Jennifer A. Chin (cswallow) wrote,
Jennifer A. Chin

Days 3-4: Foray to the Border and a Bird Lady

 This Sunday was busy and will leave me as sore as Saturday's gardening left me. Yesterday we went to the place where the borders of China, Russia and North Korea meet. It feels very remote, despite the clusters of buildings that arise within each country, for it feels nearly abandoned. Both the Russian and North Korean sides of the border are totally treeless. From China's lookout deck you can gaze over the river, and a set of railway tracks (the only railway between Ru and NK). It feels very odd to be so close to North Korea, land of mystery and hardship. 

After an enormous lunch of Korean BBQ, we gardened in the back yard, clearing out branches to make space for beans, cucumbers, tomatoes, melons, squash, and flowers. The soil in our yard is black and rich. Liu Tong (aka Tony) loves to garden/farm and he taught me exactly how deep and how far apart to put each type of vegetable and flower. It wasn't long before my jeans, fingers and even my nose were covered in dirt. In those times, and as I stand over the stove in the kitchen cooking, I think: how easily this could have been my entire life. It all feels right, somehow. 

I've finally learned the art of the sponge bath. Given that we don't have hot water, I have learned how to use stove-boiled water to bathe. A useful skill that I've shared with my Australian counterpart, and that has made both of our lives much happier (the alternatives were: ice cold shower or public shower). On Saturday, Mel and I were both craving something sweet for dinner, so we made french toast and fried bananas - highly satisfying. I guess I can't shake the American in me, despite everyone's expectations to the contrary. Everyone who meets me says, "She looks Chinese, I thought she was." They are surprised, later, when my Chinese pronunciation marks me so clearly as a foreigner.

Yesterday, Sunday, Tony took us to meet his friend: A 70-year-old ornithologist who lives up at the end of the road past one of the rural villages. Most of this wide valley floor has been flattened for agriculture. Rice fields glimmer amongst the rutted half-paved roads, and on the hillsides you can see ginseng cultivation - a process that guts the soil of its nutrients and leaves the hillsides fit only for trees. This woman, who I only knew as "lao niang" (a respectful address for "auntie") lives in an enormous house in the mountain foothills with true, free-range chickens, honeybees, two cute dogs that serve as garbage disposals for bones, a large fish pond, and trellises and small fields where she grows apples, grapes, wild kiwi, butter lettuce, chives, squash.. everything, really.  She is also the preeminent bird expert of this area, and bands tens of thousands of migrating birds every year. She wakes up at 3:30 to check the mist nets, and sometimes has a cadre of nearly 15 people to help her.

But today, she was just Lao Niang. Tony, Mel and I headed into the mountains for two hours to collect NTFPs (non timber forest products) for lunch: ferns and flowers that I never would have known I could eat. By the time we came back, she'd produced her own delicious vegetables, roast duck made by her daughter in law's mother, paper-thin "bing" (a type of Chinese tortilla), and fresh eggs. We had a feast for lunch and she looked at me and said, "see, when you come to China, you've come home."

Before we left we went up to a field and collected a local vegetable that to my eyes look liked a backyard weed. From the rise, I could look out over low mountain ridges, arching teal blue and back-like in the shadow of rainclouds. Every breath was cool, and clean. We took the wicker basket of vegetables and let them wash clean in the clear mountain stream by her house. For the first time, I understood why much of the older generation would never want to leave this life. From here, the city of Hunchun for all its smallness, was a haphazard, harried mess. Somehow, this farm seemed cleaner than the city's stores.

Lao Niang's son visits her every weekend from Yanji, and he gave us a ride back to the WCS office/house. We wrapped the local vegetable with beef and egg into dumplings. Tony gave me high praise for my potstickers - after horribly burning the first pan, I turned out a near-perfect second batch - saying, "99% of Chinese girls couldn't make them this well." Thank you, mom! 
Tony heads home, Mel and I sit down for the night. Joshua comes back from his own adventures and we swap stories - he met an expert in Chinese medicine who wanted to talk politics, but it seems we all have a lot of progress to make on our Chinese vocabulary! I finish my Chinese studying for the night and crawl into bed to talk to Clay on Skype, to read the NY Times, and to catch up on my Google Reader feed.

Now it's Monday morning, and I must get dressed and go downstairs to work. My promise of photos holds true - they will be up by this time tomorrow. 
Tags: about cs, travel - asia
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