What I Saw on the Yangtze

January/February 1999

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What I Saw on the Yangtze

Courtesy Kumar Narayanan

”Move over!” A bronzed Chinese woman, toting a basketful of squawking chickens and several sacks of rice, settles down on the berth next to me. Ignoring her baggage, her squabbling kids, and the crush of townsfolk boarding the boat, she looks me up and down with suspicion.

“Where are you from? What are you doing here?” she asks in rapid-fire Mandarin.

I hesitate, trying to formulate a reply in my rudimentary Chinese.

Six months ago, in between classes and assignments, I read about China and the mighty Yangtze River. But nothing prepared me for this dank passenger ferry filled with urinating children and their elders, laughing and gossiping over the clatter of mah-jongg tiles.

My journey really began in September 1997, when I read an inspiring National Geographic article on the Three Gorges Dam. It will be 185 meters high and 1.5 miles across, and will flood 250,000 acres, displacing 2 million people and generating as much power as 26 nuclear plants when completed in 2010. It’s the biggest human undertaking ever, and it started me thinking: How would the dam change the Yangtze and people’s relationships with it? How would it divert the course of history?

I didn’t really give these thoughts their due until one gloomy October day when I heard about a new alumni-funded grant for underwriting “the best proposals for a summer of scientific discovery somewhere in the world.” My imagination soared. A human biology major, I pulled together a proposal to study the relationship between the Yangtze River and its people, and the issues surrounding the dam project -- a complex intersection of river ecology, politics and anthropology.

Now, here I was, in a fourth-class boat cabin halfway between Chongqing, the center of Sichuan culture, and Yichang, a small city in Hubei. My project would take me 3,600 miles from the mouth of the Yangtze, near Shanghai, to the fringes of Tibet. Along the way, I interviewed people about the river and the massive dam rising over the Three Gorges -- an area of immense beauty. A friend traveling with me, Lui Zhijun, a 26-year-old ethnologist from Wuhan, helped me navigate rural China -- and the Chinese language. I had studied Mandarin for only two months at Stanford.

Suddenly, the 400 million people in the Yangtze basin had faces; the important industrial cities of Wuhan and Nanjing had sounds; and the famous backstreet cuisines of Hunan, Hubei and Sichuan had aromas. I saw the imprint of China’s powerful past and felt its pulse today. I sensed the hope of its future.

In a small way, I was also teaching.

“I’m from America,” I managed, in reply to the chicken-and-rice-toting woman. “I’m in China to study the Yangtze. I’m a student at Stanford University in California.”

She looked at me blankly, and I decided to further contort my syllables: “Jalifuhrnia, See-than-furd Daxue.”

The woman broke into a smile of recognition. “Zhidao,” she said: “I know!”

The long reach of Stanford in China astounded me. Countless people, some from the remotest areas, recognized the name and almost always responded: “A very famous university!” Students wanted to talk about Stanford’s philosophy of education -- and my love life. We discussed differences between China and America, from economic development to cuisine. I showed them pictures and handed out prized postcards of the campus and Seattle, my hometown. Many people I met confessed that they had never spoken with a foreigner before. Suddenly I was an ambassador.

For a wide-eyed, clueless undergraduate, this was fun -- but the adventure also had a direct tie to my education. My travels made concrete previously abstract coursework in history and anthropology. The chance to initiate, design and execute an academic project helped me understand the research process and shored up my confidence in pursuing complex questions.

At the end of the journey, I still couldn’t answer all those questions, but I had discovered how to think about them more clearly. Stanford classes are good, but opportunities like this are even better.

Little of this occurred to me as I gazed at the countryside drifting by on the banks of the muddy river. But as the woman settled into her berth, her words rang in my head: “What are you doing here?” As the long shadows of evening drew over the lush Sichuan rice terraces, it struck me that I was doing what students do best: I was learning.

Kumar Narayanan is a junior.

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