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Published: March 4th 2010
These sheets of bamboo are inserted into the soles of Dai minority shoes to keep the bottoms stiff
The Dinner Crowd
I've been a busy traveler recently, and it's hard to decide where to start. After Chinese New Year I took a trip to Gengma to visit my Chinese friend and her family. Gengma is a Dai and Wa minority autonomous region very close to the Myanmar border. It's also very poor, where most households bring in about $300-$400 a year. I visited the Myanmar border (the police were excited to see a foreigner and let us onto the bridge) and was welcomed into several homes. Most of the people here have never seen or had the chance to interact with a foreigner, so there was a lot of excitement. I had the chance to learn about Wa minority hemp bag weaving, Dai minority papermaking, and Dai minority traditional shoemaking.
The shoemaking was without a doubt the most intricate and complicated craft I've investigated so far. The shoes are constructed using bamboo, cotton thread, handmade paper, and sheets of cotton cloth, and the amount of detail and work that goes into each one is overwhelming. We were invited to stay for a homecooked meal
Dai Minority Shoes
These shoes are all handmade by a family in Gengma. If you are interested in buying a pair please contact me. All proceeds go directly to the family. No middleman is collecting money.
at the family home, where most of the members get by on sugarcane farming.
Suffice it to say, it was the most unusual meal of my life if nothing else.
The house consisted of a series of open cement sheds arranged around a dirt courtyard. The dinner table sat in the courtyard, about seven feet away from the family pigsty and chicken coop. The smell and sound of the pigs serenaded me throughout the dinner, accompanied by swarms of flies on the food and table. The menu consisted of deep fried pig skin, homemade pork sausage, chicken with hair still on the skin, and green vegetables with an occasional dead bug (I was sick for three days after).
The dinner crowd was unusual, as well. One of the cousins is a hermaphrodite, while another is a deaf mute. The deaf mute woman is married to a midget, who also joined us for dinner. Unfortunately, it was not the kind of meal where I could politely decline to eat, and I dug in as the deaf mute woman continually filled my bowl with rice and chicken bones. As I chewed on my pork sausage and looked at the
Plantations as far as the eye can see. Near Myanmar, there are plenty of banana plantations, rubber trees, watermelon farms, and pineapple fields.
forlorn pig staring out from his pen at the dinner table, I felt a bit like I was in the Twilight Zone.
So why is it that the unsanitary conditions brought on by ignorance and poverty, as well as the unfortunate genetic and medical problems of this household, sound comic, and even humorous? I found myself trying to suppress laughter at the dinner table as the deaf mute woman next to me made wild gesticulations and I picked at the hair on my chicken.
We tend to laugh at what shocks us and seems too unbelievable to be true, and we also laugh at what makes us uncomfortable. The truth is, this household survives on virtually nothing and has been bypassed by the education system. Most of the family members don't even speak Mandarin, let alone English. Having only ever learned their local minority dialect, the whole family requires a translator to speak standard Chinese. They live without washing machines, modern toilets, wooden floors, sink disposals, and Internet access.
The fact that the intermarriage of relatives resulted in the birth of a hermaphrodite is also hard for us to accept, but genetic diseases from intermarriage are common
A Child in Yuanyang
A child wearing Hani minority head ornaments. Many mothers go to the best scenic areas to sell postcards, and bring their children to try to collect donations.
in rural minority families. There is simply not enough health education in these areas, and the result is tragic. I wonder: would the deaf mute woman be mute if she was born in the United States? With proper medical care and education could she have learned to speak, instead of just writing words on paper?
And lastly, it is a testament to some of the more old-fashioned values in China that the deaf mute woman is married to a midget. In Chinese culture, these two people are seen as an appropriate match for each other because they are both viewed as having crippling disabilities that define them as outsiders in their society. Within their family courtyard, everyone in the family is accepted and loved, but outside the safety of their walls, people with physical or medical disabilities face a harsh reception in China.
Is it okay to laugh? I think it's an understandable way to express shock and discomfort, as long as we understand the gritty, often unpleasant realities that form the punch line.
- I just returned to Kunming from a trip to Yuanyang, which is famous for incredible sunrises and sunsets over
terraced rice paddies.
- The Fulbright Conference is almost here! Next week I'll be in Hong Kong and Macao to discuss research progress and experiences with the other Chinese Fulbrighters.
- I've found a fantastic new artery-clogging Chinese snack: "ru bing," which is fried blocks of goat cheese with ham inside.
- Chinese traffic taken to new levels: On my way back from Yuanyang, a truck accident on the highway backed up traffic for miles. Unable to clear the road, the police started from the back of the traffic and turned around every car and truck on the highway. Having turned around the traffic, it moved slowly the wrong way down the highway, only to be stopped for another hour because each vehicle still had to pay the exit toll, despite the detour. Another hour later, we had barely made any progress off the highway, since the detour route was under road construction. I was not a happy camper and angrily scarfed down pumpkin seeds to eat away my feelings.
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