Written by Guest Author, Faaria Kherani
Shaxi Valley, Jianchuan County, Yunnan
"Your pants have holes in them! Give them to me tomorrow and I will sew them up."
"No, no, it's really okay, no need."
"Not okay! I will sew them tomorrow and that's final."
much for the cool, purposefully cut holes in my favorite pair of Express
jeans. For my host mom, Mrs. Dao, the only reason for having holes in
jeans is too much wear and tear, and as a mother of
Shaxi valley holds over
Sideng is an awfully poor town for a tourist attraction and manages to keep its bucolic charm despite an increasing influx of both domestic and foreign tourists. I arrive as a foreign tourist, but with no camera or high expectations. When I get off the mianbaoche ('loaf-of-bread car' or small van), I walk down a cobble-stoned street dating overyears and turn left onto a narrow alleyway with troughs of flowing water on either side. I find the Shaxi culture center where Mrs. Dao is waiting for me, unsmiling in a dirty beige baseball cap and her signature sweatpants.
"Ni ha-." She speaks roughly and tends to leave off the ends of words.
Mrs. Dao, I am so glad to meet you!" I give her a huge smile to ease
the tension of first-time meetings and language barriers. She looks
at me severely and in one motion hoists my pack onto her back and trots
out the door. Stunned, I hastily pick up my things and run after her,
not wanting to get lost.
The Daos' home is a large siheyuan with a courtyard of pomegranate trees centered around a well. One side of the four-sided home is for the dog, two pigs, and dozen chickens. The other two sides are concrete platforms for cutting meat and drying rice during the harvest season. Bedrooms and the kitchen occupy the last side of the mud and concrete home. At first glance, I see broken windows, cloth curtains, washing bins, a small fire pit supporting a steel kettle of boiling water, and towels hanging on clotheslines tied to trees and wooden posts.
I see Mr. Dao for the first time as he clears his throat, hucks spit into the courtyard, and pulls a bucket of water up from the well. He turns around when his wife calls to him, sees me, and immediately smiles. I am so relieved that at least someone is happy to have me here! He brings the water over to the kitchen and sits with me.
"Hello, what is your name?" Perfect English. Barely even an accent. Mr. Dao loves to study in his spare time when he is not working in his bike repair shop. His hands are permanently stained with grease, and his fingernails have broken so many times they are disfigured and under-sized. We squat together, and I watch intently as he tries to scrape at least half of the black stain off his fingers.
"My name is Feiya." He repeats my name and welcomes me to the Dao home.
That night at dinner, he curiously asks me about Canada while his wife only speaks in Bai dialect, which she knows I cannot understand. After we eat Mrs. Dao grabs my arm and orders me to sit with her mother-in-law in a tiny bedroom stuffed with couches, animal skins and two wooden beds. She then leaves me alone with 'nainai'. I awkwardly turn to nainai and mention how lovely the sky looks in Shaxi: always a stark, cloudless blue. She looks at me for a moment, smiles and nods. Silence returns and all I can hear is the influenza in her breathing, which sounds like a wheezing animal. Five minutes later she turns to me and begins to speak quickly in Bai dialect. I, of course, cannot understand a word, but I figure since she is old and trying to be friendly I should just pretend I know what she is saying. I obediently smile, laugh and nod. She seems satisfied enough so we return to silence. I turn to her again, wait until she looks at me, and then slowly say,
"Nainai, have you always lived in Shaxi?" Another smile and nod. I am beginning to wonder why we can communicate but not have an actual conversation when Mr. Dao walks in.
"She is very sick, you know. Her ears are not good either; she is deaf. So you can just smile and nod to show you have heard her."
It took every ounce of self-control to not burst out laughing. Nainai had me completely fooled with her own amazing mastery of the smile and nod technique. Never underestimate the old nongmin, I thought to myself. I almost wished I had never known she was deaf because it would have made our interactions so much more meaningful during my stay. After that night we only waved to each other good morning and goodnight.
A sharp wail pierces the countryside silence and shivers run down my spine.
"What was that???" I ask Mrs. Dao, scared out of my mind.
She matter-of-factly answers. Okay, pig wailing either means hurting
the pig or actually slaughtering the pig. I take a peek into the courtyard
next door, but all I see is blackness. A sharp, disgusting smell reaches
my nose and I assume it is the bathroom as usual. As I inch closer to
the courtyard however, I see two ropes holding up a pig by its feet,
hanging over a huge bucket full of blood. I almost puke on the spot
but cannot tear my eyes away from the scene. A large man is scraping
the fur off the pig's skin with a razor blade (probably his own),
while his wife holds the pig steady. I can see my classmate who lives
with this family avoiding blood sprays while avidly taking pictures.
All of a sudden, with no warning at all, the man takes his knife and
decapitates the pig in one smooth motion. The head falls with a thump
into the basin below, while the wife splits the pig's side exposing
the inside of the stomach. The smell of the pig's stomach left me
running back home on the verge of throwing up. I heard later that the
wife thought nothing of the smell, emptied the contents of the stomach
and saved the sack for later use. Other organs were removed from the
pig's belly until the meat was ready to slice. I am more vegetarian
now than I ever was.
Before sleep, Mrs. Dao orders me to wash. Wash what? She never said, so I sit on a stool and start to tentatively wash my hands and face.
"Wash your feet." She practically yells at me in rough putonghua (standard Mandarin).
"Oh, okay so I should wash my hands, face and feet?" I say to clarify and avoid embarrassment.
"Yes. Face. Hands. Feet."
I take off my shoes and socks and swing my feet into the basin of scalding hot water all too quickly. The basin goes flying, water sprays everywhere, chickens start clucking, the dog barks, I scream and Mr. Dao runs to clean up the mess. Apologizing profusely, I turn to Mrs. Dao ready for a scolding. Instead, tears are rolling down her face as she rocks on her stool laughing uncontrollably.
"Don't WORRY about it!" She says repeatedly. She grabs a towel and starts wiping off my hands and feet, refilling a basin for me and patting my head. Who ARE you?? I am thinking, unable to explain her abrupt switch to motherly kindness. All of a sudden she was a motherly angel taking care of me and it was not until later that night that I realized the difference between a host family treating someone as a guest and accepting someone as a member of the family.
I was Mrs. Dao's daughter for three days, which in the end was far too little time to enjoy her company. When I was at fault, she scolded me. When I made a mistake, she helped me learn from it with forgiveness. And when I did or said something good, she smiled and laughed. Every reaction to me was pure, innocent and natural because she felt no need to put on a show for the foreign guest. I envy Mrs. Dao's innocence. On my final night in Sideng, she walks with me to a dance performance put on by locals who rehearse in their free time. I am standing next to her when my program director, Lu Yuan, asks her,
"Lifu, will you ever go live with your daughters in Kunming or Dali when you are older?"
"No." Mrs. Dao smiles and shakes her baseball-capped head. Her hands are in her pockets and she is swaying from side to side. She is positively adorable with her rough speech and adoring smile.
"Why not? Your daughters are studying in big cities, they cannot take over your land, so what will happen when you cannot farm anymore?"
"When the time comes, I will worry about it then."
"Would your daughters farm?"
"No, I don't want them to."
"But you have worked so hard your whole life, what for if not to enjoy with your daughters when you are old?"
"I have suffered this life so that they do not have to farm, so that they can live in the cities."
"And you definitely do not want to live with them?"
"I can't live in the city. It is peaceful here. This is my home."
"What will you do when development happens and this town becomes a tourist center like Lijiang?"
"But it might, Lifu."
no it won't." She adamantly shakes her head and changes the subject,
not wanting to hear anymore. My throat tightens and I somehow manage
to keep myself from crying for her. Nongmin like her were already
uprooted in Lijiang and countless other towns in China. I want to stand
in front of the bulldozer myself.