self portrait 2018


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Day in the Countryside: Revisited

In January, I was invited to a party in the countryside. A group of teachers from a  primary school brought their spouses and kids to witness the slaughter of a pig for a banquet lunch and dinner. 

I was not terribly interested in the slaughter because I had been to a similar event a few days before with some close friends and their family deep in the countryside.

This activity was run by villagers but they ran the event more like a business for people who cannot visit their own extended families to partake in this Chinese New Year's tradition called 殺年猪 or killing the annual pig.

I mainly went for the photography opportunity and I as lucky enough to be able to bring along Wang Jing. She is a nurse who used to work dispatch in one of Yichang's busiest hospitals before she transferred to a hospital in the provincial capital. She is smart, pretty, 28 years old, and shares a similar misfortune with me. We both lost our fathers when we were young.

I have known her for over two years. And as our relationship has moved slowly, I have caught myself wondering if she might ( a strong emphasis on might) be that special one. 

We are both too busy with work and now too far away to dabble around the edges. Nor are we ready to just jump head first into something serious.


The actual activity was quite horrible. School teachers, who by the end of the day feel an overwhelming need to unplug from instructing, apparently live at the mercy of their own children. These children did not see the countryside as a place to absorb serenity but as a void to be filled with their noises. Fall is a very stressful time in Chinese schools and January 1st is a much needed holiday to open the valves to release some pressure. These parents have such a desire to grant special privileges upon their own children that they forget to instill values upon them. The screaming wildness of these unleashed children grated upon my nerves. All I wanted to do was enjoy the quiet clean beauty of the unadulterated countryside on this New Year's holiday. I couldn't. Wang Jing agreed with me that these children were poorly behaved. That confirmation was important to stave off insanity. It was clear that teachers with children are constantly attacked on both sides--being driven crazy by their students (at work) and their child (at home). There was little we could do.


But that little we could do went a long way. When the kids moaned and said something to the effect, "Daddy, I want pineapple juice," I made it clear that this juice was for the adults who were drinking rum. Not afraid to be the bad guy, I let the kids know that the world is not simply their playground. There was a line. And I drew it. While to their minds those boundaries seem arbitrary, unfair, and absurd coming from me, they were free to moan about it if they wanted to. I didn't care. Their whining sounded exactly like their playful screams. I could tune it out. 


For the second time in three days, I would watch a pig slaughter. The previous day's event gave me an understanding of the process. So I could be critical at the method employed on this day. I was sure that the blood and guts didn't bothered me. It was the sloppiness and unhygienic style of handling the animal that bothered me. I could be accused of applying my American standards to what I was seeing. But I wasn't guilty of such bias. I has just been in the Chinese countryside, not far from where this day's events was taking place, days before. I got to see how people with no running water and no refrigeration handle blood and guts and avoid contamination from pig meat.

Still, I knew better than to voice any criticism. I have learned in China that voicing criticism is often considered a greater affront than the actual act worth criticizing, no matter how grievous.


For example, when they brought the pig to the slaughtering table, the man responsible for the actual deed of killing the animal, cupped the pig's snout and laid a big wet one on its frothing rooter just before piercing the pig's heart with a machete via the pig's jugular notch. This could have been mistaken for an act of reverence towards the animal in recognition of its role in feeding the village. It happened so quickly that I was unable to react fast enough to take a photo. The ceremony I witness days before hadn't included such a gesture and so I was not expecting it. Such a gesture surprised me even more when I saw this man nonchalantly wiping his blood-soaked machete on the dead pig's side. Although some people my think that is not a big deal, I find it somewhat in line with treating the carcass as a paper towel which is fine unless you have reverence for this animal. After all, he had just kissed it. Loving it and then literally breaking its heart.


The next step in the process is removing the hair. This is done by vigorously rubbing a dull blade over the body to separate the hair from the hide. Hot water helps loosen the hair. This was done by soaking the pig in a large plastic basin which left the carcass halfway spilling over the edge, contorting its body. It was clearly no longer being treated as if it were ever a living thing.  


It is interesting to see how this same process was completed using a different technique. Days before, boiling water from a kettle was poured over the carcass by one man and the hair was scrapped off by another man.

Organs were removed and placed in plastic buckets to soak. Days before, organs were also removed but they were tied with twine and hung from the trees to dry. 

I was a little troubled to see the head and trotters placed on the stone basin by a water spout. It all seemed very unhygienic. I am not sure if all pigs have trichinosis or if that dangerous bacteria lives in only some pigs. But instead of playing Russian roulette, butchers and cooks normally apply universal precautions. Therefore the bacteria never gets a chance to multiple and become dangerous. 

The men were not wearing proper smocks. One man halved the carcass so awkwardly. He essentially draped the entire half of the pig over his leg while balancing on one foot as he chopped along the spine with a butcher knife. There certainly is an easier way.

By employing two tables, the halved pig can easily be transferred without the need for any sort of acrobatics.

Cutting along the backbone before hanging the carcass makes for an easier bisect.

Living in Yichang leaves a lot to be desired. Before long the pleasures of a modern city are missed. But fresh food that is locally sourced is a wonderful pleasure. Yichang is rich is local food. I really like the tradition where New Year's is celebrated with all of the natural gifts at hand. This is a great way to start the new year. 

Although the party was not exactly enjoyable, the children were little monsters, and the butchering of the pig was appalling, the food at the second of the two parties was wonderful. This was a little disconcerting considering the method of butchering was less graceful. Details aside, I really appreciated seeing the process of making meat from animals. Every time I eat meat, I should be reminded that an animal had to die in order to make my meal. I may be critical of the way the second pig was handled but my complaint is laughable in comparison to the way animals are handled in industrial slaughter houses. Both of these pigs at each of the parties lived nearly idyllic lives as far as livestock are concerned. Perhaps, unseen in one of the window sills, a spider was crying in her beautiful spiderweb. Perhaps not.

Wang Jing's companionship was another pleasure of this day. We walked off together and I took photos of her in the golden light of the afternoon as the sun was dipping close to the mountain tops.

I have not seen her since this day in January.

Orange Picking in Yiling District

Orange Picking in Yiling District

The New Year's Pig