Not all my tales are happy tales. I could pretend I’ve never done anything wrong, never anything culturally insensitive or outright stupid, but that wouldn’t be a very genuine representation of my travels nor of my general experience as a human being. One thing I learned early on writing literary nonfiction is the uncomfortable necessity of owning up to every detestable flaw in yourself and your actions … it turns out, few readers are interested in reading about the lives and experiences of perfect people. Anyway, here’s a tale for which I will always feel badly. But maybe you can draw your own useful lesson from it. Another tale of hospitality, this one from the Chinese peasant village I volunteered in as an ethnographic researcher, during the first of my two visits there. It was the home village of our principal investigator, Anrong.
It was difficult leaving the village each year; it’s amazing how emotionally attached you can get to a place in just a short period of time. At my first parting, in a final frenzy of generosity and good will, Anrong’s family came with a basket of fresh-picked dates and began quite literally stuffing us with them … filling pockets and bags. They were so happy in the giving of this gift, the way I felt introducing the kids to chocolate and stickers, and the following year I brought gifts I knew the villagers were sure to like, as I knew more about them by then. Though I’d suffered the whole trip trying to evade the bounty of the date harvest continually offered in hospitality because I do not like dates, I couldn’t possibly refuse it now, they were really tickled to be able to share their harvest with us.
But I thought I had been somewhat resourceful — when Anrong’s brother, Anju, came to me with the date basket, I unzipped the cargo pocket on my pants which already had my wallet in it, indicating that was all the space I had for food, which fortunately wasn’t too much. I was pleased with my little ploy, as other volunteers had much more room in their pockets and handbags. Suddenly, I felt a tug at my back. Anju had gone around and unzipped my daypack and poured the basket of dates in there. He came back around with a smile so warm and delighted it was a silver dagger in my heart. All I could do was thank him profusely.
When we arrived back in Yulin, Anrong had reserved a couple of hotel rooms for us to rest in and shower if we wished before boarding our flight back to Xian. The other women volunteers and I gathered together in one of the rooms to sit and chat, and we all laughed over the dates. We each emptied our supply onto the little table in the room to see the effect of the accumulated date supply, which was fairly staggering, and it just really made us laugh with fondness as we marveled over the sweetness of the villagers and this mountain of fruit. But by then I was not the only one who couldn’t eat dates; most everyone else had eaten so many in the village they didn’t really care for any more.
After awhile, as our departure time drew near, we each got distracted with securing our luggage for the plane ride and buying some last minute items in the city, and recapping with one another what a remarkable experience we’d just had. By the time Anrong came to the room to tell us it was time to go to the lobby and head out to the airport, we’d completely forgotten about the dates. While we stood in the hallway, Anrong took a quick look around the room to make sure we hadn’t forgotten anything, and he spied the table piled high with fruit.
“The dates!” he cried. “What about your dates? Aren’t you taking them?”
“Oh. … No.” We now realized we shouldn’t have just left them there.
“But my brother gave them to you as a gift. They’re a gift from my family for you to eat!” His voice leaked out a terrible stream of hurt and confusion. And we were all stunned into shame. Only at that moment did it sink in how deeply important this was for the villagers, not only as a gesture of hospitality and friendship, but also a significant sacrifice of their meager personal resources. And we had carelessly tossed the gesture aside, not out of conscious disrespect but out of thoughtless ignorance, failing to appreciate, I think particularly egregiously, the significance of a gift of food in China of all places, where the villagers had spent much of their lives haunted by starvation, their physical stature stunted by chronic malnutrition.
Fortunately someone had the sense to think quickly and said, “But we can’t take them back to America; we’re not allowed to take fresh fruit through customs.” We all chimed in on that note and explained to Anrong the customs regulations. And it’s true; we couldn’t have taken them back to America. But that was only an afterthought.
Forlornly, Anrong closed the door of the hotel room.