Sunday, September 14, 2008

The Ruralest Ruralist (A Final Three-Day Yunnan Adventure)

Xiong Limei, the young woman who had been my translator but, more importantly, my friend during my Independent Study Project in May, had invited me to visit her family in rural Lanping county for the last few days before my trip back to the U.S., so after saying goodbye to my friends in Fugong, I climbed on a bus and braved an 8-hour trip through roads ravaged by the summer rain. I planned to meet my friends Jackson and Linda and to spend the afternoon with them before meeting Xiong Limei for the bus ride out into the countryside.

It was Sunday, and the city was alive with peasants coming in from the countryside to buy their groceries. I was particularly struck by the many Yi women in their bright clothing. It seemed to me they were everywhere-- in noodle shops, leaning against the open doorways of cell phone stores, dragging their purchases down the street. My previous encounters with Yi outside of Dali during my homestay had taught me that they can be very elusive and tend to stick high in the mountains. As fascinated as ever by this life that must be so different than mine, I watched with excitement as they went about their market routines. There was even an Yi nainai watching her grandchild play in Lanping's city center park.

Yi women out for market day in downtown Lanping

An Yi woman looks on as children play in Lanping park. This was the only decent picture I ever got of an Yi woman in married headdress-- you can really see how big it is

Lama people were also in abundance that Sunday. Here a Lama woman plays with a child (I'm guessing her granddaughter) in the city park, Lanping. I love her headpiece in particular.

Sitting on the street by Lanping park talking in the evening

I was lucky enough to be able to leave my giant suitcase with Jackson for a few days, meaning that I only had a small day-pack to carry as Xiong Limei and I caught the small, beat up transport van thirty minutes outside of Liuku on cobbled roads. She motioned to the driver to stop on a small, roughly hewn wooden bridge over a burbling river. There were no houses near-- we would have to walk to her village, 20 minutes off the road. As we disembarked, a Pumi man in a dirty baseball hat looked at me with a mixture of blank curiosity and shock. He regained himself and climbed in to continue his journey, but later in the week Xiong Limei's sister, who is a doctor in Lanping, told me he had talked to everyone he met about he had seen "one of those people with white skin, like on TV" for the first time in his life.

The hike to the Xiong house wasn't easy. The rainy season had turned the path into thick sludge, and my foot was not yet healed (and would not be for months.) Nevertheless, we slowly made our way up the flanks of a long, large hill (the foothills of the mountains which are foothills to the Himalayas.) When I arrived at the house I was warmly greeted by Limei's father, a spry man with gleaming black eyes, a stubbly chin, and an impish grin, and mother, a beautiful woman with a kind face, her black-grey hair caught up in the turban traditional to Pumi people. Both of them spoke the local Mandarin dialect with thick accents I often could not understand, but they had learned to comprehend Mandarin by watching Chinese TV so we were able to communicate in a lopsided sort of way, with one-way translation required much of the time.

Limei's mother was especially happy to have me visit-- she has suffered from debilitating rheumatoid arthritis since she gave birth to Limei in her early twenties. If she lived in the US she would be wheel-chair bound, but in the remote Chinese countryside she gets around using a pair of low wooden stools. Her basic mode of transportation is to sit on one stool, place the other in the direction she wishes to travel, scoot herself onto the second stool, and start again. She doesn't move around much for this reason, and so in her 50-year life I was the first white person she had ever met, and she was thrilled to welcome me into her home. I was lucky enough to be visiting when she had the one arthritis treatment the family can afford per month, which helps to keep the swelling down. Even a few days later, she showed me the goose eggs developing by her knees and elbows. It was hard to watch and know that I couldn't change the situation for her or her family-- but as soon as I returned home I sent her a grasping tool of the sort given to the elderly in nursing homes here to pick things up from far away when I returned home.

The Xiong house was different from any I had ever been in. It consisted of two long, wodden buildings with a yard in between-- one building for the animals (pigs, goats, a horse) and one for the family. The family house had two levels, with the upper reserved for storage and the lower divided into a bedroom for Limei's parents, a bedroom for Limei and her siblings (if they were home), and an all-purpose kitchen/dining room/living room where the family spent most of their time chatting, preparing dinner using the san jiao (meaning "three legs," a cooking rack) over the open fire, and eating. There were no bathrooms-- while I stayed with the Xiongs such business was conducted in the potato fields or behind the house (depending on what sort of bathroom excursion you were headed on). There was also no running water (the Xiongs get their water from a stream a few minutes down the hill) and minimal electricity, only a few light bulbs to use at night.

Images of the Xiong house

I slept surprisingly well in Limei's extra bed, sheets and blankets wrapped around a wooden board. Limei's father brought us in a couple of bricks heated from the fire to keep us warm in our beds, and we barricaded to door from the inside with a large concrete block to stave off any intruders.

The weather was quite rainy and wet for the time I spent with Limei and her family--it was late July and the wet season had its claws in deep all over Yunnan. This meant that Limei didn't need to spend all of her time herding the family's goats and pigs, as she would have during clearer weather. Instead, after a breakfast of fried potatoes and pork Xiong's mother, father, and older brother (home from medical school just to see the foreign visitor) took turns doing Pumi dances for me and singing traditional songs, sometimes accompanying themselves on a roughly-hewn wooden instrument something like a cross between a guitar and a banjo or pounding the beat on a tightly-rolled up sheep skin that stood in for a drum. The songs and dances ranged from made up on the spot (Limei translated a sad song her mother sang about losing her own mother at age 13) to the thoroughly traditional, to be performed at rituals and on holidays.

For dinner, they killed one of their chickens for me to eat. This was a big deal-- for people living a subsistence lifestyle, a live chicken is a sustainable resource who will provide eggs (for eating and for producing more chickens) throughout its life. A dead chicken is one night's dinner. Thus, killing a chicken for a guest is an enormous honor. So even though I was fairly disgusted by having to watch as they chased the chicken (clearly cognizant of its fate) around the yard, slit its throat, drained the blood, etc, I tried to honor their way of honoring me by not cringing. And in some detached way, it was interesting to watch the process of creating a chicken dinner from start to finish.

The beginning of the process of cooking a chicken over an open fire

Xiong Li Mei and her mother outside their house

Getting water from the giant water vat

After dinner, the songs and dancing commenced again, lasting long into the night and lit only by the fire under the san jiao and the single bare lightbulb.

Xiong Li Mei's mother performs for me

In the morning, Limei was determined to find me some Lisu people to speak to about stories-- my thesis research was focusing on Lisu stories and their relationship with Christianity, and I hadn't had a chance to talk to any Lisu from the Lanping area. We walked an hour and a half down the road. As the rain intensified and I grew tired, Limei insisted that there was no need to take a bus--the village we were walking to was only a few minutes away. My foot was getting sorer and sorer and I was getting wetter and wetter, but I didn't crack until she pointed across the road and said "Okay, now we only need to climb over there." Miserable, I started up a small mountain, my foot throbbing with every step up the steep, muddy incline. As we reached the top I could barely walk, and the rain was coming down in buckets. I was exhausted and overwhelmed and began to cry. Limei was flummoxed, unsure what to do. "Li se," she said to me, "don't cry here. There may be gui around. They will like you too much if you cry." She was referring to a legendary figure in the Pumi and Lisu pantheon, a malevolent, flesh eating spirit that loves to torment humans. Later that night, when I complained of an upset stomach (probably from an overstimulating day and our dinner of roasted pig's head) she wondered aloud if the cause might not be a gui from earlier on the mountain. Regardless, I was finally able to pul myself together when I looked around and found that the worst was over and we had emerged on a level, sandy cow path (with a few cows munching wet hay to prove it.)

The outing unfortunately proved to be mostly fruitless-- we found only a few Lisu home during the summer planting season and were able to convince them to tell me a couple stories, but my black mood prevailed and they didn't have much to offer. Luckily, one of the people at the last house we visited was taking a large load of hay into the nearest village to sell, and he offered us a ride in his huge purple wood hauler. I sat in the cramped passenger seat, with Limei on my lap and the farmer's dog on her lap. Luckily, it was only a 15 minute drive, with the transmission vibrating mightily underneath us all the way, belching diesel.

I was scheduled to leave for Lanping, and then Kunming, early the next morning, but Limei's uncle arrived at the house that night to try and convince me to come to his house nearby for lunch. As politely as I could, I told him that I would be leaving to go back to America before lunchtime but that I really appreciated his generosity. "But," he protested, "I already killed two chickens for you!"

I felt terrible, knowing what a sacrifice those chickens were and what message they sent about his feelings for his would-be lunch guest. But my bus would not wait, and even if I had had the time I doubted I could climb up the enormous hill to his house with my bum foot. The situation was tense-- the family couldn't understand why I wouldn't just postpone the bus trip to honor Uncle, and I desperately wanted not to be perceived as ungrateful or rude. I dodged a bullet by arranging for Uncle Xiong to come for breakfast before I left. He and his two daughters joined with Limei, her brother, and father in showing me a traditional circle dance done at the Pumi New Year. Limei's mother sat on her low stool in the middle of the circle, clapping and singing along, seemingly fine with her inability to dance. Somehow it wasn't as sad as it might have been.

Before I left, we took pictures together and Limei's parents issued a formal invitation for me to return any time with my parents. I was their American daughter, they said. We took our final photographs, then Limei and I left for the first leg of a long trip back to America.

All of the Xiong family, gathered to say goodbye as I leave for Kunming and then the US

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