Not “THE” White House. This White House is the name of a small village in rural Guangdong Province, China; population 200. The Chinese name is “Baiqi” (buy chee).
Two days earlier, my friends treated me to lunch at a farmhouse restaurant near the village. On the way there, we passed fields where local farmers were planting and harvesting various vegetables and fruits. I decided to return with my camera and shoot some video and still shots. This day was the Qingming Festival in China, also called “Tomb Sweeping Day.” Each year, families return to their hometown to sweep clean the gravesites of their ancestors. I mounted my trusty steed (OK, electric scooter) and sped off at 45kmph (about 29mph) to the village location, which was about 10 minutes from my home.
The weather was near-perfect, sunny with a few clouds. I parked the Chi-Vespa at one end of the field and set up my tripod. I noticed preparations for a large dinner party in an open courtyard behind me, and a roast pig rested on a platter, staring across the road at the pastoral scene I was shooting. After rolling a few minutes of footage, I moved to the other end of the field to capture a different angle.
One family was working the field, including a young boy mimicking his parents and older siblings. A sweet voice came from behind me saying, “would you like some honey?” To my surprise, I understood the words. In a rural village, most people speak Cantonese, a language which I can’t comprehend. But this was English! I turned around, still rolling video, and saw a lovely young Chinese girl presenting me with a plate of fresh honeycomb, the deep amber honey filling its octagonal cells. She broke off a piece and handed it to me.
“Wow!” I proclaimed. “This is the best honey ever!” She laughed and offered another bite. We stood on the side of the road, as she asked where I was from, what I was doing, and a bevy of typical questions a Chinese person asks a foreigner when they meet. Our fingers were sticky from the delightful golden morsels, so she invited me into her home to wash my hands.
Fanfan introduced me to her older sister, Nicole (who also spoke excellent English), and her parents and other relatives who didn’t understand a word we were saying. They invited me to join them for tea and homemade desserts. For the next hour, I told them stories from my vagabond life. At 5:00pm the father asked me to join them for dinner. I hesitated because I had tentative plans already, but he insisted, so I agreed.
The Village custom is to gather everyone together during the Qingming Festival for a communal dinner, a ‘block party’ as it is known in the USA. We walked down the road to the community center where dozens of tables and red plastic chairs were waiting for the entire population of Baiqi. Once again, I noticed the roast pig still staring at the pastoral scene.
I became the celebrity foreigner among the friendly crowd. Those who spoke English came to greet me. My hosts explained in Cantonese the reason for my presence to the non-English-speaking celebrators.
I toured the underground spring, where a 20-liter bottle filled with clean, fresh spring water cost a mere 15-cents. The belief is that residents who drink this water live a long life, and they introduced me to the oldest inhabitants, both 94-years-old (but not a couple). One of the Fan family brothers showed me the 150-year-old home still standing on the premises, though now unoccupied.
The village president stood up and gave his report of the finances derived from cooperative farming. I asked my friends about the process for selecting the leader. “Oh, we vote for our president!” she said. Democracy thrives in local Chinese governments.
The food began arriving at the tables..and kept arriving..and kept arriving. Delicious varieties of Chinese food that you won’t find in Americanese restaurants, except for the sweet and sour pork (though far tastier than the westernized version). My translators helped everyone at our table communicate with ease. So many smiles and laughter filled the evening, and not one mobile phone chirped messages so urgent that they needed attention.
The feast ended, and everyone hiked back to their homes where Mahjong tables waited. My time to leave had come, but we exchanged contact information and promised to keep in touch. I said goodbye to my White House honey.