In China, a reason to give thanks
After being kicked out of a harvest celebration, Western tourists get a sweeter, more intimate view of village life in China.
A guide unceremoniously kicked us out of a village's thanksgiving harvest ceremony. But it turned out that he had done us a big favor.
Three of us, a Dutch couple and myself, had met at the China Tourist Service and decided to share a car and guide for a tour of Miao villages around the urban center of Kaili. Before the village debacle, we had already had a photogenic day driving through rolling hills where every inch of mountain and valley was a sculptured rice terrace, many of them irrigated with river water raised by slowly revolving wooden water wheels.
In one village, we had watched the master and his wife and son fashion the vertical reed instruments from bamboo. Various lengths of bamboo – from six inches to five feet – were tied into bundles to make the , which fill the valleys with lush, haunting melodies during courtship festivals.
I was curious about the half gourd that was stuck on the ceiling just inside the door. I asked, and our guide interpreted for the master: "I know when spring comes. It's when the swallows return to the gourd in my house."
We also visited a stone village lost in time. Uphill from the river, we followed a narrow cobblestone path under a gate and between two-story wooden houses until we reached the village square. Crowded around the square were members of a large Chinese tour group intermingled with villagers in embroidered jackets and shimmery, tinkling headdresses resembling huge silver horns.
In the middle of the square was a tall post with daggers on either side. The village elders, dressed in black, playing a somber tune on their lushengs, slowly circumambulated the pole. As the music grew in intensity, the villagers began to fall in line until the square was filled with circling people. This dance was a thanksgiving from all the people for a bountiful harvest. Before long, all of us had become a part of the circle.
Still glowing from that experience, we wandered into a village where a small group of Europeans was seated on a bench receiving their ritual welcome drink.
We three started taking pictures – until their guide flew over to our guide. Our guide claimed: "These are three independent travelers who would be happy to make a donation."
Their guide shrilly insisted: "I have made all the arrangements, and if they want to see a performance they can wait until this one is over and pay 500 yuan [$67] for their own performance."
Our guide, who during the week was a high-school English teacher, was hurt and upset, but we assured her we had already seen the same ceremony and one was enough.
As we walked downhill to the car, a villager, on seeing Peter, the 6-foot-3, blond, blue-eyed Dutchman, stopped in his tracks and doubled over with laughter. He then stood beside Peter – his head came barely above Peter's waist – and had another hearty laugh. "But why did you leave the ceremony?" he asked.
When our guide explained, the villager, without hesitation, turned and beckoned us to follow him.
After winding through narrow dirt lanes between raised wooden houses festooned with garlands of golden millet, we finally arrived at a crude little house. We stepped through the low door and right into a cow's flicking tail. The cow lived downstairs but we were directed up a few wobbly wooden steps to a simple room furnished with four stools. Bundles of hanging red peppers were its only decoration. Peter barely cleared the ceiling while ducking the rafters – a feat for more merriment.
Through a doorway, I could see a bed draped with a mosquito net. Then a dreamy scene unfolded. From the bedroom came a beautiful young woman dressed as if she were waiting for the emperor. In her perfectly upswept hair flowers were wound into a braid. She wore black pants, a lime-green blouse, and on her back, a colorfully embroidered velvet baby carrier.
She shyly told our guide, "I am the wife of the second son. I am 22 years old." We were curious about the little piece of embroidery she was working on. "I am starting the dowry of my baby girl, who is 2 months old."
The father-in-law beamed. When he heard that I was an American, as a sign of respect, he clasped his hands forming a ball and raised and lowered them in my direction as he said, "I never thought I would have an American guest in my home." I gave him a postcard of the Golden Gate Bridge, and he whispered reverently, "I will guard it carefully and show it to my grandchildren."
Then he added, "I wish you could stay long enough to take a meal with us. There is a rich man in the village, but I am the poorest man in the village. I am honored to have you here."
Looking at one of the happiest men we had ever seen, we lamely murmured our thanks mixed with platitudes about a warm heart.
I felt inept. The feelings of the poorest man in the village shone in his eyes, but even if we shared a language, how could I explain that his spontaneous invitation to three strangers was the best Thanksgiving that I could imagine?