Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Ring Around the Province, Part 4: The Fat of the Land

So. Finally an update.
When we left off, I was having flaming alcohol rubbed on my ankle. Life in Shaxi (we were there about 4 or 5 days) didn't get much more exciting than that, but it was very interesting. As mentioned, I stayed in a really nice inn, the guest of the inn proprieters, two retired Bai people. My Bai host dad used to be a doctor, trained in both Western and Traditional Chinese medicine, and he looks very much the man's man, with one day-post shave stubble, strong chin, constant cigarette smoking, and obsession with the NBA (everyone loves to watch American basketball here. I expected that when I said I was from Boston people would connect that with Harvard, but it's mostly been with the Celtics. They're so jealous when I tell them my dad used to take me to Celtics games.) My Bai host mom was tall and solidly build, with a deep and vital voice and the longest hair I've ever seen (I only saw it when she brushed it out, she usually kept it in a bun.) Apparently it's a Bai tradition for women not to cut their hair. They both spoke with strong accents, but we managed to communicate. I didn't develop a super close relationship with them as some other people did with their families, but we had a nice relationship, and at the end the woman insisted on giving me a pair of embroidered shoes. Apparently it's a tradition to send off a guest with a gift.

My Bai host mom also took pleasure in pointing out how "pang" (basically "fat") I was in various places (she liked my butt especially). In fact, in Sideng almost everyone I encountered enjoyed discussing my largess. It was hard to stomach, certainly, but those sorts of comments do not have the same connotations as they do in the US. They can be compliments (with the meaning of "your parents sure take care of you") or even just greetings. Being of different stature than almost everyone in China has not been easy, but in Sideng it was the most difficult for me, because I was constantly meeting new people whose first words were about my size. Regardless of their positive or negative intent, it was something I had to get used to.

We spent our time in Shaxi exploring, learning about the Tea and Horse Caravan, which came through Sideng for hundreds of years. One morning we were supposed to help out in the fields, but my family was too rich to have fields. Instead, I went with John's host father. He taught us how to hoe the clods of earth, but after fifteen minutes and plenty of picture taking he informed us that we were finished. We were puzzled because we both could have gone for longer, but John's host father seemed set, so instead we went to his son's house. We derived endless humor from our 15 minutes of farmwork, punning on the word "hoe" and discussing our rippling muscles (well, mostly it was just John talking about his own rippling muscles.) At the son's house, we drank some strange tofu soup, and played with the son's adorable 4-year-old daughter. And John convinced her that Americans don't have butts ("pigu") and refused to turn away from her to let her see his. Later, when she saw that both he and Mike did, in fact, have behinds, he told her that they had bought them at the market.

Sideng life is very traditional. Besides lectures about the history of the Caravan, visits to a small museum, an ancient bridge, and the local god's temple, we did a lot of walking and research-- we were each assigned an aspect of Sideng life to research, with an oral presentation at the end of our stay. At night we gathered a few times at the only tea house in town, drinking beer or tea and shooting the breeze, as they say. There wasn't anything else to do. I also spent some time at John/Mike's homestay, which was in a gorgeous traditional compound with beautiful courtyards and carvings on the house itself. It was a very strange living situation, however: John's homestay father and his brother (homestay uncle?) had always lived together in the house, but once attention started coming to Sideng for its historical value, they started fighting about who owned the house. Now they both live there, but they're not on speaking terms. Mike lived with the brother and we would talk to each other across the main courtyard, but the brothers acted like no one else was living there.

On the Friday before we were left, Sideng had its weekly market. Almost all of China works on the market system, with the main economic power in an area (and often that's not saying much) setting up all along the streets and people come from all around to buy or sell produce, pigs alive and dead, fish, chickens alive and dead, cloth, flashlights, batteries, Mao-style hats, cookware, farming equipment, and a myriad of other things. Just as I love diners in the US, I am definitely a Chinese market person. This market attracted all sorts-- my favorite was the Yi (another minority) women, who come down to markets from the mountains where they live pretty much in solitude. The unmarried girls wear beautiful skirts and sometimes head pieces that look kind of like cloth tiaras. The married women wear even more colorful skirts, vests embroidered with spirals, and these strange, huge octoganal headdresses covered in black velvet. I started taking pictures and couldn't stop, even though I knew it was sometime inappropriate (see the Argus column I posted a week or so ago.) I got some fantastic shots.

We were super lucky because that particular day a Public Health commission from the government had arrived in town to do a sort of Meals-On-Wheels type program but with information about AIDS/HIV prevention, environmental protection, and general sanitation. It was really interesting to see how such a program worked and even more interesting to see how interested all the townspeople were in getting the pamphlets and posters, in lining up to speak with the doctors about AIDS (although no testing was happening that day.) The festivites extended to a presentation for the school children about drinking clean water and not eating raw vegetables (which can get even Chinese stomachs in trouble here) and performances of Bai traditional dancing and music. When I went back to the Inn for lunch before our oral presentations, I was gradually surrounded by adorable children (girls and one boy)of indeterminate minority-- they didn't speak Mandarin, but they thoroughly enjoyed my taking pictures of them and then showing them the result.

Next time: The beginning of the Tibetan world

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