Colin Legerton, who grew up in Glendale and graduated from Flintridge Preparatory School in 2001, is the co-author of "Invisible China: A Journey Through Ethnic Borderlands." He graduated from Tufts University in 2005 with a degree in Chinese language and literature.olin Legerton, who grew up in Glendale and graduated from Flintridge Preparatory School in 2001, is the co-author of "Invisible China: A Journey Through Ethnic Borderlands." He graduated from Tufts University in 2005 with a degree in Chinese language and literature.
"Invisible China" follows his trek through China with classmate and friend Jacob Rawson to speak with ethnic minorities throughout rural China. He will be speaking about his adventures and the book at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Central Library. The event is sponsored by the Friends of the Glendale Public Library.
MELANIE HICKEN: So what brought you to China?
COLIN LEGERTON: Well, I started studying Chinese in college, and I really wanted to study abroad, so I went to China. As I was there, one of my classmates and I discovered that we traveled really well together.
So after I graduated I went to a different part of China and lived there for a while and started to come up with this idea for a trek all around the borderlands to meet the minorities.
Q: What sparked your interest in China?
A: I'd always been interested in languages. I studied Spanish here, like everybody else. When I went to college, I wanted to do something a little tougher. And growing up here, a lot of my friends were Chinese, so I'd go to their houses on the weekends and hear their parents speaking Chinese, so that one really stuck out for me.
Q: Are you fluent in Chinese?
A: Yeah, pretty much all of the conversations that are in the book were spoken in Chinese. I also studied Uyghur, which is a language in western China. And my friend Jacob knows Korean, which some people speak in northeastern China. So some of the conversations were from Uyghur or Korean, but everything else is Chinese.
Q: I've heard it's a very hard language to learn. How long did it take you?
A: Well, I'm still learning. I studied all through college, but really I learned more in just living there. For the first two weeks of living there, I learned more than two years at Tufts.
It's an ongoing process. But in some ways its easier; the grammar of Chinese is very easy, but then you have the tones and characters.
Q: Tell me a little bit about the book.
A: The idea was China is a much more diverse place than people really realize. There's 120 million people who are classified as minorities (non-Han Chinese). The things that are written about them are usually scholarly works about one group.
So we spent this time in China wanting to get more of an idea of what China was like, these people we knew nothing about. The idea was to get out there, to get to the villages and towns especially, and to get to meet these people. To see what their lives were like, to see how changes were affecting them, what their relationships were with the government, what their relationships were with other minorities. And we heard a lot of good stories along the way.
Q: How long was your trek?
A: The trek was about four months, and it was all on buses and trains and occasionally a taxi. We covered about 14,000 miles. But I've lived in China about three years, and Jacob's lived there a couple years too.
Q: Did anyone you know question why you went over there?
A: At that point, everyone had kind of gotten used to it. I'd already spent a couple of years in China, and a lot of it was really bare-bones trekking around places where my family wouldn't hear the story until weeks later because I didn't want them to worry. So no one was against the idea.
Q: Did you ever get into situations where you felt like you were in danger or lost?
A: We used to like to go mountain hiking a lot in China, and we got ourselves lost a few times. But along this trek we were pretty safe the whole time. China on the whole is very safe. I never really have had problems where I felt uncomfortable.
A couple of times we did run into issues with the military with the government. Very small issues that we got out of easily, but it was worrisome at the time.
Q: Speaking of issues, how were your interactions with the Chinese government?
A: Well, what helped us the most was just flying under the radar. There are a lot of foreign backpackers in China, so as far as anybody knew we were just more foreign backpackers. We just happened to be going to places that foreign backpackers didn't usually go.
A couple of times people asked us if we were spies, which doesn't make sense and wasn't terribly worrisome. But a couple of times we ran into situations where we were in areas we shouldn't have been because some of the minority areas are really sensitive in China. The government is worried about what's going to happen in these areas, or what's going to happen if foreigners see the conditions in these areas. So a couple of times, we got detained or questioned a little bit.
Q: What were those conditions?
A: In a different time in China, I even got arrested briefly because we were in a countryside area that was incredibly poor. It was a region that was prone to earthquakes. And they had one big earthquake in the late '90s. And this area was too poor; people couldn't really afford houses. They built houses for them that looked like they were 100 years old. They were in horrible condition.
That's where we got picked up because foreigners weren't allowed to be there. And in some of the border regions of China, there are still regions where foreigners technically aren't allowed to go. It's just hard to find out where they are. Usually, it's if it's a sensitive area where they think there might be separatist activity.
Q: How did you get the people you spoke with to open up to you?
A: What helps us a lot were a lot of these areas were villages and towns. They hadn't really seen foreigners so they were really interested to see us. As soon as we walked into town, everyone would stop and was talking about us.
Then, when we could go up to them and speak to them in Chinese or Uyghur or Korean, they realized they could communicate with us. The whole idea of the book was to find out about these people.
We were really interested in them. Everybody has a story to tell, and if somebody comes up to you, and they speak your language and are interested in your story, they've got a lot to say. Some people opened up a lot more than we expected.