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Photo by Kate Gross-Whitaker

El campo de té

The alarm clock complained that it was 6:48 am when I heard a multitude of excited voices directly outside my window. It was only our second day in the mountain village of Bangdong, and despite how tired I was from our month-long trek across rural areas of Yunnan Province, our instructor’s advice was to take advantage of every opportunity to bond with our new homestay families. The recommendation made sense; we didn’t travel thousands of miles away from our homes to southwestern China in order to sleep in. This was in my mind when I found the motivation to jump out of bed to see what the commotion outside my window was all about.

My numerous new aunties crowded around a table that was covered with dishes of warm food and hot soups. By their feet rested large woven baskets with thick floral pattern straps. When I approached they went silent, and closely observed me as I served myself a bowl of rice and vegetables. My homestay mom rushed from the kitchen and asked if I would join her own mother in the tea fields for the day. I immediately accepted the invitation, and hustled back to my room to change into pants and a long sleeve shirt.

As I changed my clothes, I began to worry that my linguistic skills were far too basic to be of any real help. I was sure I would actually be a hindrance to their work. How do I ask which tea leaves to pick? How will I know which tree is okay to pick from? What if I damage a tree? Even if it was only for half a day, these questions made me second guess my decision to join the women who would work in the tea fields. I stepped outside, debating whether to tell my mom that I would rather not go, but by then my aunties were already leaving the courtyard, and suddenly a large rice sack with an itchy strap was quickly thrown over my head and we were on our way.

In an effort to calm my doubts, I rushed to my grandmother’s side and shyly said “Wo pe ni”, that is “I am accompanying you”, to which she responded with a nod and a smile. The way down the slope to the tea tree fields was a scenic 20-minute walk that I spent awkwardly fixated on my feet, while I tried to predict the consequences of every step that I would make. The steep trail was narrow and made entirely of stone. My hiking shoes, the stone pavers, and a layer of moisture from yesterday’s rain made for a perfect slip and slide. I kept sliding backwards, and fell to the ground multiple times while my grandmother enjoyed the show.

When we arrived at my family’s tea tree field my aunties were already busy at work. They stood in lines, each working on their own tree for 10 minutes or so before moving down to the next tree. Some pulled themselves up into the branches to pick the leaves that were beyond their reach. Despite the ground being uneven and very slippery, they all labored with speed and ease. I stood still for a moment, watching my grandmother’s movements, and studying which leaves she decided to pluck. By observing her work, I determined that the correct leaves were the light green ones, that glistened in the sun and felt moist to the touch. I began to drop leaves into my rice sack. I mimicked my grandmother for several hours, only working the tree next to the one that she was working.

Of the two weeks that I spent in Bangdong Village, this was the moment I felt was most familiar to me. The team of women in the fields reminded me of my family in California. The years of life observable in my Chinese grandmother’s hands looked very much like my Mexican abuela’s hands, and the color of her skin was very similar to my abuelo’s skin. The darkness of her hair, the color of her eyes, and the strength in her arms as she broke off bunches of leaves, all just like my farmworker family back in California. As my Chinese aunties and grandmother spoke, joked, and laughed around me, I swore that I heard a few of their exchanges in Spanish. When one of my aunties called out my name to check my progress, I accidentally responded in Spanish with a traditional “mande?” I was so far from home, but it all still felt a bit familiar.

At lunchtime my grandmother sat down beside me and we silently ate delicious food that had been prepared by my mother. In my head I was figuring the best way to communicate to her that my grandparents in the United States were also farmworkers. I thought through how my words would have come out as “Uh… wode yie yie he nai nai… zhege” (while I would point out our surroundings) “…Meiguo!” I also figured I had less than a 40% chance of being understood. I decided to skip this otherwise meaningful exchange. It was far too advanced for my less than basic communication skills, and I had no way to express the key difference that my family did not own the farm where they worked, nor did they get to go home with what they had picked.

This differentiation was important for me to clarify if I was to share this aspect of my life with my new family. Before Bangdong, I had not fully understood the unique relationship that farmworkers have to the land, and being a witness to it in Bangdong gave me a sense of understanding. My homestay aunties worked hard in the fields, and on sunny days they could work for up to 10 hours. They did not have to worry about pesticides while they worked. When they returned home, they were not concerned about there not being enough food for the family. When the rains were too heavy to be in the fields, it was okay to call it a day, and pick up the work again the following day. My aunties had a special relationship to the tea, as the product of their labor. Those aspects of agricultural labor do not apply to my farmworker family in California.

I take pride in my personal family history of work and daily struggle, and my background helped me understand my new Chinese family in a special way that was not hindered by my limited language skills. This was the conversation I had with myself that day, as I silently ate my rice and vegetables next to my grandmother. This is what I learned about myself while I carefully listened to the multiple conversations taking place around me that I could not understand. Nonetheless, there was still a special familiarity to it all.

I smiled widely when my aunties offered me more food. I wanted them to know that I was comfortable and happy to be on the mountain with them.