October 6th, 2009
Big bundles of beans, piled high on the bengbengche, that was the result of my morning’s inaction.
It was about 11 am, and my father in law rolled up on the electric scooter. Thirsty, he drained the pot of tea that was sitting on the desk. He said something to my wife about needing some help with the beans. She told me they were too heavy, Ba said, no, they’re too high. Righto, whatever. So I was given a pair of gloves and told to put a jacket on and we climbed in the bengbengche and rumbled off into the fields.
The air had warmed up and the sky was as crisp as it’s been the whole time we’ve been up here this trip. Mountains had their go at the skyline in every direction- looming up close to our north, more laid back on the other side of the basin. The harvest is well advanced out here, with the fields rapidly taking on the desolate grey-yellow-brown that characterises this landscape for almost half the year. The very simple engine made its racket and pumped out the smell of boiled and half-burnt oil. I’ve never been comfortable on bengbengche. The three-wheel set-up just feels hopelessly unstable to me. Still, they’re very useful and practical little vehicles, narrow enough to make village lanes easy work, with enough space to carry large amounts of produce.
Being mostly concentrated on whatever article I’d been reading when Ba got back, I didn’t really hear what kind of help, specifically, was needed. And so I was surprised to see nothing that would require my relative, and rather meagre, height advantage to harvest. Nothing for me to reach up to and pull down to Ba’s height. After a perfect 3-point turn that would have even the strictest driving instructor reaching for a celebratory whisky, followed by backing a dozen metres up the road to where we were to actually start work, we got off the bengbengche and….
…just wait here, said Ba. Alright. And he ran off into the field, picked up a bundle of beans, brought it back, and dumped on the tray of the bengbengche, then ran back off for another bundle. He brings that back, dumps it in the tray and, runs back for another bundle. And so it continues. Um, right, so what is it I’m here for? To stand guard? I dunno. Just follow orders, stand and wait.
My first opportunity to do anything helpful is to hold one bundle of beans in place while he runs off to get another to weigh it down. Then his first pile collapses, the top two bundles falling into the ‘cab’ (it has no attempt at a roof, so it’s hardly a cab, but that’s where you sit and the driver drives). I grab one bundle and hoist it back up, but Ba tells me to leave the other, he’ll get it. Never mind he has to climb off the tray and run the long way around to get it, but he insists. Then as the load grows, there come chances for me to help hoist or support either Ba or his bundles of beans. But mostly I’m just standing around looking dumb and feeling useless.
Then we’re all loaded up and tied down, so we head back home, clattering our way down the hill.
New socialist countryside: That new rubbish collection station that was built over the summer is used by the villagers to store beans, while rubbish is piled up the old-fashioned way outside. For one thing, those nice, flat concrete surfaces are great for drying and pressing beans (note: if you’re driving through a village in Yanqing County and see beans spread out on the road, drive straight over them. The locals will be grateful for your help. Another note: You won’t see beans like you’d imagine, but the dried vines with pods still attached spread out on the ground.). For another thing, you don’t change old habits that fast. Perhaps a public education campaign on the hygiene benefits of using the station to collect rubbish rather than store beans may be useful? In any case, once again, despite my attempts to help, I’m told to just stand and wait, don’t stab my hands (in some attempt at transcribing my father in law’s heavy dialect: bāi zhǎzhe nīde shǒu) on the beanstalks. And then, seeing that I’m standing around looking dumb and feeling useless, he tells me, grab the sunflower heads out the rubbish pile and throw them over there, I’ll feed them to the sheep later. And so, glad for the pair of gloves I had been issued, I pick a bunch of sunflower heads in varying states of either decay or dessication out of the rubbish pile and throw them in the direction indicated. Then I was told to head back home while he went off to get something else.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not complaining. Well, not entirely. First of all, Ba treats his own son the same way. He seems to live by the “If you want something done properly, do it yourself” philosophy, which I totally understand and largely agree with. Secondly, I am very much aware of the severe limits of my agricultural skills in particular and physical labour skills in general. Thirdly, this is my place in this family, and I’m cool with that. I earn money in the city doing what I can do well (well… doing what people will pay me for, at least), and that’s how I contribute to the family. That’s totally cool with me. Expecting me to farm is as absurd as expecting my father in law to teach English. Still, it would be nice to feel useful out here. Of course, the cause of my uselessness lies in myself, and is not something I can be blamed for, but it would be nice to feel useful rather than like a bumbling idiot good for little more than standing around looking dumb.