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Dining with the Bai

Huang had arranged for us to visit a Bai family so we could ask questions about their lives and even help them cook dinner to get some hands-on experience with some of their customs. The family in question had been introduced to Huang by his friend, a professor who happens to be China’s leading authority on Bai culture. We felt privileged to meet him, and also to visit this home.

The family’s home was in Dali’s new town, high on a hill overlooking the valley and Erhai Lake. The home was done in the traditional Bai style, with white walls to reflect the sun, abundant marble, and hand-painted decorations.

The home was actually just a few years old and obviously built with great care and thoughtfulness. It turns out that the family patriarch is a highly educated and cultured man, an engineer who frequently travels abroad and has completed projects in several southeast Asian countries.

He told Tom that the house is built on land that’s been in his family for centuries.

After the Communists took over in 1949, land reform resulted in his family’s holdings being confiscated and redistributed. All that remained was the small patch on which the home stood, enjoying a commanding view of lands that his family used to own, all the way down to the shores of Erhai Lake.

He went on to say that in the early 1980s, he started rebuilding the ancient, ramshackle family house in a “modern” style, using the cement blocks covered with square, white bathroom tiles that are the sad and ugly staple of most Chinese cities today. The first structure he built in that style remians as one wing of the courtyard.

As time went on, he said, he changed his thinking about how his home should look, and decided instead to adopt a traditional style that fuses Bai architectural details with classical Chinese allusions. The result is a spectacularly beautiful house with cunning design details, such as a spring-water canal running right through the courtyard. He painted the calligraphy on the walls himself, a mark of exceedingly high scholarship. It was clear that after decades of hardship under the current regime, in which his formerly rich family was likely harshly persecuted for being landlords, that he’s finally gotten back to where he wants to be – and he is proud.

While he and Tom chatted with the professor, the girls and I bonded with the women of the family, who invited us to help them cook a typical family meal. The girls especially enjoyed washing the vegetables in the courtyard’s spring, which is so clean as to be drinkable straight out of the channel. Huang loves to cook and does so when he's at home with his familyin Lijiang, so he enthusiastically pitched in to guide the girls.

They took the cleaned vegetables to a surprisingly basic kitchen. I helped the mother stuff eggplant “sandwiches” with ground pork, which Sami enthusiastically helped the daughter-in-law to deep-fry.


Cooking everything in one wok took over an hour, and Miranda and Sami took a break to play with the grandson of the house, who showed them his bedroom and “his” farming implements.

At last, dinner was served, and in honor of our visit, our host’s son poured us cups of apricot homebrew flavored with fruit from the family’s trees. (Note the platter of ru shan cheese in the foreground - closest to my seat!)

Tom and our host exchanged toasts to our new cross-cultural friendship, we tucked into the food, and as a grand finale, Huang produced a birthday cake in Tom’s honor!

We sang Happy Birthday in English and then in Chinese, and Sami and Miranda cut and passed out the cake. We explained to the family that because they had been kind enough to share their food and customs with us, we wanted to share an American custom with them! I’m not sure they totally understood the custom but made short work of the cake! We made Tom wear the Bai bridegroom’s hat, and everyone wanted a photo with “the birthday Bai.”

It might have been the homebrew talking, but later Tom said that this had been the happiest birthday he could ever remember.

Next: Rice Paddies


Dali chapters: Intro Shopping Batik Tacky Tea Bai Dinner Rice Paddy Food Cheese Carving Village

Yunnan chapter shortcuts: Intro Dali Lijiang Tiger Leaping Gorge Zhongdian

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