Behind the Bamboo Curtain

Posted: December 14, 2010 in Travel Log
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Behind the bamboo curtain, I stood on the edge of a mountain. I didn’t know the language or the culture, but I knew that I wanted to be there. From Kunming, we journeyed eight hours into the mountains to the town of Yuanyang. From here, it is another ten-hour hike to the Vietnamese border, or a few days by truck. The land of the Hani tribes, for more than 1000 years they have been farming these rice terraces high above the clouds. Majestically descending down the violet hillside, the rice patties shimmered like dragon scales in the sunlight.

It was the spring of 2002 and I was then living in Seoul, South Korea. Invited to join this expedition by members of the Onnuri Church English Fellowship – a conglomeration of mix-n-match nationalities living in Seoul – I was excited to see the interior of China. Although I had spent my childhood in Japan, we were never able to get beyond the bamboo curtain that fell just beyond Hong Kong. China was the land of Hudson Taylor, the hero of missionary kid bedtime stories. In my childhood mind, it was also the land of persecution for Christians and imprisonment for missionaries. My parents were the sort of missionaries who smuggled Bibles into Russia in their children’s luggage and took family vacations to the West Bank in order to see Biblical landmarks. Despite the dangers, I longed to slip behind the bamboo curtain.

Our team was commissioned to assess the needs of a small Hani community about 45 minutes drive from Yuanyang. As a minority group, they had difficulty gaining the proper resources from the government to fix their water supply problem. We were also interested in the scholarship needs among the children. While China’s socialized education system provides education to all, many poor villagers were unable to produce the money required for supplies and textbooks. In each passing village, the school children swarmed our team with cries of  “Hello, nice to meet you!” and invitations to sing endless renditions of Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” on the school’s karaoke machine.

On our third day in China, after crowding into an overnight sleeper bus and hitching a ride in the back of a banana truck, we hired a van and driver to take us to the Hani village. The primitive village was situated on a terraced ridge among rice patties scaling along the contour of the mountain. The houses were simple mud shacks rambling along the hillside with dark interiors and earthen floors. As we tumbled out of a van onto the dirt road, a crowd quickly formed around us.

While the men and our only translator gathered in a little hut to speak with the village elder, I longed for a way to connect with the wide-eyed women and children who were brimming with curiosity. Many of them had never gazed upon a white person. We stood on the edge of the snaking road gazing down at the descending terraces glowing in the afternoon sun and I asked what word they used for beautiful. “Piào liàng” someone timidly replied (although most of these women also knew very little Mandarin). I pointed at the Eden surrounding us and said “liàng”. They giggled. So I pointed at the children and said, “liàng”. The mothers howled in glee as they smeared the dirt from around the smiles of their children’s grimy faces. I went on pointing at the wiry mountain flowers, the hunched old women, their pompom headdresses and fantastically embroidered tribal clothes saying “liàng, liàng, liàng!”

A woman emerged from a hut with a bundle of dark blue cloth and began wrapping a very ornate turban with yarn pompoms around my head. It didn’t take long for the women to grab my hands and drag me into one of the low-ceiling huts. Before I knew it, they had laid out traditional Hani tribal clothes and were undressing me. The children screeched in delight, clapping their hands while a small crowd of tiny Hani women tried to stuff me into their clothes.

Smacking my white legs in fits of laughter, I watched as they made large gestures, which seemed to hysterically relate how fat I must have seemed to these Lilliputian mountain women. Prompting me to exhale deeply, they buttoned the black top closed, and began manually stuffing my legs into the zipperless bottoms. I couldn’t help but giggle along with the women as they tried to cram my hiney into their best Hani clothing. There I was in a remote corner of China, leaning against the sturdy backs of tribal women huddled around my waist, dressing me up as though I were a giant, ghastly Barbie-doll. Predictably, I failed to fit into their pants and opted to hold up a pair of their slacks over my own as we posed for a picture.

As a Third Culture Kid, I like to believe the language barrier is made of bamboo. Though strong and durable, bamboo is also flexible and yielding. A Japanese proverb says, “the bamboo that bends is stronger than the oak that resists”. Across Asia, bamboo is the symbol of flexibility and harmony. When visiting new places, I often prefer relating with strangers within limited linguistic confines; for then I must yield to the intimacy of physical exchange, sweeping gestures, the fluency of expression, and the bend of laughter. Like bamboo in the wind, I am forced to adapt to my surroundings and find other paths of communication.

In retrospect, I wonder if the delightful thigh-smacking encounter with the Hani women would have occurred had I known how to speak Mandarin? As we are supple, the language barrier, the bamboo curtain, reminds us to flex our inhibitions and discover alternative ways of communicating ­– ways that may form bonds and memories to last a lifetime.

I was told that pictures of our dress-up party were given to the Hani women the following year when a new team returned to their village. I am delighted to know that somewhere in remote China, behind the bamboo curtain, I am remembered with howls of laughter.
 

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