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June 27, 2022

The Twinning 5

By Barbara Rendall

Chapter Five: Country Roads

The Model Village was a disappointment, at first. Trish had been hoping for a picturesque little place with curly-roofed houses, rice paddies, water buffalo, and maybe wooden carts plying cobbled streets. But Xiaotian, as it was called, was too developed to be quaint, yet not developed enough for discerning tourists.

The place was a rough jumble of dirt lanes and low brick houses with dull-gray tile roofs. Small gas-powered, three-wheeled vehicles carrying vegetables, caged chickens and canvas sacks, all piled precariously high and usually with at least one person sitting atop the load, gasped and banged their way up and down the village streets. A haphazard market surrounded Xiaotian's main gate and seemed to be the main commercial enterprise. What exactly made it a model village wasn't clear, but Trish guessed it had something to do with the neat green fields of grain, corn, sunflowers, and fruit trees that stretched out in all directions. Or perhaps it was the market. Or maybe it was simply that Henry Ma had relatives here. The old couple and their son, who had been waiting patiently by one of the Winged Victory statues in the garden of Vancouver Villas after lunch -- Trish hoped they had been given a meal somewhere -- had continued to accompany the delegation on the ride to the village, but now they seemed to have disappeared into the local population.

"Hey, TEE-SHURR!" cried a t-shirt vendor aggressively as the delegates worked their way past the market stalls toward the village gate, which was actually two concrete poles with a red banner strung between, not a traditional decorative gate, much to Trish's disappointment.

"WEK-UM to China! Looka, looka!" shouted a friendly young woman selling postcards of Beijing and brightly-colored children's clothing.

"Jade! Ver' old, ver' cheap!" called a man in a sleeveless undershirt behind a table of dusty junk. He held out a lumpy green stone in the palm of his hand and attempted to nudge Betty's arm.

She flinched and pressed herself closer to Trish. "I wonder if he's one of Henry's cousins," she muttered, echoing Trish's suspicions.

"They all have that Ma family entrepreneurial drive," agreed Trish.

But Trish was secretly glad to see the pushy hawkers and the big outlay of merchandise. A market would be a fun thing to describe, she thought, and she began scanning the articles available. However, a lot of the goods on sale -- plastic toys, kitchen utensils, towels and underwear -- looked more like dollar-store inventory than local handicrafts, although there were a few interesting embroidered items and some wooden bowls and toys made out of what Mei Li said was bamboo. Trish moved to take a closer look.

"Don't act too interested!" Betty warned her urgently. "Don't even make eye contact! Not unless you really want to buy something. I read that in my guide book."

Trish tried to look at a small yellow-and-brown bowl without appearing to look at it, and she found that harder than she'd expected. But she needn't have bothered because Henry and Mei Li, urging "Buy later," began herding them on toward a low brick building just through the gate.

"The Village Museum," Henry announced. It turned out to be mainly a display of old photographs of the village, and the Xiaotian of the past didn't look much different from the present one except that the people in the photos were more sunburned and they wore plainer clothes. There were also a few displays of old farm equipment here and there, but they were more or less just heaps of sticks and bits of rope. Only Doug from the Wheat Pool found them of interest.

"Wow. Pretty basic," he observed.

The building was hot and dusty, and the smell of a latrine drifted in from somewhere.

"I am so glad I used the ladies' in the office at Vancouver Villas," Betty said with a shudder. "Can you imagine what the toilets are like out here? They must all be squat."

"What happens to people who can't squat?" Trish mused.

Betty just rolled her eyes in horror and dabbed at her face with a wet-nap.

"And now to the Tea Pavilion!" Henry announced, determined to keep up the pace. "We will have a chance to visit the fields and orchards from there."

He led them to an area of stone paving at the side of an orchard where, mercifully, there was shade. They all sat at tiny, low stone tables on even tinier and lower stone stools, looking like parents visiting a kindergarten. Village women served them yellow tea in appropriately miniscule cups and worked hard to bring their attention to a large display of Yutian tea -- packages of every size -- arrayed on a long table.

"Yutian Bamboo Green Tea -- very good!" they insisted. "Only thirty kuai!"

"Henry," Mike said in an ominous tone, his knees under his chin as he sipped his thimble of tea with a look of distaste. "You know what? I'm getting damned tired of being treated like a walking wallet."

Everyone else laughed, but they knew what he meant.

"We want to see the real China," Mike explained.

"This is the real China!" Henry countered. He gestured. "See -- real fields, real farmers -- and business is booming!"

"I think what Mike means, Henry," Jerome interjected, "is that we're all hoping to learn specific things here, to gather information to take back. I mean, this is nice"-- he held up his tea cup-- "and I'm going to buy some of this for Marian, but I'd really like to take a little more time on these visits, and get a little more depth. I wish we'd spent more time at the temple and met some of the monks. And I know Jack and Betty want to meet with business people, and Rudy is interested in groups involved with food issues, and--"

"Thank you, Jerome," said Mike elaborately, glad for some support for once. "And I want to meet people who know something about human rights issues, the situation in Tibet --"

Mei Li gave him a sharp glance, and Mike caught it.

"Sorry, Mei Li, but where I come from we're allowed to talk about these things."

Henry Ma and Mayor Drucker both spoke up at once:

"Hahaha --"

"Now, now, now --"

"There are many things to learn in China, and they are all connected," added Henry, somewhat gnomically.

The mayor was more direct.

"We're guests here, Mike," he reminded him flatly. "We have to go by our hosts' schedule, and remember, we have two weeks. I'm sure we'll get to see everything and everyone we need to see."

"I wonder," replied Mike, with a meaningful look at Mei Li.

"I'd really like to meet a few local businesswomen," said Betty, to lighten the atmosphere, but also to make sure she got her request in.

"Here are businesswomen!" Henry exclaimed with alacrity, gesturing broadly at three women squatting in the corner. They were washing teacups in a bucket of water and shaking them dry before stacking them neatly on a tray for reuse. "This teahouse is their business. Before, they only sold vegetables out on the road. They like the tourism business better, I think." He winked at the women and said something in Chinese that made them laugh. "They like meeting foreigners."

"Yeah, I'll bet we give them plenty to talk about," observed Sheldon humorously, leaning back on his stool and stretching his cramped legs. "They've probably never seen so many ugly guys in shorts before." Then he said the same thing to the women in Mandarin, sending them into hysterics. They covered their mouths with their hands, just like the little kids in front of the hotel.

"All these places want to do is sell us stuff," insisted Mike, refusing to be placated. "And fill their relatives' pockets." He looked pointedly at Henry.

This little barb made Trish think of the elderly couple and their son again. Where had they gone? Was this their home? There was still no sign of them as the delegates began their tour of the fields and orchards, during which only Doug stooped to inspect the heads of grain or reached for the branches of the trees to examine the fruit. But on the way out, as they browsed in the village market, Trish spied the old lady sitting on a stool next to a stand that sold Mao memorabilia, talking animatedly to an even older village woman. She looked quite at home gossiping there, and Trish speculated that she was telling her friend all about her trip to the big city, a treat from her rich Canadian relative.

At the same stand, Mike had finally decided to engage with China, in his own way. He was bargaining animatedly for a Mao alarm clock. (Mao's hands, one holding a Little Red Book, pointed to the hour and minute.) Of course Mike couldn't speak Chinese, but he was vigorously punching a calculator that went back and forth between him and the vendor.

"Ha!" he finally declared with satisfaction. "Fifteen kuai. That's about a two dollars. You've got to love these prices." He stashed the clock in his backpack.

"It probably cost the vendor ten cents," Betty muttered to Trish. "You have to admire the mark-ups."

At a nearby stall, Jerome was also negotiating a purchase, but much less aggressively. Trish moved over to see what it was. The vendor had a variety of small models of the famous Terracotta Warriors, some standing, some down on one knee, some on horses.

"The real ones are supposed to all have different expressions," Jerome told her. "These aren't bad -- they do look somewhat different from each other." He chose one standing soldier and one that was kneeling. "My boys might be interested in these. It's like the past is staring you right in the eye." He regarded them thoughtfully. "They look like reliable fellows, don't you think?"

Trish studied the firm, square little pottery faces. They were neither smiling nor terribly serious -- just calmly confident.

"It's a good way to look," she agreed. As Jerome made his purchases, using sign language to get a few kuai off for buying two, Trish's gaze strayed toward their waiting bus, parked under a tree near the village gate. There she saw the old Chinese man again, with Henry, and they were shaking hands. Then Henry slipped him an envelope. The old man bobbed his head up and down, and pressed his joined hands close to his chest in an ancient-seeming sign of gratitude. Then a third man joined them, a middle-aged man from the village, and in his turn he presented Henry with a slender box wrapped in gold paper which Henry, with a nod and a smile, slid into the small leather bag he carried.

The Family? wondered Trish. Yet another interesting scene that she wouldn't be including in her column on the visit to the Model Village.

The delegates were hot and tired as they fell into their by now accustomed seating pattern in the bus, and they were all looking forward to a quick, air-conditioned ride back to the city and a refreshing shower at the hotel. The bus pulled out onto the four-lane highway and many of the delegates began settling into nap mode, but after just a few minutes their driver made a sudden turn onto a rough side road. The road led to what looked like, from a distance, a much-less-than-model village. Incongruously, however, its ragged roofline bristled with crude solar hot water heaters and small satellite dishes.

"Whoa, hey!" protested Mike as the bus jolted them from side to side.

"What's this?" demanded Jack.

"Where are we going now?" wailed Betty.

Mei Li leaned forward to question the driver, but Henry called from the back of the bus, "Not to worry! This is the detour, to avoid the toll going into the city."

"I'll pay the toll!" Jack offered. "I'd sooner ride on a decent road and live."

But the driver continued to barrel down what had now become little more than a bumpy dirt track running between two cornfields. Only a few other vehicles seemed to be taking the money-saving option -- a blue truck far ahead of them, and a noisy gas-powered vegetable tricycle just behind them that was leaving a trail of blue smoke.

The sun was low in the sky, and Trish felt a touch of anxiety as their small bus plowed through the darkening tunnel between the cornstalks.

"This route saves time, too," Henry assured them. "In ten minutes we are back on the highway."

When the bus reached the rough cluster of buildings, a lone man sitting on a caved-in rattan chair under a tattered 7-Up umbrella put out his hand. The driver, coasting slowly but not stopping, handed him a crumpled purple bill, a five jiao note, Trish knew -- about six Canadian cents.

"Another future millionaire," she commented to Betty, watching the man stuff the money into his pants pocket and wave them on.

"You have to give them credit," Betty answered. "They don't miss an opportunity."

"So what would that guy make in a day?" Tony asked in disbelief. "Two bucks, tops?"

"It's a living, here," shrugged Sheldon. "And pure profit."

The bus made its way around the perimeter of the ramshackle hamlet and then out across another field. At the far end of the tunnel of corn, they could see other vehicles like little dots speeding smoothly down the highway toward Yutian. The blue truck was just making the turn to join them.

But the truck had also left some damage behind. A soggy depression in the dirt track had been ground up by the truck's weight and wide tires. The bus driver hadn't noticed this problem until he was on top of it, and now the bus's narrower tires began to slither and bog down. They skidded to the right, then to the left, then stopped and sank further into the mud. Resting there diagonally, the bus completely blocked the way. On both sides, the road dropped away to the fields which were even wetter than the road. No doubt about it, they were stuck.

Actually, this was a situation not unfamiliar to Canadian prairie-dwellers, who lived with clay soil, rural grid roads, and heavy rainstorms. But this only made the predicament worse for the Wheat City delegates: they knew just how stuck they might be. Trish's mind went back to a story her grandmother had often told, about how she and Trish's grandfather, when they were first married, had taken their new pickup truck for a drive one Sunday in spring and gotten bogged down in Paradise Valley, north of Wheat City. They'd had to spend the night in the truck, on some lonely road at the bottom of the valley, with only leftover picnic crusts to survive on, waiting for the gumbo mud to dry out. There was no way, Trish told herself, that she was going to spend the night in a cornfield on this bus -- although part of her realized it would make a great column.

Betty had her own worries. "In another twenty minutes, I'm going to need to use a toilet," she said to Trish in a panicked whisper. "That damned tea."

Henry stomped down the aisle to the front of the bus where he and Mei Li berated the driver, a rather pointless exercise, Trish thought. Then Mike and Mayor Drucker, united for once, joined in, in English, which seemed even more pointless. The others peered out the windows, trying to assess the situation.

"Whoever owns this corn probably wouldn't appreciate us smashing it down, if we tried to drive along the edge," observed Pastor Rudy, weighing their moral choices. "But it looks too soft."

Suddenly there was thumping and shouting at the side of the bus. It was the three men who had been following them on the vegetable tricycle, and whose progress was now blocked. Obviously they had urgent business someplace. The bus driver leaned out of his window and shouted back at them energetically. It was impossible to tell if they were cursing each other or exchanging suggestions for solving the problem.

"Maybe we could all get out and push," Jerome ventured.

Suddenly, it felt like the men outside were doing just that. They were counting in Chinese:

"YEE, AR, SAN!"

On "SAN," there was a strong surge against one rear corner of the bus, followed by the spinning of wheels -- but no forward movement. The driver rocked the bus back and forth this way several times, but the bus stayed put.

The men outside shouted to the driver to stop, and they trooped forward for a conference. Trish looked out and saw that they were now completely spattered with mud, but surprisingly, they were also laughing. Instead of being frustrated or angry, the men seemed exhilarated by their efforts, as if they'd been enjoying an exercise session, even though they were sprayed with mud from their hair to their thin canvas shoes.

A second discussion began with further suggestions shouted back and forth between the three Chinese outside the bus and the three Chinese inside. As this was going on, one of the men on the road caught sight of Trish and Betty peering from the window, and he waved at them. Then he called out something reassuring and gave a thumbs-up sign. He was nice-looking in a way that made race irrelevant, Trish thought. He had a wide, friendly, open face and very short-cut hair. Actually, she realized with a start, he looked more than a little like those "reliable" ancient soldier figures that Jerome had bought. Inexplicably, Trish suddenly felt a lot better about the whole situation. Language was over-rated, she decided. True communication could be accomplished with a smile and a liberal dose of good humor.

Now the men on the road began gesturing toward the fields around them, and Henry and Mei Li were telling the delegates to get out of the bus.

"What's this?" asked Mike suspiciously.

Were they all going to push? Trish wondered. Or were they invited to spend the night in that awful village they'd just passed through? Oh god ...

"Where are we going?" Betty demanded of Henry, halting at the top of the steps.

"We are all going to pitch in," announced Henry with forced enthusiasm, as if introducing a new but slightly dicey attraction of the tour. "We will all go to collect some rocks -- big rocks."

"What for?" demanded Mike. "From where?"

"We will make a crossing together," Mei Li explained.

"We will?" asked Pastor Rudy.

They were told there were rocks at the edge of a field behind the bus, and that it wasn't too muddy there. Obediently, willing to do anything that promised to hasten their return to modern conveniences, the delegates followed one of the vegetable guys and, sure enough, by the side of the road there was a large pile of rocks that had been cleared from the cornfield.

They each grabbed one or two and started trudging back toward the mired bus, but this made too much confusion once they reached the muddy patch. As well, the people wearing sandals were having trouble walking on the rough track. Jerome, the father of five and an excellent organizer, suggested that they form a chain and hand the stones down the line to the men, who knew what to do with them. Then everything fell into place and together they all found a rhythm.

"I never thought I'd end up on a road gang in China," mused Mayor Drucker, pausing to wipe his brow.

"Look at how those men work!" exclaimed Betty, watching the vegetable guys with admiration. "I could use a few of them on my flooring crew at the store."

The men had already laid a crudely paved patch around the rear wheels of the bus, stomping the stones flat in the mud, and now they were starting on another just ahead of the front wheels. The three of them slogged on in the mud, heedless of their cloth shoes. The good-looking one called back to Mei Li and gestured: more rocks flat on one side, or that was Trish's interpretation. Mei Li relayed the message in English and Trish was proud that she'd guessed right. She was becoming almost fluent in body language and facial expressions. Trish also noticed that Mei Li had rolled up her pants and changed her heels for sneakers. And she displayed a nearly military efficiency -- maybe she was a member of the Party, as Mike had insisted.

Although they weren't actually enjoying themselves, the delegates seemed to be getting a certain satisfaction out of this novel form of exercise and cultural immersion. Probably some honest physical work was just what they'd all been needing after riding around in airplanes and buses for days, Trish thought.

The temperature was less stifling now that the sun was lower, and everyone was heartened to see a road back to civilization growing before their eyes. Even Mike seemed to have given himself to the task, when he wasn't trying to get a rise out of Mei Li. But he already had his reward in mind.

"As soon as we get back, I'm going for a massage at that place in the hotel. Then I'm going to have about four of those twenty-five cent Yutian beers. That cheap beer is the best thing this place has going for it." He handed yet another rock to Sheldon.

Then their driver announced he was going to give the project a try, and to everyone's amazement their paving job worked like a charm. The bus shot out of the mire, jerked to a halt on the dry road ahead, and waited for them, its motor running.

Deeply relieved, they all saluted the vegetable guys and piled back on the bus. The three men waved, and then trudged back to their tricycle truck to take their turn at the crossing.

"We really ought to pay them something," Betty admonished Henry, turning to him as he boarded the bus behind her. "They did most of the work, and it was really our fault -- "

Mayor Drucker concurred heartily, to make up for not suggesting this himself, so Henry went back down the steps and the others watched from the bus with interest as he attempted to press money on the reluctant workers. He had the three of them bent backwards over their vehicle, but they fended off the money, protesting vigorously as Chinese politeness required. Then Henry, looking as if he were beginning a physical assault, started stuffing one-hundred yuan notes in their various pockets as they shouted even more loudly. They only stopped resisting when he agreed to accept some tomatoes and melons in return.

At last, Henry was climbing back on the bus, a little red in the face and out of breath, his Dockers smeared with mud, and two bags of Yutian field-fresh produce in his hands. The delegates applauded his efforts on their behalf. Then, as the bus began to pull away, Henry had a last thought. From his seat in the back, he tossed three extra Yutian City gift bags, drawn from his seemingly endless supply, out the rear window. The delegates heard the men shout their thanks, and Trish imagined them, later that evening, enjoying the sample packets of fermented bean curd and pickled mustard root, and trying on the hat. But she wondered what they would do with the embroidered silk chickens.

On the ride back to the city, she was content. She felt that at last she'd had an encounter with the "real" China, just what she needed for her second column. She would tell her readers all about their spontaneous road-building project, the very first Wheat City-Yutian joint venture.

Article © Barbara Rendall. All rights reserved.
Published on 2012-04-30
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