THE TINY VILLAGE OF DALI
At last we arrived in Dali, at Shirley’s home. It reminded me a bit of my Nonna and Pop’s, what with the chickens and ducks. Who would have believed I would be in a small village in China? You could see the hills, hear the roosters crowing, hear the cows bellowing, hear the ancient tractors putting along, but for once, people were scarce.
TYPICAL NORTH-EASTERN CHINESE HOUSE
The typical north-eastern Chinese house in both towns and small villages consists of a kitchen in the middle of two rooms, and a passage way connecting front door, kitchen, and the two rooms. There is no bathroom. The two rooms both have a wall-to-wall kang which is used to sit on during the day, and to sleep on at night. There is usually a telephone and TV in one of the rooms. There is minimal furniture. The kang may also be the place to eat dinner, otherwise a small round table is opened up come meal time. Most houses I saw had identical layout, decoration, and type of furniture, albeit minimal. Sameness to an alarming degree.
SLEEPING ON A KANG
For the first time, I slept on a kang. The kang is the traditional Chinese "bed"/lounge/place to sit on when dining. It is a wall-to-wall, thigh-high, hard, flat surface which is heated by the fire from the fire stove in the kitchen. The more fuel used to cook with, the hotter the kang becomes. The family all lie on it together. So it was yours truly alongside grandma, ma, pa, and Shirley. I usually sleep on my stomach or my side. Apparently that is abnormal, and when I woke up, Shirley’s mother got Shirley to ask me if I was sick, because she saw me lying on my stomach, and normally they will only lie on their stomach if they are sick. I found the kang too hard for me to lie on my back. I never lie on my back as it is.
The Chinese pillows I experienced in Jilin Province are not stuffed with feathers or down, or anything soft. They are filled with some sort of bean, but not the foam beans used to fill some "bean bags" or cushions...real beans! Farm produced beans! It takes some getting used to, to sleep on a bean-filled pillow as well as the kang.
The kitchen consisted of two very large in-built woks, heated by fire, and an in-built "well" for water.
Bathing and hygiene consisted of washing hands, face, and feet in a bowl of water, and brushing your teeth, too, of course. There was no place (or opportunity to be alone, either) for having a full body wash. I am not sure if and if so, how often people in villages bathe themselves. Come to think of it, another village I visited did in fact have a river, and the children were swimming in the river.
Each house has an outhouse. This was an experience I will never forget, but one which I quickly got used to. For privacy, there was a bundle of corn chaff at the entrance of the outhouse. The outhouse consisted of the now-familiar-to-me two wooden planks over a pit. For females, it is a case of balance, squat, and aim. I noticed that the outhouse backed on to an open area. When I visited the outhouse, I instinctively turned around to look at the mountain to make sure that no one on the mountain could see me unless they had super long distance vision and nothing better to do but to stare at the family’s outhouse.
In the village, there was usually no distinction in the type of dishes cooked for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. What ever food was not eaten was recycled for the next meal. There is also no refrigeration. An even number of dishes is always served, otherwise it is considered unlucky.
A STEP BACK IN TIME
Each morning, we woke up at the crack of dawn with the rooster crowing. Shirley’s father and brother would set off to go to their plot of land and prepare the land for sowing the seeds - corn seeds. On May 3, Shirley and I joined the rest of the family on the farm. Seeing the farming techniques is like stepping back in time. Shirley’s parents have had the same tractor for thirty years. The farming methods they use have not changed for centuries. They also use a horse (others use cows), a rusty old horse-drawn plough to create the furrows, and hand tools to create the holes for the seeds to be placed into by hand. One person would lead the horse to create the furrows. Another person would create the holes for the seeds, another would drop the seeds in the holes and another would cover the seed-filled holes with her or his foot. To make the job less monotonous, we were taking turns at teaching each other songs. I am not a willing singer, but what the heck, I taught them "Ten Green Bottles" and "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" . They taught me "Liangge Laohu" ("Two Tigers"), which is sung to the same tune as "Frere Jacques" ("Brother John"), and another popular song at the time which praises mothers and the importance of having them.
We also visited an uncle’s farm. He was planting apple seeds. He asked me some very interesting questions. He asked me to tell him the differences between Australian and Chinese farming technology. He seemed to know that the horses and cows used to pull the plough had long since been replaced by machines in developed countries, and he wondered if I found China to be strangely backward. He also asked me if we grow crops on the side of the mountain like they do in China. Imagine the saving in time and energy for Chinese farmers if they could afford modern technology?
MODERN THINKING IN AN ANCIENT SETTING
Shirley’s parents were modern thinkers. They have four daughters and one son. All the girls were given the names of birds to symbolise the ability to fly away from the village and create a better future for themselves. They are worried about their sixteen year old son, because he has failed his middle school (high school) exams twice, and looks unlikely to be able to graduate from high school. Without a qualification or an education, he will be unable to have a stable future, and the likelihood of leaving the farm is remote. Shirley said that her parents do not want her brother to stay on the farm, and so they are at a loss now that his academic record is so poor. Although Shirley, the fourth daughter, is now working in Shenzhen, one of China’s Special Economic Zones, her heart is in her small village of Dali. She told me that when she retires, she wants to buy a home in her village. It will be interesting to see if she still has that hope after having worked in a big city after ten, twenty, thirty years.
RETURN TO THE BIG CITY
At 7am on May 6, we left Shirley’s place and climbed an embankment to get to the bus stop. Then we arrived at the local train station where I was noticed and discussed by several women. One woman pointed at my eyes and said that my eyes looked like "doll’s eyes". Another kept marvelling at how white my skin was, and was comparing her hand to mine. It was their first time to see a foreigner.
The whole return train trip was spent with people asking Shirley and I questions about Australia and myself. One man offered me his seat even though he had several more hours to go until his train stop at Siping. I did not want to accept the seat simply because I am a foreigner or because I am a woman, but he was insisting, and actually, it was nice not to have to stand! The (married) man kept saying how "lovely" I was. He was overwhelmed to see a foreigner. His being so overwhelmed overwhelmed me.
Come 7pm, I was able to have a much desired and much needed bath. It felt great.