Sunday, March 18, 2012

From Dusty Air to Fertile Soil

            Moving from the incessant dust and noise in India to China feels like the discovery of a long lost oasis.  I can hear my thoughts, see green again, and remain surprised once again at the beep of a car. 
            The end of India came quickly with the closing of media projects, saying goodbye to our project leaders exchanging email addresses and taking pictures to moving out of our homestay off to Agra.  Standing in line early in the morning to see sunrise at the Taj Mahal, what a sight.  The dull bright morning light glancing off the curvature of the building made it look two dimensional, like a backdrop from an old movie.  And it only got brighter as the sun rose in the sky, becoming almost transparent white.  I only wish I could have been there alone without the other tourists; I feel that I could never really have spent enough time to do the site justice.  Tourists sat sketching, I snapped pictures, but I’ll always wish I had more time to enjoy its aura. 
            Time moved quickly form Agra to visiting some famous tombs and sneaking pictures to New Delhi, the ultimate backpacker location.  Quirky shops lined the main street and I saw many other tourists and backpackers, maybe the most this trip other than Macchu Picchu.  Quite an odd moment when I find myself staring at foreigners more than the Indians.  From seeing a modern Lotus Temple to witnessing Muslim prayers, navigating shops to find the most resonant meditation bowl, I enjoyed exploring Delhi’s side streets before leaving tuk tuks for the quieter streets of China.
            After long flight through Hong Kong, we arrived in Kunming for the week.  I filled my lungs with fresh air, no exhaust, no dust, no dirt.  No piles of trash or urine stains on the walls anymore.  We started our venture in China with the more basic part of travelling to a new country- learning the language. Learning the difficult tones and some common phrases, I could go on my own to breakfast, ordering a noodle bowl, pizza-like dough, or pork dough balls with sweet soy milk.  One night we even ventured to try add hot water noodles, but as I expected they did not taste amazing.  One of our first meals astounded me, the welcome dinner to China.  We all sat around a giant table with a revolving center, accommodating all different dishes in larger bowls for the table to share.  We struggled to grab the different items, all different vegetables, fish, meat, eggs, and of course the staple: rice.  The meals represented the most sharing in our food we have seen this trip, and reminds me of how different such a meal stands from a microwaveable tv dinner someone eats alone in front of a movie.  As I have read and seen, China is a collectivist society, putting the group’s needs before the individual, much different from the American individualistic mantra.  In my homestay I remember seeing a job training commercial emphasizing the group, lines of organized uniform workers, rather than in the US where the same commercial would emphasize the personal attention each trainee might receive. 
            I delighted in the funny English tee shirts, Angry Birds paraphernalia, and the generosity of the store owners to be patient with my Chinese.  I felt more comfortable as classes continued, but once we moved out of Kunming into the rural farming village for our homestay, communication became a bit more trying.  As we scaled down the winding mountain roads, Scott distracted me from my movie to see several farmers hiding behind giant backpacks of sticks they shouldered down the slope.  Diving into the village to the sound of drums with the looks of hardened Chinese farmers, I felt a rush of excitement.  We were really rural.  Feelings of Atahualpa rushed back as we were introduced to our homestay parents, me alone in a family with several daughters.  As I walked in I noticed the animals, the dog chained at the entrance, no door to the courtyard area leading to several rooms including the kitchen, family area, and bedrooms.  After meeting the pigs, cow, and chickens my host father leads me in front of the television with a cup of green tea before leaving for other errands.  It kind of surprised me, no formal introduction, no conversation.  Ho could I communicate beyond hello, being majority Bai, a minority in China, they speak a different dialect than I am learning.  Our Chinese teacher sometimes does not even understand their conversations.  At our first meal I finally introduced myself as an American, but did not learn their names until several days into the visit. 
            Privacy is not as private here.  My host sisters may peer into my room, even come in as I sit reading or studying.  Communication remains difficult and mostly a game of pointing and repeating the word from my host father.  Almost all foods include rice, maybe some dough or bread like meal for lunch.  Vegetables like beans are cycled with eggs or pig fat, most likely slaughtered by the family.  Any food we don’t eat we eat the next meal, and some also goes to feed the dog or pigs.  No waste.  And they don’t hesitate to give me more rice as it becomes a challenge is I can reach the rice bowl before my host Mom.  3-4 bowls of rice a meal, and even if I said I don’t like the meat, they’ll laugh and give me a little bit more.  It’s all the culture of having a guest.  The meal schedule is bit od with a late breakfast, around 10, with a 3 o’clock lunch and dinner between 7 and 8.  Other than meals I spend time with the family watching tv or playing soccer with the kids- the Chinese soap opera like show we watch entertains me, and they always laugh as I try to speak Chinese or say their names.  My host father will make sure to show off how I know their names to any new guest.  He knows my name too, despite a strange pronunciation, and is always excited as I nod my head when he says “drink”.
            My host family is a farming family, and my host father is also a plumber.  We do not have too many material comforts, just a squat toilet and a shower I can use at someone else’s house.  The town houses several hundred people, so the community is tight knit.  The majority of families are farmers, and for our work project we accompany our family in the fields.  I have done a lot of weeding, one day hitting a rock over and over to break it into smaller parts, or even harvest garlic scapes.  It’s amazing that I did not know where garlic came from, or even what broccoli looks like in the ground.  We visited an organic farm near Kunming where virtually everything in the meal was grown on the farm.  Working close to the land is rewarding but hard, as meditative and satisfactory as weeding feels I ache towards the end.  And I work only a few hours- my host family does most of the work and they are almost like grandparents.  The aging of farmers and the lack of younger labor on farms is becoming a bigger issue in farming, especially with more labor- intensive sustainable farming practices.    
            We visited a market recently and I got to see an actual pig cut and sitting out for the consumer to see.  Vegetables sitting on a cloth by the side of the street next to other farmers.  I even saw live fish in a little pool for people to buy.  Why is it that I have never seen my food so live, so raw before?  Live fish!?  I remember seeing live lobsters in the supermarket, but now that becomes more rare to see.  All of these issues with food transparency become more apparent when I eat the family’s own food, and most of the food I see here has no plastic packaging.  How did we become so far removed from our food?  These are the topics of sustainable agriculture we study here in China.