By Tom Holmes
No sooner had Jane Zawadowski returned to Oak Park from five years of teaching English as a second language in China than she led a tour of 14 Chinese tourists on what was billed as an eco-tourist experience here in the Midwest.
The group arrived at O'Hare on July 27 and Zawadowski kept them busy with tours of the Metropolitan Water Treatment plant in Stickney to see how that facility treats waste, a visit with a vegan activist who led them in a cooking class, a green farmers' market in Lincoln Park and the Back of the Yards Neighborhood to tour the Plant which is described on its website as part vertical farm, part food-business incubator and part education and research space.
The group visited Chicago's big five museums and the Willis Tower, but Zawadowski also took them to the Pacific Garden Mission in an attempt to show the visitors several different sides of life in Chicago.
Then Zawadowski, the owner of Green and Grow Tavels, took her crew on the road to Missouri. They stopped at the Dancing Rabbit, described on its website as "an ecovillage and intentional community of about 70 people set amid the hills and prairies of rural northeastern Missouri. "Our goal is to live ecologically sustainable and socially rewarding lives, and to share the skills and ideas behind that lifestyle."
"My goal," said Zawadowski ruefully, "was to go to the ecovillage and detox the group [from a lifestyle which is not earth friendly. But we had to cut our stay there two days short, because they wanted to return to Chicago and shop!" Her Chinese business partner told her that when she asked the group what they learned about environmentalism, all they said was that they liked the farmers' market and were impressed by the creativity of living in a rural village."
Zawadowski admits she had been hoping for something a little more life changing than that. Her high expectations grew in part out of her passion for "environmentalism and internationalism" which she had carried with her since her days in high school when she started a recycling program at her school and spent her senior year studying in Germany. That passion was also reinforced by her experiences, both positive and negative, during her family's five year sojourn in Chengdu.
The positive experiences included getting out into the rural areas of China and among the 600 million farmers who still do most everything by hand, who live in parts of the country which are inaccessible even by bicycle because they are on the sides of mountains where the only "road" is a series of steps. "The people living in the country have limited health care and education," she said, "but they are rich in what they can do and what they can produce on their own. They can make anything with just bamboo."
During her vacation time she was also able to travel all over Southeast Asia and India. In Thailand she participated in a seven week course with what she called "engaged Buddhists," i.e. Buddhists who are engaged politically, culturally and with climate change instead of "being a monk who sits in a temple meditating all day." What she experienced in that ashram was what she hoped to replicate in her tour which ended a few weeks ago.
The negative experiences included dealing with China's pollution and the high degree of political control. She said that many rich people want to leave China as soon as they can because of the unhealthy air quality. At the same time, when the government heard that people were going to stage a protest against locating a coal fired power plant in the Chengdu area, the leaders "shut the entire city of 16 million people down."
Zawadowski said that the environmental movement is growing in China but is still in its infancy, so she pictures the tours she hopes to lead here in the future like seeds she scatters trusting that the birds will pick some of them up and plant them when they return home.
She added that during the first year in China adjusting to the new culture was hard work but that she and her family eventually got integrated, especially the children, and that she learned a lot about herself. "One thing I am learning and applying right now," she said, "is to make my transitions with grace. I did not do a good job of transitioning into China gracefully. I became aware of Buddhism and yoga and try to approach people in the most generous and positive way possible."
She was also able to view her home town and nation from a new point of view. Big cities there seem "more developed" than our large cities. "Chicago now seems provincial," she said. "In Chengdu everything is bright and polished. There are gleaming new buildings, fast public transit and beautiful cars. The other half of China, the 600 million who live in the big cities are chic and fashionable. They're on their phones all the time and use gadgets more than we do. There's a lot of private enterprise and a can do spirit. People there are pretty confident about their future."
Perhaps the most precious gifts she received while in China were the relationships she formed. "There's the time," she said, "when at midnight I developed the worst stomach pain I've ever had, and I called my Chinese friend Jane to take me to the hospital. She spent the rest of the night in a cot in my hospital room keeping watch over me while I slept and recovered. I made good friends in China, in spite of the cultural and language differences."
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