Letter From: China

by Sheilah Bright


Mr. Lee and I stop to stare at jars of pickled vipers. The Sunday market crowd in old Kaili snakes a detour around the tooth-pulling table set up cockeyed on the sidewalk next to us. Across the street, women who dream of mile-high buns sort through bags of unwanted human hair. They pull the thick ebony ropes toward the sun so they can pick the glossiest ones of all.

I look back at the bottled serpents curled around hairy root vegetables adrift in something resembling thick pee.

“It is powerful,” says Lee.

“Must be,” I say. “Look what it did for the snakes.”

He laughs and tugs at the collar of his military-green coat before assuming a scholarly pose. It means a meandering story with more drama than a Chinese opera is about to unfold. Lee often launches into his tales with these words: “I have some wind in my story.”

I spot women from the Long Skirt Miao headed toward the hair shop. Over there, by the huge poster advertising what I hope are hunting dogs, four women of the Big Flower Miao are selling ribbon. Some of the names that Lee bestows on the various minority groups sounded suspect to me at first, but when I fact-checked him, Lee came out an expert.

It was Mini Skirt Miao that threw me. Actually, it was Lee’s narrative about how the women wear short skirts with aprons to “cover their shy parts” and how the unmarried women sit in high chairs while the men sit in small chairs so they have “an advantage.”

I can’t get a handle on the courtship rituals of rural China. Just when I think I have a grasp of things, Lee will point toward a terraced rice field and proclaim, “The village boys come to the market to chase the girls and then they can corrupt them with a meager bowl of noodles.”

Lee coughs, and I turn back to the snake toddy.

“This elixir,” he says. “It’s for, oh, I don’t know how to say. It’s, uh, forgive me, please. It’s for when a man is not, how you say, erecting properly?”

The gallon jar boasts a label with two deer, a snake, possibly a parsnip, and a photograph of a man who looks pissed. There’s a lot going on inside the jar: snake, swollen tubers, garlic scapes, pinto beans, leafy bits. Everything is shaken, not stirred, into a rancid penis punch. At least I think it’s rancid. Lee refuses to let me open it.

“There’s a pill for that, you know,” I tell him. “It’s blue. Viagra. Got to go down easier than that.”

Something flares up over at the hair booth. Women shriek, a couple of kids cry, and men hustle over to settle what appears to be a ponytail tug-of-war between two grandmothers, High Mountain Black Miao, I think. Lee doesn’t notice. He keeps mispronouncing “Viagra” by dragging out the “Viiiiiii” and adding in a “geeeerrrraaaaa” before he gets it right. I suspect he scribbled the word on the paper slipped into his shirt pocket. I don’t think Lee needs Viagra. I think he might want to sell it.

In his village, Lee is known as the shaman boy whose father took him from his destiny as a fixer, sage, and spell-caster. His mother and grandmother trained him in shaman ways for 12 years before his father redirected his life. Education brought him the heart of a poet, the income of a translator and guide, and a ringtone chiming The Godfather. Every time, “Speak Softly Love” cries from Lee’s cell phone, I know someone is inviting us to either a funeral, a wedding, or a water buffalo fight.

“Viagra,”I hear Lee murmur as we join the other photographers back on the small bus. When we finally make it out of a traffic jam, Lee grabs the microphone so he can answer any questions. We’re weary of mental stimulation, saturated by the sounds and smells of the one-stop chaos of the morning market.

Lee clears his throat and says he needs to make an important announcement.

“Today was a special day of our journey together because I discovered a new word from Sheilah,” he says as I slink down into the bus seat sticky from the incessant humidity and the beer I spilled out of my water bottle. “The word goes by the name ‘Viagra.’”

* * *

Lee warns me of the water buffalo with a whisper: “Beware of the horned ones, my friend.”

We are standing in a mud field where hundreds of drunk men are lighting firecrackers and dousing rice wine onto the backs of 50 manure-caked water buffalo. The drunks pull their bulls onto the field by tugging on a rope looped through the beast’s nose ring. About every 10 minutes, a contestant breaks free, scattering the crowd like bowling pins.

Up on the terrace, the mothers lift tin bonnets tall as wedding cakes onto the heads of their impatient daughters while we wait for the men to finish the “my water buffalo is stronger than your buffalo” bravado. Only then can the dancing begin.

In the Hay & Rice Festival lore according to Lee, the wine and firecracker rituals delight the village ancestors.

“What about the water buffalo?” I joke. “Do they enjoy the fireworks?”

“That,inquisitive one,”says Lee,“is a question only fate will answer.”

* * *

On day two or five or ten, we take a wrong turn and bump down a rutted hill until we spot two women carrying baskets of tobacco balanced on their shoulders. Lee motions for the driver to stop so he can ask directions to a certain village where there is either a wedding, a funeral, a festival, or a cock fight.

I can tell by the look on Lee’s face that we are still lost in this land deep in the Guizhou province, where distance is measured in time rather than miles (40 miles can take four hours). He fumbles for the microphone so he can release his eloquent spin on our predicament:

“I am now a stranger to this place,” he says.

When a pig deal goes bad or someone paints a curse upon a neighbor’s door so that the baby won’t eat, the village shaman gets a call. What once was a shout is now usually a cell phone. Many of the Miao shaman throughout southwestern China trust Lee. It’s why we are allowed to watch the shaman from the Zhang’ao village help a 10-year-old boy “get his spirit back from demons.”

I’m ready for an Exorcist experience with a head-spinning child, but the boy is at school, which makes me wonder if the teacher knows about the demons or is she chalking things up to ADD. The shaman squats before a bench filled with small bowls of rice, wine, eggs, and chicken innards. There is fresh blood upon the floor. He chants. We watch. We take photographs. No one speaks except the shaman, whose spirit song sounds hauntingly beautiful in the dark, smoldering room.

I am anxious to hear what Lee has to say. In the kitchen, I find him sharing a bowl of sunflower seeds with the boy’s mother. He translates the shaman’s chants as “Go demon, go down to the mysterious river and retrieve the boy’s soul from elaborate trickery.”

“What about the boy?” I ask. “Will he survive?”

“Oh, most certainly,” says Lee. “His leg fatigue will drift away because this was an auspicious day when the Americans came.”

I can’t help but think about Lee’s almost life and the theatrical flair he might have brought to the shaman stage. Yesterday when I asked him about the rooster tied to the top of a coffin, he gave a 40-minute oratory about how the cock is carried to the end of a tomb pit by the shaman who tells the soil to take the chicken. The chicken is “whacked on the cold, black coffin until it groans” so that the chicken’s spirit can “travel like a tour guide” with the deceased’s spirit on a journey back to the ancestors. But danger awaits, even for a dead chicken.

“Don’t take the right side of the road, for there are many demons,” Lee said. “Stay, chicken, stay on the left side for it leads to the Yellow River.” I looked around and confirmed that everyone else had slipped into sleep. I am the only one who hears this gem: “The chicken is a passenger on a one-way trip to an invisible world.”

* * *

It is a special day. In the prose according to Lee, call it “lusty with memory.”

We’ve been invited to a wedding of a Dong couple.The bride is so excited she purchased cakes to share with us, her special guests. Our group includes a former National Geographic photographer, and I think the odds are great that Lee has mentioned it to snag the wedding invite. Rain follows us into the groom’s village clogged by traffic. The bride and her family are hitching a ride from their village hours away.

The theme song from The Godfather sounds even more haunting on a day darkened by clouds.

“Oh,” says Lee.“Oh, I see.”

He motions for the bus to stop and disappears into the mist steaming from the rice paddy. Fifteen minutes later, Lee returns with an announcement:

“My heart is weary to inform you that the groom’s family has terminated the wedding.”

Here’s the short version: The mother didn’t think the girl was good enough for her son, even though the couple had already had a hook-up in a Mitt Romney-owned factory and produced a child. (Lee swears this is true.)

With a captive audience sitting on a bus now bound for an adventure yet to be determined, Lee releases a romantic tale of Shakespearean scale as the “star-crossed lovers full of dreams yearn for happiness” and the boy’s parents shun the girl “because she is not as beautiful or tall and cannot toil in the fields like a water buffalo.”

Halfway through his story, “Speak Softly Love” rings out again. When Lee hangs up, he tells us the jilted bride is sobbing in the corner of a “house where darkness has fallen,” and the villagers have come to eat all the food and the baby is wailing for “happiness that will never be found.” We stop in the bride’s village so Lee can drop by and donate some money to cover the cost of the wedding feast.

When he steps back on the bus, he pulls the microphone up to his mouth as if he’s proposing a toast.

“The bride …” he says and pauses for drama’s sake, “The bride requests forgiveness for your inconvenience, and she sends you this gift for your troubles. Let us indulge in their goodness and wish her fulfillment in her journey for joyfulness.”

The box of snack cakes look as cheap as they likely taste but, cradled in the arms of our silver-tongued master of ceremonies, they glisten as golden transports of delight, at least that’s how I think Lee would describe them.

* * *

I need to buy the condoms I found on my bed last night at the “Matrimonial Hotel” in Sandu. It’s the labels, not the rubbers, that I’m after.

“LET YOU ARE IN INTENSE EMOTION THE SATETY SLIPS: The Man Controls. Sexual intrest entertainment apex pleasure.”

The sexual snack box on my bed read: “Charged article will be deemed to use if it is opened.” The lights in my room didn’t work, and the drain pipe clattered to the bathroom floor when I turned on the water, but there were condoms aplenty in my room.

Who could resist?

Coming off a night where I convinced six young male hairstylists to give all the women head-and-shoulder massages, my transaction won’t go unnoticed by Lee. I’m going to miss the language of my shaman translator. I came to China to capture its countryside with a camera and am leaving with a mental soundtrack of a man in love with the spoken word.

Yesterday, Lee told me a story about his former teacher. It took him more than an hour to work through plot points, which I think he borrowed from The Godfather: Part II.

I see him in the lobby and hand him a handful of yuan for the condoms.

“They’re for my brother,” I say. “He’s a bachelor.”

Lee tips his head, smiles, and doesn’t say a word.

But in my mind, I hear, “May your nights throb, my American friend, with lubricious memories of my beloved land.”

Originally published in This Land, Vol. 4 Issue 13. July 1, 2013.