What I remember most clearly is the darkness. I had not been in China for sixteen years and I was unprepared for how dark it would be, how dim the lightbulbs would seem after the brightness of America, or even Hong Kong with its glittering nightlife and neon signs, where my mother and I had spent three days before flying into Guizhou. Even the lights along the highway seemed dimmer as we drove away from the provincial capitol where we'd arrived by plane. A long ride in a chartered bus, and we arrived in a smaller city where we would spend the night before heading closer to our destination; the hotel seemed grand, but the hallways felt narrow and dark. And the next day, and the day after - it's all a blur - would take us deeper into the countryside, deeper and darker than the days before.
Nearly five years ago, just before I turned twenty-two - actually my birthday would fall somewhere during our trip, in one of the small towns we passed through on our way to X'ian and then onto Dunhuang - my mother and I went to China to visit some schools that were helped by a scholarship program run by some friends of hers. Later my mother would become more involved with the program, but at the time we were there to observe as a documentary filmmaker worked on a film for...well, I can't remember what the film was for. I was there because I hadn't been to China since I was six years old, and it was time to return. We arrived at the small village during the day; our group would stay in a sort of guesthouse below the school. It was a two-storied building made of wood, barely lit by a few low-wattage lightbulbs. A long gallery ran along the front of the building; we slept in sleeping bags on bare mattresses, several of us sharing a room. (Perhaps I'm remembering this all wrong).
I had not really thought about our trip for a while now, until tonight when my mother handed me another documentary that she had brought back from her most recent trip. The music began; green hills terraced with rice paddies and dotted with dark wooden houses flickered across the tv screen, and the memories came back. As a man began talking about his family and the house he was trying to build for them I remembered sitting on those low stools - simply made, probably without nails, they hovered about six inches off the ground - in the dimly lit rooms of those wooden houses. Every meal took place sitting on those tiny stools, the seats not more than a foot long and less than six inches wide (or so they seemed to me), around a correspondingly low, round table.
In the poverty of the countryside chickens and eggs were luxuries, things we ordinarily take for granted. As honored guests we were lavished with eggs at every meal. (This is one of the few things I remember, which should not come as a surprise to anyone). Breakfast consisted of bowls of fine noodles in some kind of broth, topped with a fried egg and whatever seasonings you might want to add. It was unnerving to watch the cook slip the raw egg into what seemed like an unnecessary amount of oil that boiled away in the deep wok. The edges would turn lacy and golden in the hot oil, and the egg would be carefully lifted out onto the noodles. Lunch and dinner were always the same, dishes of green vegetables, eggs (probably scrambled with tomatoes, although I can't quite remember), some kind of meat dish, usually fat pork. The rice was different from the sticky white Japanese rice we have at home. Everything was different. I was halfway around the world, and it felt like another planet. Especially when night fell, and you were left with the darkness.