Friday, March 6, 2015

Omg I'm in the news!!!

Omg I'm in the news!!! They’ve been showing Prince William’s visit in all the local, national, and even a couple international news stations. Since I’m the most brightly dressed and have the most fabulous eyelashes in the group, I’m pretty easy to spot. There was even a little snippet in a local news article that includes my name and research topic: (it’s in Chinese so it might be hard to read…)

Haha I heard there was going to be press, and I didn't want to look washed out all over the internet, so I specifically went and purchased some fancy eyelashes for the occasion. I bought some slightly subtler looking ones to look all demure and proper for the Brits, haha but I couldn't stand it and ended up adding on a second layer of huge lashes. I mean, he's a prince after all, so I gotta look my fanciest.

I was aiming for a selfie with him, but that didn't happen :(  I was so sad. Stupid security guards.
They wouldn't allow any pictures, but they didn't take away people's cameras during the security check, so OBVIOUSLY everyone had their phones out the moment he walked in hahaha.
I didn't get any pictures myself, but my mom has been combing the internet collecting them. It's too bad my face isn't on the back of my head in these, eh? Haha I'm sure a good face one will turn up eventually -- there were SO MANY cameras pointed at us.

My favourite photos so far are the ones with my friend Jessie. She was so completely unfazed by the Prince’s presence that she refused to take off her sunglasses, and then spent most of his time with us picking at an itchy mosquito bite on her elbow. (The picture with her picking her elbow in now on the front page of XTBG’s website.)

Funnily enough, this has actually really helped improve my relationship with the local Dai communities. I was a little self-conscious about being an outsider wearing a Dai dress for Prince William’s visit, especially since everyone kept thinking I was a local Dai girl, but I was hoping that I was mostly exonerated of cultural appropriation since every bit of my outfit was a gift from local community members and they were very excited to see me wearing it on TV.

Yi Kang, my Dai field assistant, told me that the local Dai community has been talking about me all day. Some thought that I must a Dai tour guide from XTBG, and those who met me already were quick to say, “No, her name is Lily! She is an Canadian/American working here with Yi Kang, etc etc.” Then others would chime in to say that they recognized me attending the recent village wedding, etc.
I also got to bring Yi Kang to the fancy dinner at the 5-star hotel, and she was so excited and told everyone about it. It was so cute! This is us at the pool (before I took off my clothes and jumped in completely).

I'm really pleasantly surprised by the positive PR effect this has had for me, especially since I've been really stressed out this week because I'm facing my first bit of community resistance to my research at my next study village.

The big problem for me is that new Holy Hill protector for this village won't let me do my plant surveys. I've been visiting this community since 2011 and I'm good friends with a few of the residents, and I've done Holy Hill plant surveys here previously in 2011 and 2013 with no problem. But the previous Holy Hill protector who let me do everything passed away a few weeks ago (may he rest in peace), and the new one is not as flexible. He's worried that having me in the Holy Hill will anger the gods that live there so that the gods will punish the village. He found some string from previous plant plots (likely mine...) and said that he threw it out. He said that removing the string helped restore some good fortune to the village. He said that if anything bad happens to a villager during my field surveys and the gods get angry, the gods will punish the villagers and then the community will hold the Holy Hill protector responsible.

He also said that according to reason, women should not be allowed to enter Holy Hills, but society being what it is now, he will ask the village head if I can enter as long as I’m not menstruating at that time (according to Buddhist beliefs). Sigh...

I was freaking out a lot because I have so much invested in this community already, what with my friends here and previous data and extensive research on this village's history, so changing a field site would be really rough. Not to mention, this community has two Holy Hills, one restored and one relocated after the Cultural Revolution, so it's such an interesting case study to understand how these communities have recreated pockets of sacred forests across the landscape.
But at the same time, I certainly can't fault the man for protecting what he sees as the best interests of himself and his community, and he has every right to make such a decision (no matter how much trouble it causes for my dissertation...).

I decided that I wasn’t going to get any further that day, so I said thank you for his time, and that I understood and respected the enormous responsibility that he has for protecting his community. I also gave him a present I brought from Canada. He seemed pleased and sent me home with a bunch of bananas as a gift, which I think is a good sign for a budding rapport.

In the meantime, I'm going to move on a start my plant surveys at my next Holy Hill site. I'll be back to this community and trying to work on my relationship with the local leaders (which is still rough sometimes when I'm a young girl in a patriarchal society). And who knows? Maybe after a few months of getting to know me, things might change later on. I can only hope! Besides, as my wonderful committee members have told me in response to my panicking emails, this might actually be a really great opportunity to gain some important insight on local community politics and how these interact with outside forces.

On the bright side, leaving some of my plant surveys for later is a welcome break too. Managing a field team is really hard! It's quite an adjustment dealing with the Chinese way of scheduling, because it's literally impossible to plan in advance. Plans are typically not confirmed until the night before, and even then they might change in the morning if there is rain or something else comes up, etc. And this is quite something to deal with on the fly when who and how many people can come completely changes what kind and how much data can be collected that day, which of course also changes what equipment to bring and how much food to provide, etc. Plus many of my field assistants are borrowed from other labs, so they can be called away at a moment's notice if their boss needs them. Right now I've got a rotating roster of main field assistants, plus secondary field assistants I call if I'm missing someone. But it's hard and time-consuming to train people over and over again, so I try to stick to the same people if I can.

In any case, I'm really excited for the chance to really focus on my ethnographic work -- which I started when I first got here, but have been neglecting a bit lately for my plant surveys. I was also learning Dai language, which is a blast, but I need to keep practicing to improve! Haha and mainly I think it will be wonderful because I'll only need to think about one person's schedule at that point (the beautiful and wonderful Yi Kang), and her main priority is accompanying me.

Ok, that’s it for now! Sorry for the long delay again. I’m off to a hot springs tomorrow to celebrate International Women’s Day! It’s a pretty big deal in Dai communities, which I think is so awesome. The village committees organize a performance, and most women just got out on fun trips or go out shopping, or whatever else is fun and relaxing :)


Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Starting fieldwork

Hi everyone! My profuse apologies for my prolonged absence. The past few weeks have been SO BUSY!! I literally dream about my research every night – there’s no escape! Right now I’ve started fieldwork, the beginning of which involves a lot of stress with planning and figuring out how to modify my original plans to fit the messy reality in front of me. (Haha plus I’m really out of shape, so mountain-climbing is really exhausting, especially in a disturbed tropical forest with lots of spiny lianas and other mean-spirited plants with vicious curved thorns for drawing blood from innocent, good-hearted people trying to save their habitat – I actually have a list of plants I now hate.)

Besides learning to live in clouds of mosquitos and hammering out methodology details, early fieldwork involves juggling the constantly changing schedules of my field team members and fighting for their time with other professors. On top of all this, I’m still reading a lot to refine my research proposal for the 5 grants I have due in the next 1.5 months. In short, I’m really looking forward to what I imagine my life will be like in a couple months: organized, and with a little time for myself in the evening (hahaha we’ll see).

Backing up a bit, I realized that I haven’t actually told many of you what research is about:
I am studying the changing relationship between indigenous communities and their traditionally protected sacred forests, its effect on land use practices, and the ecological implications of this evolving relationship for biodiversity conservation.
I’m working with indigenous Dai communities in Xishuangbanna, a prefecture in southwest China that contains the world’s northernmost tropical rain forest and China’s richest biodiversity. However, these forests are disappearing very quickly in the face of expanding rubber plantations.
Right now, Dai sacred forests called Holy Hills are virtually the only remaining forest fragments outside government nature reserves, and they have been documented to contain rare species and ecosystems that are often underrepresented in current protected area networks.
Besides their conservation potential, we also need to consider that there are competing interests at play in Holy Hills. On one hand, it is understood in Dai culture that maintaining Holy Hills improves community well-being by appeasing ancestor spirits. On the other hand, converting Holy Hills for increased rubber production improves material security and Dai social standing in Chinese society.
Ultimately, I’m trying to understand when and how community goals for protecting sacred forests are compatible with conservation goals. This is important for engaging with conservation science and policy-making in a way that can both conserve biodiversity while still allowing for cultural self-determination.

But besides research, the past month has had some fun things happen too. This was my first Christmas away from my family, and despite missing home and people I love, it was actually really great here. There’s actually a huge community of foreigners at XTBG (Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden) where I’m based. In some ways, it was one of the most Christmas-y holidays I’ve had. I think that because we are all far away from home, no one takes the Christmas holidays for granted, so we all know that if we want to celebrate it, we need to work hard to make it happen. We also work hard at going through all our holiday rituals to remind us of home, so we had lots of Christmas baking and caroling and parties. XTBG even threw us a special Christmas party for foreigners! Plus there is such a mix of foreigners here that I get to experience Christmas from all sorts of countries, haha and this year with a particularly strong Welsh influence.

New Year’s is less of an explicitly celebrated event in China because it is overshadowed by Chinese New Year, but this year I got to celebrate with a friend’s wedding on Dec 31. These are pictures of Nana and Ben at their ceremony – aren’t they adorable??

This is a picture of me at a string-tying ceremony in the wedding. They have these in Thailand too, I’m told. The older generation goes around and ties string on our wrists to wish us good luck and health, and we have to keep the string on for at least 3 days. It was really fun! Though my string got a bit stinky by the time I took it off…

The wedding (with 1000 guests!!) also involved some dance performances from all the young ladies and old ladies (haha they seem to explicitly exclude no middle-aged ladies). That’s me and my friend Rin eating dinner during the show.

I’m also really enjoying the food here. This is a picture of one of my favourite things to eat: algae! It’s scraped from the rocks in the Luosuo River, and then it’s hand-washed, spread in sheets on woven mats (as shown in the picture), dried in the sun, seasoned with all sorts of yummy spices, and deep-fried! It’s SO GOOD.

I’ve also been trying out the local moonshine. This is a picture of them making some from corn, though they will also use sticky rice.

I also went back to visit some of my old contacts in Dai villages from previous years, and I found that one of them had put up the pictures I mailed his family back in 2011! Isn’t that so sweet?? That’s me in the blue dress with the orange flowers in my hair, from when they had me try on some Dai clothing :)

Ok, that’s in for now because I need to sleep early for fieldwork again tomorrow. Man, I’ve barely scratched the tip of the iceberg for my work, and I’m already pooped!

Much love,

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Hello lovely readers! It's funny that despite how much I journal and write verbose emails, I'm actually not really sure how to get started on this whole blogging business.

But here goes! I'll start with a bit of a recap of my trip down unda to Australia in November 2014.

World Parks Congress (WPC) in Sydney

This was my first trip to Australia, and I was so excited to see what my Australia-phile friends are always raving about. The slightly less enjoyable part was that I was heading straight to China afterwards for my year of fieldwork, so I was forced to lug 160+ lbs of luggage across 3 continents. I also lack the ability to travel gracefully, which means I was grunting and sweating and pleading/cajoling/crying with airline officials about my overweight luggage the whole way. To the dismay of those sitting beside me on the planes, I also packed my deodorant in my check-in luggage, so needless to say, I didn't smell too great either.

I finally managed to get my stinky and bedraggled self to Sydney by noon on the day the conference opened. I threw on some deodorant and made it only an hour late to the opening ceremony after a cursory 1.5 hours of being lost on Sydney public transit.
WPC's opening ceremony was really cool! They had fun nature-themed circus acts, which I appreciated. They also had a cocktail hour afterwards with dim lighting and romantic dance music, haha I guess to help people start the conference networking process.

On the first actual day of the conference, I felt really out of place and lost. It was so hard to focus my attention on anything, and it seemed like an entirely plausible outcome to show up at a monstrous conference like this (6000+ people, once every decade) and come away without digging into anything, which is not what I wanted.

Then as the individual streams started, I felt better. I really liked my stream, Respecting Indigenous Traditions and Cultures. They actually had a lot of indigenous representatives speaking, and after being in the ivory tower at school for the past while, these personal interactions were a really good reminder about why I am doing my research. I also had a lot of fun giving a talk for the session on Asian Sacred Natural Sites. (For those who are curious, I gave a similar talk at the FES Doctoral Student Conference in October 2014. My talk starts at 31:00 in session 2 at

I will say that the Russians definitely won first place at the conference, hands down. They had a giant booth with people dancing around dressed as large cats, plus a special selfie station with a Russian bear. If I ever organize a stand for a large international conference, imma roll like this too.

Most importantly for any conference, I also made lots of new friends, especially among forest rangers. One very kind ranger named Chris offered to take my friend Julia and I out for a fun trip to Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park over the weekend. We got to see really cool petroglyphs left by Aboriginal peoples from over 2000 years ago. My favourite is the little platypus -- isn't it adorable??

I keep forgetting that Christmas here involves no snow. Chris pointed out a little island where he likes to spend his beachy Christmas BBQs, so I posed in front of it.

But of course, the best part of WPC was getting to see old friends, long graduated from FES with their masters and scattered around the world doing all sorts of amazing things :)

Tasmania: Land of Absurdly Adorable Animals!

After the conference, my friend Julia and I headed off to Tasmania for some well-deserve post-conference relaxation. There are so many animals at night, so I was driving at half the speed limit because I was terrified of hitting something, especially since we had to drive on the left side of the road and we were still not too comfortable with that. I don’t think I’d ever forgive myself if I hit a wallaby.

See? I can't even describe how much I love wallabies. As Julia says, their cuteness causes actual physical pain!

We met a bunch of wallabies at Freycinet National Park -- this place is GORGEOUS and I absolutely recommend a visit! I have beautiful landscape photos, but I'd prefer to focus the post on cute animals, so instead of the idyllic waterfront, I will show you all the selfies I tried to take with wallabies.

Tasmanian Devil Conservation Park was also breathtakingly magical! I pretty much exploded with joy during kangaroo feeding playtime.

Plus the Tasmanian Devils (obvi!). Tasmanian Devil Conservation Park is on the Tasman Peninsula, which is home to the LAST remaining wild population of face-tumour-free Tasmanian Devils. (For those of you who haven't heard, Tasmanian Devils has been decimated in recent years by Devil facial tumour disease, the poor little things...

I also got to hold a tawny frogmouth, which is such a cool bird!! They have giant gaping mouths, which is where I think they got the name "frogmouth." This little lady I'm holding was born with a genetic condition that prevents her from flying, so her mom tossed her out of the nest. A hiker found her and brought her to the park, which is where she's grown up. She likes people so much that she clucks when you pet her! Also adorable is how spherical these birds are when they are resting during the day. Also also spherical and adorable is the giant head of a kookaburra.

Last but not least, we found an echidna crossing the road on our way back to the airport. The little shuffle is sooooo cute! The poor little guy or gal got scared and mushed its face into the ground for protection. Doesn't the furry little lump look so fearsome?

We didn't get to see a koala or wombat in Tasmania, so we headed back to the Sydney Zoo to rectify that issue. Apparently, my role model Kimora Lee Simmons has had a koala photo shoot before, which I was trying to emulate. 
We aren't allowed to touch koalas in New South Wales (uugggghh should have flown to Brisbane where the laws are different), so I sniffed the koala because I wanted to know what they smell like. The closest part was his bum, and I can report that koala bums do not smell good.

We waited for ages, but we also managed to see the wombat too. Haha he's sleeping like he's drunk.
Weird fact: wombat poo is square-shaped! They literally poo little cubes out. How weird is that??
(Some have proposed an explanation:

Hmm, I know my mom is reading this, and I know she's gonna ask about the scenery more than wombat poo, so I'll throw some landscape pics on after all. Shout out to Freycinet and Mount Field National Parks in Tasmania.

Arriving in Xishuangbanna

I have just arrived at Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden, where I will be based for my fieldwork for the next year. It's still a little surreal that I'll be away for so long, but it feels more and more real now. Haha mainly the bathrooms are a rude awakening to reality.

That's for now! I'm hoping future posts will be shorter, or mainly that I'll be better at updating regularly. See you then!

Much love,