Fever, Snakes, and Tragedy.
“Even as a small child I understood that women have secrets, and that some of these were only to be told to daughters. In this way we were bound together for eternity.” Alice Hoffman
After a long and tearful embrace, Xiao Ming stepped back an arm’s length from Lao Taitai. Holding her mother by the shoulders, she looked deeply into Lao Taitai’s eyes and asked a simple question – a sincere query that only Lao Taitai could answer, “Weisheme?” Why?
The aging mother seemed to lose what was left of her crumbling composure. Perhaps Lao Taitai was unprepared for this moment, or maybe she feared it more than most of us can understand.
Lao Taitai responded by saying that this crowded room was not the place to talk about a matter of such import. Instead, she and Xiao Ming must walk together in areas where they could be alone and unheard.
And indeed, this is what I witnessed numerous times over the next week. With my modest insight into Chinese culture, I can make an educated guess as to what transpired in those long walks to the graves of Lao Taitai’s and Xiao Ming’s ancestors.
The most obvious is that Xiao Ming never knew, or was never told, why her mother left her behind in 1949. As Ricky always said to Lucy, “You got some splainin’ to do.”
Yet, it was clear that both mother and daughter were delighted to finally be reunited after four decades of total and unintended estrangement.
While Lao Taitai and Xiao Ming were enjoying each other’s company, I was having some adventures of my own. Some of which were awe-inspiring – and others, shocking.
Very early in the week, I began exploring the village, never alone, but with my two keepers whose presence stifled my sense of adventure.
I found out later that the two young people, an overbearing young man and a fetching young woman, were assigned by Lao Taitai to ensure I didn’t get into trouble.
The generosity and friendliness of the provincial people go beyond anything previously experienced. So much so that total strangers grabbed me as we walked the narrow cobblestone streets and dragged me into one household after the other. Once inside the home, they always insisted that I dine with them.
According to my journal, I was force-fed five times in a row in one six-hour outing. If I was in any real danger among these wonderful people, it was lethal over-indulgement.
In one home, the heavily laden table had a roast duck as its centerpiece. The steaming duck was sliced thinly and placed on rice pancakes with a dab of fragrant plum sauce on top.
As I attempted to grab a bit of that duck, I was told, “no,” they had a special treat for me. To these generous people, the roast fowl did not befit a special guest, foreigner that I was.
Instead, the oldest man in the family directed his wife to put a steamed creature called a sea cucumber on my plate with a side of white rice, looking all the world like a giant prickly slug.
Although everything I had eaten in China to date was sublime, this delicacy was like eating a chunk of tractor tire that every dog in the village had peed on.
To further complicate matters, the village had only one lavatory, if you could call it that.
The toilet was comprised of two horizontal bamboo poles. One was about 20 inches above the ground and was for sitting on. The other, a few inches off the ground, was used to hook your feet under for stability.
I understood the simplicity and practicality of the bamboo toilet and would have been quite comfortable using it if not for the fact that there was no enclosure around it.
You just had to accept that half the village was watching when relieving yourself.
One morning, an older man with a long beard and smoking a pipe showed up to further my education about the village. He first took me to the very outskirts of the hamlet, where we came upon a large granite basin that collected water off the tile roof.
Pointing down to the basin, he told me this is where newborn females were drowned, usually by the husbands. Although drowning was the preferred method of infanticide, suffocation and starvation were also employed.
In some instances, they placed a wrapped infant female in the crotch of a tree, where it died of exposure.
Even though female infanticide is now prohibited, the government’s former “one-child” policy served to increase these deplorable acts.
The Chinese were not the only culture to commit infanticide. Korea, India, Pakistan and even parts of ancient Polynesia practiced these reprehensible population control methods.
Culturally and historically, the Chinese favor boys over girls because they will maintain the family bloodline and take care of aging parents.
On another walk with the village elder, we climbed a trail to the top of a nearby hill. What first appeared to be a natural rock exposure, turned out to be a plastered stone wall. The wall was covered with pock marks.
He explained that during the Japanese occupation in the 1930s, random villagers were routinely marched to the wall where they were summarily shot. This was a warning to the local Chinese to not step out of line.
I quickly learned that when asked by villagers my opinion of the Japanese, to unhesitatingly state that the “riben ren” (Japanese) are “huai de” (evil).
The villagers always responded with a smile and sometimes a slap on the back. Can you blame them?
Early one morning, an hour or so before daylight, I heard squeals outside my window. I stayed in bed, not wishing to investigate further, and eventually, the pitiful sounds ceased. Then, I was intrigued enough to look out the glassless window.
Down on the street was a hog whose slashed throat was bleeding into a cooking vessel. In honor of the return of Lao Taitai, the villagers were butchering their only hog.
This seemingly ritualistic killing preceded a day of feasting and celebration.
Arriving at the breakfast table a few hours later, more dishes graced the table than usual. Some food items were recognizable, while others were new to me. With the notable exception of sea cucumbers, I am open to all cuisines, a food adventurer, if you will.
I dug into what I thought was tofu covered with a fermented black bean sauce. Although I had never seen red tofu, I found the dish quite tasty. When I inquired as to why the tofu was a wine red, I was informed that it was not tofu but congealed hog blood.
After the ceaseless feasting, Xiao Ming, Lao Taitai, and her older siblings set about preparing for a visit to their parent’s graves.
I grabbed my pack and walked down to the river, where we boarded a sampan.
About 20 minutes downstream, we pulled onto a gravel shoal at the junction of a smaller stream. Two other boats were already there; the people onboard were family members and friends.
We followed a path along the stream for a few hundred yards, arriving at a small cemetery set back into a carved-out hillside. First, Lao Taitai and her siblings bowed before their mother and father’s graves.
This act of respect was followed by the presentation of a hog’s head on a platter to the deceased by Lao Taitai’s brother. Immediately after the food offerings, somebody set off long strings of firecrackers.
Afterward, fake currency was burned at the foot of the grave as an offering to the spirits. All in all, it was a beautiful ceremony.
While Lao Taitai and her immediate family walked further upstream to visit with friends, I returned to the river with the remaining group.
As soon as we arrived at the river, the party set about making a lunch of fish, rice, and vegetables that was quite good. After a quick cleanup of the makeshift kitchen, Lao Taitai’s brother-in-law directed me to one of the boats that was not going back upstream but downstream.
So, I thought, “What the hell; it’s all just an adventure.”
Somewhere along our way down the river, the boatman went ashore to have a brief discussion with another man.
While the rest of us waited onboard, a couple of youngsters brought us a big bowl of grapes, grapes as large as North Carolina muscadine.
They were sweet and delicious but probably washed in the river: A river containing bacteria my gastrointestinal system had no natural resistance to.
But I didn’t know that then, so I went merrily on my way downriver.
Several hours after arriving at another small village, I started to feel sick. As the day progressed, I developed a fever and nausea. One of the families onboard the boat gave me a bed to sleep in.
The following morning a local medical practitioner referred to as a “barefoot doctor,” and indeed, he did not wear shoes, roused me from a feverish slumber. I have only a hazy memory of the treatment I received that morning.
The practitioner gently lifted me from my bed, so I was sitting on the edge. He set a porcelain basin on the floor and began making small cuts on my wrists, both sides of my neck, and forehead. He observed the blood dripping into the vessel.
I remember telling myself to pay attention to what was happening.
When the blood in the basin reached a specific volume, the doctor applied a tarry substance to the cuts, and the bleeding stopped immediately, an effective coagulant for sure.
He left and returned some hours later to check on me, and, indeed, I was feeling much better except for a horrendous migraine. Seeing that I was steady, the kind doctor led me to his little stone house.
A woman I assumed was his wife walked to a corner of the room where a wooden barrel sat with several granite rocks on the lid. She removed the stones and cover and, using a long stick with a loop of rope on one end, plunged it into the barrel, retrieving a colorful writhing snake.
I asked him if the snake was dangerous. He indicated it was deadly; he now had my full and undivided attention.
While his wife held the snake, the doctor cut open its abdomen and carefully removed an organ that appeared to be the spleen. He rolled the organ in coarse brown sugar and asked me to open my mouth. Warning me not to bite into the snake’s spleen, he placed it in the back of my mouth and gave me a cup of lukewarm tea to wash it down.
I cannot say for sure that this unusual treatment was responsible for curing the headache, but in a very few minutes, it was gone.
Later that evening, he arrived at the house where I was staying with a covered dish. It was none other than the snake cooked in herbs and spices and was quite tasty.
In short, I stayed in the village among these caring people for several more days. But, alas, I am running out of column space, so the Readers Digest condensed version follows.
I made my way back to Beijing alone by riding an uncomfortable “hard-seat” train for 30 hours straight, making it back before my visa ran out.
Lao Taitai returned to Beijing several days afterward, bringing with her five members of her immediate family, including Xiao Ming.
We had a delightful time in the days leading up to our departure back to the United States. It was clear that none of her family had been out of Zhejiang Mountains before. None of them seemed to appreciate the dangers of crossing streets in a large city, especially in China, where the pedestrians had no right of way whatsoever.
Lao Taitai and I had just returned to the States when we got the news that Xiao Ming was struck by a truck while jaywalking. The family carried her to a hospital, but because they did not have the proper credentials and travel papers, she was refused treatment and bled to death on the hospital’s steps.
Postscript: Although struck by the tragedy, I soon started feeling guilty. I told myself that if I had not agreed to this venture, Xiao Ming might still be alive.
My guilt was assuaged when I met with Lao Taitai shortly before her death. Her view of Xiao Ming’s death was entirely different than mine. In Eastern belief, all things are meant to be. In other words, it was destiny that the mother should be with her daughter one last time.
Readers, I thank you for your indulgence in this long series about an experience in a truly ancient culture.