Every five days is Market Day around here and from now on I will try to keep to a similar rhythm for posting on this blog. On market day, the local farmers go down, packed on tractors, motorcycles and some on foot to sell their products and buy the goods they cannot produce themselves. But also for joining in the bustle, and meeting any friend, relative or acquaintance they happen to bump into, in an extensive exchange of smiles and laughter, chatter and conversations.
I come down here for much similar reasons, accepting the fact that the people on the market have no way of understanding what kind of life I lead, and despite curiosity about my strange appearance - or maybe not so strange anymore, over the years since we settled in this specific part of the prefecture - as the only caucasian-looking person between the ethnic Dai, Jingpo, De’ang, Lisu, and Han-Chinese, the only blond person within a vast, vast range of countryside around. Appearance is just surface, of course, and I just as much feel I do belong here. Another kind of difference between me and the people around me is that I don’t have to labour in the fields. How strange: instead, I can stand in front of my canvases, gazing and thinking of whether to add this or that color, or sit down improvising some music, which may just go into oblivion or be the beginning of a new piece.
Also, I am one of the few reading books here, or spending time reading things at all, and sure enough I’m the only one trying to be aware of the big philosophical & scientific questions which humanity as a whole is struggling with. I may be trying to be conscious about my consciousness, acknowledging that this apparent awareness could really be an illusion and a simulation, but hey, it’s the subconscious that’s in charge anyway, while at the same time I am squatting down to pick my tomatoes from a stall on the ground and chatting with the seller. Or I may ponder whether we humans started to speak languages before or after our brains got bigger, and related questions, or well, okay, maybe I wouldn’t be thinking about anything in particular for the moment, my mind just engaged in some blurry all-sorts, but anyway I do enjoy my visit to the market, when I order my regular two pieces of fresh tofu from the old lady I so often buy from, who will nicely pack them in banana leaves, or while already slowly riding homewards on my motorcycle, sometimes greeting children and other fellow villagers while passing through the first Jingpo settlements on the way up to our tiny village. Our story takes place in the Jingpo hills, and sure enough there is more to tell than the above!
So first about our organisation Prop Roots. Which will probably make you worried about the people here, because we have chosen a sunny but quite hazardous area to live, close to the Burmese border, in Dehong prefecture, Yunnan province, China. While I was on that market I was also picking up glimpses of a load of tragedies just below the surface. Oh well, not every man is a drug-user here (the numbers will make you fall off your chair), not every Jingpo child is an orphan (1 in 4 lives without parents), and also luckily not everyone has hiv/aids. No bad words about our area, because we experience a lot of greatness and strength in the people. And they just happened to live through a critical stage in history and right on one of the world’s main drug trafficking routes. Under that surface, however, at least as worrisome, are the general lack of direction, perspective, reflection, self-confidence, and proper education. Nobody deserves all this, and especially not the most vulnerable ones, the children.
We are helping the children in “our” village and the other ethnic Jingpo villages around us, but not in a standard way. (First of all, dear Chinese censors, if you happen to be reading this piece as carefully as some of the other visitors, we are not evangelists.) One more thing is that we don’t operate from a “safe” distance, while still based in the cities or staying in the nearest-by five star hotels (foe, United Nations people!) We built our home and activity center almost exclusively on our own expense (and huge loans), right in the village, and this place is now literally like an open house for the children. We help them by being their true friends, as they deserve, and offering them all kinds of opportunities and exchange to help them develop what they are good at, not the least their already great capacities at being kind to others. We try to make them more confident and aware of their capabilities, so they will be strong. (It is not just about improving their exam marks, after which they would still be crushed in the rat-race of the Chinese education system and society in general.) Also, when they reach the dangerous young adolescent age, we provide (my wife does) supplementary education at junior high schools, on self-protection, sexual relationships, and finding one’s own way in society.
There’s a lot to tell about what we as Prop Roots are doing, not the least all the stories and reports of our many projects over time (holiday camps and other creative activities, intercultural exchange, puppetry, English courses, pen pal exchange, performances, etc.) Behind the main stories are various individual cases, and it feels good to see that we are positively affecting many of their lives. You, dear reader, may also want to hear about our difficulties in running this organisation, in a country and environment where nonprofit, community work, and NGO’s are unknown phenomena, receiving annoyance and mistrust in return.
Li Yang, the woman I am happy to call my wife, is the one in charge of the Prop Roots organisation and team and she does that more than outstandingly. Before settling here, she had already built up quite a career in the city world, first as a lawyer but most of all as communications specialist for big international NGO’s, but she chose for pioneering work together with me in the countryside, for the Jingpo children. Obviously more useful for society than when still working in those unwieldy large organisations.
Talking for myself, I think artists should always challenge themselves. A life for pure arts doesn’t contradict making oneself useful and taking personal risks for a community in need, like I did for the Jingpo. I have always basically been a dreamy type of painter-musician, but my intercultural experiences, sinology studies and PhD research on the Jingpo’s Zaiwa language over the past 25 years formed the bridge into my present, rather intercultural way of living. I’m the only westerner speaking the language of my Jingpo co-villagers: Zaiwa. This blog, Planet Zaiwa, is my p.e.r.s.o.n.a.l space, an at times maybe rather idiosyncratic alternative besides Prop Roots’s pages, but of course I cannot avoid referring to the Jingpo children and our projects for them much of the time. Personal space is what I need extensively, and not only on the web. The Prop Roots organisation and team are now firmly lead by Li Yang so I can dedicate myself to what I am for: being myself. Still aware of some more worldly matters, like humanity’s desperate need for bridges across the wide gap between the physical and human sciences, but nevertheless: doing my own things, which are not always Prop Roots related in the first place. During my walks through the villages I naturally keep up our good connections with the neighbours, and I still take part in almost all Prop Roots activities, but besides that I try to dedicate much time to painting and music. Such doesn’t contradict at all our aims for the project because, in the end, everything we do refers to being creative, in a broad sense, and being what you really are, dare to be different. My next project will be the creation of a set of new-style musical pieces based on existing Jingpo music, for Jingpo people to dance and sing to, because there is a great lack of such materials, while these can help empowering them.