CITY GUIDE >Highlights
A garden like Eden
(China Daily)
Updated: 2009-07-23 13:55

A garden like Eden

Menglun is a tiny township surrounded by Dai villages, rubber tree plantations and tropical forests more than 600 km from Kunming, capital of Yunnan province. Few people know there is a dynamic expat community on an island ringed on three sides by a river near the town.

It consists of nearly 20 foreign research fellows, post-doctoral researchers and international students from Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden (XTBG), and their families.

At the nation's largest botanical garden - located on Hulu Island - and leading research institute on tropical plants under the Chinese Academy of Sciences, they pursue their research and even run a tiny international school for their children.

Dr Chuck Cannon is the leader of XTBG's ecological evolution research team. A graduate from Harvard College, granted tenure by Texas Tech University and with a Duke University PhD, the American biologist, aged 43, arrived at the garden two years ago.

He had worked in Indonesia and Malaysia for many years and met his Chinese-Malaysian wife during this time. He was looking for a job back in Asia when he saw XTBG's advertisement for a post at an international conference held in Kunming in 2006.

"I think China is growing up very rapidly and has a big influence on the rest of Southeast Asia," Cannon says. "It's a good idea to work here and understand how things work. I might be able to influence people to do research in Southeast Asia and increase the collaboration and coordination between the two places (China and Southeast Asia)."

He says he met Dr Chen Jin, director of the botanical garden, at the meeting, and "built up a very good relationship with him right away". "He is knowledgeable and confident, his heart is in the right place and he has a vision for what he really wants to do. He is certainly a reason behind my decision."

Family support is another. His wife, Kua Chai-shian, who speaks fluent Mandarin, wants their two daughters, 8 and 5, to learn Chinese.

"There is no environment for them to learn Chinese in the United States," she says. "So I say, 'OK, I'm a molecular biologist. So it doesn't matter where I am - DNA is DNA.'"

At the botanical garden, the couple found research opportunities everywhere. Cannon has three new projects running presently. "In the US, it's very competitive to get research money. But there are just so many projects here. People invite you to get involved in their projects," he says. "Many of them are conservation-oriented and related to the whole Mekong region."

Another positive thing is that the institute supports its scientists to "take risks and try new things". "Here it is very free as to what I do with the (research) money," he says. "So I can invest a lot in data (I need) instead of equipment."

And the couple found no real difficulties adapting to the new environment.

"Our Internet connection at the garden is good and free," Cannon says. "I had several Skype meetings this year, talking with people in Germany, Indonesia and the United States."

As the 900-hectare garden has a collection of over 12,000 species of plants, the biologist has easy access to many of his research materials.

"If we want to get a species, we just walk over the hill. It's very nice to be close to a lot of materials," he says.

For Kua, 39, cooking at home is easy. "A good thing about Xishuangbanna is there are a lot of tropical and temperate fruits. In this season, a lot of wild mushrooms can be found in the local market."

To meet their daughters' demands for such Western foods as cheese and cereal, which are difficult to find even in Kunming, they have a solution: "Every time when we came back from a trip abroad, we pack an extra suitcase with Western food," Kua says.

A real inconvenience for her is to prepare supplies for the team's laboratory, as most of the supplies can only be purchased from Kunming. Fortunately the garden's shuttle bus runs between Kunming and Menglun once a week.

"So I just tell them (her colleagues in Kunming) what I need and they will purchase it," she says.

The real issue for the family is their daughters' education.

"It was hard at first, we had to home school them," Cannon says. "I got up at about 4 o'clock, went to work, came back and taught them for a couple of hours in the morning. Then she'd take over."

"We had some helpers, the staff and our graduate students," Kua says. "They came to teach them Chinese in the afternoon, mainly speaking Chinese to them."

In the beginning, Cannon says, it was simple to teach them. "But as they get older, it is becoming more of a problem."

They tried to send their older daughter to a local primary school, but she was refused. The couple soon got more help as other expat families joined the community.

In January, Colombian Alegandra Warren went to XTBG with her American husband, who was doing post-doctoral research, bringing along their two daughters.

Besides taking care of her daughters, 10 and 1.5 years old, the 28-year-old mother felt she could teach more children and founded a mini-school at the garden's office building this April.

Her students also include Cannon's two daughters and the 6-year-old girl of a professor from the Netherlands. "Two of my Egyptian students left with their parents not long ago," says the teacher.

From Monday to Friday, Warren teaches English, Spanish, mathematics, science, physical education, art and crafts from 8:30 am till noon. Some students and staff teach the children Chinese in the afternoon.

Because of the children's different ages, she gives them different assignments.

"The girls are all good friends," she says. "They play together even after school."

She says that her family is enjoying its stay at Menglun.

"China is a lot better than I expected before the trip. The culture is not shocking at all," Warren says. "The garden is so beautiful, people here are super nice, and all the foreigners are like a big family."

Kua Chai-shian says there are nearly 20 expats from Columbia, France, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Netherlands, Thailand, Britain and the United States.

"We have a volleyball team and organize potluck dinners from time to time," she says. "In the past two years, we have had two successful Christmas parties, which were open to all of the students and staff."

She doesn't miss her family and neighborhood back home, Warren says. "The only thing we miss is Western food a little bit, pizza and hamburger, that kind of stuff," she says. "The girls just miss Western-style toilets and snow in Colorado a lot."