non-fiction

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The Miao and the moviestar

Hanging with the minorities – by Sasha Draggeim

 

After my performance on the glittery and crowded stage of Hunan TV, I decided to go to an area untouched by maddening economic growth, heavy pollution and large-scale performances (or so I thought). Guizhou province in China’s relatively undeveloped southwest seemed perfect, and the work was meaningful – visiting the countryside to help set up programs to improve living conditions for villagers, many of whom belong to ethnic minority groups.

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Dung sweeping festival

Forced labour on the Inner Mongolian grasslands – by Alec Ash

 

The blades of a hundred wind turbines chugged languidly, stirring the dry morning air over an expanse of cracked grasslands pock-marked with horse droppings. A klick away, inside our ger, we reluctantly pushed off our blankets to meet the morning and rubbed the sleep from our eyes. It was a grudging start to the day, but missing breakfast would be worse.

We were in the Huitengxile grasslands, Inner Mongolia – an Englishman, a French woman and a Russian, like the start of a bad joke. It was 2010, it was Qingmingjie – tomb sweeping festival – and we had the long weekend off from our language school in Beijing. None of us had been to Inner Mongolia. It sounded exotic. Horses and horizons, that kind of thing.

Our host, who had rented us the ger, gave us each a plate of flat noodles with chopped veg and a mischievous smile. I may have imagined the mischievous smile.

“Would you like to participate in a traditional Mongolian activity today?” he asked, stoking the dung-fueled samovar.

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Beijing beatdown

Why not to quibble over a bill in Sanlitun – by Tom Sampson

 

It was December 31st – New Year’s eve!

Most of my friends at Beijing Language and Culture University had gone home for the holidays. The foreign population on campus had declined dramatically. The grounds were covered in untouched snow. The bare branches of the trees were as defenceless and vulnerable as I would feel later in the night.

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The art of guanxi

Or how to get a visa, Sichuan style – by Tom Sampson

 

I first set foot in Xichang, in southern Sichuan, to teach English in spring 2009. Xichang is the capital city of the Yi minority group, surrounded by rugged mountains and with blue skies all year round. I felt like a real explorer. There wasn’t anything in particular that I wanted to learn or take away from the place – but that was out of my hands. After my time there, I am now a highly qualified back scratcher, trained in the dark arts of creating and maintaining guanxi.

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The Good Earth

Pearl Buck, a country wedding, and how to cook pig guts

 

This spring festival, I read Pearl Buck’s 1931 novel The Good Earth in the perfect location – the farmlands of Anhui, where the book is set. (Read my LARB co-blogger Maura Cunningham’s take on the book here.)

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