I will never forget the first hours of my first trip to China. The airport in Beijing is a gleaming symbol of modernity and efficiency. Though there were thousands of cars on the interstates into Beijing, there weren’t any potholes. Beijing itself is a complicated amalgamation of towering high-rise buildings, mopeds, hutongs, food carts, newsstands, and of course millions of people with places to go. And the air; well, you know about air quality in Beijing, but you can’t imagine what it’s really like on the worst days. You can feel it and taste it.
After being in Beijing for only couple of hours, jet-lagged me had the “profound” insight, which is of course embarrassing in hindsight, that China is a whole other country with cultures that are completely foreign to anything I’d ever experienced before.
I was there to talk about biodiversity with professors and students from Peking University. Once I was (slightly) over jet-lag, I realized that, despite the often dramatic cultural differences between me and my Chinese hosts, we wanted to know the answers to the same questions: Why do some places have more biodiversity than others? How might ongoing climate change affect biodiversity and the ecosystem functions and services it provides? What became apparent was that our questions were similar, and sometimes our approaches were to. But where they differed, they differed because of our different cultural contexts. I’m certain most of you have known this sort of thing for your entire lives – that different cultures approach questions and problems in different ways. I didn’t know that. Growing up, my family never traveled out of Arkansas very often. And if we did, it was to go to, say, Missouri or Alabama. Even after college (in Colorado), I still assumed that there were only a handful of cuisines in the world: American, Chinese, Mexican (which was really Tex-Mex to me), and European. I had no idea that Indian food and Thai food were even things, let alone the amazing diversity of foods in China. I wasn’t a citizen of the world, to say the least. I share those embarrassing stories about how unworldly and culturally unaware I was to give you a sense of where I was culturally and culinarily (to make up a word) when I first started traveling.
But about China and my time there. One of the outcomes of that visit was the now 10-year long collaboration I’ve formed with a team of Chinese ecologists at Peking University. We have worked together in mountains around the world and on climate change in the Tibetan Plateau. And one of my colleagues and friends, Xin Jing, is here in Bittersweet visiting me and Aimée Classen for the next month to continue to work on a variety of (I think at least) interesting projects.
I’m also really excited to let you know that The Environmental Program is hosting Gong “Victor” Cheng, from Minzu University in Beijing. Victor is here for a year as a Visiting Assistant Professor. His scholarship and teaching center on Traditional Ecological Knowledge and many other aspects of the environment and sustainability. He’s visiting classes and talking with many folks across campus.
Among many other international initiatives The Environmental Program is developing and strengthening, this is one I’m especially excited about. China and the US could and should partner to tackle many of the vexing environmental problems facing the planet. And I hope that the Environmental Program can help forge better ties between Chinese students and scholars and US students and scholars. Moreover, we would like to make more connections with the many Chinese students who attend UVM. How are we going to accomplish that? Well, this email is a step. And hosting visiting scholars is another step. Establishing connections with host institutions in China and offering courses in China is another step. And there are other steps that we’re working on in a number of arenas.
I’ll stop there and just say that if you’re interested in helping to make these Chinese-American connections, let me know. I think that personal connections we make with people in other countries and other cultures is going to be incredibly important in the coming years. And I’d like to think that Our Environmental Program can help facilitate those connections.
Happy Friday -