When Heather Fair was in college, she realized that China would play a large part in her life. Over the years she’s been to China as an English teacher, student, businesswoman and is now studying the aquatic ecology of glacier-melt streams in the glaciated circum-Himalayas as a Ph.D. student. How has she kept her interest in China? ”To this day I still surprise myself that I remained so dedicated to this ideal,” she says. “It was a passion for the people and culture that I could not turn off throughout the years, and now studying the environment has combined all of my interests into one package.”
When and why did you first come to China?
In 1990, I took a break after studying a year of Chinese and taught English for six months in Taiwan. I first came to mainland China in 1997 through the US-China Links program to study Chinese business practices and intern on the Yangtze River’s Victoria Cruise lines.
How did you become interested in the country?
In 1988, as an undergraduate student, I knew that China would become a major economic power in 20 years and the central part of my career. Studying Chinese language and culture and seeking opportunities to use the language has been a driving factor in my career. A second language has enriched my life and brought international opportunities that English alone could not do.
You knew 20 years ago that China would become a major economic power? What gave you that kind of foresight?
Growing up in a small Amish community in northeast Ohio, I knew very little about China—save for the conversations with my grandparents who had traveled there in the early 1980s—until I began taking Chinese language and culture courses in the mid-to-late 1980s. The sheer size of the country, its natural resources, the collective resiliency of the Chinese people, and the outstanding talent of Chinese scholars made an impression on me. Discussions of Deng Xiaoping’s Open Door Policy made me think about the enormous potential of this multifaceted country, and I knew I wanted to be a part of its rise.
Even though I have traveled to China many times on business, my most memorable experiences were during the Fulbright fellowship performing glacier aquatic ecology field research and living in Mingyong, a small Tibetan village in the eastern circum-Himalayas. Being engrained in the Tibetan community at the heart of the sacred Tibetan Kawagebo pilgrimage route gave me a new perspective on life in China through the lifestyles of minority people. Working with Tibetans in the field, sharing meals together and discussing our hopes, dreams, and cultures, made me realize the importance of extended family and living simply and sustainably with the earth.
What are you researching for your Fulbright?
My short-term research is examining the structure and function of aquatic food webs of streams in the glacierized headwaters of the Three Parallel Rivers region. Long-term, I would like to understand the impact of climate change and receding glaciers on aquatic ecology and the species that may be threatened by such a changing environment. In particular, how aquatic macroinvertebrate, diatom, and algal communities can be evaluated as climate and environmental change indicators. The goal is to develop a habitat and bioassessment framework for mountain regions.
That sounds complicated. What have you learned through your research?
Being in the field for an extended period in Mingyong has allowed me to live “through the eyes” of the Tibetans. The practical traditional ecological knowledge that Tibetans pass down through generations brought a new meaning to sustainability for me. Commercialism has tainted our understanding of what true sustainability is. Living sustainability does not change the chemistry of the earth and respects biodiversity to the point of incorporating it into economic development plans. Our goal should be to educate consumers on how to have minimal impact on the earth’s natural chemistry. It is also industry’s responsibility to provide chemically sustainable products that are affordable to the average citizen. I also saw how commercialism brings with it too much physical packaging and waste. This brings a high risk to animals that ingest plastics and chemicals. Moreover, the physical waste goes directly into the rivers and oceans due to the lack of solid waste management in mountain areas. Tourists bring in the bulk of the trash on their one-day visits and unfortunately there is not a system in place to handle the trash in remote mountain regions.
Based on your own experiences, what do you think is the biggest misunderstanding about China?
That China has transitioned to a capitalist society. In pockets of China, social economy is very much alive. For example, in my Tibetan village, family income is centered on the tourism industry. Locals lead tourists up the mountain on their mules to view the monsoonal glacier. Instead of open competition for tourists, there is a “mazhang” who arranges the schedule for which days each family leads tourists. Other families are “on call” in case of high demand. This type of economic commune structure works very well in this tight-knit community where social, agricultural, and economic relations must be in balance. Only the locals know which family needs to be harvesting barley on a certain day, or which family is slaughtering a pig, so this community-run system is ideal.
In the past, the Chinese company that runs the tourism shared a portion of entrance ticket profits with the villagers. This has recently changed, and the villagers have implemented an additional 10 yuan fee for any tourists who opt to hike rather than take a mule up the mountain. Raising and sustaining mules is a major economic and time investment, and if they are not in use, the economic losses are significant. This additional fee is split between all the families that were scheduled to work but returned home without a tourist.
The transition to the next phase of economic development is of concern to me. For example, if a ski lift is built into the tourism structure, local livelihoods will shift dramatically. Education levels must be enhanced to allow this transition and maintain livelihoods in this type of small Tibetan village. The environmental impacts of increased tourism are of concern, as regions are almost always more concerned with industrial and commercial development than how to handle the potentially harmful and cumulative byproducts of development.
I think I might know the answer to this but… your ideal hangout spot in China?
In a remote mountain area surrounded by open sky, the sounds of nature, good friends and barbecue over a crackling fire.
Photos courtesy of Heather Fair.