Not Your Father’s Business Trip, Part II: In Which Jessica Sees Red, Toasts Granny

Xishuangbanna -> Pu’er -> Mangdongqidui -> Jinggu -> Pu’er -> Kunming

After staying the night in Xishuangbanna, we were back in the car bright and early for what I thought would be a lengthy trip to Jinggu, but one that would get us there around lunch time. And then the roads were terrible again, and then another bus broke down in front of us…and you get the picture.

Here is where I can personally attest to the fact that it is hard to spend four uninterrupted days in a car with anyone, even people you like. Somewhere on what turned out to be a day-long car ride, all of the little annoyances started to get to me. My colleague who I had previously considered just garrulous I now realized NEVER STOPS TALKING NOT EVEN FOR ONE SECOND IN A DAY. Also, I finally snapped and pointed out that candy wrappers, cigarettes, fruit peelings and tissues belong in a garbage can, not tossed out the window into THE GORGEOUS PRISTINE SCENERY, YOU FOOLS.

Most of all, I got tired of all the random chatter about minority ethnic people, a theme that underlay the whole trip.

This is a complex topic that I will not do justice here, but briefly: China officially recognizes 55 ethnic minorities (separate from the Han majority) who make up around 8% of the population on the mainland and closer to 9.5% if you include Taiwan. Part of what makes Yunnan so interesting is that it is home to 25 of those minority groups (in addition to some of the other minority groups and “sub-groups” who are not officially recognized by the government), accounting for over a third of Yunnan’s population. Some areas of Yunnan, like the one in which RP is doing research, have few if any Han people.

The whole notion of what constitutes an ethnic minority in China is both questionable and somewhat slippery, with different groups of people sometimes having been somewhat arbitrarily ethnically defined, and some choosing to redefine themselves as another ethnic minority (or as members of the Han majority) as decades and generations pass.

Lahu nationality woman grazing her water buffalo

Lahu nationality woman grazing her water buffalo

It is sometimes clear that a person is a member of a particular ethnic minority group by a distinctive kind of clothing they wear or, much less often, by something in their facial features. But it is usually hard to tell if someone has, for example, simply spent their entire life as a farmer and so has darker skin, or if there is something particularly “ethnic-looking” about them. My impression is that many Han people do not know or are not friends with non-Han people, and stereotypes abound.

What do Lahu people do for a living?

They drink.”

I hear that Wa people eat rats!”

These people [grand sweeping gesture] don’t care about anything. They don’t care about money. They don’t care about life.”

And you know what – maybe the Wa do eat rats. I have no idea. The point is that my all-Han colleagues on this trip probably didn’t know either, and seemed content to spout this garbage off-hand whenever it suited them, delivering these pronouncements as mere facts to be recited, like state capitals. And, by the way, a discussion of racial struggle in America in an attempt to open up thoughts on race in China does no good – they are not considered related issues. You will always hear, particularly when you are with a bunch of Han people and even when being stared in the face by the demographic differences that race in China confers, that race is not a big deal in China. That China is unified. That the “Chinese people” feel a certain way about this or that issue. That China has 5,000 years of glorious unbroken history.

I was just winding up to punch my coworker in the face when – deus ex machina! – our car broke down.

***

The unfortunate aspect of our breakdown was that it meant yet another delay in our trip, but the positive aspect was that we broke down in Pu’er, a city famous for its tea. While mechanics peered at the innards of our vehicle, my mood was softened by our sales coordinator for the area, who, in addition to having a penchant for telling dirty jokes and a predilection for wearing electric blue track suits, also happens to know a lot about tea.

He took me to a tea shop with an area for sampling the teas and encouraged me to evaluate them based on the look of the leaves, the richness of color of the poured tea, and the subtleties of the various flavors. He waxed lyrical on upholding Chinese traditions and, changing gears, took the opportunity to expand upon his personal philosophy on ways in which our organization’s operational model could be improved.

I was just starting to forget the frustrations of the day when NM started calling and texting us from the car repair shop wondering WHERE WERE WE WHEN SHE HAD BEEN SITTING THERE WAITING FOR US FOR PRACTICALLY A HUNDRED YEARS?! “Don’t tell her we’ve been sitting around drinking tea,” I whispered to the sales coordinator. “We’ve been sitting here drinking tea!” he announced with a grin.

And we were off again.

***

We finally got to Jinggu around dinner time and, to my total confusion, just kept on going. (You may have guessed at this point that keeping me in the loop was not the favorite activity of my coworkers.) As it turns out, we drove another hour and a half to a village called Mangdongqidui (“mahng-dong-chee-dway”), the home of our sales coordinator’s wife, son and in-laws. Just to stop by for dinner, since we were, ya know, in the neighborhood.

I so wish that this had been a photo-taking opportunity, but it wasn’t. Remember the thing about visiting villages in China? Well, this wasn’t quite like that. I was explicitly invited and, as the first foreigner they had ever encountered, they were quite happy to have me. Still – you don’t go over to someone’s house and take pictures of the furniture. But if, by “rural Chinese village”, you’re thinking muddy lanes, random chickens wandering around and skinny old guys in straw hats with giant baskets of crops slung over their shoulders, then you’ve got the right idea.

I did take a couple photos of the surroundings down the road from where people live:

Looking back from Mangdongqidui

Looking back from Mangdongqidui

Fishing in Mangdongqidui

Fishing in Mangdongqidui

This is the kind of place where you really need to adjust your eyes to understand the economic situation; if you were just dropped here from the big city you probably think, Wow, these are some poor people. In a village of 20 families, this “house” was home to perhaps four adults and two small children, who all slept in basically one large room with informal partitions. Their other major space was a kitchen/dining area, a three-sided room with bare concrete walls and floors. Their electricity consisted of one naked light bulb hung in the kitchen that was only turned on when it was basically pitch black outside. They didn’t have a toilet.

But if you looked more closely, it was clear that these people were relatively prosperous, particularly compared to some of the villages we had seen outside Lancang. Here they had large tracts of land on which they grew sugar cane, tobacco and corn (not exactly subsistence crops, but that’s another matter). They had a few pigs, a couple water buffalo, a small flock of chickens and ducks. I was told that the sales coordinator’s son attends school in far-off Xishuangbanna during the year – something that I’m sure requires a small chunk of cash.

And, to contradict my earlier declarations, the best meal of the whole trip wasn’t at the Dai restaurant in Menghai – it was in that bare concrete kitchen. While the rest of us were banished to the cement courtyard in front of the pig pen, the sales coordinator’s wife and her sister concocted a ridiculous feast for 10 people, which I ate with satisfaction as the daylight faded.

There was some minor toasting, but it was pretty light-hearted and I just took sips. I even toasted someone’s little old grandmother (her idea, not mine) with some kind of apple liquor. I would have asked her what it was but, sadly, almost no one there spoke Mandarin. Those who could translate into Mandarin did and, otherwise, there was just good cheer.

Fat and happy, we eventually piled back into the car for the ride back to Jinggu. All the way back I was saying little thank-yous in my head to Ma Laoshi, Liu Laoshi, Wang Laoshi – all the Chinese teachers who encouraged me to keep up my Mandarin. While being in China is mostly an exercise of kicking myself over the fact that I didn’t work harder in my Chinese classes, that I didn’t study abroad for a solid year, that I haven’t managed to achieve fluency – this was a little moment of seeing the rewards of having learned Chinese.

How else would I have access to these places without Mandarin, even though not everyone can speak it? How else could I see the way in which regular rural people live? And, more importantly: how can I come back to this kind of place? What minority language do I have to learn? What aspects of life here can I explore further? I suppose some people figure out from a distance that they have these interests – but for me it took interacting in person, ever so briefly, with some people in a southwestern Chinese village to see this may be the locus of my interest in China, rather than some office in a big city like Kunming.

***

As I was experiencing it, the next and final day of this trip in Jinggu seemed very significant. Interestingly, it has now faded in my mind compared with dinner in Mangdongqidui. Still, it was definitely the most challenging day of the trip, seeing as I not only needed to put my Big Washington Boss hat back on, but needed to use it to intimidate the director of the local CDC into getting his act together and selling our mosquito nets like he had said he would.

My preparation for this consisted of practicing all the ways in which I was going to speak to him ever-so-seriously about how his office had been screwing up (handily translated by NM, of course), practicing my most stern and boss-like face in the mirror, putting on my least stained pants and trying to arrange my hair into its most intimidating state in attempt to look older. (Unfortunately, my hair takes tropical climes as an excuse to channel Dale Chihuly, so – intimidating, yes, but not really in the way you’d hope.)

It’s difficult to bully someone when they use the time before your little speech is translated to pick their nose, but I think the guy was impressed by the fact that I had come “direct from Washington, DC” to see what was going wrong in his town. Plus, there seemed to be an established set of behaviors for losing face by being yelled at and then lightening the mood by taking everyone out to lunch afterwards. No hard feelings.

I don’t want to hate on poor old Jinggu, but oh man was the food vile. Nicely presented, but well – there’s only so much you can do for fried bees (yes they still have the GIANT GROSS BUG EYES when you eat them) and cow stomach simmered in what was described to me as “stomach juice”. It’s a good thing we were only toasting with wine – which, around these parts, is likely minorly alcoholic grape juice – or I might have lost the ability to keep a straight face.

We were sent off with several bottles each of local produced mango juice (the CDC director proudly informed me that Jinggu was “The Home of the Mango”) and, as a final mango juice toast, he had this to say:

Thank you for coming here from Washington to see our town and thank you for caring about the health of the local people. It is a great shame that you don’t speak Chinese. I hope that you will come again – if I succeed in our project, then you will come back and eat food like this every day! If not, then we don’t deserve another visit.

I rejoined that I was certain, then, that I would see him again.

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