Living in Beijing, I am constantly exposed to the center of China-ness. Many things in this city remind me of the magnificent China: classic landmarks like the Forbidden City and the Olympic Bird’s Nest, intimidating government buildings that sprawl across the city, and eight-lane avenues which are so wide that it would require two red light sessions to cross them, to name a few. Beijing is the place where the Chinese government officials meet foreign dignitaries, where important national policies are made, and where the 60th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party was wildly celebrated. The whole of China follows Beijing time. Whether you live in a village a few kilometers away from Pakistan or North Korea, your clocks tick at the same pace and tell the same time.
Living in the center of everything, it is easy for a Beijinger to forget that real China exists much further beyond the Beijing bubble. This is utterly unfortunate because China is a massive country that is amazingly diverse. But to recognize that China is diverse and to experience it are two separate notions.
Recently I had a chance to get out of Beijing and headed southwest to a small village called Menglian in Yunnan province. Located only ten-some kilometers away from Myanmar, the town is heavily populated by the Dai ethnic minority who are cousins of the Lao, Shan, and Thai peoples. Dai people are strongly influenced by the Thai culture.
Once arrived in Menglian, I practically found myself somewhere closer to rural Thailand than China. As a Thai native, the Dai/Thai pop tunes that Menglian cab drivers rocked out to put an ear-to-ear smile on my face. Eating was the highlight of the trip since Dai’s ‘home style’ delicious dishes share a lot of similarities with the northeastern Thai cuisine. Mandarin was no longer the mainstream dialect; people converse in Dai – a dialect so close to the northern Thai language that I can communicate with them in my mother tongue. The Dais don’t come across entirely Chinese; instead they exude a Southeast Asian air. I found a semi-Thai home away from home right in the heart of Menglian.
The Dai minority with their culture is not the sole example that showcases China’s diversity. Fifty-four other ethnic minorities spread across the nation, adding colorful layers to the country. China is usually thought of as a homogeneous country; where stereotypes don’t extend much further from gung fu fighting and gongpao chicken. This simplification makes us overlook fascinating bits and pieces that coexist harmoniously (and sometimes not) in this Middle Kingdom. And if you look far enough, then you may realize that to experience the real China might not feel very Chinese after all.
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