August in China: Festival Day in Dong Country

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Mrs Lu invited us to a baby’s first month celebration. Half the village was going, so as their guests we had to go too. I didn’t get the logic, so I don’t expect you to either! As expected, the celebration was by the river. We got there a bit early as preparations were clearly still under way.

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This place would be a food inspector’s nightmare. The meat was chopped up right in the shallows of the river, while bowls were washed nearby in the same river water. It was all part of a day’s work.

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Next, the meat was cooked in a massive wok with plenty of river weed, wood ear mushroom and preserved vegetables.

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While waiting, most people milled around gossiping, Mrs Lu chatting with the rest about me. Others were more industrious, like this lady pounding her cloth with a mallet. Dong cloth is famous for its indigo cloth and in Zhaoxing, especially prized is the maroon shade achieved by adding chicken blood to the dye. A woman’s worth is measured by the quality of cloth she produces and the cloth has to be pounded to make it soft and easy on the skin.

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It seemed to be a multi-purpose festival day. There was a separate celebration for a teacher’s retirement just a few paces down the main street. They set off round upon round of firecrackers, filling the street with an almighty din and a screen of smoke. We stood and stared while waiting for our celebration to start.

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Finally, it was time. The children seemed to heed an invisible signal and rushed forward. Mr Lu barreled past, grabbing Willy along with him. He was to join the men to eat and drink the local moonshine. I joined the women.

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We each grabbed a pair of bamboo chopsticks and reached into a large wicker basket for a handful of glutinous rice. Next, we headed to an empty slot at a low table and started digging in. It went like this: if you’re an elder, sit on a low stool, if not squat. Pick a morsel of food from any of the bowls, followed by a mouthful of glutinous rice. Keep eating. Try not to pass out from the pain of squatting for an eternity. (It was probably only about half an hour.)

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The food was delicious! There was pork boiled with some kind of river kelp and wintermelon, vegetables in very spicy chilli and some preserves. All were very excellent and everyone happily dug in with gusto. There was plenty to go round.

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I stood up periodically, ostensibly to take pictures but really to rest my poor legs. The best part about the whole festival was that I never saw the first-month baby, the closest I got to one was to this friendly mother and toddler. Mrs Lu told me that it wasn’t necessary to see the baby and she was vague about how they were related, so we headed back to her house for tea.

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