Knowing I was going to visit China Exploration & Research Society (CERS) in June, my proctor Valerie Ma spent one of the last night’s of study hall before school’s end sharing stories about her time as an intern there the past few summers. She pulled up pictures and described a summer spent on a boat in Myanmar with a community of enthusiastic explorers, spotting snub-nosed monkeys for the first time on Baima Snow Mountain in Yunnan Province, and lazier, enjoyable days spent with other interns playing cards in between diving into research articles for her culminating research report on opium. As a global studies educator and curious traveler, I had so many questions: “How were you inspired to research opium? What are some of your most powerful experiences you’ve had in the internship? Tell me more about the places you visit.” Valerie’s eyes would light up as she described her engagement with people, place, and community across China and the value of CERS, led by charismatic explorer How Man. While I had an impression of my future visit, I remained curious and excited as I anticipated my arrival.


About a month later, I was at the Zhongdian Center of CERS with four other Deerfield Academy faculty members: Michael Cary, Emma Coffin, Cindy Feng, and Will Speer. A professional development experience, our travels had already taken us to Beijing and Lhasa to deepen our understanding of China’s rich histories, cultures, and landscapes. With our visit to CERS, we aimed to better understand their important work, learn more about rural China, and imagine what it would be like to bring a group of Deerfield students, there.


During our stay, we visited two CERS sites: the Zhongdian Center in Shangri-La and the Lisu Hill Tribe Site at the base of the Baima Snow Mountian Nature Reserve. At the Zhongdian Center, we learned more about the history of CERS, explored the old town of Shangri-La, and experienced a slower-paced agrarian environment quite different from the bustle of Lhasa and Beijing. At the Lisu Site, we stayed in traditional Lisu houses, disassembled and reassembled at the site over the years by CERS from the homes of local families who were looking to do away with these structures and rebuild using modern architecture. As we immersed ourselves in this mountain community, we were able to participate in the annual crossbow festival, where members of the community gathered together for a day of cultural pride and competition using their traditional hunting tool. We also hiked into the Reserve, observing the Yunnan Snub-Nosed Monkeys, and heard stories of tracking, research, advocacy, and tourism around this particular species. In between these two important places, we drove through areas of China to which a typical traveler would otherwise likely not be exposed. As our caravan weaved along the Yangtze River, CERS Science Director Bill Bleisch peppered us with natural science and historical knowledge of the lush valley.


We were incredibly impressed throughout our stay; How Man’s stories of life as an explorer set the stage for valuable conservation work of places and cultures in a rapidly changing world. Through expeditions such as tracking river sources, to going door-to-door to collect cultural items that would otherwise be thrown away, to partnering with local communities on projects that balance tradition with changing tides, CERS investigates and supports the important connections between people and place. They partner with others to better understand environments, artifacts, and stories that may otherwise be lost, missed, or taken for granted. Conserving, CERS captures knowledge and experience, while leaving more to be researched, catalogued, and explored, as they complete projects in various locations, maintain partnerships, and inspire others to also make an impact.
As I reflect on our stay, long drives, and the connections made, I value my exposure to other people and places that define and make up China. We visited parts of the country that can’t be viewed or experienced from an on-and- off-the-bus experience, because they rest on the important connections CERS has made with others through years of exploration and work. Our gracious hosts: How Man, Bill Bleisch, Tsering Drolma, my proctor Valerie, and the rest of the CERS staff welcomed us with warmth, knowledge, and a willingness to allow us to better understand what life is like living, learning, and working in this community that is able to explore together. We left inspired, having had powerful experiences engaging with natural science, culture, and community in China, and for that, we are incredibly grateful to CERS welcoming us during our stay.