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Humor and Kind Hosts: The first two days in the Miao village

I’m writing this on the afternoon of our second full day here at the Miao village, between a tutorial on hand washing clothes and the much needed chance to do it myself (all the host families ended up having washing machines.) Although it is only the second day here, all of us have packed so much emotion and experience that a post dedicated to anecdotes seems justified. Some of these are funny (at least to me) and some attempt and inevitably fail to show the kindness and generosity of our host families and the village as a whole.

I woke up at 5:30 this morning to the sound of the panicked screaming of a chicken. This of course caused a rooster to croon protectively, which in turn set off the already familiar (I can hear it right now) chain reaction of machismo noisiness. The sun was still a half an hour away from rising, but in the predawn light I could see the three massive summits of a distant mountain from a small balcony crammed with dried corn. The smell of freshly chopped greens (pig feed) roasting in a massive wok rose up to greet me. There are far worse ways to wake up. I came down to try and help with breakfast (I am met with smiles and exclamations of “bu yong” and “qing zuo” – no need, please sit), but quickly realized I had forgotten my chopsticks upstairs. I went back up to retrieve them, but as I was coming out of the upstairs door (to get downstairs you walk down a small bluff) Matthew’s host mother emerges from the house just across the one lane road. She asks “ni chi zao fan le ma?” (have you eaten breakfast?) to which I reply, foolishly thinking nothing of it, that I haven’t yet. She marches across the street and firmly pulling my wrist insists I eat with Matthew and her family. I struggle for at least 30 seconds, losing ground while protesting that my host parents have already prepared breakfast before she lets up. This was by far the most aggressive generosity anyone has shown me, and not only was she not hosting me, I hadn’t met her until just last night.

The first morning we all shared a story from the night before, but the funniest by far came from Josh. He explained to everyone how his host dad had showed him how he was supposed to leave the house. His house, like many others, has a wooden ladder laid against one of the walls. The difference here is that to get up to the second floor and out of the house, Josh’s host father climbed about halfway up the ladder and leaped across the room to a ledge on the opposite side. He then casually beckoned Josh, wearing a heavy backpack, to do the same. Josh jumped and made it, and to my knowledge he has made that jump for the past two days, but he adamantly believes he won’t leave the village without a broken leg or two. What struck me the most about Josh’s story wasn’t the hilarity of the daily exit, it was his host father’s nonchalance; the feeling that Josh was already part of his family and so naturally he’d do the ledge jump.

The village was built on a mountain at around 6600 feet, and although some of the village was built on a slight plateau, most of the houses are on a steep incline. This means that one of the main roads of the village is quite steep, and is the only way to get up to the main square/basketball court. The hike down feels cruelly short when walking back up, but the road comes with plenty motivation. Most people in the village have dogs that bark at strangers, but the house at the bottom of the hill has a dog with a terrifying defining feature: a collar of rusty nails. The first morning, we all met in the square, and this dog chased any groggy walkers up the hill, giving a complimentary jolt of adrenaline. Although I didn’t personally get such a considerate mid-morning gift, I got to see a chicken’s life flash before its eyes. We were having mandarin evaluations in the house at the bottom of the hill, and as we’re walking down, I saw a chicken sprinting along the road running perpendicularly at the bottom. The chicken happened not to see the dog with the rusty nail collar until the last moment, when it nearly ran into the dog’s chest. The chicken squawked loudly as if it might be its last, and jumped in place to stop, like something out of a cartoon. It then bolted past the dog, who lazily tracked the chicken’s movement and I swear I saw a touch of smugness.

I’m picking up writing this again after a tasty dinner and a (relatively) lively conversation. This sounds pleasant yet normal, but to me it felt like a major accomplishment. To put it into perspective: my first night and first morning were filled overwhelmingly with silence. When my host father first picked me up late Wednesday night, I tried to start introducing myself on the way back to his house. I got nothing. I tried again when we were on the bottom floor of his house, sitting on the couch (still silently) with him and his wife. I got nothing. I gestured that I was tired and he got up and led me up a wood ladder on the side of the house (no ledge jump thankfully), flashlight in hand. Still no words. My cheeks started to redden, and I felt painfully awkward. He showed me to the room I was sleeping in, with a twin sized bed and a bare lightbulb hanging from the slanted, high concrete ceiling, swaying slightly with the force of my host father opening the sticky door. Two flakes of paint wrested themselves from the wall, cascading down onto the bed in silence so as not to disturb the peace. My host father went to the window, which was slightly cracked, and grabbed a piece of dried corn from the balcony. He jammed it between the window and the wall, and said “Kong qi” – fresh air. Unfortunately for both of us, I didn’t know what Kong qi was until the following morning, and this two word phrase launched us into a frantic hand gesture discussion mixed with my exhausted attempts at mandarin. I didn’t understand why the window should be open at night, I was worried the bugs would come in. We both became more and more frustrated until I managed to leave the window open long enough for him to leave and let me go to sleep. I went right away to close the window, but after fifteen sleepless minutes I realized the room was becoming far too stuffy. Still wary of bugs, I settled on halving the distance my host father wanted the window open. I told him last night that I learned what Kong qi meant, and apologized for the confusion. He told me simply: No problem! Each meal I’ve tried to break my host parents steely resolve to never let me help out, and each meal I’ve made small strides. Lunch the first day I helped carry the table over to the couch, and at dinner I cleared some of the plates. Breakfast this morning I made the noodles, and at lunch and dinner I cleaned my bowl. Each meal I also try to bridge the language barrier between me and my host family. The village’s first language is the Miao dialect, but most of the people that live here, including my host father, speak an accented mandarin as well. This form of mandarin can sometimes be difficult to understand and so most of what I’m able to pick up comes from context and most of what I’m able to communicate is followed by a flurry of hand gestures. The first morning was spent in silence, but at lunch today we discussed what my host father feeds the chickens (of which there are four). The answer was ground up yu mi (corn), explaining the pile of corn in the adjacent room and the dried corn on the small balcony. He also explained that this year was a particularly dry year, and in a feat of communication and understanding, he told me that this year’s corn plants are so small that in August, they will be as tall as the corn plants were at this time last year. This is only to say that even though I felt like crying from frustration and fear that two weeks would be spent in awkward silence, only a day and half later we’re starting to make a connection.

Some time in the afternoon of the first day, I am washing my hands with my waterbottle on the side of the road when Carter approaches me. He lives nearby, just at the end of the road about fifty feet away from my room. He asked me if I could come ask his host mother something for him in mandarin, because he wasn’t able to get the message across. He wanted me to explain that he wanted to help her cook meals, and when I did my best to translate I got a confused stare, then an exclamation that it was not zuo fan (cook food) as I had thought, but zou fa, and that yes, Carter could help her cook (ke yi zou fa). I was then invited to come and eat, but instead I asked if Carter could show me around. The kitchen and the dining room/living room were in one place, but the next house down was where Carter was sleeping. He told me that this was his host parents’ bedroom, and that he had tried to explain on the first night that he didn’t need the bed, just the couch – he had felt badly about taking their king-sized bed.

It’s now Saturday morning, but I wanted to add one more short story. Last night around 10:45, a huge bug flew in my window. It wasn’t a moth, it didn’t have such big wings, but it was attracted to light. It flew against the ceiling, and I could hear a low buzz where it’s wings clipped the concrete. Every few feet it would hit a cobweb, but before a spider could come claim its prize, the bug would free itself and fall the 10 or 11 feet to the floor. Still attracted to my ceiling’s bare bulb, it would shoot up from the floor, unphased. Even though it kept me up long after I turned out the light, I hope I can be more like that bug for the next two weeks, persistent and resilient.

Sam Davidson