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108 braids... the devotional representation of a sacred Tibetan number. Photo by Rebecca Thom, China Semester.

A Day in the Life of the Former Village Chief

It’s 7 am on a rainy morning in Bangdong. It starts with a light sprinkle around 7:05, and quickly turns into what sounds like a torrential downpour. By 7:10, the only audible rain drops are those slowly dripping off of the leaves of the small bushes in my family’s courtyard. I walk out of my room to see Shu Shu, my host “uncle”, peaking through the vines covering the terrace like sitting area. He stands only a couple inches taller than me, and sports a wide, strong frame. As the former village chief, he is well- respected in the village and oftentimes still spends his days working to give back and help his neighbors.

The only visible landscape is a thick fog hovering over the valley below so that only the tips of the mountains on the other side are left uncovered. Shu Shu looks back at me as I groggily leave my room to head to the bathroom and offers a kind smile, Zao Shang Hao! “Good Morning!”He turns back to admire the view, even though the strong blanket of fog diminishes the overall visibility to a mere 20 feet.

Leaving the bathroom, I see Shu Shu hurriedly working in the kitchen, steaming rice and heating up the dishes from last night’s dinner. During breakfast, he seems to be in a rush to fuel up for the day ahead. He sees the small scoop of rice I put in my bowl and immediately piles two more massive scoops on top; Chi mi fan, chi mi fan “Eat rice, eat rice.” After eating until we physically could not take in any more, Shu Shu and I lace up our boots side by side. He springs up off of the bench and grabs a long wooden bar. He carefully hangs two woven baskets on the bar, one in front and one behind, and props it up on his right shoulder. He signals that it’s time to go and we’re off.

We venture on a path adjacent to the courtyard, and quickly find ourselves climbing up the carefully laid out walkway leading to his cornfields up above. We finally reach the first of many tiers of towering cornstalks. The clouds from the morning rain are quickly floating away so that the sky turns a picturesque blue. Shu Shu drops the baskets and immediately starts husking each individual corn from its stalk. I try to follow his lead, but soon find myself staring directly into a large, intricate web covered in menacing spiders. My body shakes and I jump backward in fear. Shu Shu, noticing my panic, looks up at the web and chuckles. He fearlessly swats the web down with his bare hand, spiders and all, and motions for me to walk safely through.

Shu Shu and I spend the rest of our day in the cornfields, unwrapping each individual piece of corn from its stalk and throwing it in one of the baskets. When our baskets become full, Shu Shu loads them up on the bar and makes the small hike home to empty them out. On his third trip back up to the field, Shu Shu returns with the baskets, but this time they are not empty. Inside the front basket are two small cartons of walnut milk, which I enthusiastically guzzle down within seconds.

Feeling re-energized, although it is already nearing our sixth hour in the field, I am ready to keep working. I jump back into the patch of cornstalks and find myself trapped once again by a massive spider web. Shu Shu puts his hand up, ready to swat it down, but I stop him. I muster up all of my courage to pick up some husks of corn and begin throwing them at the web until all of the spiders plunge to the ground. Then, I comfortably approach the stalks, with a satisfied smile, and get into a steady rhythm of husking corn. Shu Shu joins me and laughs once again, but I think this time his laugh carried a little bit of pride in it.

We husk corn until our stomachs begin to grumble. I am thankful now that Shu Shu has forced me to eat so much at breakfast, otherwise I never would have lasted all day. Shu Shu fills up the baskets and starts on the path he has walked countless times before. Even with the full baskets of corn hanging off of his right side, he still can walk faster than me.

We are home at last. Shu Shu dumps the baskets of corn onto the massive pile from today’s work.

“Wow,” I say, “That’s a lot of corn.”

Shu Shu replies with a smile, “There will be more tomorrow!”