Posts tagged Xishuangbanna
Food is a great way to experience culture, but when you put yourself in the hands of others, you are often at the mercy of what they throw on top of your bowl of rice. On previous trips to China, I’ve eaten anything from cattle tendon to sea cucumber to pig brain, but this time I was hoping to spare my stomach and eat more selectively while still being culturally sensitive.
I have a lot of admiration for the use of food in my village, from their fresh produce and meat, to their natural no-waste policy. My first night in the village, my arrival was honored by killing a chicken for dinner. I was grateful for the gesture, but I venture to say that most people don’t see the chicken being carried away to be killed and then have it in your chopsticks just a short while later. There are no refrigerators, no grocery store packaging, just a chicken from the backyard that until being selected for dinner, had lived out its days frolicking around the village. There are no cramped cages, no inhumane slaughter, no chemicals, just chicken.
When the chicken was prepared, the whole chicken, and I mean the WHOLE chicken, was made into a soup. As the chicken’s comb crested the top of the broth like a shark fin, I silently hoped it would steer clear of my white rice. It’s also really easy to identify the chicken feet, a common snack that I’ve tried before, but again, once was enough for that cultural experience. At a later meal, they prepared a cow similarly. Everything from the meat, to the fat, to the tendons to the intestines were all prepared in various dishes. This is where my previous knowledge came in handy, as I knew early how to identify and avoid the intestines (they’re the ones in the small bowl in the middle with round circles).
I love meals in China because they are served family style. All dishes are prepared in the center of the table, and everyone sits around with their own bowl of rice and chopsticks and you eat bite by bite, selecting what you want from the middle and eating it with your rice. The mother of the table might honor you by picking things up with her chopsticks and putting them in your bowl, and that’s when you might end up with a chicken head (the piece reserved for the honored guest). That situation is how I once ended up eating Thousand Year Eggs, which are buried underground until the inside turns a translucent green. Again, once was enough with that dish.
It’s not that I’ve walked away from every food experience with a smile on my face, but there is value in trying something new for the cultural experience of it. It’s not that I would go out of my way to eat pig lung or cattle vertebrae cartilage again, but I’ve at least tried all these foods and was culturally respectful, while getting a chance to eat things most people won’t. Most of it is actually isn’t that bad– so long as you can get over thinking about what you’re eating or can let go of your own cultural biases.
I still came up with a few tips to keep your stomach intact if you lack a sense of culinary adventurousness. I generally follow these rules every meal of every day.
1) don’t eat when no one is watching: Your hosts want to feed you and will notice if your not actively eating, so make sure they see every time you take a bite so you get “credit” for it.
2) fill up on the dishes you like and comment on how good they are: chances are they’ll make those dishes again!
3) if you see a bowl of animal, try to spot a piece you could eat and pick it up when people are watching: this can avoid people thinking your not eating and putting a piece you don’t want on your rice
4) if you’re pretty sure you are going to have to eat something questionable, don’t ask what it is until after the meal (or maybe never): it’s always harder to eat something when you know what it is
5) if called out on not liking something, try “im not used to eating this type of dish” rather than saying it’s not delicious: people can be receptive to cultural differences, and this way you won’t offend anyone.
And if you’re still hungry, you can always go much on some fish skin
As my luck would have it, my six day visit coincided with one of the biggest holidays in Buddhism for the Dai people: The Door Closing Festival. The holiday marks the beginning of a 3-month period in which no one can get married or have other big events, and it also included some honoring of elders in the village.
I had never heard of the holiday before, but my host mom (Yina) and sister (Meimei) began preparing the offering that I learned we would later take to the temple. I woke at 6:30am on the morning of the holiday and accompanied my host sister to the temple with our offering. I was back at the house in an hour and immediately wrote what I had experienced that I’ll copy here:
“It’s 7:30am and I just got back from the temple for Guan men jie (door closing festival). Meimei woke me up an hour ago to go. I didn’t have express permission to use my camera, so I started to pay attention to details so I could recount it and also remember it. Sometimes I think it’s so crazy that I get to see these things, real examples of untainted culture.
When Meimei woke me up, we went to the temple, me carrying two glasses of hot water, and her carrying their offering table with a bowl of rice, a bowl of pork and pork fat, cucumbers, bananas, and some snacks from the store. We put the offering outside the temple then Yina brought me inside (all together there had to be more than 200 small tables with offerings). Yina gave me a ball of sticky rice in a banana leaf and she had me take off chunks of rice and stick them on other clumps of rice in little bowls around the temple– 3 in front of the Buddha, one on the side, and 5 outside. I also lit a prayer candle ouside and came back inside to light one in front of the Buddha.
I had been to the temple before but never for this holiday. There were tons of women and children sitting around talking with their offerings. I eventually, at Yina’s suggestion, went outside to sit with Meimei with some other women. It was hard to navigate through the people and offerings because it was so crowded. Men and women were divided outside, but all in a huge circle around the offerings. Some men went around lighting cigarettes and standing them up in the bunches of bananas, some others opened up the plastic wrapping on the snacks. We sat there for a while before a smaller circle of men within starting praying and people brought their hands together and chanted the prayers. We lit candles and put them in the sticky rice to stand them up, and raised up a little water to be poured on the floor around the offering tables. After some more prayer, I was told to start taking out the candles and then if almost on cue, people started getting up fast, putting out candles, and carrying their offerings into the side room of the temple. A monk perched himself on the side to take money offerings, and just like that, Meimei said it was time to go home. ”
I’m sure there’s more to the holiday then that, but that’s a bit of the time in the temple.
“The foreigner has come back!” I quickly learned this phrase in the Dai language the more people spotted me in the village, and as more children were crying in the vicinity of our house.
Despite the good number of people who were happy to have me back, the smallest kids are the ones who would rather see me go. Being a head and shoulders taller than most people in the village (really, we’ve yet to find a single person taller than me), and that I have the dreaded curly hair and unfamiliar eyes…I’m a monster to most. Some kids take the avoiding route, and simply take a wide angle turn around our house. Others are often brought into what they see as a “danger zone” against their will (aka carried on someone’s back), that is usually followed by waterworks, screaming, and the child being carried away. Some kids are just weary, and are fine so long as I don’t get too close:
Other kids just point, laugh, scream and get away as fast as possible either by foot or by bike.
Over time, I’m usually able to win over some kids, most likely with some sort of trick, toy or game. I used the camera on my iPhone as a way to intrigue some kids curiosity, and it was often successful, like with these kids below:
After the ice was broken, they were all about the camera and were very comfortable around me.
The funny thing is that none of them wanted anything to do with me until I pulled out my camera. After that, it was like we were best friends.
The kids who have absolutely no fear of me from the first meeting is rare, but it happens. Then sometimes I can win over the confidence of other kids, but in the end, there’s not much I can do to avoid their reaction, for most of the young ones, I’m the first non-Chinese person they’ve ever seen! Who knows, maybe they’ll laugh with me about it someday when they’re older.
Here’s a tour of our house in two videos:
Traditional houses look like this:
In a village of about 100 homes, I counted only 2 that weren’t renovated to be more modern. In the few years since my last visit, I couldn’t believe the drastic change.
Apart from these glimpses of modernity, I sometimes find myself going through my day to day in the village and thinking for a moment about the contrasts to my daily life in the US. In the groove of normal life, it’s easy to forget that there are people all over the world with their own habits, norms, and customs that proceed from day to day like everyone else.
From my own rural upbringing, there is a certain peace and familiarity that I get in the village. From the chickens running around to the darkness of the night and the quiet of the morning, I can feel the pace slow down. When I first came here in 2006, I had a hard time adjusting, having been well accustomed to the efficiency and pace of university life. It was through spending time in the village in my three trips that I remember what it means to relax and not go 100 miles a minute.
Now this doesn’t mean that these people don’t work hard. I arrived in a big growing and harvesting time, with people out in fields and up on mountains, working hard for their living. However, what they don’t have is other distractions. A lot of time is spent with family, people take naps in the afternoon, and people work together to get things done. I spent time bagging harvested rice both for our family, and raking rice out to dry for a neighbor. Everyone helps each other.
Where else can you sit and have the heard of water cows pass you by like local traffic?
Donning bright orange robes, every young Dai man must spend at least 2 years as a Buddhist monk. I’m particularly a fan of when they drive around on motorcycles, and interesting confluence of religious culture and modern convenience:
Babies and young children are carried around with a piece of fabric over one shoulder either on the back or in the front. Here’s my little sister with one of the neighbor’s babies:
Out the back of the village there’s a path to the numerous rice paddies and to the tea mountains where the land is divided among the families. Since it’s the rainy season now, everything was strikingly green, lush and beautiful:
Overall, it’s a great little place to have as a sort of home away from home.