Stealing our business

When going to a faraway place, my host family insists upon the aid of locals, claiming that otherwise, we would be lost, or swindled, or found in a ditch with our passports and clothes and dignity stolen. Therefore, even though we were “free-walkers,” referencing a poorly translated bit of Chinese from Hainan Airlines’ travel magazine, we were still largely under the direction of a group of local tour guides and drivers. Yunnan, a place where large numbers of ethnic minorities converge (66 in Kunming, 52 in Dali, 22 in Lijiang, as claimed by our guides), perhaps due to its diversity, has a particular set of rules dictating the behavior of tour guides. We went to three cities, and we switched guides and drivers three times. In Kunming, the Yi people dominated, in Dali, the Bai people, and in Lijiang, the Naxi people. Our second guide, a particularly cute Bai girl, or Golden Flower, who was only a few years older than myself, explained it as territorial behavior. Stepping across city bounds into another ethnic territory was seen as stealing the food right out of another people’s rice bowl, and is not done, out of respect and a basic avoidance of conflict.

Consequently, we were able to experience a distinctly different culture every time we swapped cities, or woke up from a terrifying midnight train ride. The conversations would naturally shift towards marriage, marriage rites, and the treatment of male female relationships. Sure, most of this served as amusement, such as the Bai people, whose unwed men wear their hair in a small pony tail at their crown, and the caressing of this tail indicated a potentially interested partner; or the Mosuo people, who are regarded as one of the only relics of the so-called “walking marriage,” in other words, no marriage, in which children have mothers and uncles, but no fathers. A Mosuo boy throws a bone to his partner’s watchdog, and welcomes himself into her bed, only to sneak away in escape before dawn.

Our Golden Flower spoke of herself: in the Bai tradition, the person who seeks the wedding must support the family. She is the breadwinner of the family, working long hours, especially during peak travel season. She said that marriage cannot be looked upon as a game, but as a duty, and that sometimes personal sacrifices need to be made in the interest of the family. As she spoke of this, and the Bai people’s particular version of Valentine’s Day, April 25, when you fail to honor your partner, but seek instead to reunite with lovers past, a wet glint streaked across her eyes.

Location: Dali, Yunnan, China