Qyinghai Provence, China 2007
We had stopped at a regular tourist set-up with young people dressed in traditional costume to welcome us. They were paid government workers, but that didn’t diminish their genuine smiles of friendship. Across the road, though, were the real people, in dirty western work clothes carrying hoes, pitchforks and maybe pushing wheelbarrows. (Did you know the Chinese invented the wheelbarrow? They used to use it as a sort of rickshaw in the old days…for transporting people, I mean.)
I wanted to photograph those real people. I walked across the street and, as our leader was a photographer, he was soon beside me in case there was a photo-op. You know how photographers are. Our leader was Chinese and he spoke to the villagers as we photographed. He agreed to go to their village where we met this woman’s mother.
She came out of her courtyard and invited us in with an enthusiasm we had seldom seen in China. She ushered us into her home. It was dark and, to be honest, messy, but it looked like a home. They had a kang in one room. This is a platform of tile or concrete with a hollow space underneath where heat from a stove is directed resulting in a warm place to sleep or sit in cold weather. The room where we sat had several twin sized beds…not like ours…more like cots.
The mother rushed about serving us each a cup of tea from a thermos and she set some flat bread the size of hamburger buns on the table as well. Neither was that good. The tea was lukewarm and the bread was not fresh. But we ate and drank with outward relish. The mother was a bit anxious and kept going to the door to look out. More than anything, it seemed, she did not want us to leave.
Soon we realized why we were so special. Her daughter arrived, red of face and out of breath. Immediately she rushed to one of the cabinets and pulled out a paper bag. Then she began laying the contents on a table on the front porch. Her needlework. Her mother had sent word to her at her job that she had corralled a bunch of tourists and her daughter needed to get home in a hurry in case there was some money to be made.
And there was! We bought almost all of her work. The mother was beside herself with joy. She kept smiling a toothless smile and holding both her hands next to her smiling face with the thumbs up sign. It was a perfect day for all of us.
I refer to this woman as a peasant, which really means countrywoman. Peasant is not a word we use very much, but it is not a slur.