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Photo by Sampor Burke, Mekong Semester.

The Bangdong Bloopers

Hello, everybody! I’m thrilled to be back on the Yak Board. This evening, we’re finishing our six-day homestay in Bangdong, and we have plenty of stories to tell. Inspired by the spring group’s homestay yaks, I’ve decided to collect and post the highlights. Therefore, without further ado, here are the riveting tales that take “culture shock” to the extreme: the Bangdong Bloopers!

Ariel: It was our first night in Bangdong. Bieng Er had left the dinner table, as had her mother, so I was left alone with her grandmother, finishing our last grains of rice. As I lifted the chopsticks from the bowl to my mouth, the grandma corrected me. She raise her own bowl to her chin, dextrously plucking the last grains of rice from the bowl and moving them to her mouth in rapid little motions. I tried to copy, but apparently I wasn’t doing it fast enough, because she got my attention and started showing me again. So I tried again. Still not good enough. But I kept watching and mimicking until, eventually, I missed and flicked my rice at my chest. She laughed. I blushed, laughing too.

Liv: My host family was making dinner, crushing almonds in a bowl for the noodle soup. Suddenly, the sister took an almond and put it in her mouth. My host mother chased after the toddler, yelling at her until she spit the almond into her hand. Without hesitation, my host mother put the almond back into the bowl. It was somewhere in our noodle soup that night.

River: My homestay family took me over to one of their relatives’ houses. Out of hospitality, the uncle offered me a clear drink with dead bees in it. I politely declined, and I later found out, through a translation app, that it was some type of alcohol (maybe vodka), fermented with dead bees.

Alden: My first night in the homestay, after dinner, I offered to help wash the dishes. I grew to question every dish I had eaten off of after I noticed that the chopsticks were not, in fact, cleaned. My host mother had simply rubbed all of them together under running tap water, without any sign of soap, and returned them to their shelves. I was glad when, at breakfast the next morning, my host father saw the rice in my bowl and handed me a spoon.

Noah: Meemaw, my host grandmother, is a loving but somewhat distant lady. She is my primary caregiver here in Bangdong, especially now that my host parents seem to have spontaneously disappeared. She primarily shows her love through shovelling food on my plate and reprimanding me through rapid Chinese to eat more. One afternoon, I briefly returned back home to grab a raincoat. As I was leaving, Meemaw halted my progress, pulled out a plastic bag, and handed me two fistfuls of shelled walnuts. Evidently, this was her concept of a “convenient snack for the road.”

Will: Last night over tea with my host brother, he offered me a cigarette, which I gratefully refused. While he understood, his daughter of two would not have it. She insisted, taking another cigarette out of the carton and pressing it up to my lips with urgent baby-speak. Still refusing, I laughed as she then put it in her own mouth, filter side out, and faced her dad, expecting him to light it.

Chris: A guest came over for dinner. There was a new dish, which I had never seen before, on the table: mint leaves that my host family was dipping in red chilli oil. The guest put a dipped leaf in my rice bowl and gestured for me to try it. Immediately, the room fell silent, and everyone’s eyes turned to me. I hesitantly picked up the leaf with my chopsticks and took a respectful bite. It was by far the spiciest thing I’ve had so far, enough to turn my face a shade pinker, but that was the extent of my reaction. It was clear from the look on their faces that my response had disappointed them. After the attempted prank, they went back to their rice and conversation.

Daria: The other morning, an elderly woman (possibly my host grandma) marched into my room, waking me up. She folded the duvet on the extra bed adjacent to mine, stood there, and left. I think she was just checking on me.

Myself: Last night, my host father and I processed tea leaves in Daria’s host family’s garage. I met her homestay grandfather while we waited for the leaves to cook. Puffing on a particularly foul-smelling cigarette, he turned to me and asked in Mandarin if I’m from the U.S. or South Korea. When I responded that I’m American, he told me that China is safe, unlike America, where everybody is always armed and shooting each other. Amused and confused by his idea of the States (and his idea that American Jews and South Koreans look the same), I began to fan the secondhand smoke enveloping me from his direction. Noticing this, he leaned towards me, exhaled a smoky cloud in my face, and laughed. I wasn’t laughing.

Liv: One morning, I was brushing my teeth when my host grandma came into the bathroom. I smiled, thinking she was just saying hello. However, she pulled down her pants and started to relieve herself. I immediately looked away.

Alden, Chris, and Liv: Yesterday, we were sitting outside and reading when we heard a duck’s quack. Liv joked about this duck being the next dinner. Sure enough, we turned around and saw her host father holding the duck by its feet. Fascinated, we watched the father pull the duck’s head back and slit its throat. Her host family drained all the blood from the twitching animal and proceeded to lower the (still-alive) duck into a metal bowl. While Liv ran away and hid, we watched, half horrified and half intrigued, as they held down the duck with a log and poured boiling water over it. Last night’s dinner: duck stew.

River: I was changing in my room, thinking that I had locked the door, when my host grandma barged in on me. She wouldn’t leave until I locked the door with her in the room to show her that I knew how to lock the door. Only then did she let me finish getting dressed.

Nina: Every morning, there is a large brown chicken that wakes me up around 6:30 AM. However, this morning, I woke up at 7:00 AM, with no sounds from the chicken. I went downstairs to the communal table and looked down to see a couple of feathers. Suddenly, I saw two detached brown chicken wings under the table, feathers and all. Needless to say, we had chicken for breakfast.

Eleanor: Yesterday morning, Noah, Riley, and I were supposed to pick tea with our families. After watching Sing China with Noah’s host sisters for an hour, we proceeded to trek up to our appointed tea trees. Our host father gave us a basket and pointed to a rather dead-looking tree for us to work on. At first, we attempted to pick the healthy-looking green leaves. However, the father reprimanded us and pointed us towards the red and sickly leaves. Upon filling our basket about one fourth of the way with red leaves, we looked over to see what the rest of our family was doing. To our surprise, the other four members of the family, including the father, were picking the healthy green leaves, as we had tried to do at first. The obvious conclusion was that our host had given us busy work, ensuring that we would be far removed from anything important. Realizing the futility of our task, we promptly informed the father that we had all simultaneously fallen ill, and we began our descent home.

Myself: The first night, I arrived at my homestay house I was shocked to find that my host family had a puppy. However, when the extended family came over for dinner, the puppy thoroughly annoyed them, weaving between everyone’s legs as they tried to eat. My hosts’ patience thinned as dinner went on. As my host aunt and uncle stood up to leave, they put a large green fabric bag next to the dog, pushed the puppy into it, picked it up, and carried it off with them. The dog was back the next morning as if nothing had happened.

I hope you enjoy these stories as much as we did! Many thanks to everyone who contributed stories to this Yak. I’m hoping to post similar collections for the homestays in Laos and Cambodia, as well as an individual Yak sooner than later. Until then, zài jiàn!

Ted.