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A Letter from China

April, 2006
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Dear Berta,

Back from Yunnan, and I don’t know where to begin. How could I possibly explain to you a place that is nothing like anywhere I have ever been before?

  I’ll start with the people, especially the teenagers. Their personalities match the weather there. They are open, and fun and quick to call you a good friend. Who could ask for better, as a waiguoren (foreigner), than to have so many new friends in such a short time?

  One girl took me around on the back of her bike all afternoon two days in a row. Twice I was invited to complete strangers’ houses for meals, twice in three days! It must have been quite a novelty to have a foreigner take classes with them. Once a group of kids took me and some other classmates to a photo booth and took more than 60 pictures with us, I thought I might suffocate in that tiny booth – seriously. There were nine of us and couldn’t all fit in the booth all at once so the Chinese kids coordinated it and made sure that there was a picture of every possible combination of us and them.

   The only thing that never varied was the separation between the girls and boys. They never put my American male classmates and me together unless it was a full group picture. By the end, I felt a little like a prop. I was expected to pose with people I had never met, “Mirielle, it’s your turn. Where is Mary? Xiao Ran and Xiao Hai are already in there.” Despite the frustration of standing awkwardly next to a stranger in a stuffy photo booth, I suppose I should be more forgiving and simply take it as a compliment.

  In another village, a group of 17 boys came to my host house to hang out with some classmates and I. They came in small groups, and although they were teenagers and in their early twenties, with their hair gelled and an overall self-confident gait, some of them giggled and even pushed their friends in front of them as they came up the steps to the house. After a few jokes and some pictures, we were talking comfortably and they told us all about the tattoos many of them have on their arms and about drugs and school and girls. The teachers had come by twice to tell the boys they needed to leave so we could go to sleep before they finally pulled themselves out of the house, unwilling to give up their only chance to talk with us.

   In the evening in Lijiang we got together with some friends I had made at the local school in the morning. We went up to a pagoda that is on a hill overlooking Lijiang. There the local kids gave us incense and taught us to kowtow as a way of prayer and to show respect before we went inside. From the top windows, you could see all the city lights shining red. When we came back down, we sat in a giant circle in the garden. We made coke floats and drank them directly from the ice cream cartons and sang Naxi songs and stuff from the Beatles Abbey Road album.

  I couldn’t keep myself from buying one of the long, bright, traditional Dai skirts. A few of my classmates had already come back to the hotel with some, and there were so many beautiful colors. I had my heart set on dark blue with trim only at the bottom, and tiny golden elephants walking through the middle of a simple motif. I had it custom-made for 20 yuan. The man who made it originally told me it would take two days, but when I told him I was leaving for Beijing that morning, he smiled and ran off with the fabric I had just bought at a little store right near the outside stall where the tailor made it. I wanted him to make me a top, too, but there wasn’t enough time, so I’m going to have to look for something to go with it in Beijing.

  The Dai young people put on a traditional dance show on the town threshing ground one evening. All afternoon as the little boys played soccer barefoot with us, the adults set up a makeshift stage with a curtain backdrop and lights strung across. The girls, in their twenties, performed dances each with different brightly-colored costumes from many of the local ethnic minorities. For the peacock dance, they invited Tom and Julius to go up and imitate them. It was so funny, even the old ladies were cracking up and looked like they were going to fall off the little stools they had brought with them to sit on. As an interlude, they made us foreigners have a relay race with chopsticks and a hard-boiled egg, and Morgan and I would have won except she was wearing one of those beautiful Dai skirts that all the women wear and it went all the way down to her ankles so she had to shuffle. After the boys won the relay race, four men came out with huge bamboo poles and squatted in two rows facing each other, holding the poles between them, one in each hand. They started to make a beat by hitting the poles on the ground and against each other. A few of the town’s people got up out of the audience and taught us how to jump in between the poles. We took turns in pairs running up to the poles and trying to get the rhythm right so that our foot wouldn’t get slammed. It reminded me a little of the skipping rope game called Double Dutch. They ended the show with two huge balloons made of paper that they filled with hot air and sent up into the night, it was so peaceful to watch them float away like that.

kevins_pix4_119   The older people were shyer, especially in the small villages; they watched us from their porches mostly silently. The Dai people’s houses are built on stilts. You leave your flip flops at the foot of the uneven steps and at the top is a big room. Often the walls were lined in pop culture posters. Small bedrooms behind closed doors and a big porch branched off from the main living space. Inside was a fire pit where all the food was made, and on the porch was a cement trough where water was collected.

  Sitting on this porch with the women, communication was a bit of a problem, but a silent smile could go a long way. My host mother taught me to fold rice cakes into palm leaves without ever saying a word. From the porch of our host house in another village, we watched three little girls running towards the house. They had picked bouquets of wild flowers but couldn’t gather up enough courage to hand them to us and instead threw them at us from across the porch and quickly ran away giggling, only to come back a few minutes later with a fresh bouquet still skittish and giggling. They came back four times, each time coming a little closer to us, first to a half Asian classmate and then finally to the rest of us. 

  One afternoon, we went down to a lake near the village. There was a middle-aged lady doing her laundry and a group of young boys stripped down to their underwear swimming and using thick bamboo stalks as floaty toys. On the edge of the water stood a group of preteen girls in zippy sweatshirts and jeans.

  As two of my friends and I pushed each other into the water still fully clothed, we wondered why they weren’t swimming. It was only after we came out of the water shivering and started talking to them that we realized that they wanted to swim but none of them knew how. It was late afternoon and the sun wasn’t as warm as it had been, but two of the girls took their things out of their pockets and tentatively stepped into the water with us.

  The girls were nervous but determined. Although they were shivering, neither got out of the water until they had successfully doggy paddled the distance between two of us and arrived safely in our arms without drinking any of the lake water. When we finished, we built a miniature bonfire and crouched around it. While the boys skewered tiny fish from the lake and roasted them until they tasted like coal, we dried our jeans, jumping back whenever the wind blew heat waves too close.

   On one night I saw more stars than I have ever seen before. After the smog of Beijing, I had almost forgotten how dazzlingly blue the sky could be. Maybe they just seemed so bright because my new-found Xi Shuang Ban Na friend and I were scheming about how I might be able to stay in southern China forever, and the prospect made everything seem more beautiful.

  I hope all is well in the West; it seems like such a faraway place…

Love,

梅瑞

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