Apr 09

Going Remote, Finding the Center

Written by fraumadame2003 under Uncategorized


Very last minute; very Chinese! At the very last minute I discovered that I would have five days off for Tomb-Sweeping. This was an unexpected bonus of time. It was the moment to visit Guangxi, fly to Liuzhou and enter the world of the Miao ethnic minority. Luckily Yao Dong was there to organize, orchestrate and overwhelm me with kindness and cunning. He seemed to know without even asking exactly what I would need to do to maximize the visit during the Tomb-Sweeping holiday.
Flights from Chongqing to Liuzhou are once a day so I had no choice but to be met at the airport a few minutes past midnight. The next morning my duties began with a brief visit with the English majors at Yao Dong’s college where Sunday was the make-up day for classes missed as part of the holiday recess. Two volunteers from his class had met me in the hotel with bamboo-wrapped zong zi, a satisfying and unique breakfast.

English majors in Yao Dong's class in Liuzhou

 His students exude confidence and demonstrate the evidence of his masterful teaching. Leo, his son took me on a walking tour of the campus which is set to transition into a university in the near future, the wish and the goal of many three-year colleges around China.

Smoozing with the grandmas and the babies on campus.

Later that day we were on our way by car to Rongshui to visit the high school where Lotus, the former student of Yao Dong teaches English. She would become my guide and guardian angel for the next few days. As she prepared me to meet with her students, she suggested there might be 30 in attendance. After all, it was the last hour before the official beginning of the holiday break. Before I could get the mike attached to my body, 200 kids had rolled in. The room was long and narrow so I did my best to circulate among them. I suggested they each give their “English” name and ask me a question, an interesting question which could not be answered by “yes” or “no”. It was impressive. I know I was the first foreigner many of them had ever seen, let alone speak to, but they were courageous and they came through in a pinch. This was followed of course by the requisite photos and autograph session. This was the first time I had been asked to autograph a slip of paper. Finally of course I had to say, “This is the last one!”

signing autographs

That first night we were already up in the mountains at an official Miao tourist site, yet far from the heart of village life. Dinner was traditional and local and washed down with small shots of home-made rice wine. Our accommodations were on the other side of the river, which we crossed on a traditional-style mountain covered bridge. By the moonlight we could see the performance area where during tourist season local people danced in ethnic costume and even the lion dance took place. But for us it was a ghost performance. By morning light we could walk the suspension bridge, the one which caused a few folks to be nervous and therefore had been supplemented by the new covered bridge. I kept hoping they didn’t let motorcycles use the suspension bridge. Motorcycles are in fact everywhere in China, on every surface except perhaps on the steps leading up mountains. Lord, make my life motorcycle-free!

Covered Bridge at the Resort of yu pu

Closing in on yao liang the roads got less easy to travel. The pot holes got bigger, the pavement became scarcer and after a while there was little besides pot holes. It became evident this was really a logging road, with giant logging vehicles rounding the curves and forcing other travelers to slow or stop altogether. “ Timber industry” and” saw mill” were joining the vocabulary train. The first “tomb sweepers” were sighted and our turn was just around the corner. I could see that tomb sweeping included the whole family, carrying tools, covered woven baskets of fish, meat and vegetables, alcohol, incense, yellow sticky rice and candles. Elaborate preparations had been made. I too was winding my way through the rice paddies, past yellow rapeseed fields and fenced-off local tea tree plantations. If the way got a bit steep or slippery there was always a steady hand I could grab. Full-sized shovels brought fresh earth onto the high mounded tomb. On the very top sat one firm scoop of earth with a small tree or stick where a colorful banner or flag could be attached. The boys and I were busily distributing thin fake paper money around the surface of the tomb. Later it would be burned.

Planting the fake paper money on the tomb.

 Rice wine was poured into small cups for each person and then in turn we poured a good portion onto the tomb so the deceased would have a better after-life. Similarly bits of food, perhaps the favorite foods of the deceased family member, were distributed. We each took three sticks of lit incense and bowed three times toward the tomb, away from the tomb and back again. Then the sticks were stuck into the tomb mound. Closure was achieved through setting off fireworks.

fireworks for the ancestors!

 Some family groups visited as many as eight tombs in one day.
Our high point was a barbeque at the tomb of yet another family member. It seemed that my host family was related or knew well most of the village people. There was always a gift in hand or one more offering for the tomb inhabitant. When we arrived palm fronds lay on the ground covered with dishes of food and people were sitting on six-packs of beer.

one fine feast!

 Seeing that I was having trouble squatting on my six-pack, they set a second one near me, not realizing that my problem was not just the size of my hind end but it was the sheer lowness of it all. I can do low stools but a six-pack takes the cake for “low”. Unaware at first of what it was I accepted a fried wasp. Getting it closer to my eye I could see that it was not for me. Not since the squirrel which had been introduced as rat had I had to refuse a food item. I was told the villagers eat pollywogs but this was not pollywog season. The frogs were already full-sized and out in full force. The barbeque master had a huge pair of powerful scissors he used to cut up the chicken into little pieces. Chicken wings, however, were left whole. It seems chicken meat is preferred “on the bone”, actually mostly bone. The yellow sticky rice was passed around. You take a gob and make your own ball in your hands. Naturally I was seated with the old women and the babies, leaving the men to their “baijiu” or rice spirits and cigarettes. The beer is actually light as water so it was no surprise that 10 year-old boys who had done their share of shoveling were drinking a can. The women were up, fastening their babies on with elegant, hand-stitched miao baby-carriers, long before the men showed signs of wanting to leave.

Its grandmas turn.

 They had said they would leave when the beer and spirits were all gone, which didn’t look to be anytime soon. Others had descended a different slope to hunt for bamboo shoots and fiddle heads, tender new ferns particular to this season in the mountains.
That evening we were warmly received at the home of a nephew and his young family along with other relatives for dinner. It was a house-warming of sorts for the nephew had just built this beautiful new home and it was proudly on display. On one wall in the living room there was a bright red poster listing the gifts they had received and from whom and the cash value since mostly one receives money gifts.

House-warming gifts tabulated.

 There was a pile of huge rice-filled bags near the front door, a gift from the government for folks in their new home. Upstairs there was a high stack of bundles of rice straw, a symbol of prosperity and a good future.

                                                                                                  Rice for Prosperity

 There was a live chicken in a bag in the kitchen which would later become dinner. Grandma had warmed up to me in spite of the fact that she speaks no Putonghua (Mandarin) and is hearing-impaired, at the age of 93.

grandma at 93 speaks only miao; she is also hearing impaired. she and i held hands

 She was gently accompanied up the path by granddaughter Cara, who speaks no Miao. Somehow the two get on well despite the lack of a common spoken language. I was pleased she felt comfortable seated next to me. The men were toasting the traditional way with a loud call followed by three cheers of sorts. I was gradually catching on. I was encouraged to lead a toast or two even though I didn’t quite know what I was doing and there was someone available to translate. How does one show true gratitude for such magnanimous hospitality?
That night I was given the inner bedroom next to the traditional kitchen with a hearth at its center. The only window to this room opened out on a hallway. I was offered this bed because not only was it longer as I am, it was more comfortable. There was no question about me being able to sleep that night though after having climbed innumerable slopes and wound my way through rice paddy after rice paddy. There was a choice of two toilets I was told: one for small things and one for large things. I had tried to avoid the large things matter as long as I could but finally I had to be led down stairs to the pig sty with a toilet next to it. Amazingly there was no foul odor as I have grown accustomed to in the cities. The entire premises were odor-free. Our breakfast was prepared over the central hearth where a very large pot heated the wash water, later our soup and then the pig’s slop. I was privileged to be allowed to observe the pig breakfast; in fact the feeding of two very appreciative young pigs.

Just call me "Piggy"!

Later that morning we crossed the fields to the mayor’s house especially to visit his mother who is one of the keepers of the culture. She sings traditional style dong and miao songs which rely on improvisation. She improvised a song to and about me in both languages while I held her grandson peacefully on my lap. Words cannot express how happy she made me. Tears were rolling down my face.

Keeper of the culture singing to me.

 Then she dressed me in her traditional gear and the photo shoot began. Lunch was at yet another family member’s house and it was there I discovered the basket weaver who explained to me that the baskets were used for just about everything on the farm and I could see just one more fine example of how self-reliant these people are.
As we rode out of the little valley, driven by a nephew of Lotus’ husband, I got wind of an interesting piece of the miao story. The nephew had moved some years earlier to the prosperous province of Guangdong (Canton) where he had worked for Leitz, a German firm which makes precision equipment for cutting diamonds. He had married a Guangdong woman and had two children. But he had decided he had had enough of city life and was already preparing to return to the Miao village, set up his own business there and enjoy the peaceful and warm village life once again. He missed his family. His father was getting older and not in the best of health. It was time.

Miao Villager Happy to Smile.

Harmonious was the feeling I came away with. Even the potholes which slowed our progress seemed right somehow, slowing anyone who might want to go in or out of yao liang. Perhaps it would remain the way it was a bit longer and the people seemed happy enough. They all had TVs and cellphones. We had watched films of their clan gatherings, women dancing and men playing the lusheng. It was hypnotic and soothing. Uncannily by going remote, I had found what seemed to be the center of the universe, a place, a people and a feeling of contentment, balance and peace: hard work balanced by the warmth of the hearth, struggle softened by community, and poverty overcome by richness of spirit.

14 Responses

  1. From Norman Leonard:

    What a heartening set of experiences!

    Posted on 09. Apr, 2012 1:31 pm #
  2. From Gail:

    Another wonderful memory!

    Posted on 09. Apr, 2012 2:27 pm #
  3. From Yaodong(耀东):

    I am proud to be the first Chinese reader of your weblog on your visit to Liuzhou and Rongshui.I am moved while reading the paragraphs,depicting our time spent together with students and friends and your visit to Lotus’ hometown.
    Mary is the second Chinese reader of your blog as she is reading it line by line.She caught sight of your phrase ‘three-year college’ and said that Leo might not have explained to you that our college,aka GXUT, is already a 4-year college that is on her way to be transformed into a university in the year to come.Sounds a bit confusing,though.
    I had hope to see the photo of you dressed in the miao traditional gear but now I think I must wait till your photo album is available.Just take your time,my dear true friend.
    Thank you a zillion for sharing.

    Posted on 09. Apr, 2012 3:40 pm #
  4. From Sumaiyah:

    Thank you!
    It is a treat to read your blog!
    Are the Miao related to the Hmong?
    Take care,

    Posted on 09. Apr, 2012 8:02 pm #
    • From Miaow (缪雅雅):

      I think so.Miao is called Hmong in Southeast Asian countries.

      Posted on 10. Apr, 2012 3:00 am #
  5. From lotus:

    Iam glad you had an unforgettable experience in my home town.I hope more foreign friends will visit my hometown.

    Posted on 10. Apr, 2012 1:06 am #
  6. From Miaow (缪雅雅):

    I am Miaow from Yaodong’s class.
    I was so glad to meet you in class on April 1.We learned a lot from you in your lecture on American culture and your stories were very interesting.Talking to you gave us more confidence in learning English.Thank you for your class.
    Just now,Mr Chen,our teacher,showed us your blog on which we learned about your trip to the mountainous areas in Rongshui. We were happy to know you had enjoyed the time with the people in the Miao village.I wish you would come to my hometown one day so that I could be your guide.
    I hope to keep in touch with you.

    Posted on 10. Apr, 2012 2:53 am #
  7. From Neon Kimberly:

    Judy! Wonderful as usual!

    Posted on 10. Apr, 2012 11:59 am #
  8. From jeanne dineur:

    What a beautiful new experience Are you heading home or are you staying on?
    Best of luck Jeanne

    Posted on 11. Apr, 2012 8:29 pm #
  9. From Andy:

    Fun blog Mom, love it!!

    Posted on 12. Apr, 2012 4:42 am #
    • From Mary Wu:

      Glad to your post here.Your mother told us something about you while she was in Liuzhou with us. She said she would take Candance to China for a visit later on.Would you come with them,too?
      How is life in Australia?

      Posted on 15. Apr, 2012 10:21 am #
  10. From Ivy:

    I believe you know more about china after such wonderful experience.

    Posted on 15. Apr, 2012 12:36 pm #
  11. From Clara:

    “Very last minute; very Chinese! At the very last minute I discovered that I would have five days off for Tomb-Sweeping.”

    How come that they informed you at the very last minute??? Tomb-Sweeping is a national public holiday. Even if the department students have internship or anything else, they should have known it and arranged long before. At least IO could have coordinated it better and informed you in advance.

    Posted on 16. Apr, 2012 4:38 am #
  12. From Yaodong:

    Below are some paragraphs written by GXUT students,whom Judy met in Yaodong’s class on April 1.The students all enjoyed meeting Judy and they were thankful for her brief but unforgetable visit.
    1.Meeting Judy was a different experience for me, for I talked with her about American culture.(Troy)

    2.Judy would give a high-five to whoever had answered her questions correctly,which is rare in a Chinese classroom. ( Ava)

    3.Last week we met a lady who is named Judy. She is very interesting.All of us like her very much.(石吉源)

    4.Though it was Judy’s first visit to our class,I felt that she was already a old friend of ours.It was NOT only a lesson,it was for
    us to meet a friend. (周青青)

    5. Judy treated us not as the students who shehad just met but as long-lost friends. (肖桂润)

    6.Maybe you might not remember me, but what you said and did have had great a effect on me……I admire you for your willingness to devote yourself to the benefit of the public in general after your retirement. You have set us a good example.(曾群)

    6.In that class, we talked about cultural encounters such as food,customs and your own stories.Because of you, we have learned more about the difference between America and China. ( Anna )

    7. We were so active and we talked a lot about personal matter[s] as well as cultural encounters……We had a great t ime together and it will be a colorful day in our memory! (Rose)

    8.Though we parted several days ago, I still miss you. ….Now I have many words to say. For some reason I have to stop here.I look forward to seeing you again.( 甘鹭)

    9.We talked a lot about cultural encounters. We asked her many questions and she gave all of us satisfactory answers.She said that Chinese food is healthier than American food.(景岫)

    10. At first,I didn’t think she was an active person, but when I met her in the class, I changed my mind.I admire her so much because in her sixties,she can still travel to many places to do what she wants to do.She has so many friends, that’s the second reason for which I admire her. (陈燕丽)

    11.Although there are many differences between Chinese culture and foreign culture, we can communicate and get along well with people with different cultural background because we are all children of the Earth.We all know the common language ,that is, smiling.(Jenny)

    12.The class was full of fun. Everybody liked it. From Judy’s talk, I know more about cultural encounters.For example, there are usually six or eight people living together in one student dorm room in Chinese colleges but according to Judy, there are only two students who share a dormitory room in the US.(吴红)

    13. I heard that Judy had come to China as a volunteer.She came to Liuzhou in hope of visiting Rongshui,where the ethnic Miao nationality live.It is a pity I missed the opportunity to talk to Judy but I will try if I have the chance in the future.( Leo)

    14.I was a little nervous when Judy came to our class though it was not the first time for me to meet a foreign teacher. Smiling charmingly with casual clothes,Judy appeared in front of the classroom door .My nervousness disappeared suddenly at the sight of such a friendly teacher………….Through such an encounter, I have learned something (not from our textbook)about America.I’d like to meet Judy again in the future so that I can introduce her to the customs of my hometown.(Candy)

    15. I came to Judy’s hotel room with breakfast prepared by my English teacher,Don………..To my surprise, she spread some cheese cheese onto the steamed bun and ate it.My day with Judy will be a beautiful memory in my life. I admire her for her passion in life, her devotion to work and friendliness to people .Thank you for your visit, Judy.(Apple)

    16. One of my classmates asked her about tea culture.I was surprised that she knew the profound history about tea.I asked her a question about parents’ sending their children to art classes.( 许诺–Promise)
    17.When I talked with Judy, I learned that foreign students have the[ir]delete right to choose what they want to learn at school.Compared with Western students, Chinese students find it difficult to make this choice because the examination scores decide everything.I think China should change this type of education system but it may take a long time to have this change…..I wonder
    if I could have a chance to travel to many places just like Judy.I had a great time that day even though it was a short class. (彭文基)

    18.What impressed me most during the meeting with Judy is that in America,Judy told us,a school teacher can be replaced or fired by students and parents if they think the teacher can’t help
    the students.This is different from what it is like in China. (江鑫) This is not actually quite right. Perhaps you misunderstood me. It is not that easy to have a teacher fired in the USA.

    19.Recently a lady with charming smile came to our class. We knew it must be Judy. I felt she is a woman full of energy and enthusiasm and she was very kind,easy-going and friendly. With her beautiful voice,we became closer.I like this way [to study]of learning.I had written down three questions and I was hoping I could be [asked]called on but at the same time I was worried [of]about being picked since my English is not good enough and,worse of all,I was afraid of making mistakes.I really want to know what suggestions Judy would have for me to overcome my shortcomings in learning English. (Harry)I suggest you take the great leap of faith and just forge ahead and speak all you can. Listen to English spoken by native speakers on the internet daily and practice English with your peers everyday.

    20. Judy,it was a pity there was only 45 minutes to communicate with you and there were 25 students in the class that day.I didn’t have the chance to speak to you.Mr Chen showed us a lot of your pictures taken in Rongshui.You look so beautiful in the Miao costume.(吴兵环)

    21.Judy’s smile made a deep impression on me. Some of us asked her interesting questions and she was very patient in replying to our questions. She said that Chinese food is healthier.( susan)

    22.Half a month ago, we met Judy in an English class.At first sight, I tended to think that Judy must be a blond when she was young, a pretty girl full of charm.How I wish I were a blond too!( Miaow)
    I was a red head as a young person; then it all turns white rather quickly.

    23.I remember I asked Judy why she wanted to be a volunteer. She said it was a good question. I was so happy that she told us many things about herself. She was not just a teacher but also our friend. ( Elisa)

    24.Talking with Judy is very easy. she is a person with a sense of humour.I look forward to meeting her again. (Emmie)

    25.Judy is the first American I have ever met. What impressed me most in that class was that she asked us to write down our questions we wanted to ask her.I think that was a good way to start a lecture. Her humorous words made us laugh. I know some cultural difference between China and America by listening to and talking with Judy. I also think Judy has a different teaching method from our college. I think it is fun and can catch our attention. I hope I can meet Judy again and I will be her guide to visit some places in Liuzhou. If she hasn’t tasted Liuzhou’s ‘Luoshi fen’( spicy rice noodles with snail soup and sour bamboo shoots,I will treat her. (Yoki)

    I hope Lotus will,too,post some of her students writing on meeting Judy in their class on the afternoon of April 1.

    Posted on 19. Apr, 2012 4:22 pm #

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