Evenings bring lots of excitement to my homestay house in Bangdong in the form of six ayis (aunties) who come filing in one after the other around 7 PM. Their entrance fills the silence with a chorus of ayi hao’s (hello auntie) from me and ni hao’s (hello) in return. On their backs, they bring baskets and sacks filled with tea leaves. Shushu (uncle/homestay dad) empties their baskets onto the floor of the tea roasting room, the first step in the evening’s tea process. Ten long hours in the day to pick the tea, two to three hours at night to process it. Today, September 21st, the tea haul looks particularly large, so the evening process will probably be on the longer side. But first, dinner!
Dinner begins as it usually does, with me trying to politely take the rice ladle from one of the ayis so that I can scoop rice for everyone, prompting the other ayis to laugh at me. During dinner, also as usual, Cheng He Ju ayi tries asking me some questions. She is one of the ayis that works for my homestay parents. She can read and write in pinyin and is very patient with me and makes a lot of effort to creatively communicate with my very limited Chinese. We have developed a system in which if I still ting bu dong (don’t understand) her question even after a series of “zai shuo yi bian” (can you say it one more time), I will bring my journal over for her to write it down so that I can then relay it to the instructors. Ayi can expect an answer the next day. I learned a lot from Cheng He Ju ayi in the first couple of days — how to say tea leaves (cha ye), the name of the tea roasting machine (sha qing ji), the fact that five out of the six ayis that return from the tea fields are workers employed by shushu (the sixth is my ayi, my homestay mom).
After dinner, the tea process begins!
Step 1 is the sha qing ji: To the best of my knowledge, the sha qing ji is a very hot cylindrical tea roaster that spins and rotates the tea at high temperatures. It is pictured behind the ayis.
Shushu revs up the sha qing ji. While it heats up, he heaps tea leaves from the floor into baskets and stacks them near the mouth of the machine. Shushu starts feeding one end of the sha qing ji tea leaves from the baskets. After tumbling for a little bit, the leaves come out the other end, at which point my ayi and I pile most of the leaves into empty baskets. She throws some of the leaves back in for a second round of roasting, though, which makes me hesitant to keep piling lest I neglect throwing leaves in for a second round. After observing her for a minute or two, I ask “tai da le, dui bu dui?” (too big, right?) when I think I’ve noticed her generally throwing bigger leaves back in. Ayi nods her head in affirmation. Score! I learned something! But alas, it is only one thing. I definitely am nowhere near understanding all the nuances of even this one step in the process. My ayi and shushu are very generous in letting me be involved in this process so critical to their livelihood, but I still do feel like each time I put leaves into a basket with my untrained eye, I could be missing something, whether it be leaves that need to be discarded or leaves that need more roasting. I hope I’m not doing more harm than help.
Step 2 is the rou cha ji: From what I can understand, the rou cha ji is a machine that spins the tea around in circular motions parallel to the ground. The tea is sealed into a cylindrical container, and after a few minutes of spinning, the tea comes out the other end looking more shriveled. Two rou cha ji’s are pictured on the left in one of the pictures.
While a couple of ayis now have control of the sha qing ji, feeding it and piling the leaves into baskets on the other end, Shushu transports the full baskets to a nearby room with a rou cha ji, spreads the leaves out on the floor, then returns the empty basket to the sha qing ji to be filled again. The leaves scattered on the floor will soon be put into the rou cha ji. I see a potential job opening that seems very hard to mess up, and I take on the duty of transporting baskets between rooms. The first few times I bring a full basket to Shushu in the rou cha ji room, after he empties them onto the ground, he gestures for me to return the empty basket to the sha qing ji area. But, once he sees that I’ve got it, he stops gesturing.
At this point, almost halfway through this homestay, I’m starting to find my rhythm in some things. Whether it’s knowing when to empty and refill the water bucket in my post as dish rinser, being able to tell when my two-year-old mei mei (younger sister) is done playing with her toys so that I can put them back, or in this case, knowing when and where to take the basket of tea leaves, it feels good to be on top of things, to not need as much prompting. To feel like I’m not taking up as much of their time and energy.
Step 3 is the gai kuai ji: I don’t know what gai is, but kuai ji means fast machine, which seems like an apt description.The gai kuai ji is a treadmill-like machine (pictured next to the rou cha ji) that the withered tea leaves kind of bounce down on. By this point in the evening, the worker ayis have left, and it’s shushu, my ayi, my ayi’s sister, and I doing things.
Once the leaves get to the bottom of the gai kuai ji, they land on a tarp placed there by ayi. Once again, we place handfuls at a time into baskets. When all the leaves have gone down the treadmill, shushu and ayi carry the baskets to another room, a kind of upstairs greenhouse. I try and help shuttle some baskets, passing them to shushu to bring up the stairs.
Step 4 is in the upstairs greenhouse lair: Ayi empties the baskets. Whacking the withered leaves against a broom handle is the only way I can describe what ayi proceeds to do. My best guess is the purpose is to air them out but that could be wrong. Shushu takes the whacked tea leaves and spreads them out on the ground on the other side of the greenhouse so that they can dry in the sun over the next couple of days.
This is when the fun really begins! No loud machines, no running back and forth. We can finally start conversing. I find out some fun facts: ayi and shushu’s eldest daughter, Zhang Zhang, (I think that is the spelling) is 16 years old and is a student; her favorite subject is English; she comes home once every three months; shushu has two jiejie’s (older sisters) who both live in Lincang.
With each new nugget of information, I get some satisfaction. It’s like a game: one fact = 1 point (either them responding to my question or me responding to theirs). Asking a follow-up question = 2 points. Learning which leaves to throw back into the machine earlier, that counted for a point. I think I like collecting facts so much because even though I’m not actually keeping track of points, it feels like a quantifiable, incremental measure of my language progress over the last three weeks. In order to get a point, communication needs to occur, and we need to understand each other. Communication can be quantitized — one fact is one bit of communication. One bit of communication increments my happiness by one bit, happiness at having successfully communicated, at becoming closer with my host family.
While I’ve been here, I’ve also been religiously writing down each fact I learn about someone’s life — where their sister zhu zai (lives), where and when they got jie hun (married), what their husband zuo (does for work). People always laugh when I say “deng yi sha” (wait a moment) and whip out my journal mid-conversation to jot down my new knowledge, but I like having the written facts, perhaps because as evidence of the communication that allowed them to be obtained, they cement the (however minimal) progress in our relationship from the conversation that took place.
While talking with my ayis and shushu in the upstairs greenhouse, I properly learn all of their names, and they learn mine (+4 points). My ayi’s name is Dao Hou, her sister’s is Dao Ying, and shushu’s is A Ming. We laugh a bit as I flub my way through each pronunciation. Dao Ying ayi nails pronouncing my name (I wish I could say the same for hers). By this point, I can (and do, later that night) construct a family tree. It feels good to know things about my host family’s life.
I ask my ayis if they like singing. They say they do, but they “bu hui” (can’t) and refuse to sing a bit for me (+1 point). (For the record, the next morning, I catch my ayi singing a short tune, and she definitely can sing. I make sure to let her know that.) I share that I also like to sing. They ask me to sing a bit for them, so I sing a little bit of a Chinese lullaby that we sang in choir at school at some point. After all my years singing many songs in many different languages in choir and maybe not understanding the significance, in this moment, I truly am grateful to be able to sing a song in someone else’s language. Ayi smiles.
Step 4 part 2 is a higher up greenhouse lair: There is a lot of tea today, too much for just the one greenhouse, so we take the rest of the tea up even more stairs to another greenhouse. Same process: ayi whacks the tea on the broomstick, and shushu spreads it out on the ground. He also shovels some dried up tea that had been there a few days into bags.
I grab a broom and try to whack the tea leaves, but quickly recognize (with the help of my ayis’ laughter at my attempts) that I don’t really know what I’m doing, so I take a step back and decide to devote the rest of my time up here to just talking. Practicing my number and time words, I ask how much tea they pick and process mei tian (each day), how much they sell mei ge yue (each month), how much they sell it for (+3 points). Some of the math doesn’t really check out, and we all laugh as I try to math my way out of my confusion, but the math really doesn’t check out. I’m sure I misunderstood something along the way and just accept the answers I got.
Shushu sprinkles the last batch of tea leaves on the ground, and we go downstairs, done with work for the night. It is 10:45 PM. Shushu and the ayis have been working for 15 hours. I was only working for the 2.5 hour tail end of it. They get up the next day and do it all over again.
Once downstairs, my ayi’s sister shows me pictures and videos of her daughter, whom I had asked about upstairs. This is the first time she has shared anything personal with me, and she does it with a proud smile. I smile. This is it, this is the reward for scoring so many points today.
This was my favorite evening so far in Bangdong. Lots of talking, lots of facts. Lots of smiles, lots of laughs. One of the dustbins here has the words “Learn every day” on it. Today, at least, I did.