With the help of Village Progress, a group of Princeton University students stayed in Bangdong, a village in Lincang Prefecture where Village Progress first started. They stayed there for three weeks, harvesting tea, helping out with household chores, and teaching English at the local primary school. One of those students, Chaz Copeland, has written this story to share his experience.
For almost three weeks I stayed with a local family in a small hillside village in Bangdong. I lived with three people, who I called Ayi (auntie), Shushu (uncle), and Gege (elder brother). Like many families in the village, they harvested, dried and sold tea leaves, while also taking care of a herd of cows and goats and a few beehives. I stayed in a room that was still under construction, possibly intended for future tea storage. It had walls of wood and metal, a hole where a window would later be installed, and a makeshift bed made of plywood and cardboard where I fell asleep every night to the ringing of cowbells and the chirping of crickets.
At times when I was free to spend the entire day with my host family, I travelled off with my Ayi and several neighbors to distant tea fields. I tried my best to observe and figure out which of the bright green new leaves and buds were worth picking, slowly filling my basket as my Ayi and her companions sped through rows of tea plants, filling baskets and sacks, talking and laughing all the way.
Communication between the family and I was hampered by my beginner-level mandarin and the uniqueness of the local dialect. Every small conversation I was able to have was a tiny victory. While I was unable to grasp anything but the tiniest nuggets of information from my Ayi's long story of her family history, I am proud to say that I understood my Shushu explain that he managed a total of 12 cows and 21 goats.
Even in the short time that I stayed with this family, I witnessed big changes. Near the beginning of my stay, while my Ayi used a spoon to scrape apart an apple to eat, she pointed out to me that she had lost all of her teeth. Several days, to my surprise, she showed up with a mouth full of pearly-white false teeth. This changed her face and voice just enough that I doubted that she was my same Ayi, until I heard her unchanged distinctive laugh.
At the beginning of my stay, the path to the solar-heated shower involved a suspicious-looking ladder down a several feet's drop, but by the end of my stay, my Gege had finished welding together a staircase. My Gege was a rural genius of tools and machinery, always managing to hack something together as soon as it was needed. He fixed the house's circuit breakers just in time for them to save the electronics from a lightning storm,
There was an ongoing battle to keep the chickens out of the general living area of the family's courtyard. Someone had to remember to keep the chicken net strung across the boundary of the yard, pinned high and without weak points, or else the chickens would find a way to make a mess of things. One day a few chickens wandered in through a door left open, and I subsequently found myself tasked with getting them out. I walked into a small, dark room, tightly clenching a broom as my only defense, and eventually managed to chase the fury of flapping wings back outside. Since then I learned to be wary of the funny-looking birds.
The second-to-last day I spent in Bangdong began, like many days, with an incredible rainstorm. Within a span of minutes, a little drizzle turned into a downpour, quickly overwhelming the drainage system of my homestay and turning the courtyard into a small pool of muddy water, causing a few tea seeds to break free of my family's pile and wash down the mountain. The ever-changing weather of the hills above the Lincang river spent the ret of the morning alternating between the thickest fog I have ever seen and clear skies providing a view of the cloud-filled valleys below.
In the evening, after my family's dinner of noodles, pickled vegetables, spices and rice, I decided to take a walk around the village. Strolling back, I saw a cluster of villagers sitting and chatting around a pile of tea seeds in the middle of the basketball court. Here, with construction materials providing makeshift chairs, a scene of village community appeared that I wanted to try to join before I would lose the chance, despite my own very limited Chinese language abilities.
I approached the pile of tea seeds, and did my best to pronounce the word for tea seeds, chazi. The murmurings of the villagers suggested that, indeed, these were tea seeds. One told me to sit, and so I did, joining the evening chitchat. They talked up each other and passing motorbikes, and I was able to answer some fraction of questions they asked me, like my age, country of origin, and whether I had eaten yet. One asked to try on my glasses. They gossiped and laughed as the day began its slow end and the sky turned from blue to dark blue to black.
As it began to be about time for me to return home, I noticed a white-haired man walk into my family's home carrying a small axe and a carpenter's square. I returned later to find him and my family chatting and drinking. The dinner table had been carefully laid out with incense, the axe and carpenter's square the man had brought, tea, rice, and a large bowl filled with a single plucked chicken. I talked with the apparent relative or family friend, making a breakthrough in my language adventure when I was able to answer his questions about my family back in the United States.
Soon, my homestay brother asked if I wanted to watch television. I didn't particularly want to, but not wanting to miss out on any bonding with my homestay family in the last few days, I headed over to the living room. When I realized that nobody was joining me, I peeked back outside to see what was happening. There in my family's courtyard, the white-haired man was lighting paper to burn underneath the ceremonial table. This man and my Gege then took the smoking incense and kowtowed and bowed before the table, as I started to realize the significance of this table. The tea cups were then emptied out across the courtyard, the bowl of chicken moved elsewhere, and the other items carried off by the white-haired man with my Gege and Ayi into the night, and probably towards a tomb. My Shushu stayed behind, meticulously cutting the chicken into prescribed pieces of meat, which were eaten when the other three returned. As they ate, they picked clean certain bones, which they all examined closely and held up to a light, debating the omens that the bones showed.
I felt extremely lucky to have witnessed my family's ancestral ceremony and see this solemn aspect of their life, though I wonder if my Gege's suggestion to watch TV meant that I wasn't supposed to. I am grateful for the memories I was able to bring with me after I left Bangdong, and I hope my family will remember me well. I was glad to share in the joys and struggles of this family for a few weeks, in the small hillside village above the Lancang river.