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108 braids... the devotional representation of a sacred Tibetan number. Photo by Rebecca Thom, China Semester.

The Artists of Bangdong

3,425 tea leaves. Over the course of five hours, my sling bag has become heavier and heavier on my shoulder as it has fattened up with the day’s harvest. Exhausted, I plop down by a persimmon tree and take a gratifying sip from my water bottle.

This marks the fourth day of my stay with my host family in Bangdong, a village nestled in the rustic foothills of western Yunnan. For my Shushu (uncle), Gege (older brother), and Sao (Gege’s wife), tea-picking is as fundamental to their daily lives as school is to mine back in the States. That said, they approach their work with a level of discipline I have yet to match. Even on the rainiest of days, my host family reaches the field before sunrise every morning, equipped with nothing more than woven baskets. By mid-evening, these containers are carried home brimming with Pu’er tea leaves—a village staple—which Sao conveys via motorbike to a local processing facility.

Now, from my spot under the tree, I can see Shushu, Gege, and Sao sandwiched between the tightly-packed tea bushes, busy at work. They focus their attention on the lightest color leaves, careful to leave at least one pair remaining on each branch so that the plant won’t be stripped bare. Even though I follow this same technique, it takes me several hours to pick an amount of leaves that they could pick in 15 or 20 minutes. Like a violinist, their fingers link with the leaves in an easy rhythm, gliding back and forth.

Pluck. Snap. Toss. Pluck. Snap. Toss. Pluck. Snap. Toss.

Laughter and chatter periodically break the mountain stillness. They don’t feel like an intrusion, though; rather, they add to the playful mood that sustains us through the day. Sao even uses her phone to take pictures and videos of anything that piques her interest, whether it be a picturesque sky or a funky insect. Clearly, my host family treats this tea field as something more than a workplace; it is an escape, a canvas for morphing the mundane into rich, meaningful experiences.

All of a sudden, Shushu pauses and turns in my direction, beckoning me over.

“Chifanle!” “It’s time for lunch!”

I join them near a little hut at the top of the field, where we all eat home-cooked leftovers from plastic baggies. I mostly sit in silence watching the others chat, as they are speaking in the local Baihua dialect of Chinese that I barely understand. Gege abruptly turns to me and switches to Putonghua, or standard Mandarin.

“You know, when I grew up here, we weren’t tea farmers.”

“What?” I’d never heard anything about this before.

“Yeah,” he chuckles, “We only grew rice, and it was just to feed ourselves. The village was a completely different place back then—we didn’t have any roads, vehicles, or even electricity here.”

I look at my 32-year-old host brother in utter shock. Sure, we’re on a remote mountainside, but I can’t fathom how the lights, running water, and motorcycles at my host family’s house were all absent not too long ago. Not to mention that the road alongside their place is such a critical aspect of village life, I can’t imagine the community ever functioning without it. How could such dramatic changes happen so quickly?

Amused by the expression on my face, Gege continues.

“About a decade ago, the government began implementing reforms—installing electricity and roads throughout the village. This made it so things like tea could be transported and sold outside of the village, so people like us could switch from subsistence rice farming to tea farming, which gives us some money to spend. Life here has improved so much over the years.”

Nodding to himself, he points his chopsticks at the valley below us.

“This tea field has been here for centuries, actually. Our ancestors from generations ago used it as well.”

And now I finally understand. For my host family, this land is the bridge to a history they’d never gotten to know. It’s no wonder they show so much enthusiasm in the field, given the repetitive nature of their work; they can transcend time and space by connecting to the past experiences of their ancestors. This ability to honor cultural heritage in the process of rapid development perhaps not only characterizes the village of Bangdong, but China as a whole.