick of incense, dropped by a passerby, sitting on my calf. I jumped off the cushion, and brushed it from my leg. I felt a strong sense of irony that this historical place of so many prayers, practical and abstract, was so disrupted by people coming to live out a spiritual aesthetic through snapping their next Facebook profile picture.
When we traveled to Xiahe, staying in a hostel on the same street as the Labrang Monastery, and I began to feel surrounded by the devotion I wrote about in a previous Yak post, I wanted immensely to be a part of it. On a free day, I walked towards the monastery with my journal in hand, hoping to find a place to sit and write. Instead, I found myself beginning the kora, or pilgrimage path, following an elderly Tibetan woman with braided hair covered by a bucket hat and colorful fabric wrapped thickly around her waist. Thumbing prayer beads, saying a mantra, I went as slowly as I could, spinning each prayer wheel, walking around each stoopa three times, releasing all other thoughts except those about the feel of the beads and the wheels, the solidity of the ground beneath each step I took in my sandals. People stopped me. They asked me where my hat was, why I wasn't wearing it. They asked me if Buddhism exists in America. They greeted me. They smiled. By the time I finished, my right arm was weak, but my mind felt as sharp as ever, and my feet yearned to do it again sans shoes, to really feel the ground beneath them. Certainly, there were times while I was walking that my mind wandered, that I wondered what right I had to be there, to participate. But I continued, and I forgave my mind for wandering, gently reminding myself to take the journey step by step, prayer wheel by prayer wheel, repetition by repetition, and experience the place as those who perform that kora every day experience it.

These are my interactions, performed without regret or remorse, and they are something that I will never forget. I am not here as a voyeur, to observe, to analyze... I am here to experience and to live fully.
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China Search for Meaning 6-wk

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Interaction

Zoe Gilbard,China Search for Meaning 6-wk

Description

China always takes me by surprise. Of course there are those aspects of food, culture, or aesthetics that are strongly consistent and present almost everywhere, but each and every day I have spent here I have stumbled upon something completely new, something that moves me or makes me smile or affects my understanding of the […]

Posted On

07/23/15

Author

Zoe Gilbard

WP_Post Object
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    [post_date] => 2015-07-22 10:30:53
    [post_date_gmt] => 2015-07-22 16:30:53
    [post_content] => 
Xiahe 2012: While serving in the Peace Corps I had heard the more senior volunteers talk about Xiahe as a place that you must visit. I knew it was a Tibetan area, but I had very few expectations besides beautiful scenery and open country, which one comes to crave after months in a claustrophobic Han Chinese city. In 2012, Xiahe was on the foreign tourist route through Northwest China, while Han Chinese tourists were few and far between. The northern part of Xiahe where the bus drops off is little different than other Chinese cities. The paved roads, sound of construction, and formal economic activity stops abruptly as one moves further south. When looking down at Xiahe from the mountains above, the border between Han and Tibetan areas could not be more distinct, as concrete buildings and cranes give way to mud houses and golden topped monasteries. I remember feeling dizzy when observing the sheer number of Tibetan pilgrims walking the kora for hours on end. The flow of worshippers seemed never ending. The click of prayer beads, creaking sound of wooden prayer wheels turning, and several individuals doing prostrations in which their chests and forehead lie completely flat on the dusty ground had me mesmerized. Xiahe felt otherworldly. The atmosphere of unrelenting devotion to the Tibetan Buddhist faith and tradition gave way to emotions of sincere reverence and respect. Several days in Xiahe had me feeling spiritually uplifted and I knew that this place of Tibetan pilgrimage would always hold a special place in my heart. In 2012 I departed Xiahe feeling high on life. I left wishing that everyone could find something in their lives that they are devoted to and passionate about. At that time I did not know what I would devote myself to, but I hoped that I would have the courage to throw myself entirely into whatever the endeavor may be, just as the Tibetans of Xiahe passionately devote themselves to their faith and traditions. New Developments in Xiahe 2015: The Xiahe that we found earlier this month still has the Tibetan pilgrims and a lesser degree of spiritual reverence can still be found, however, much of the recent development and changes have left me increasingly concerned for Xiahe's future. In what was previously a part of the Tibetan community, an area of simple mud houses for monks and lay people, there is now a massive tourist center and parking lot. The tourist center's design was meant to blend in with the surrounding Tibetan monasteries, but it looks very much out of place. The structure is sleekly modern in an area of traditionally handcrafted buildings. I asked around amongst local Tibetans as to how this development had occurred. True to Chinese Communist Party form, the Tibetans previously living in this area were forcibly resettled and given 'adequate compensation'. The tourist center serves as the arrival point for the bus loads of Chinese tourists that are now travelling in increasing numbers. I found myself wondering what these waves of Han Chinese tourists were getting out of their travel to Xiahe and other Tibetan areas? Were they in search of greater meaning in their lives or something entirely different? While sitting at a cafe looking over the Tibetan part of town with a former Tibetan student that hails from Xiahe, we were exposed to the reality of what the majority of Chinese tourists are seeking. We looked on in disgust as a Han Chinese family set up a video camera and then choreographed the kids and adults walking the kora and spinning prayer wheels, all the while blocking the path of Tibetan pilgrims trying to go about their spiritual rituals. When the Chinese family finished its photo shoot and blocking the path of the devout, they boarded a tourist bus without speaking to a single Tibetan or doing anything remotely authentic/genuine. I would be able to draw some solace out of the tourist center if the Han visitors were in search of meaning or a spiritual awakening, but it appears that they are not. The majority are in search of a photo opportunity, that they can then post on 微信 (WeChat=Facebook). Xiahe deserves better than being a cheap photo opportunity destination. Economic vs. Spiritual Development: During a hike with Hakan, we revisited the stark difference that Xiahe displays between the Chinese priority of economic development and the Tibetans focus on spiritual development. China's economic accomplishments over the last 30-40 years are unprecedented and the fact that nearly 600 million people have been pulled out of absolute poverty is astounding. Despite these accomplishments and greater prosperity for Chinese citizens, it is clear that many people, despite being more well off economically, are feeling empty and are compelled to search for something more. On the other hand, many Tibetans in rural areas and harsh environments live in extreme poverty and endure what we might consider a "material suffering," yet they are often supremely happy and content with their lives because of their faith and spiritual development. With that said, I found myself pondering what is the optimal level of economic and spiritual development? Does an optimal level even exist or is it entirely context/culturally dependent? What is clear to me though, is that the Tibetan's centuries long focus on spiritual development is far more sustainable than the breakneck economic growth that the Chinese are promoting. Our environment can support Tibet's continued spiritual development; I doubt it can support China's continued economic growth. Is There Hope for the Future of Xiahe? Leaving Xiahe a few weeks ago, I found myself questioning whether it was selfish of me to want these Tibetan areas to stay the same, unchanged, and in the idealized vision that I formulated in 2012. Who am I to tell Han Chinese travelers that they cannot frequent Labrang Monastery or that my vision for Xiahe's development is superior to the status quo? Do I merely want Xiahe to stay the same because of the Western views that I hold with regards to preservation of culturally sensitive areas? I believe that there is hope for the future of Xiahe. The Ganjia grasslands and the surrounding Tibetan communities that we visited are unchanged and exactly as I remember them from 2012. These outside locales that are more difficult to reach and require rugged travel have not yet started to be frequented by the masses of Han Chinese tourists. The environment in these areas has been preserved and the pace of life is as slow as I remembered. Sarah and Parker have both remarked that Lhasa has been --in some ways  -- ruined by tourism and other development projects. In fact, Lhasa is often referred to as "Little Sichuan" by many Han migrants and some visitors often remark how much is it beginning to resemble other Chinese mega-cities. I wonder if the preservation of the Ganjia grasslands and other oases of pure Tibetan culture will be saved at the cost of sacrificing cities like Lhasa and Xiahe to Han Chinese and Communist Party inspired development models. In the end, I hope that Tibetans are afforded a voice in the development of their communities and holy lands. They deserve it... 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Changes in Xiahe: Economic vs. Spiritutal Development

Brendon Thomas,China Search for Meaning 6-wk

Description

Xiahe 2012: While serving in the Peace Corps I had heard the more senior volunteers talk about Xiahe as a place that you must visit. I knew it was a Tibetan area, but I had very few expectations besides beautiful scenery and open country, which one comes to crave after months in a claustrophobic Han […]

Posted On

07/22/15

Author

Brendon Thomas

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    [post_content] => The following is a reflection from China: The Search for Meaning Course Director, Parker Pflaum. Parker wrote the following while he was an instructor on this year's spring semester Visions of India program.

 

 The Bodi Tree.

 

I look up. Everyone is standing except for me, so I rise from the cushions on the floor and turn to face the sliding glass doors. Venerable Sarah sweeps into the room. She prostrates thrice in front of a golden statue of Buddha and then takes her seat, which is elevated a few feet above us. Today is the first day of our ten-day Buddhist meditation retreat at the Root Institute at Bodh Gaya, where the Buddha achieved so-called enlightenment beneath the Bodi tree about two thousand and six hundred years ago.
I study her as I wait for her to begin. Venerable Sarah is in her sixties. She is dressed in the simple maroon robes of the Tibetan Mahayana tradition. She is a slight woman, somewhat shriveled and with a wrinkled face. She looks out at the world with the sadness and weariness of someone who views the world as a place of suffering. She looks at us as ignorant beings that stubbornly refuse to realize that we are suffering. It is her job to teach us that we are. Over the next ten days I will learn much about this woman because she uses her life experiences as a guide to explain the Buddha's teachings to us.

She begins in a clear, confident voice. Sarah doesn't often pause-- her talks can be draining, provocative multi-hour marathons-- though she does at times ask rhetorical questions that are not meant to be answered but rather to prompt us to consider her words. I often leave her sessions with many more questions than when I entered; these questions are often new to me or they are on topics which I have never truly considered before.
Our minds create our reality.
“Buddhism doesn’t have a place for Heaven or Hell,” she begins. “Heaven and hell are here on Earth, created by us. Our minds create our reality. Have you heard about the little monk boy that upset the samurai in Japan?”

Sarah begins: “A big, tough samurai on his way from one place to another saw a little monk boy sitting on a tree stump. ‘Monk!’ the samurai barked in a voice accustomed to instant obedience. ‘Teach me about heaven and hell!’

The little monk boy looked up at the mighty warrior and replied with utter disdain, ‘teach you about heaven and hell? I couldn't teach you about anything. You’re dumb, you’re dirty, and you’re a disgrace to the samurai class. Get out of my sight. I can’t stand you.’

The samurai got furious. He shook from anger, red in the face, speechless with rage. He pulled out his sword and prepared to slay the monk.

Looking straight into the samurai’s eyes, the monk said softly, ‘That’s hell.’ The samurai froze, realizing the compassion of the monk who had risked his life to show him hell. He put down his sword and fell to his knees in gratitude.

The monk said softly, ‘And that's heaven.’”

“I once visited my friend in Santa Cruz. We went out with her husband and their little girl to a fancy restaurant that overlooked the Pacific Ocean,” said Sarah. “After eating this amazing food in this amazing place, it was time for dessert.”

“Their little girl looked at the menu and saw that they had her favorite double chocolate cake and she proclaimed in her shrill little voice, ‘I want that!’ But her parents refused her this time, so the girl fell on the floor of the restaurant and began a temper tantrum. She was screaming very loud and everyone in the restaurant started to look over at this little girl sobbing and screaming and clenching her fists, red in the face. Her parents were frantic from embarrassment and tried to reason with her, ‘What about a nice fruit platter?” they asked her.

Sarah looks up from her notes and scans the room. It seems she looks at each one of us thirty people right in the eyes. “The problem is always ‘out there’ and it’s always someone else’s fault. Right?” Sarah asks. “No,” she says, “it’s right here inside us. Hell is inside us."

We create our own reality. Consequently, we have agency in our experience.

I respect that many Eastern religions profess our ability to change our life, that we have agency over our own experience. Compare this to some religious traditions in the West which proclaim that much of life is preordained and evil exists as an entity outside the actions of Human beings. In these religions, only by following a set of rituals and prostrations to a deist presence can you hope to find escape from this world and peace in the afterlife. The Calvinist belief in predestination almost totally removes personal agency since nothing comes to pass that wasn’t preordained by God.

“Why do we get angry,” Sarah asks us. Why do we get angry? “Because someone does something that I don’t want them to do or someone doesn't do something that I do want them to do.”

“Why should everyone in the world do what you want them to do? What if they didn't have to do what you want them to do? What kind of world would that make?” asks Sarah. As Tolstoy once said, “Many people want to change the world, but few want to change themselves.”

Sarah begins a new story. “The sixteenth Karmapa escaped from Tibet to Sikkim and then to the United States by way of Hong Kong in the 1980s. The Hong Kong government provided an extremely plush welcome for this refugee. From the airport he was given a chauffeured vehicle and put up at the penthouse suite of one of Hong Kong’s best hotels. As the Karmapa was standing on the balcony of this skyscraper looking over Hong Kong, a Hong Kong government official walks over and sees that the Karmapa is crying.

‘Why are you crying?’ this official asks. The Karmapa replies, ‘Look at all this suffering,’ and he waves to indicate all of Hong Kong. He could see all the people below, frantically scurrying around just like ants. ‘There’s so much suffering out there,’ he says. ‘Everyone running around trying to buy the newest fashions, make the most money. Everyone is unhappy and unfulfilled in their relationships, experiencing pain, experiencing death.'"

The Truth of Suffering

I have been traveling in Buddhist countries for the last ten years. I have learned about Buddhism many times and to learn about Buddhism means to learn about the Four Noble Truths. This was the Buddha’s First Turning of the Wheel of Dharma, meaning his first teaching. But I had never agreed with the first noble truth: The Truth of Suffering, or, in other words, life sucks. Yes, I thought, life has much suffering, but it also has much happiness and joy and contentment and good things. Why must Buddhists be such pessimists?

But I’ve come to realize that the truth of this First Truth hinges on the world ‘noble’ as in the First Nobel Truth. I thought that noble meant that it was an exalted moral truth, but instead it refers to Arya beings, enlightened beings. So, from the perspective of an enlightened being, one who has stopped the cycle of Karma and reincarnation, who has understood emptiness and the impermanence of things, our lives are suffering. The Nobel Truth of Suffering exists in comparison to enlightened beings that don’t experience it.

“When you change the mind,” Sarah says, “The whole world changes.”

“Scientists have discovered that we have about 60,000 thoughts a day. Can you imagine?” Sarah asks us. “Sixty thousand independent thoughts a day. Are you aware of them all? Are you aware of any of them?”

Meditation: becoming familiar with your mind. Observing your mind. Controlling your mind.

Three days later, Venerable Sarah's discussions have so upset some of our Dragons students that they have had to exit her lectures. We learn later that Sarah is worried about this so she sends in a monk named Namjong to take over. Namjong looks vaguely Asian and wears spectacles. I have seen him the last few days scurrying around the grounds of the Root Institute looking busy and unapproachable.

After prostrating and sitting, I am surprised to find that he opens up with a Hawaiian surfer-dude inflection.

“One time my friend and I were leaving a grocery store in Honolulu and we see a shopping cart being blown by the wind. It hits a car parked in the parking lot and my friend says, ‘Sucks for that guy!’ Hah. Sucks for that guy. So we keep walking and we go over there and, it’s my friend’s car. It's his car! It’s this really fancy black BMW. And when my friend realizes that it is his car he starts talking about what he is going to do to the mother of that guy that left the shopping cart out and how he is going to helpfully re-arrange his face. I ask you, what happen there in the moment between my friend thinking that it was someone else's car to knowing that it was his car? He got mad. Why? Why does it matter whose car it is?"

“This other friend of mine was a doctor in Honolulu. He just got a raise, but his new job was in this other office that was an hour and a half from where he lived. So he had to drive a total of three hours each day. So he decides to buy an expensive car for like $80,000 because he says, ‘Well, I’m going to be in it for like three hours a day, so it should be a nice car.' Right? Yeah, you always hear people say that they bought a really expensive mattress because after all you are in it for eight hours a day. But what about your mind?" Namjong asks us. "You are in your mind for twenty-four hours a day for your entire lives. What have you done recently to improve it?"

“There’s a Zen Buddhist story about a man and a horse,” says Namjong. “The horse is galloping quickly, and it appears that the man on the horse is going somewhere important. Another man, standing alongside the road, shouts, ‘Where are you going?’ and the first man replies, ‘I don’t know! Ask the horse!’”

“This is also our story. Our mind is the horse, galloping around randomly in any direction it wants and we are astride it just along for the ride. It doesn’t have to be that way.”

For Buddhists, meditation is first and foremost about becoming familiar with our mind. How do you think? Have you ever thought about how you think? What do you think about? For instance, if a Buddhist practitioner got mad in a situation, she would think about why she got mad. Isn’t it important to know how your mind works?

 

Form is emptiness and emptiness is form.

 

“Look around you,” prompts Sarah. “There are thirty of you here. And somehow each one of you think that you are the most important and advanced person in this room. How could that be? How could each one of you think that you are the most important being in this room? Why must we be that egotistical? And, what is this ‘I’, this ‘me’, that we talk about? Say “me”. Say “I”. What is this thing that we are referring to?”

There is a thought experiment called the Ship of Theseus recorded by Plutarch in the late first century. One form of Theseus’ paradox goes as follows: a ship leaves the port of Lisbon carrying cargo bound for Cape Town. Along the way every nail, board, piece of sail, piece of equipment, man and cargo is replaced one by one until nothing original on the ship remains the same. Each and every single piece of the boat is changed out and replaced. When the ship arrives in Cape Town, is it the same ship? Is it?

“After all, everything about you is changed,” says Sarah. “Your skin is completely replaced every twenty-eight days. Red blood cells live for four months; while blood cells little more than a year; colon cells die off about every four days. Brain cells do last for your whole life and when they die they are not replaced, but the connections that are formed between neurons are always changing. Just like the ship that has been completely rebuilt, you have been rebuilt, numerous times over in your life. Who is this ‘I’, this ‘me’ that we speak of? Can you point to this person?”

Sarah points at us, “When you realize that there is no ‘I’ or ‘me’ the delusions flee and we become content. Form is emptiness and emptiness is form.”
Check up.
Sarah tells us again and again to “Check up!” or “Check your premises” and I am trying, but it is hard. At the time of attending the Root Institute I felt mostly frustration. I felt frustration because all of my beliefs, many of which I had never really considered, were challenged in fundamental ways. But I also felt frustration because the structure of the course didn’t provide opportunity to engage with Sarah regarding these ideas as she was the busy exalted teacher. And, there were also ideas that I had considered and I didn’t agree with the Buddhists.

During those ten days I went back and forth on whether I was a Buddhist or not. One day I was a Buddhist and the next I was vehemently not. I write this now, four months after the experience and I know that I am not a Buddhist. But, before I tell you why I am not a Buddhist, I can say with confidence that I believe in many Buddhist ideas. After all, all religions, all faiths and all spiritual beliefs have truth in them. Why do religions either have to be all True with a capitol T or else all False? Why must we be followers or else unbelievers? Christianity, Islam and Judaism have truths in them that I want to access. I wish that they offered ten-day retreats to engage with their philosophies and ideas.

Buddhism has many important truths. Many of these ideas are commonsensical. Impermanence? As in, things change, fade and pass in the end. Duh! Non-attachment? We know that we suffer when we become attached to ideas, objects or people. We know that sadness and joy, pain, suffering and pleasure don’t come from objects or people or activities, but rather, they come from us. Yes, they arise from inside us. Does chocolate cake have inherent happiness inside it? Of course not, otherwise chocolate cake would make all people the same amount of happy at all times, regardless of the amount eaten. But we know that some people are allergic and so chocolate cake doesn’t make them happy and also that if we had to eat chocolate cake every day we would get sick of it.

Sarah tells us about a Nepalese Buddhist monk that said constantly, “For me, no problem.” He was the most easy-going person in the world because he actually meant it too. He was content, no matter what. Wouldn’t that be nice? And what if we could actually just be kind? What if we could be humble and hold the best intentions for others? What if we could live with compassion? I believe in that stuff.

But why am I not a Buddhist? I’m not a Buddhist because when I am around Buddhists I know that I am not part of their tribe. I feel in my heart that I wouldn’t be content if I lived as they do. Buddhist monks are so caught up in studying and debating, arguing and chanting, gaining merit points and meditating that they don’t live life and I want to live life. They seem to me to be discontent people who end up dedicating themselves to a faith to try to end their suffering.

I know that I am wrong though. Venerable Sarah tells us all about her life. It is an unhappy one. She went from one thing in life to another, never content, never satisfied. Buddhism gave her the answers. It gives answers to fundamentally discontent people; people just like the Buddha.

 

The life of the Buddha.

 

The Buddha was a prince of a kingdom. When he was little a traveling ascetic studied him and then informed his father, the king, that his child would either be a great King or a great Religious Teacher. Consequently, the king locked Siddhartha in the palace with everything he could ever want. The king decided that Siddhartha would never observe or experience any type of suffering so that he would choose the life of a King and have no need for religion.

But even with everything that he could ever want Siddhartha was unhappy and discontent. In the parlance of our time we could call him a Debbie Downer. A pessimist. Depressed might also be a good word to describe him. I can imagine the Buddha asking himself, “Dude, you got everything you could ever want. Why you still be so unhappy!? You are messed up man, something must be wrong with you.”

Eventually the Buddha couldn’t take it anymore. He convinced his retainers to let him out of the palace. After much arguing the retainers conceded that they would take him out, but they also made sure to clean up the whole city. They made it spotless and they organized a celebration so that the Buddha would be distracted with festivities and opulence and consequently, he wouldn’t see or experience suffering. So imagine this: the Buddha is being carried in a sedan chair through a joyous celebration, and, you guessed it, out of all this happiness, this Debbie Downer’s eye went right to spot an old man, then a sick man, then a corpse and finally, an ascetic. Do you know anyone like this? Someone who is always unhappy and dissatisfied no matter what?

So the Buddha runs away and becomes an ascetic in a cave for many, many years. He starves himself. The story goes, he eats one grain a rice of day. But no matter how hungry he is and no matter how much he tries to distract himself through meditation, he is still dissatisfied. So after he gives that up, he then becomes a pleasure hound again. But that doesn’t do the trick either. There is a parable that one day Siddhartha comes across a beautiful, idyllic farming scene. But the Buddha, being the type of person he is, can only see the suffering: the farmer is sweating and sore so he is suffering; the birds are chirping and seem happy, but in reality they are hungry so they are suffering; the worms may appear happy because they are living their little worm lives but actually they are suffering because they must constantly be watchful of the birds elsewise they will be eaten. This is a dude who sees suffering everywhere all the time. This is the founder of Buddhism, a religion of people who see and experience suffering all the moments of their lives. Venerable Sarah is just like that.

Of course Buddhism tends to attract people who are discontent and are searching for a prescription to end their suffering. Why else would you choose to become an ascetic? To give up life’s many pleasures; to meditate in discomfort and pain for hours on end; to study endlessly until the eyes hurt?

Well it’s not for me. As Zhuangzi, the Daoist Master, once said, “I prefer to live in the mud” and I agree wholeheartedly. I realize that other people suffer, but for whatever reason— genetics, personal choices, dumb luck or a combination of the three— I don’t suffer. I’m relatively content. I do see the suffering in the world but I also see the joy and the happiness. I witness the joy of a mother holding her new born babe. Dear Buddhists, I know that her joy will wither and fade with time. I don’t doubt that. But that doesn’t take away from that moment of pure joy.

Yes, all joy will eventually turn to sorrow. All that we love will wither and fade. But as day becomes night and night become day again, suffering also will turn to happiness. A fighting couple will make up; a women’s cancer will be cured; a broken heart will mend and pain will pass.

And that’s why I know that Buddhists are right. Because I know that I am too young and I have not experienced the suffering that Venerable Sarah and Siddhartha have experienced in their lives. I know that I will, one day, whether in this life or the next. Perhaps one lifetime will come in which I am as discontent as Siddhartha, which, perhaps, will cause me to seek out answers, to attempt to reach Enlightenment. But until that day comes I choose to live in the mud. I live all the more joyously knowing that when the time comes there is a prescription to end suffering.

Thank you Buddhism.  Thank you for the gift of teaching me.

 
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Buddhism Near the Bodi Tree

Parker Pflaum,China Search for Meaning 6-wk

Description

The following is a reflection from China: The Search for Meaning Course Director, Parker Pflaum. Parker wrote the following while he was an instructor on this year’s spring semester Visions of India program.   The Bodi Tree.   I look up. Everyone is standing except for me, so I rise from the cushions on the […]

Posted On

07/19/15

Author

Parker Pflaum

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“You're from China right?” The old man on the bus directs his attention towards me after questioning the other members of my group.

 

“No I'm American,” I respond.

 

He looks at me quizzically and then asks, “Is your dad Chinese?” and “Is your mom Chinese?”

 

I answer both in the affirmative.

 

“Then, you're Chinese!” He concludes matter-of-factly.

 

I laugh and nod agreeably in response.

 

It was not until later that I processed what a large effect this conversation had on me. It had seemed to be just one more in a series of conversations I had with Chinese strangers about my identity. But there was something more aggressive in the way he asked the questions. There was something off in the sideways glances and detached body language of bystanders who had wanted nothing to do with him. There was something telling in how none of my instructors rushed to translate and how I didn't want to ask.

 

It is really difficult being an illiterate American Born Chinese in China. It's harder to practice your language skills and put yourself out there when you feel like you're being judged for every mistake you make. It's hard being hyper-aware of how you're being perceived. I avoid eye contact with locals on roads, so as not to spark up a conversation. I choose to eat my meals at familiar restaurants or places where I can simply point at a food and ask “how much?”

 

It's hard to pinpoint the moment I began seeing myself through Chinese eyes. When I first arrived in China, I felt no different from the other group members. I struck up conversations fearlessly and laughed my way through many awkward moments. But even then, it was something I was subtly aware of from my mother's warnings or my instructor's prediction that I would receive considerable attention in China. It was always something that lingered in the back of my mind during my initial local interactions. But up until the bus ride, that feeling remained in the abstract- either as empty words yet to be proved or romanticized, surmountable obstacles in my quest for identity as an ABC. Speaking to the man on the bus was the first time I felt a reaction more than temporary embarrassment. It was the first time that my mother's words that I could be seen as a Western traitor rang true.

 

My initial reaction was frustration – frustration at the simultaneously unequal, but fair expectations placed on me; frustration at myself for not learning Chinese when I had the best resources at my fingertips; frustration over being Chinese and the obligation I felt to continue my heritage. At no point did I feel frustrated with the old man over his lack of understanding and compassion. And if I'm being honest, I still can't be angry at him. I'm mad at myself for all the opportunities I have had and all the things I haven't done. If that isn't Chinese, I don't know what is.

 

It is unreasonable how one bad interaction can completely color the way you act and perceive yourself from that point forward. But it's harder to welcome failure when judgment and untrue, negative implications accompany it. It's even harder when that punishment is not delivered by some external bully, but rather by someone who represents a culture that has become so important to you. Chinese culture is one I feel attached to, one I want to be accepted into, and one I am still trying to figure out my relation to. In this period of flux, the slightest bit of negativity can shroud so much of the beauty in identity formation and self-discovery. A single conversation with this man made me turn from viewing my heritage as an infinite realm I could explore in to a burden. It turned something so pure and wonderful and limitless into some impossible, enclosed, and claustrophobic puzzle.

 

But this encounter still has so much good in it. It has pushed me to improve my Mandarin skills while I am here and when I return home. It has forced me to confront difficult questions about my identity. It has grounded my pursuit of self-discovering in something real and unromanticized. It's a gift and I'm fine, really. I just have a lot of things to figure out.

 
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China Search for Meaning 6-wk

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ABC

Jenna Peng,China Search for Meaning 6-wk

Description

  “You’re from China right?” The old man on the bus directs his attention towards me after questioning the other members of my group.   “No I’m American,” I respond.   He looks at me quizzically and then asks, “Is your dad Chinese?” and “Is your mom Chinese?”   I answer both in the affirmative. […]

Posted On

07/19/15

Author

Jenna Peng

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    [post_date] => 2015-07-16 13:53:53
    [post_date_gmt] => 2015-07-16 19:53:53
    [post_content] => 
Pic 1 (large, feature photo): Leaving for Our Nomadic Tibetan Home-stays South of Qinghai Lake

Pic 2: Saying Goodbye to Our Tongren Host Families

Pic 3: Stacey, our Chinese Intern, Cooks a Chinese Meal for our Tibetan Family [post_title] => Farewell to Tongren Home-stay Families in Qinghai Province (Amdo, Tibet), Onwards to Nomadic Home-stays! [post_excerpt] => [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => closed [ping_status] => closed [post_password] => [post_name] => farewell-to-tongren-home-stay-families-in-qinghai-province-amdo-tibet-onwards-to-nomadic-home-stays [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2016-01-20 15:50:15 [post_modified_gmt] => 2016-01-20 22:50:15 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => https://wheretherebedragons.com/?p=122610 [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => post [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw [categories] => Array ( [0] => WP_Term Object ( [term_id] => 84 [name] => China Search for Meaning 6-wk [slug] => china-search-for-meaning-6-week [term_group] => 0 [term_taxonomy_id] => 84 [taxonomy] => category [description] => [parent] => 255 [count] => 54 [filter] => raw [term_order] => 5.1 [cat_ID] => 84 [category_count] => 54 [category_description] => [cat_name] => China Search for Meaning 6-wk [category_nicename] => china-search-for-meaning-6-week [category_parent] => 255 [link] => https://my.wheretherebedragons.com/category/summer-2015/china-search-for-meaning-6-week/ ) ) [category_links] => China Search for Meaning 6-wk )
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Farewell to Tongren Home-stay Families in Qinghai Province (Amdo, Tibet), Onwards to Nomadic Home-stays!

Parker Pflaum,China Search for Meaning 6-wk

Description

Pic 1 (large, feature photo): Leaving for Our Nomadic Tibetan Home-stays South of Qinghai LakePic 2: Saying Goodbye to Our Tongren Host FamiliesPic 3: Stacey, our Chinese Intern, Cooks a Chinese Meal for our Tibetan Family

Posted On

07/16/15

Author

Parker Pflaum

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    [post_date] => 2015-07-12 02:15:39
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    [post_content] => The last incense dies in a corner, and brick dust coats my notebook. As the light dies, and the stars reveal themselves for us wandering insomniacs, I prepare myself for an incredible, life-changing mental journey.
-reflections on the Great Wall of China

Surrounded by grey hills, this city is being smothered by smog. The people are anxious and aggressive; the city is cramped and crumbling. Even so, I gain deeper appreciation as I enter the surrounding area. This world is from another age, the remains of some great, ancient civilization, a place Ozymandias might dwell. Like a dying supernova, the forests, cliffs, and temples are eroded and disappearing.The fields grow from cracked earth as hard as rock. Human development is being rejected, as though this civilization's lease has run out, and nature is evicting it. Rain washes down the hills, pulling the trees back to the valleys, and advertisement billboards hang ever-precariously from mounds of concrete. As we finally stop after eleven hours by train and four by bus, I wonder what this ancient place might have in store for me.
-scribbled in a crowded bus from Lanzhou to Labrang

A sea of wildflowers blanket the ground around me, and mountains, like waves, stretch into the distance. Peaks with prayer flags dot the landscape, and Tibetan villages lay below me. As others attempt this summit, I fear for their safety, and mine, as this place, like a mirage, entices with beauty, but is truly deadly.
-written on a mountain peak overlooking the Tibetan Labrang Monastery
    [post_title] => Reflections
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China Search for Meaning 6-wk

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Reflections

Charlie Aresty,China Search for Meaning 6-wk

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The last incense dies in a corner, and brick dust coats my notebook. As the light dies, and the stars reveal themselves for us wandering insomniacs, I prepare myself for an incredible, life-changing mental journey. -reflections on the Great Wall of China Surrounded by grey hills, this city is being smothered by smog. The people […]

Posted On

07/12/15

Author

Charlie Aresty

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    [post_content] => When I toured Labrang monastery, I couldn't help but marvel. The yak butter sculptures were so meticulously made. The golden Buddha statues loomed so large. The murals lining the walls of the temples (tangka) were elaborately detailed and painstakingly precise. Despite the exciting feeling of foreignness and sense of history I was experiencing, a faint disappointment lingered.

 

The passcode to the monk's iPhone is 0000. He complained about jamming his ring finger during a game of pick up basketball. He, like the rest of us, took a picture of the bright blue Tibetan sky to, unlike the rest of us, text to his friend. When I tried to direct our conversation to the political implications of the CCP's three billion yuan donation to the building of new temples at the monastery, he opted to discuss sports instead. When I questioned him about the construction of a new tourist center, he made the astute observation that Americans were large because they ate too much KFC.

 

Tim Oakes calls the tourist's quest the “misplaced search for authenticity.” The traveler, as a modern subject, faces the task of constructing a self-identity that is made simultaneously impossible and essential by the dislocating forces of the modern world. A natural escape from this unconquerable paradox and the chaos of constant change is to search for a way of life removed from the stresses of rapid urbanization, declining spirituality, and ubiquitous iPhones. In our search for these “untouched and pure” individuals, we tend to seal the objects of our touristic consumption into an imaginary box of a past time. Lured by the illusion of the real, we often forget the locals we encounter or the monks we speak to are modern subjects as well.

 

The disappointment I felt while interacting with the monk occurred because he did not conform to my expectations. Although refreshingly real, he was not, by my self-interested standards, “authentic.” I wanted him to be guarded and protective of the Buddhist tradition or demonstratively monk-like (whatever that means.) Instead, he was surprisingly and unabashedly normal. He seemed indifferent in his presentation to us, rushing through the tour, complaining about the hot weather, and admitting he wanted to sleep. He was more engaged in having conversations with us about our American lives and pop culture than he was in showcasing his religion. He had no interest playing into the dignified, solemn monk stereotype and instead was lighthearted and jovial, smiling at our attempts to speak his language and joking about American stereotypes.

 

When I asked for his picture, however, my camera didn't capture his fun demeanor or fascination with the NBA. It captured instead a stony expression that much more resembled the one I imagined. How does the act of picture-taking and the heightened sense of self-awareness it brings cause such a change? It is easy to say that his reaction was an indication of his deep-rooted connection to Buddhism or a submission to the pressures and expectations of Western tourists. However, his reaction may have been a deliberate decision and his way of exerting control over the ever-rising tide of modern travelers. Personally, I found his expression reassuringly relatable, reflecting the identity crisis of the modern subject – torn between past traditions and modern enticements and interacting actively or passively with perceptions from the outside.

 
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China Search for Meaning 6-wk

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The passcode to the monk’s iPhone is 0000.

Jenna Peng,China Search for Meaning 6-wk

Description

When I toured Labrang monastery, I couldn’t help but marvel. The yak butter sculptures were so meticulously made. The golden Buddha statues loomed so large. The murals lining the walls of the temples (tangka) were elaborately detailed and painstakingly precise. Despite the exciting feeling of foreignness and sense of history I was experiencing, a faint […]

Posted On

07/12/15

Author

Jenna Peng

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