Lunch with a Dao Family

Not far from the Tea House, we were led to a Dao Family’s hut. (Dao is a government classification for various minorities in China and Vietnam. They are one of the 55 officially recognised ethnic minorities in China and reside in the mountainous terrain of the southwest and south. They also form one of the 54 ethnic groups officially recognised by Vietnam. In the last census in 2000, they numbered 2,637,421 in China and roughly 470,000 in Vietnam).

The home was constructed from bamboo and straw in the traditional manner and was rasied on stilts. A small pond emerged from their backyard and a short shed sat beside it. Shan told me this shed was an “eco-toilet”, and the fish in the pond would filter the incoming waste. It was also used for showers and washing dishes and vegetables.

Entering the home I immediately felt welcomed by the presence and smell of burning wood, dark/cool atmosphere of slivers of light sneaking through the thatched roof, and casual nature of the family towards visitors. A silent middle aged man sat by the fire, brewing a red tea from the mountains as his wife asked us to sit on the straw mat.It was important that we sat cross-legged as placing feet face down on the mat was considered impolite. I also found out the hard way that it was disrespectful to pass through the middle of the mat instead of walking around the edges. The tea was poured for us from a plastic jug into glasses.

In the corner, a  female elder was chopping up pig fat and her husband removed the kernels from dried corn cobs with his bare hands. This was then ground into a powder, and used as flour and feed for the animals. We helped with this task, though initially difficult, we found the correct technique with his assistance. A small tube TV remained on for our entire stay, playing informercials and a Chinese Kung-Fu film.

We were asked to join for lunch and went out foraging for these large citrus-smelling leaves that would later be cooked with the pig’s innards. When we returned, we were offered to try a special chewing mixture that stains your mouth black and strengthens your teeth. It consisted of a powdered stone that had been burned in a fire for about seven days (a.k.a. pure calcium), a blend of wood chips and dried plants wrapped inside a betel pepper leaf. I felt a little high chewing this and the taste was very pungent, creating a slight burning sensation. You are not supposed to swallow, instead you spit the blood orange liquid into a communal spitting pail. They do this regularly and seemed amused at my weak attempt to chew.

I was also shown how to sift rice in a woven bamboo basket to find and remove small grits. The matriarchal lady who provided our tea had a particular way to do this that was hypnotizing.

Lunch was ready and they brought out another mat as more people came. Everyone wore modern clothes except for the matriarch who donned a traditional Dao head dress. The meal included these fried fern-like stalks and leaves that we had picked earlier that day, a soup with a simple broth and the citrus leaves, pig liver, fat and innards, and a chili and garlic fish sauce for dipping. Even though I don’t usually eat meat, I mindfully indulged in everything and it was delicious!

They also brought out a special medicinal rice wine with chopped wild bananas that contained large seeds. It endlessly flowed, pouring us shot glass after shot glass. Shan told me that the people view drinking tea as an intellectual activity - meant to stimulate the mind. However, drinking alcohol is considered a chance to open your heart to and share your vulnerabilities. Each family member offered to share a drink with me. We would clink our glasses and they would say something honest from the heart. The matriarch said that she usually feels self-conscious about hosting westerners because she does not have much money or own many things, but today she said Shan made her feel comfortable and confident to open up and feel at peace with sharing what she has with us. I thanked her for providing for all of us, we were touched by her generosity and candidness and told her she didn’t need to be concerned about difference of class and money as there is nothing to be ashamed of. After drinking it is customary to shake the hand of the fellow drinker. I thought this was influenced by Western culture but Shan told me it was tradition.

Once we were finished stuffing ourselves with plants, pig and rice wine - it was time to depart. We left with out minds, hearts and stomaches satisfied and memories we will not forget.


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