<a>Dining with the Dai

Written by Oct 31, 2006 22:10
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Breakfast with the Fangs, Part I

It was a beautiful morning in Xishuangbanna, perfect for a hike, so my friend Steve and I headed north on a road out of a small town called Ganlanba. We had arrived the night before just in time to get a hot meal from an old woman at a streetside stand. Rested from the 15 miles we'd walked the day before, we wanted to experience some of the Dai villages. We didn't know how just how close we'd get.

After about 5 miles, weaving between rice fields and village thoroughfares, we dropped our packs for a rest next to an old Buddhist temple on the outskirts of the last in a string of uncharted villages. We couldn't hear anything going on inside--no chants or anything--but we could see by the offerings laid inside the outdoor shrines posted at each door let us know that the temple was still active.

Steve had an urge to explore a curvy trail that ran adjacent to the temple. We could see a concrete shrine not too far away, the kind the Dai people built over their wells as monuments to the water gods. The structure looked like a tall dome, with designs etched into the concrete and something like an obelisk extending from the apex of the dome. The inside was hollow and about 5 feet deep. A shallow pool of still water rested at the bottom of the hole.

The trail curled around a fish pond and found its conclusion at a small, hut-like structure. By the ripples spreading in successive circular rings throughout the water, we could tell that the pond was teeming with life. Outside the hut, a girl of about 20 stooped on hands and knees. Every few seconds, she grabbed a watermelon from the basket next to her, place it delicately on a piece of cardboard and violently chop it in half with the cleaver she held in her hand. I didn't expect such a fierce strike from such a dainty girl. Cautiously, Steve and I continued to approach the hut.

Steve called out his customarily loud "ni hao!" both making his presence known and conveying the fact that we meant no harm to the family by intruding on their property. Holding out a few Chinese yuan, he motioned toward the basket next to the girl, which was attached to the back of a bicycle and brimming with watermelons.

The girl looked up from the chopping block with a confused glance. She didn't seem afraid; she just didn't understand Steve's gesture. So he began a new charade, simulating a person eating rice from a bowl. Then he thrust the bills toward her once more and pointed at the watermelons again. Something finally clicked. She motioned toward the pond, grappling with words, trying as desperately as Steve to make herself understood. Somehow she communicated that the watermelons were food for the fish, not for people.

As Steve persisted, however, the bills started to look more appealing. The money would go into the family's treasury, so she decided to take it. There's no telling how many fish they would've had to raise and sell in order to make the amount of money we were trying to give her just for a few pounds of fish food.

I still didn't feel like she trusted us completely, but she ushered us over to the hut's "porch" where an elderly couple and a young child were seated. Pulling out some stumpy Chinese stools, she offered us a seat next to the rest of the family, who smiled happily as we crouched beside them.

Hurrying back to the chopping area, our hostess hacked a fresh watermelon in half. She gave one half and a spoon to each of us, and we dug in. It was one of the best watermelons I've ever had, but then again, wouldn't anything taste delightful after so many Powerbars?

Breakfast with the Fangs, Part II

Downing the first melon was no problem. But as soon as our spoons scraped the rinds, our little hostess was dashing back to the chopping block to prepare another melon. She put a half in front of each of us and urged us with her eyes to continue eating.

"If she insists..." we thought, knowing that lack of both time and stomach capacity would hinder us from having any more. We plunged our the broad soup spoons into the second melon.

I took a break and invited the little boy, up to this point watching us curiously from the safety of his grandmother's arms, to watch me dispose of my first melon. I reared my arm back and hurled what was left of it into the fish pond. A sheepish smile told me that he approved.

I wondered if he had ever seen the white skin of foreigners before. If not, he was a pretty brave kid to be sitting right next to me. Growing up in America, we take diversity for granted. Many people complain that we don't have enough of it. But when you come to a place like this, where the people in villages are basically monolithic, you learn to appreciate the broad spectrum of ethnicities represented in the U.S.

For the most part we sat in silence, we foreigners enjoying the peculiar tranquility of the moment, the Fangs watching our every move with keen interest. They paid particular attention when we spoke to each other in English. I guess they were worried that we were saying something negative about their little plot of land. To allay such anxiety, we were careful to smile and nod a lot as if to include them in the conversation.

We said nothing but good things about their hospitality and how they welcomed us so easily. How many Americans would be eager to open up their homes and pantries to some non-English-speaking Chinese people who showed up on their doorstep? Not many.

Before the girl could chop another melon, Steve and I got up and prepared to leave. We took pictures, one of each of us with the entire family. Then we rejoined the curvy trail that led us back past the well toward the run-down temple.

We emerged from behind the well for one last glance at the family. They were still staring as if they thought we were spirits which had magically vanished into thin air. We waved at them, happy to have made contact with three generations of Dai people, hoping that the hospitality they had heaped on us would someday return to them.

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Comments (1)


Nov 2, 2006 00:10 Reply


What a sweet little story. It's nice when strangers welcome you into their life, so you share their backyard even for a short while. It seems simple but it's actually pretty deep. And when I started reading this story, I kept thinking, what Fangs? (ie. a dog, a wolf, a wild animal?) :-)

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