Wurong raced through the front yard, wielding his glimmering silver pot lid shield ahead of him. Giggling and climbing into his grandfather’s lap, he peeked out from around the edge of the shield at the brown haired girl in front of him, who’d shown up that afternoon at the house. The girl paused sorting peach pits and stuck her tongue out, and he immediately dove back behind the shield to safety.
Twelve days later, Wurong, my four-year-old Hongpo host brother, grinned and threw his giant pink balloon at me at our farewell dinner, then sat on my lap and devoured various types of potato chips. How far we had come.
Getting to know my host brother Wurong (or Xiao Pengyou – little friend – as the group fondly named him) was the highlight of my homestay in Hongpo, the rural Tibetan village we lived in for the final twelve days of our month of travel. My host family was small, for most of my stay in Hongpo, it was just my host grandparents (a-ni and a-jia in Tibetan), my host brother Wurong, and I. This meant a few things We watched LOTS of Chinese cartoons, even during dinner, which was often spent convincing Wurong to eat vegetables in addition to his rice and meat. Many family dynamics revolved around Wurong; he was the family member who warranted the most attention. Little did I know that first day, but he would also be my bridge into the family.
My first day, I tagged along as my host grandmother walked him and two friends to preschool, and once I’d convinced her I knew the way, I took him on my own the second day: and by crouching down and using a bit of Mandarin, I coaxed him onto my back for a ten-minute piggyback down to school: the beginning of our friendship.
At first my host family was fairly quiet: I learned quickly my host grandmother spoke no Mandarin, only Tibetan, and my host grandfather was a pretty quiet guy as well (except when he hummed as he worked). I didn’t think my host brother spoke much Mandarin either, since he was only four, but after our first cartoon-watching session, I realized the CCTV cartoons had been paying off, and he could understand quite a bit. Slowly, his shyness faded, and he warmed up to me, infinitely curious about everything: from my watch and reading light to my ukulele.
After he got home from Preschool and I returned from our daily meetings, we would sit inside and watch cartoons together for hours. Sometimes, he’d follow me to the front porch, where we’d sit on stools and I’d try to teach him ukulele, which mainly meant he would strum as I periodically switched the chords. Every day when I got home, I would ask “How was your day? What did you do?” and he would laugh and say “Nothing.”
We began to play games and develop inside jokes: when I sat in the living room reading, he would run over and turn off my reading light, which always warranted some tickle torture in response. If I went upstairs to my bedroom, he would yell up the stairs, giggling, “What are you doing? Are you ready?” until I came downstairs or responded. Though my host grandmother didn’t speak Mandarin, she was constantly entertained by Wurong and my interactions, smiling and laughing from across the room.
The best moments came on the last weekend. We had a “shadow day”, where we stayed with our host families for the day rather than having meetings. Mandy lived nearby, so she came up the hill and the two of us started to play with Wurong and a friend of his, using drying corn husks as toy racecars since we didn’t have enough for each person, and staging photo shoots: we would take photos of the boys then they would race over, yelling “Let me see! Let me see!” The toy guns came out just as Harry, Michal, Luke and Reina arrived, prompting a group game of dodging invisible bullets and hiding behind pillars, which Wurong found infinitely amusing. Giggles and tickles replaced shyness and pot lid shields.
My last night in the homestay, my host mother and my twelve-year-old host brother joined us from out-of-town. They brought with them a remote control car, a game, a cake, and some news: that day was Wurong’s fifth birthday. Thus, the night was full of celebration: playing with the toy car, eating traditional Chinese noodles for dinner (which symbolize longevity), stuffing ourselves with Chinese birthday cake, and of course, watching cartoons. For the first time, I felt like a true part of the family. By getting to know Wurong, laughing and making jokes, I was accepted into the family by the other members. Who knew four-year-old humor and make-believe games could go so far?
Photo credit last picture (IMG_6459.JPG) Mark Lumley