The Story of China, Rivers, and Me 我与河流的故事

Posted by Kristen McDonald on Fri, 05/21/2010 - 07:56

Two nights ago I spoke at a bookstore in Guangzhou, an event sponsored by Guangzhou-based Zhi Tour which leads educational, enlightened tours here in China. Last Descents partners with Zhi Tour to book multi day river trips. It was my first time giving such a long, formal talk in Chinese, and I wrote out the whole talk (这里可以看中文)and nervously practiced it a few times in the days preceding. But at the event, which took place in a nice room in one of Guangzhou’s more well-known bookstores, I scarcely glanced at my notes. I have told my story many times in English, and it came out easily in Chinese as well.

When I look at my life, I see how these two threads – the river thread and the China thread – are woven throughout. I grew up in a Mormon family that studied Mao, and rafted the rivers of Oregon. I learned simultaneously about serving others, the great accomplishments of socialism, and how to read flowing water. Then there are elements of my character that have pushed me towards this fate. I have always been curious about the world, enjoying traveling and loathing routine (which may be why rivers have so much charm for me – there’s always something new around the bend!) And I have been lucky to find all kinds of rivers-related work to support myself – from guiding rafts, to stream surveying, to working at American Rivers in Washington, DC.
As for China, with so many of my childhood conceptions of the great motherland blown through my experiences teaching and researching here, I frankly still wonder why I am attracted to this place. I suppose I like a challenge, and I have always had a touch of ambition. Saving just one free flowing river, anywhere in the world, could be a life’s work. But here I am, far away from my Oregon and California roots, working in a foreign culture, in a foreign language, within a political system that I can just barely understand.
I think there’s really just one simple answer for why I am here. Fourteen years ago, while on vacation from my job teaching English in Hunan, I sat by Tiger Leaping Gorge on the Jinsha River. A burning feeling entered my heart, a feeling of being at home, and of being inextricably linked with the fate of the grand canyons of China’s west. Nothing has yet replaced that feeling in my life, yet, so here I am.
I hope that telling my story to the folks here who care to listen can have a positive impact. People seemed to like my story at the Guangzhou event. There were some great philosophical questions, and even some kind praise for China Rivers Project’s efforts. I am far, very far from being a skilled motivational speaker – but to the extent that many people here are afraid to even look at their life’s true calling, let alone follow that calling – I suppose I have something to share.
Here’s my story in Chinese.