Sunday, February 10, 2013

Senior

We started the final project for our graduation. Most students went to one forest station for three months to work on a comprehensive project for graduation. Few could join the professor’s project as research assistants. The professor was the chair of the department. Her surname was Long (龍), which means “dragon.” People would call her “xianshen先生” which means “student head,” usually used for men, but also for strong women and is translated into “Mr.” in English. I was one of eight students in our two classes chosen by the head of the department to join her research. I was the only female out of eight students. I was proud of myself. I had a number of opportunities to travel within the province and outside. After the first few field trips, we divided into four groups, two in each group so as to cover more sites. I was with a boy from the other class. I didn’t know him much at all before the project. Now, we were going to do everything together. I was not comfortable with the arrangement because I always had more than two workers with me in the field.
I was one of eight students who joined Prof. Long (middle) for her research.
    Our project was to study the cell morphology of Toxicodendron vernicifluum (formerly Rhus verniciflua, the Chinese lacquer tree). On our field trips (most at the epicenter of the future 2008 earthquake), we were to collect bark samples and store them in a small bottle filled with preservative to keep them fresh. The bark of this tree is very much like that of the rubber tree. Farmers collected the toxic sap from the bark of the trees to make the finest natural paint for wood furniture and highly durable varnish for Chinese, Japanese, and Korean lacquer-ware.The varnish is applied with a brush and is cured in a warm and humid environment. Most people are allergic to this tree. It was similar to poison ivy or sumac here in the United States. The plants are in the same family. We had nine in our research group altogether. I was one of three who was not allergic to the tree. Fortunately, my partner Huang was not allergic to the tree either. Chinese Lacquerwar
     We cooperated and finished the entire sample collecting first. Then we went to Xian, Shanxi Province (my father’s hometown), north of my province, for lab work. We worked together for a whole month. We went sightseeing on weekends since both of us had never been to that city. We went to see Emperor Qin’s Terracotta buried army. I was more interested in Huaqing_Pool; Tang Emperor Li Longji (李隆基) built it for his favorite consort Yang Guifei(杨贵妃) who he stole from his own son. He loved her and did everything in his power to please her. She loved fresh lychee fruit from her hometown Chengdu where I was born. The emperor used the fastest horses to relay the fruit, without stopping for a week from a thousand kilometers away. She was a victim of power struggles. You would think the Emperor had all the power, when all his soldiers and his commanders surrounded Emperor Li Longji’s (李隆基) pavilion, kneeling down and forcing him to put consort Yang to death. He did not really have many options. He refused first, so they killed her brother and his whole family. Consort Yang was hanged on a pear tree in a buddhist shrine in Mawei. She was buried there with a bag of her favorite perfume. A year later, Emperor Li Longji (李隆基) secretly sent eunuchs to rebury her in a coffin. When they found the body, the perfume bag buried with her was still fresh. The eunuchs returned with the fragrance bag to Emperor Li Longji (李隆基) who wept and was lonely ever after. The commander apologized to the retired Emperor since he saw that he missed Yang so much, and told him that was the most regretful thing he ever did. Li Longji (李隆基) killed our Shangguan Wan’er before he took over the power, then regretted it later. He regretted again at the end not being able to protect his love. “Song of the Everlasting Sorrow” (長恨歌), was written by the poet Bai Juyi describing the Emperor’s love for her and perpetual grief at her loss became an instant classic.
Although it was the first time I was ever on a horse, it was as if I knew the horse all my life.   I was on the vast grassland, speeding along, feeling the wind on my ears
     We did not need to look for jobs after college back then, it was the assignment. There was a open list showing where the jobs were and how many in each place. We filled out where we like to go, most go back to where they came from except the good kids whom could go to good places. It was up to your department include all the professors and political leaders to make the final decisions. I was confident that I should get into the Sichuan Forest Research Institute, the subalpine forest ecosystem research station in western Sichuan Province (Tibet region). I kept my fingers crossed. I also took the graduate school entry exam for Nanjing Forestry University. I had two choices, the provincial research institute or graduate school. I was deeply influenced by our department chairperson Long. She taught us Forest Ecology, and she had guided eight of us in finishing our graduation project. There was a lot of politics involved. She actually left our university and went to another forestry college after we graduated. Today, college graduates have to find a job on their own just like here in US.
    Our graduation was a great experience although it was different than here in the U.S. The students celebrated together. Parents or relatives did not come even though we didn’t know who was going where. We just wanted to enjoy our last time together. The college had a big ceremony for graduation followed by a free banquet for all the college students. Then our departments gave banquets for us also. I still remember most of my department chairperson’s farewell speech. Since she taught forest ecology, she applied ecology to our near future. Our large country is an ecosystem full of different kinds of people who use different strategies to survive or live just like a “forest ecosystem.” Some work itself from a little seed breaking through rocks and soil, grow and through fair competition become a big strong tree reaching the canopy that functions in its duty within the population and communicates. Some decide to take a free ride from a trunk or large branch of a tall tree. Some cooperate and are beneficial to each other. Some are dedicated to taking advantage of others, becoming parasites. Some decide to use the big tree as a support and climb all the way to the top and kill the tree. And worst of all, some will never get a chance to grow due to some accidental reasons.
      Now, the most important thing for all of us in entering that real world was how to find our own “niche” and keeping that “niche” balanced by adjusting ourselves throughout life. A healthy forest ecosystem allows the best composition of life to fill all the possible “niches” along with “time.” And most live either self-supported or in cooperation. Too many “parasites” or pests, herbivores, or carnivores would result in none surviving and the whole forest ecosystem could collapse.
          She asked us to apply our knowledge and think before we did anything. Life is a work in progress; learning does not stop after we graduate. Those who know how to balance relationships between themselves and their surroundings and take the opportunity to grow will reach the canopy. Others might have to take whatever they can get along the way. But remember killing others is equal to killing oneself.
     We were so focused on her speech that we forgot to clap our hands after she finished. Everyone was in deep thought for a moment.
     After, it was our turn for celebrations. We had a party every night. We either went out to eat and drink or stayed in our dorm. One thing that I did find out for myself was that I couldn’t deal with drinks just like my father. A few glasses of champagne already made me hot and I had a pain in my joints that night and could not go to sleep. Later on, I just made sure to do my share of eating and listening to others’ romantic stories. In the daytime, we went to the parks, all the corners of the college, and the college farms to take our last pictures.  Finally, I was sent as I had wished to the Sichuan Forest Research Institute