GUESS WHO WENT TO DINNER?
Try taking a long journey, on foot, without a detailed map…or plentiful water, and you don’t get very far. Each day on my Great Wall Adventure I had two driving forces: One-- to continue searching for The Wall each time it “disappeared” and Two--to continue searching for more boiled water as my supply dwindled.
Each time I saw evidence of life near The Wall, I took the opportunity to re-fill my thermos. Lucky for me… everyone living in rural China… survives by boiling their drinking water. Regardless of their primitive living conditions, Chinese learned, centuries ago, that water---absolutely necessary for life---must be boiled to kill impurities.
Chinese in the most remote parts of Northern China had never seen a foreigner so their initial response when they saw me walking toward them….was to run. Once Arthur, my government-appointed assistant, smiled and calmed their fears with his beautifully-spoken Chinese….they immediately greeted me with relieved acceptance and curiosity.
One day, when I wandered into a tiny village in search of water, my appearance surprised a tiny Chinese woman, a very old man, and a young child standing outside a concrete house, grinding wheat into flour. I remember the day was very-cold and damp yet, the little boy, probably 3 or 4 years old, was barefoot and dressed in a too-small cotton shirt. The old man had holes in his badly-worn canvas shoes and wasn’t wearing socks while the very slender young woman wore only a shabby cotton top and pants with the same, government-issued canvas shoes.
The older man appeared to be the woman’s grandfather and I could only assume the young child belonged to her. Sadly, like most I’d met in China’s remote areas, this threesome also had missing teeth or no teeth. But…they never stopped smiling at me during my short visit.
It was the first time I’d accepted an invitation to have “dinner” inside a typical Mao-era farm house. The house consisted of one very-small room with a dirt floor, one window, and a small concrete platform known as a Kang. The Kang served as the family’s bed, source of heat, and kitchen table. Each night, a family member opened a metal door at the bottom of the Kang, stacked it with enough wood to provide heat for the night then struck a match. Not only did the Kang stay toasty and warm but several vents at the Kang’s base allowed heat to escape into the rest of the room.
Too-many in China’s countryside never have enough food. So for this family to share their limited food supply with me was indeed an expression of love. I was served one bowl of rice with wooden chopsticks and one cup of tea. I admit that my sensitive stomach almost retched at the sight of the bowl’s many cracks and the unexpected “things” floating in the tea but….I managed to swallow a few bites, take a few sips so as not-to-offend my host. She tried so hard to make me feel special and make me happy.
When I asked Arthur to find out why there were multiple sheep, two cows, more than eight goats, and three horses also crowded into every corner of the tiny house, he replied that: animals were precious to poor people. Their animals must survive the winter because animals are their main source of food and income. For centuries, rural family members have shared the Kang as a place for eating, sleeping, playing, and visiting while, traditionally-- during cold weather-- they share their warm homes with their animals.
Of course I needed to know more details but...I waited until Arthur and I were back-on-the-Wall before I pried him for answers. It seems that….every morning the grandfather shoveled-out the house and carried the many shovels-full of “fertilizer” to feed his vegetable garden. He also carried buckets of water from the nearby creek to wash-down the floor so it would be “clean” for the day. Imagine doing this nasty chore every day during the freezing cold of winter. I was surprised to learn the grandfather was 97 years old and continued to work fulltime, like a young farm hand.
Yes, for those who live poorly and face difficult times-- all the time-- age is nothing-more than numbers.