Article by Carolyn
It occurs to me that I’ve never told you the story about when we moved into our rural Miao village. It begins on a train in Guizhou when our daughter Li Chen befriended a film director who was in the area looking for a location. We booked into the same hotel in Kaili and visited a number of Miao villages with him over the weekend before he returned to Beijing. A couple of days later he called to say some people from the media were on their way to see us. “I’ve told them you want to live in a village and they’re going to help you,” he said. Within moments the director of the local television station, the head of the Guizhou province education department, one interpreter, two journalists and a cameraman were sitting in our hotel room.
They were back the next morning at 9 o’clock with a mini bus. “I never go to the countryside,” the in- terpreter whispered to me as we drove out of town, “when I’m not working I stay at home and watch television.” “I haven’t had a television for 18 years,” I whispered back.
Twisting beside a river we wove through a landscape of conical hills and terraced rice paddies where water buffaloes ambled along followed by men guiding ar- chaic wooden ploughs. Driving across a bridge with a fluted tile roof, the road curled steeply round a hill then ended abruptly in a small cobbled square. We were greeted by a group of local officials and taken directly into a meeting. They discussed our aims and our background and told us what the village could offer. We’d feared bureaucratic complications but none arose. Even our concerns about language were quelled; lessons in the village school were taught in Mandarin which most of the villagers also spoke, along with the Miao language and the local dialect. We moved swiftly onto the matter of accommoda- tion.
While the cameraman filmed and the reporters took notes, 15 of us filed out of the office down the cob- bled street and into a new pine lodge at the foot of the village. “We were really hoping to rent an older building or even share with a family,” said Cassian. His comment was translated and the group shuffled uncomfortably. “This is the only building in the village with a shower,” mumbled the interpreter. “A shower is not essential, if other people manage without one so can we,” I replied blithely. Heads nodded, there was a brief discussion and we trotted back along the cobbled path, down a flight of steps, past a fish pond and onto the courtyard of just the kind of place we’d had in mind. A dog barked and cats and chick- ens scattered as we trooped up. A short man with a big belly and a dimpled smile came hurrying out followed by a thin woman with a pink carnation in her hair. They invited us to look around. We entered a dark, stone floored kitchen; two great woks were set into a counter above a fireplace, vegetables lay in a pile on the floor, crockery was stacked in a card board box and a low ta- ble surrounded by stools sat in the centre of the room. There was no sink. The main room was more promising with a 4 meter long balcony with a view of the valley and the hills. There were a number of bedrooms on the sec- ond floor but what appealed most was the rickety two-story pagoda- like structure on the side of the building. Cassian was confident he could make it weatherproof and Mr Pan and his wife Wan said they’d bag up their rice and store it elsewhere. They proposed a rent, including meals, of 300 Yuan per month and everyone started to smile. The following night we watched ourselves on the 9 o’clock news and the morning after we moved in. Both the village and the land- scape were so picturesque we felt like we’d arrived on a classical Chi- nese film set only no one was act- ing and we were part of the scene.
Li Chen was now free to roam and Cassian started happily sawing wood again. But Wan’s hygiene procedures alarmed me and my digestion did not adapt readily to the quantities of pig fat we were expected to eat. The dog, the two cats and the pushy white chicken who milled round our feet at meal- times did better than usual. Then the newspaper articles started coming out. We took a bus to the next village and people came run- ning up to us in the street. Chinese tour groups began to include us on their itinerary. The English couple and their adopted Chinese daugh- ter who lived in a Miao village; we were an enigma. I was washing my hair one morning and looked up to see 20 cameras pointing at me from the other side of the fish pond. One reporter flew in from Shanghai, two from Taiwan. We were treated like celebrities and deluged with presents; most of them sweet and unsuitable includ- ing a baby black rabbit who was the cause of much concern. The media said we were going to stay two years but in those first few days it seemed unlikely we’d last two weeks.