By now we have left the homestay village. In fact, I am writing this on a train to Dali, but I figured I’d get in one more homestay experience to the Yak while I still can.
I returned to my homestay house after a few afternoon activities for dinner one day and entered through the main front door of the house as of my host mom’s instruction. This door leads to the one central room of the house. It is simultaneously a bedroom for my host mom and her husband, a kitchen, a dining room, a living room, and a storage room containing many useful items such as cow feed, extraordinarily large bundles of rope, and a racing helmet. That day I found the room filled with eye stinging, vision blurring smoke. I knew immediately where this smoke was coming from; I had experienced it many times. In this central room, the dining table doubled as a stove. The tabletop opened up, revealing a large basin where fuel is burned to heat the table. The family had a ventilation system to deal with the smoke, but somehow it never seemed to work. Over time, I had become sort of used to this smoke; it no longer restricted my breathing as much. I was pretty much forced to deal with it, because, on several occasions I found the room I was sleeping in filled with this same smoke. Not outside this room or the room or hallway next to it, but just this room. Don’t ask me how that happened.
Immediately upon walking into the central room, I saw why the dining table stove combo was on: two large black formations on the table. To anyone else, these would have looked like coals or solid balls of char, but I knew them for what they really were, potatoes. My host family had served these to me before, and I liked them a lot. They put the potatoes inside the heat source of the stove with the fuel and the fire. My host mother told me to eat.
I like food a lot, but I do not have a very big stomach. These potatoes had never been served to me as an entire meal before, so I assumed that they were a pre-dinner snack. Naturally, I went for the smaller of the two potatoes. I picked it up, and my host mother made an eating motion with her hands, telling me to go ahead and bite in. This worried me for two very legitimate reasons. Every time in the past when I had eaten these potatoes one of my host mom’s grandchildren had shown me how to scrape off the char with a razor blade. Also, I knew for a fact that this table was very dirty. I had been scolded in the past for putting my chopsticks down on it. My host family clearly in the past did not want me eating char or eating off the table. Now, they were telling me to do both. I looked around for help from the kids, but no one was home but me and my host mom. I desperately and extravagantly charaded for her the action of scraping the potatoes down, but she only stoically stared back at me. Did she understand? Maybe, but she certainly didn’t show any sign that she did. She was a brick wall. I brought the potato slowly to my mouth, looking at her all the while, hoping that she’d interfere. She only continued her solemn stare.
I took a bite of the potato, and it tasted fine. Pretty much exactly as it had tasted in the past. I continued eating the potato, and thoroughly enjoyed it, especially the ambiguous blend of spices that she had me dip it in. I finished and she gestured at the other potato, presumably for me to eat. I now seriously doubted that this was a pre-dinner snack. Two potatoes would be way too much. Plus, I had learned in my time in the homestay that meals are simple, at least for my family. A bowl of rice with pork fat and chili oil was about how complicated it would get. I was not surprised in the least to find out that potatoes were my entire dinner, and I was not disappointed. I liked these potatoes a lot but had never had them for a meal. This second potato, though, was going to be a lot more difficult to get through. This one was big. I’m talking size of my head big. This one was a proper two hander. But despite that, I got to work. I made way through about a fifth of the potato when I met the center. It was dead raw. I took one bite, and it made an audible crunch. I looked over at my host mother to see if she had noticed, but she did not flinch. If she had noticed, she certainly didn’t care. I kept making my way through. Once I had two thirds done, my stomach was starting to hurt. I tried to show my host mother, but she just took a bite straight out of the raw center and handed it back. Clearly, raw potatoes here were much more accepted than back in the states. I was going to have to finish it. I kept making my way through this potato, and eventually, after probably 20 minutes of struggle, I finished it (with a lot of help from the spice blend). I stood up, feeling the weight that I had just put in me, and trudged over to the water basin to fill up my water bottle.
I started filling when I heard from behind me my host mother say 吃饭了, or, in English, eat. I didn’t respond or turn around, because surely this phrase wasn’t meant for me. I had just consumed an ungodly amount of potato. Then, panic, overtook me, as I realized we were the only ones in the house. I stopped pouring the water and my heart sank as I realized what sound the water pouring had been obscuring. The distinctive noise of meat popping and sizzling in the fryer. I whipped around and met my host mom with a flurry of the politest ways I knew how to decline in mandarin. She simply smiled and rejected all of desperate attempts. It was too late. I accepted defeat and sat back down at the table. I was met with a large bowl piled well past its intended capacity containing a large scoop of rice from the seeming perpetually full rice cooker and a sizeable portion of pork fat from the frying pan. I didn’t know how I was going to do it. I started at the meal. Each bite was a process to get down. Extremely deliberate chewing and swallowing was all I could hope to do.
Then, suddenly, I remembered something from the day’s meeting. It was time for the hard part. The day after, me and the rest of the students were departing on an overnight trek to camp in a basin, as you all might have already read about. This means not only would I be missing dinner the day after and breakfast the day after that, I would not be sleeping at my host home, but with my classmates. I explained all this to my host mom in sluggish, over-simplified mandarin, and she looked back at me. She responded simply and resoundingly: 不能。六点回来。Which, in English, means: no, come back at 6:00. I explained to her that, no, this wasn’t a personal thing, I was going with my classmates and teachers. I had to. This was seemingly not enough for her, so she responded with something along the lines of no, you can’t go. Of course, now that she was informed of the situation, I could give up the argument now, and then just go, but the wrath I would be met with when I returned would be unimaginable. I couldn’t give up now. We went back in forth in a similar vein for another few minutes, when her husband, my host father, walked in and sat down next to me. Again I explained the situation to my host mother, said I had to go, and listened to her shoot me down another time. This time though, afterwards, I looked at my host father desperately for help. He looked back at me and responded simply: 爬山, which is just the word to hike in Chinese. This didn’t help me, I had been explaining this exact same thing to my host mom the entire time. Confusingly, though, this seemed to be enough for her. She gave a reluctant grunt, told me I could go and sat down again. I continued to eat my food, and my host father left, and soon, so did my host mom. I was left alone with my food and my thoughts.
Wow, I thought, I just not only informed my host mom of a situation but convinced her to let me take part in it. And that was all in Chinese. That’s impressive, by my standards, and I’m not afraid to admit that I was proud. Though soon I realized that that wasn’t the most rewarding part of that dinner. No, it was the potatoes. I learned later, but I guessed then that the way I ate the potatoes was the way the whole family did. Char on. They also ate them right off the table. (They ate a lot of things right off that table.) There was not to be any hampering or pampering for me anymore. I was going to eat coal char straight off the filthy, fly ridden table like the rest of them. Somehow, I had been accepted. There weren’t a lot of words spoken that night. The ones that were, despite for a brief section of small talk at the end about my host mom’s cows, were simply for dealing with the difficult situations we had presented each other with. Plus, the only Mandarin I spoke was simple, blunt, and most likely riddled with errors, far from conversation level material. This was not uncommon in this house. Believe it or not, this dinner was not a bad representation of the type of experience I usually got at that house. So how was I accepted? I learned a lot of things at my homestay. Like how to jump from a ladder onto a ledge to leave your house, how to take a shower out of a water bottle, how to ignore the violent dog at my homestay so he wouldn’t bark at me anymore, but most importantly I learned that communication does not dictate connection. You don’t need small talk to be accepted. The power of communication is vast and overarching and lack of it has started some of the worst conflicts in world history, but it doesn’t go as far as to dictate connection or acceptance. It is not that powerful.
I did end up finishing the meal by the way.