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This past weekend was a holiday for May 1st, International Labor Day. I can’t say I’m much of a fan of the way the holidays often turn out here schedule-wise, since it often involves shifting around weekends and getting excessive work weeks to make up for it. I recall vividly our annoyance in Liuzhou upon learning that, after the 7-day National Week holiday in October, we’d have to work at New Standard nine days in a row to make up for the weekends getting crammed together by governmental edict.
Even I, who have perhaps the luckiest schedule in all of China (classes only from Monday through Wednesday), am adversely affected, as my Tuesday classes are cancelled (meaning I can’t give anything but reviews and practice to the other classes to keep them all at the same pace), and the Monday classes got moved to Saturday, sticking a day on campus smack dab in the middle of my own break. I can’t complain compared with anyone else, but I find it amusing that my typical four-day weekend is actually shortened by this holiday.
But despite the short time I was able to make the most of it, thanks to Kris Law, a student of mine and a good friend who invited me along on a trip to some villages up in the north of Guangxi province. This area, she says, is the traditional land of the “Gaeml” people (as they call themselves, and “Dong” in Mandarin), one of China’s much-famed 56 ethnic minorities. I had been initially wary, remembering previous excursions to see “primitive sites” of the Zhuang people that depicted the ethnic group more as a stereotyped curiosity rather than a culture with enough historical context to be interested in, but Kris has a knack for seeking out destinations that satisfy that “museum fix” we both seem to crave when traveling.
It’s about three hours by bus from Guilin to the town of Sanjiang. It’s certainly much smaller than and much less developed than Guilin (the main bridge in town was under construction, forcing us to take several roundabout routes during our time there), but it’s obviously looking to build a name for itself, with Gaeml-style wooden hotels and restaurants being erected everywhere. There’s a small but respectable central square near a rather large Gaeml “drum tower” that shows both the Thai-influenced architecture and the impressive (if nerve-wracking) accomplishment of building it all with no metal at all. Reaching the top was a nice little climb and gave a great view of the town, and back at the bottom there was a little group of locals singing some Gaeml music in what thankfully didn’t seem like a contrived “culture performance” as is too common here (Kris later mentioned to me that in fact it wasn’t Gaeml music but Communist revolutionary lyrics to traditional Gaeml tunes, a combination probably from the old singing women’s own experiences).
Getting around involves many tuk-tuk rides, a common method of transportation down in southeast Asian countries but comparitively rare in the more bustling taxi-filled Guilin. Tuk-tuks are a fun and cheap way to get around, provided you’re up for experiencing every bump and dip of the road firsthand and are able to quiet that small but ever-present voice reminding you that, if there’s ever an accident with anything bigger, survival is not an option. The whole time I was constantly thankful that I was traveling with Kris, not only because she knew a lot of the history and culture and gave me much-needed context, but because without her Chinese knowledge I’d probably still be trying to give directions to the first tuk-tuk. This area has its own dialect with its own accent, but I had a ready translator the whole time.
Probably the best example of the benefits of traveling with a native Chinese speaker arose on our first hour-long bus trip from Sanjiang to one of the more famous and traditional villages, Chengyang. We learned that, as it’s a big tourist destination famous for its landmark Gaeml bridge that is the symbol of the region, it would cost 60 RMB to enter the village… but we merely had to arrange to get off the bus early, rendezvous with a van along the way, and be taken in through the back path (for the actual residents of the village) for only 20 yuan. As sketchy as I initially thought this was, it’s the typical way to get transport in the small villages: in spartan-looking gray vans with a destination sign in the windshield and a series of plastic stools to add a couple extra seats to whoever wants to cram in along the way. Even the big buses are this way, with our bus from Sanjiang back to Guilin getting a host of wanderers cramming themselves into the aisle halfway through the trip.
This village itself is quite a beauty, and despite getting a discount, our clandestine entrance got us a more authentic experience. The bridge itself is full to bursting with touristy nonsense, from the women in stereotypical ceremonial ethnic garb and silver headdresses at the front gate pressing each visitor to drink some rice wine and make a monetary donation to enter (a repeat of what any Guangxi CIEE participant would remember from our orientation trips) to the mass-produced identical trinkets for sale by every vendor in the village, obviously neither hand-made nor locally produced.
But far before we reached that bridge, we had explored various nooks and crannies of the village, seeing the actual inhabitants working in their fields, washing clothes in the stream (which, compared with the polluted rivers I had grown accustomed to, was among the clearest I’ve seen), and the like. The old people wear traditional Gaeml clothing — not the overly ceremonial silver stuff you always see that’s the Gaeml equivalent of a Plains Indian wandering around every day in a feather headdress — but simple clothes dyed a particularly beautiful shade of deep indigo. One old man saw us looking at a shrine and helped explain by scratching some characters into the road that it was for the highest goddess in the Gaeml belief. He was quite willing to answer any questions we asked or maybe hadn’t asked about the area, and eventually Kris helped disentangle us from the conversation, remarking to me about the friendly hospitality of village people. Old people in China are pretty adorable.
After that village we made our way to Danzhou, an island on the river that once was the capital for the Gaeml people. There’s very little there besides some city gates, an old “club house” for Cantonese people in the area (now someone’s big storage shed), a run-down school lecture hall with one of Chairman Mao’s quotations on one wall in faded, peeling red paint, and some ancient banyan trees dotting the landscape near the ferries. Nonetheless, I enjoyed it just for the sense of “smallness.” It’s easy to be lost in the vastness of this place, and having it be just an island with a few streets makes it manageable. The place really has only three notable exports, two of which are rice wine and honey — the latter of which I now regret not having bought to sweeten my oatmeal.
We stayed at what is the only sort of accomodations on the island, essentially a bed and breakfast which actually was one of the highlights if only for the food. Dinner and breakfast were served on a wooden balcony overlooking the main street. Because Danzhou is an island, getting a variety of supplies is harder than usual, meaning the inhabitants are used to making do with a lack of variety in food. They more than make up for this by taking those few foods and perfecting them. Getting meat on the island is basically out of the question (no villager is going to go slaughter a chicken just for a backpacker), but they cook pomelo rinds in a way that is very reminiscent of meat.
Breakfast was rice porridge, noodles, and the third notable export of this place, a local favorite and now one of my favorites: oil tea. It’s basically puffed rice and wheat in a salty, slightly bitter broth made from oil pulled from frying tea leaves. Imagine Rice Krispies and other breakfast cereals, except with an oily savory tea instead of milk, and you’ve got it. It’s actually quite good.
Afterward, we just made our way back to Sanjiang, dropped into the sparsely-visited and sparsely-filled museum of Gaeml culture (I couldn’t help but imagine how Sarah the museum studies major would judge it, because it was in need of some severe judgment, but seeing as it was the equivalent of a dinky county-level museum in the US I can’t really complain too much). After that, it was just a long bus trip along winding mountain roads back to Guilin, stopping seemingly every few minutes to let more people on in what I’m pretty sure would be a violation of safety regulations about maximum number of passengers — had such regulations been a thing here in China.
The trip was a blast, not just because of what we saw, but also because I got a chance to talk more with one of my friends here. Kris’ English is among the best in my classes, and I find myself using much more colloquial language that I had trained myself out of these past months. At times I had completely forgotten she’s not a native English speaker. But not only that, she’s done a lot of personal analysis about life and society, and is very willing to talk about that stuff. It’s unfortunate that most of my conversations with students here stay pretty surface-level, polite pleasantries and queries about everyday life in China or the US. But here I’m learning a lot: just how low the school system can go with a junior high school where thefts and fights are common and students stabbing students with little repercussions is not unheard of; being saved from that life by being clever enough to succeed academically and because of an inspirational teacher at the time whose own life went downhill afterward; the problems with the educational system’s focus on the gaokao examinations above all else; studying at a second-tier university that has no “masters” to help guide the students toward their own path; the personal conflict between wanting to pursue a dream, or go into a family artistic-stone business that damages the river environments it draws the stones from. Watching CCTV news reports on the tensions with the Philippines and documentaries and talking about history, politics, Vietnam, Taiwan, the role of Christianity in Western history and society and the distinctions between religion and belief in Confucian society, the experiences of grandparents during the Cultural Revolution and what young people today think about Mao and his place in Chinese society. Sobered and frustrated by things as big as corruption and lack of transparency in government and as small as the decline of the Chinese animation industry that stopped caring about crafting homegrown cartoons and settling for just accepting media from the West and Japan.
It’s enough to make me wish I had been a cultural anthropologist like Sarah, trained to actually approach all of this. I doubt I’ll ever have sufficient perspective to understand, but it’s enjoyable to try nonetheless.
So now I’m back once again at GXNU, breakfasts of oatmeal with mangoes fresh from the market, dinners of cool “liangpi” rice noodles from a street vendor, pondering how to beat the coming summer heat I know is just over the horizon, packing a box of things to mail home as the apartment shakes from the rumbling demolitions visible across the street.