Brian Benton spent four weeks in China visiting his sister, a Peace Corps volunteer in China. We caught up with him to hear about his trip to the lesser-traveled city of Dengguan in the Sichuan region. He talked to us about his experience and the making of this video.
What was the intent of your trip to China? How long did you spend there?
I was in China because my sister was in the Peace Corps in Sichuan Province at Sichuan University of Science & Engineering near a city called Zigong, which is two hours south of Chengdu. I had been in Europe studying abroad in the Netherlands and then traveling a bit and working in Spain, and I went to China after that. It was the tail end of an almost year-long trip. I spent four weeks with my sister in that province at the university she was working at, and around the village she lived in, and then I spent a few weeks after that seeing other parts of China, then in South Korea, and then I went home!
What was it like being in China at the end of such a long trip abroad?
In a way, it was nice because I was so touristed out from being in Europe. In Europe, I would get off a bus and have museums and other attractions I wanted to see. Getting to China where my sister had been living for a year and a half, in a place where there weren’t as many attractions, was different. We would spend our time going to markets, and walking around the village and nearby towns. Even though it is a difficult place to be a tourist, it was easier because it felt like there was less pressure. And it was nice to finally be with family.
Because we were somewhere so small — my sister was the only person American person in the village except the other Peace Corps volunteer — and because she had been there a year, for the most part people in the village knew her, especially on campus. My Mandarin is really limited, but I picked up things like the word “little brother” so I would hear her explaining who I was to people on the street. We were able to interact with a lot of people, but it was kind of varied. A lot of times people were nervous to talk to us, other times people would ask to take a photo and be eager to talk in English.
How did having your sister there living in the community impact your trip?
I think one of the best parts about the experience was that I was going to China as a tourist, but was able to stay with someone who had been there long enough to have a daily life, and know her favorite restaurants, local spots, what food we should order, and was able to handle some other things that would have been stressful otherwise. I wouldn’t have been able to order in most restaurants without her because the menus are only in Mandarin, obviously, and English was super limited.
The best experiences were when, even if I didn’t understand what was going on, my sister and I could interact with locals. I was able to see her in her natural element. Peace Corps assignments are two years, and I had seen her learning Chinese before she left in 2014, when she was reading a phrase book and could barely speak the language. A year and a half later, she could speak Mandarin, interact with locals, buy things at markets, and have real conversations so that was a really cool thing to experience.
What’s the first thing you do when you get to a new place?
I was in the Netherlands, in Utrecht, for four months studying abroad, and that was my final semester of college. I graduated in December while I was abroad, and then stayed in Europe to travel a bit more. So when I went somewhere like Bulgaria or Slovenia or Croatia, where I knew I would just be for a few days, I would go on free walking tours a lot, or find people in my hostel who were English-speaking because I was traveling on my own. I would also Google the best coffee shop in whatever city I was in, because I found those were usually the cool neighborhoods to explore. Because I’m a vegetarian, it was hard to make eating a part of my traveling, especially in Eastern Europe, so I leaned toward walking around cool neighborhoods rather than seeking out good restaurants.
In places I spent a few weeks, like Greece, Spain, or South Korea, I slowly built out on what I had seen. My first few days I would start exploring close to where I was staying and add layers, slowly venturing out more and more. I think knowing where you are in the context of other things is really useful. Even in New York City, I’ve met people who can’t place neighborhoods next to each other. I really like to build a map of a city in my head, and then when I need something I can get there or walk there on my own.
How was China different from your expectations?
I think we have images of what Shanghai and Beijing and maybe other famous places look like in China, but unless you’ve spent time in the more rural parts of China, there is no way to know what it is going to be like. All of my expectations came from my sister’s photos, but it’s weird because, even though parts of where she lived were really rural, with tons of farmland, there were huge new buildings and developments a mile from tiny villages. I think that was really unexpected.
Also in regards to food and language, because China is so big it’s very provincial, and regions are all very different. So the food in Sichuan is different than in other provinces, but even more than that, the food in some cities was sometimes really different than in the next city. There were a lot of foods I had never seen, even having eaten at Sichuan-style restaurants in America before, and a lot of foods I don’t think I’ll ever see again. Spending my time in one province rather than moving around a lot really showed me how parts of China are so different from each other.
What are some experiences that stand out to you from your time in Dengguan?
The thing that stands out the most is being in the classroom with my sister’s students, which was very much a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Her students were college freshmen and sophomores who were majoring in English, and there were a few days when she had students ask me questions or she asked me to help them when they were doing discussion. It was super cool because a lot of people are really shy, especially when speaking English, but to be able to talk to them and have them feel comfortable to ask me whatever they wanted was really cool.
The other thing is that my sister and one of the other volunteers did a Frisbee club every week. A lot of the kids had never seen a Frisbee except for as a toy for dogs, and my sister had taught them how to play ultimate Frisbee. It was a small group, but there was a handful of kids who would text my sister asking about Frisbee every week because they were really excited to play. I think it felt like something that was actually an enjoyable experience for them — a look into American culture, rather than forcing something American on them.
Then, all the times we had dinner with her students or other teachers were really special, because they were people I never would have met if I hadn’t been with her.
What equipment did you use to shoot this film?
I shot the video on a Canon 5D Mark II with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L lens.
Can you tell me a little about your editing process?
Because so many people were shy to be on camera, a lot of times I had to hold my camera near my waist and hide that I was filming. On top of that, the people who were outgoing tended to wave or break their natural actions when they saw the camera. A lot of my shots ended up being really short, quick moments so I decided to edit with quick cuts and select strong images, rather than longer scenes.
The other interesting thing about editing this video was just how diverse the shots I had were. I had shots of canola flowers, butchers, students, busy streets, bustling cities and so much more, so I tried to find connections when I was editing to make the subject matter transition smoothly even if the scene itself wasn’t a natural transition. I edited the video on Adobe Premiere.
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