Yuanyang (元陽), Part 4 Finale

Mr. Ma is cooking in the traditional way using the huge wood fire stove.

I want to tell you more about Mr. Ma. He was a school teacher for 30 years and he probably taught all the grown ups in the village. He also worked on his paddy fields and so you can imagine how hard working he is to support his family.

Taking a dream-like stroll to Mr. Ma’s fields where the family has been growing brown rice for generations.

Although he is much older than us, he has this almost angelic pureness in the way he speaks and smiles. He is smart and despite he never stepped foot outside Yunnan, he has a good understanding of the world outside and the issues we face when we talked about the current affairs in Hong Kong and cultural differences.

Mr. Ma wrote the calligraphy for the entrance of the village administration house.

I learned a lot from his daughter too. She is rather demure and always busy in the kitchen or cleaning rooms. I love our time in the kitchen. She showed me how to prepare the wild vegetables which need to be soaked overnight and boiled beforehand to get rid of the bitter taste before stir frying. When we were preparing chicken together, she asked if I wanted to keep the head and use the blood. It took me a few seconds to comprehend what she said.  It then dawned on me that we are so wasteful in our modern way of life as it has never occurred to me that I would eat the head or know what to do with the blood. We are so used to abundance that we forgot that we must treasure everything no matter how small or trivial it is.

The local tofu is tasty with a harder texture and smoky fermented taste and we love the locally grown wild vegetables.
We met Mr. Ma’s wife who was on her way to the field and start the day.

Mr. Ma invited us to join their annual pig-killing dinner (殺豬飯), which is the biggest annual occasion to celebrate the coming of the new year. We were so thrilled and extended our stay so that we could join.

Mr. Ma is checking the auspicious day to hold the kill-the-pig dinner

The locals usually raise their own pig for the annual family dinner. But due to the swine flu epidemic last year, almost all pigs died in the village, so Mr. Ma reserved one in advance from another village.

Everyday, we saw the local women collecting and carrying bundles of wood home for cooking.

So there was an important mission to take the pig home (趕豬) and of course we volunteered without the faintest idea what we had got ourselves into. It was no easy task to usher an over 120-pound pig to walk four kilometres of dirt trail.

I was about to find out what is walking a pig like and get a taste of the rustic way of life.

Just getting the pig out of the pigsty took half an hour. Kin and I stood outside watching Mr. Ma and the pig farmer chasing the four pigs round and round. Finally, Mr. Ma got hold of the pig he reserved and we slowly made him (I assume a male pig) walk to the direction heading our village.

Mr. Ma paid the pig farmer before we embark on our once-in-a-life-time walk with the pig.

I walked in the front to entice the pig to follow me with a lot of coaxing, just like a mom patiently encouraging her tired child to walk. Kin and Mr. Ma guarded at the back in case it escaped. We made progress at a snail’s pace. Half way through, as it was getting dark, Mr. Ma called his family and eventually it took over four hours and eight people to get the pig home.

We had no idea how much patience and nudging it would take for our long journey home with the pig.

Although we were exhausted, it was an incredible experience as I had never been so close to a pig in my life. I was only a step ahead of him to show him which way and which step I took. He was very intelligent and he seemed to trust me. Very quickly, he knew that I was showing him the safest way and followed me closely. I could feel its fear when the trail got rocky or when there was a gap ahead. I got quite attached to him and felt sad that he would be our dinner the next day.

I showed him how to go down the trail every step of the way and I was moved by how intelligent and trusting he was but also saddened by the inevitable fate awaited him.

We got back to the guesthouse after 8pm. When I was helping Mr. Ma’s daughter cook dinner, a guest came down and asked her to go upstairs. Afterwards, I asked her what happened. Apparently, there was a moth in his room and she had to take care of it for him. I found it so pathetic and ironic – considering we just came back after walking a pig for the past four hours. What is wrong with some city people really?

The Ma’s house was bustling with action – cutting and preserving the various parts of the pig both for the big dinner that night and future use.

The next morning, there was a lot of action in the Ma’s house. We did not have the courage to witness the killing, so we went to the house in the afternoon. The whole family and the relatives were busy cutting, washing, marinating and cooking various parts of the pig. They were also smoking two huge pork legs over a smouldering wood fire. It would take 2 months before it is ready.

The big kitchen is in fact part of the older house and the two pork legs would be slowly smoked with wood fire for at least two months.
We tried to make ourselves useful by buying soft drinks and beer for the dinner and attracted quite a crowd in the village store.

In Hong Kong, Chinese New Year is getting too commercialized and less personal. Here in Yuanyang, we experienced what sharing with the family and the community is about. After a hard day’s work of killing the pig and preparing the dinner, about forty people gathered together to eat and drink heartily. It was a big feast of dishes made of various parts of the pig. There was one particular delicacy that we did not dare to eat which was raw pig blood mixed with chopped herbs and spices.

We treasure this hearty meal as we saw all the hard work the whole family put into this joyful occasion. Mr. Ma looked content as his family gathering around the dinner tables. 
We ate on the ground floor which is the living room cum bedroom. The bed is only a few feet away on our right.

We sat at the main table together with Mr. Ma and his relatives. He also invited another family who just arrived at the guesthouse from Shenzhen. The women, the sons and children sat at other tables. Despite the language barrier as Mr. Ma’s relatives only spoke the local dialect, they were talkative and we toasted a lot and wished each other good health and happy new year. We were very lucky indeed to be part of this special occasion and were deeply touched by their generosity.

Toasting good health with Mr. Ma’s daughter-in-law. He is a good and hard-working husband – always doing chores of all kinds around the guesthouse ever since he came back from work in Sichuan.

After way too much drinking and eating, we merrily walked back to the guesthouse and surprisingly I could still walk a straight line. Although we did not get to be with our own family for CNY, it was definitely the next best way to celebrate the Year of the Rat!

It was sad to say goodbye to Mr. Ma and his family. It took us a month to finish the salted pork belly he gave us. Each time we have it, I think of Mr. Ma’s smile and his family.

Finally, we came to the end of our time in Yuanyang. We did not want to leave as we are so fond of Mr. Ma and his family. After breakfast, Mr. Ma handed us a big bag of gift. It contained a huge pork leg and some salted pork belly meat they salted yesterday. We simply could not accept it as we knew how expensive the pig cost him. So we only took a small portion of the pork belly meat. Sadly, we bid farewell and promised that we will come back again.

We drove three hours north to Kunming. After 10 days in the heavenly clouds, I felt strange being back to the rather harsh reality of a big city with concrete high-rise and highways. We miss Mr. Ma and his family already.

Three days later, we got a call from Mr. Ma. He was worried about us as the local government had stepped up the preventive measures against the coronavirus and closed all the hotels and tourist destinations. He asked if we were heading home. We were so warmed by his call and we know that we will be in each other’s thought always.

4 thoughts on “Yuanyang (元陽), Part 4 Finale

  1. Thank you for letting me to know more about China. The people are so warm there. I hope you four have a wonderful journal n’ bring us more touching and interesting stories. ^^

    Stay strong and healthy!!!!

    1. Thanks for your encouraging support. China is such a vast and beautiful country and we are blessed to be able to get to know more about the people of various provinces and villages.

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