March 30, 2008
Bok Sa, Toishan
Yesterday I took a laxative in the wee morning hours, but it didn’t kick in until afternoon, and even now I still feel full of crap. All the doughy dim sum in the mornings, and white rice and rice-based foods all day long aren’t helping. I’d pay a lot of money just for a bowl of oatmeal.
At breakfast, Fiona Zhu and I went downstairs to the hotel restaurant for yet more delicious dim sum. The large dining room is always crowded at breakfast, drifting in dense cigarette smoke. It was hard to find a spot, so a couple shared our table. The man kept spitting out bits of pork gristle from his dim sum, letting it fall from his mouth directly onto the table in disgusting bits. This represents acceptable table manners in China; still, I almost lost my appetite.
After breakfast, our driver took us back to the Gong Hao district, so we could look around the cluster of villages surrounding my great-grandfather’s home village of Git Non.
We went back to the Gong Hao district, so we could look around the cluster of villages surrounding my great-grandfather’s home village of Git Non.
The driver and Fiona engaged in friendly chatter, though I explained to her later that his loud voice and the sharp cadence of his Chinese tones made him sound angry. Fiona said she’d heard something similar from another foreigner. Sometimes this is just how Chinese accents sound. Smiles are less common here than in America, and when they do appear, less broad, which doesn’t help an American in attempting to interpret attitudes. But, the driver was only shouting his pride in picking us up within just five minutes so we’d know we could count on him, shouting his pride in his two daughters and his son who were variously smart and beautiful and who all had good jobs, and shouting the names of the surrounding villages as he drove us around before dropping us off.
“M’goi san!” I tried to say to him each time we left him, trying to speak with louder confidence than I felt. But my volume was never close to his, and I suspect he dismissed it as foreign mumbling.
Fiona and I spent the morning slowly strolling through four of the Ma villages, plus a Liang Village.
Fiona and I spent the morning slowly strolling through four of the Ma family villages, plus a Liang village. I continued to be fascinated with the homes and their ever-surprising combinations of Chinese and Western styles: ornate piedmonts with Western scrollwork, bas relief birds of faded colors in traditional Chinese designs, Western columns and arches, and Chinese boat-like carvings dipping and rising atop roofs.
I continued to be fascinated with the homes and their ever-surprising combinations of Chinese and Western styles.
We paused at what may once have been the richest old home in all the villages – apparently abandoned. It looked like a small Middle-Eastern palace, rising three stories, with a domed top that could only be spied from afar, perhaps best seen by those laboring in the fields. Fiona remarked that the tower, the scallops and leaf-like arches of the colored windows, and the turrets on the building’s sides all seemed Arabic to her, though massive Chinese characters were carved over the door.
It looked like a small Middle-Eastern palace.
At inhabited homes, we repeatedly saw small willow sprigs hanging in or near doorways, to guide more ancestors home for Qing Ming. Firecrackers went off occasionally, loud enough to wake the dead they were intended to celebrate. Some still believe that the noise of firecrackers frightens away evil spirits. In more than one village, men and women were cleaning out empty rice seedling trays. They had just planted the seedlings in the fields, another rite of spring associated with Qing Ming.
Men and women were cleaning out empty rice seedling trays.
We passed one woman making a long crisscrossing lattice of bamboo strips, perhaps to fence off a vegetable plot. Several mother-age to middle-age women gathered at a village pond to wash clothes and gossip. One baby slept in a sling on his mother’s back. A little girl, who informed us that she was in the fourth grade, pulled her baby brother by the hand and followed us for several minutes, staring at me wide-eyed, until the novelty wore off. A few neighbors sat in front of their homes playing cards.
Several mother-age to middle-age women gathered at a village pond to wash clothes and gossip. One baby slept in a sling on his mother’s back.
Several men sat on the large concrete altar in front of the Liang village and idly chattered. Two women from my ancestral village next door stopped to say hello or wave, remembering me from the day before. Several people enquired about my story, and then passed the story on to newcomers, until we were surrounded by a crowd of people trying to recall if they ever knew or heard anything of my great-grandfather, Ma Bing Sum. “Everyone is concern if you find your family,” Fiona said. “So kind.”
It was a relaxing walk, in which I began to pick up on the slow rhythm of life here. My only complaint was the mosquito bites, which plagued me with itching throughout the day.
Following an afternoon nap back at the hotel, we headed out for another walk through town. I think we’ve almost explored all of Bok Sa by now. We joined the evening audience to watch the excavator that has been chewing up the asphalt and concrete of the city streets for the past few days. There’s not much entertainment in a small town, so this giant, noisy, yellow machine takes the place of a local theatre.
There’s not much entertainment in a small town, so this giant, noisy, yellow machine takes the place of a local theatre.
I checked out two small “supermarkets,” more the size of large 7-Elevens, and bought a bag of nearly-burnt pistachios at one of them. We saw an altar in the store, featuring a statue of the god of war and prosperity, Guan Gong, who was once a living general. He stands watch in many places of business, including our hotel. Incense sticks and tea seem to be the usual offerings.
Guan Gong, the god of war and prosperity, stands watch in many places of business, including our hotel.
The biggest entertainment the day afforded was the comically horrifying sight of a stray dog trotting past with a massive dead rat dangling limply from his jaws. Another dog shot past us to attack and bite the rat-carrying dog in a mad frenzy of bared fangs and torn fur. I spared a cry of pity for the victim, as he limped away with a bloody leg. Perhaps he’ll die.
But nothing could upstage that rat: egads, it was enormous! “Gross!” I said to Fiona, who immediately asked me to teach her this new word. We watched the movie American Beauty on her laptop last night, and we heard the word again, uttered by a teenage character: “Gross!”
“Gross!” Fiona repeated.
Hmmm. While I struggle to decipher Chinese language and culture, what am I teaching Fiona about ours?