So. Back to the elephant, eh?
I suppose I should give some context. The Day Of The Elephant was also the day of our Drop Off, an SIT tradition. During this activity, which lasts most of the day, the group is divided into small clumps and given some money and a piece of paper with mysterious Chinese on it. Each group must use all the skills and resources available to them to find out what the Chinese is, go to that place (it's usually a place), and learn all about it. Then everyone comes back at a preset time and reports on their experiences.
My group consisted of Ashley, Monty, and I. Ashley, I think I mentioned, is this very loud, incredibly gregarious girl who is writing her Master's Thesis on matrilineality in China and so has spent several months studying in Zhongdian, which is on the Tibetan border. She is going to do her Independent Study in Lake Lugu, which is really cool because I just read a book about the Moso people who live there. I'm going to try and visit her. Monty is a very tall, handsome black guy, and so he gets a lot of attention (probably unwanted) in China, but he's very patient about it. I was a little upset at first about being with Ashley for the drop off since she's already so adept at being in China, but it turned out to really be wonderful.
The place we were assigned was called "mingzu cun" or "Ethnic Minority Village," which I later found out was a conscious choice on Lu Laoshi's part because all of us are interested in minority culture. We took a taxi there and spent the whole day exploring. The set up was a park with little mini-villages devoted to all 25 of Yunnan's ethnic minorities. A little schlocky if you don't go too in-depth, but Ashley made sure we didn't. The first place we went was the Dai village, which was supposed to be in Xishuangbanna, an area of Yunnan very far to the south where I would love to go. They were selling whole coconuts for coconut milk (coconut + machete + 3 straws = delicious.) That's also where I got lifted up by the elephant. There was a painted elephant there with its handler and none of us had ever been really close up to an elephant before. Then we realized that for Y10 (about $1.25) we could take a picture with the elephant. We thought we would ride on it, but Monty went first and before we realized what was happening he was up in the air, cradled in the elephant's trunk. We started to draw a crowd, understandably-- a bunch of Westerners riding an elephant must be a strange sight to the locals. I was pretty nervous but decided it was a priceless opportunity. It was pretty scary being so far up in the air, and occasionally feeling unsteady like I might fall off, but in the end it was amazing. The handler let me pet the elephant, too. Of the crowd we drew, we met a couple that Ashley (being her gregarious self) started talking to. Turns out they were from Kunming, too, and very interested in us. The gave Ashley their phone number.
We went to the Zhuang village next, and when we went in to explore one of the houses we discovered some of the Zhuang workers sitting down for lunch. They insisted that we come eat with them, although I had to decline because I was still worried about my stomach. We drank tea with them and talked. One of them, a handsome guy about our age, was flirting with Ashley a lot, and they ended up exchanging phone numbers (as Ashley does with pretty much everyone she meets.) All the Zhuang girls wanted to take pictures with Monty, too.
After that came the Hani village, where we went on some enormous swings and I mistakenly told a Hani girl I liked her cat (mao) instead of her hat (maozi.) Oops. She did have a really pretty hat, though. Ashley was telling the Hani girls about her "shuai ge" (handsome fellow) and one of them asked if she had pictures. We showed her, and she said, "That's my boyfriend!" (in Chinese, of course.) Much drama ensued, through texting. The Zhuang guy told Ashley he hadn't gotten married yet and loved her more. She said that was wrong. He asked why. Etc. Like sands through the hourglass, so are the days of our Chinese lives.
Before lunch we stopped at the Wa village, where 5 or 6 o the most beautiful girls I've ever seen offered us lunch (we declined, as home-cooked food can be dangerous to fragile American stomachs). We promised to come back for a 2 o'clock dance performance. Then came the Tibetan village, where Ashley really came alive. She was talking in Tibetan dialect with all the workers, and got yak butter tea (which was less awful than I was expecting) for Monty and I before running off to do a couple of traditional Tibetan dances with one guy from Lhasa. I got it all on video.
After lunch we went back to the Wa village, where the girls were performing traditional Wa dancing, involving much flipping of their (very long) hair and a lot of crazy drumming. They all smiled widely when they saw we had kept our word and come back, and they pulled us up on the stage in front of the rest of the Chinese tourists to do one last circle dance with them. I felt a little foolish, but it was still very cool. Post-dance they sat us on low woven stools and gave us homemade fermented rice whiskey to drink. It was sweet and pungent and oddly carbonated. We talked to them a little about themselves and about America and exchanged phone numbers. They each have one day off a week, and they were all so sweet to us that I hope we can see them again.
At that point it was almost time for us to leave, but the Kunming couple from the Dai village had texted Ashley to offer us a ride back to Kunming, an extremely generous act. We had some difficulty meeting them, but ultimately got to their car and had a lovely ride back, chatting. They were both retired policemen who met on the job, and they invited Ashley to live with them for the homestay portion of Kunming, invited all of us to their house for dinner, and told us that we should think of them as parents and to come to them with problems since we were so far away. So incredibly sweet! I've been completely shocked at the welcoming friendliness of Chinese people so far.
This weekend has only been occasionally eventful, as I've been fighting a nesting instinct that tells me to stay in Tania's and my room organizing and getting ready for classes, which start tomorrow. We did laundry for the first time, went grocery shopping (I found peanut butter! Miraculous!), bought some school supplies. Diana also introduced me to Kevin, a Thai student whose English hints at the fact that he lived in Oregon for awhile. He introduced me to both a group of expat friends from America, Switzerland, and Columbia, and an expat hangout called Salvadore's that services omelettes, quesadillas, and ice cream. We spent Friday night eating ice cream and playing cards there, and I can tell it will be useful when the cultural difference becomes too much.
The other remarkable thing about this weekend was the Tibetan dinner/dance I went to last night. The woman Ashley stayed with in Tibet, whom Ashley calls her Tibetan nainai (grandmother) and with whom Ashley is extremely close, came down from Zhongdian to visit Ashley and her son, who lives in Kunming. The son performs at a cultural center and so a huge group of us went to see the performance, eat the food, and generally learn about Tibet. We ate Yak, brocolli soup, mountain carrots-- very interesting. Afterwards, there was a lot of circle dancing, which was confusing but fun. Ashley and her nainai's relationship touched me a lot-- she told me in the cab that her nainai is her best friend and that her only request for graduation was for a plane ticket so her nainai can come visit her in the U.S. If I can get even a fraction of that in my Independent Study Period, I'll be thrilled. I made a step forward, though-- I made a Tibetan friend, one of the waitresses! She kept giving me curious looks and then started a conversation with me. I pulled a leaf out of Ashley's book and asked for her cell phone number. I hope that we can have dinner together later this week or next weekend. Her name is Dlma.
The night took a turn for the worse then, though. The bai jiu the Tibetans (and Koreans and Chinese at the other tables) had been toasting us with was much stronger than other bai jiu the group had drunk. Things got scary very quickly, and one of my trip mates became alternately violent and unconscious. We ultimately had to send him to the hospital, which was a hard decision. Luckily, today he's okay. The whole thing is a tough situation, since drinking here means enduring pressure to have more and more alcohol from both Chinese (whom you don't want to offend) and Americans (whom you don't want to disappoint.) That makes for a pretty intense situation. I think everyone learned their lesson last night, though, and I was glad that I was around and enough of us were sober to be able to deal with everyone who was having trouble. Culture shock can't be all sunshine and daisies, after all.