Uncle Huang: The Harvest Continues (Part 6)

Without any ties to the village, the tractor operators seek to maximize profit. The Brothers Huang charged 50 kuai a mu for the midnight harvest. The Kubota operators charged 60 kuai a mu. On the second day they cited the small rain to bump up the price an additional 15 kuai. The villagers have no alternative. According to Uncle Huang and other villagers, the Kubota operators form a monopoly to universally set prices. While the Kubota operators may not have been price-fixing across the Henan countryside, the villagers are hard-pressed to pass up a tractor that is ready to cut their plot. A good portion of their day is spent waiting and arguing amongst one another over which plot is next in line. However begrudgingly, almost everyone ends up paying.

The Kubota operators seek any opportunity to hike up the prices. By the time the Kubota made it's way to Uncle Huangs farthest a field two mu plot a couple days later, the prices we're up to 85 kuai a mu. The boss started at 180 kuai for two mu because it was all bent over. Ten minutes of arguing and she was citing: Look at you, you have a foreign guest, I know you have lots of money, as the rationale for the higher prices. Another 15 minutes of haggling and Uncle Huang handed over 170 kuai for his two mu. He had no other choice, using a scythe to cut and subsequently thresh the stalks would take days. His construction site was waiting.

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The road held evidence of parties that could not agree on a price. In that case, the peasants piled stalks up on the road for motorcycles and the occasional car to run over. Tire by tire the wheat kernels are threshedseparated from the stalks and at the end of the day the wheat kernels are collected. The next day the un-threshed stalks are put back on the road.

By noon of the second day, we had shoveled, bagged and transported the next 18 orange, white, beige and red 50-kilogram bags back to the garage. After lunch we started the laborious process of tiao cao or collecting all the leftover stalks and chaff spit out the back end of the combine harvesters. Armed with two pitchforks, Uncle Huang and Sheng Sheng slowly combed the plot, raking together the stalks and hoisted them onto the cart bed. I jumped on the stalks as they accumulated, packing them down. When we had a good eight-foot high pile strapped down to the cart, Uncle Huang cranked the Golden Bull alive and we bounced along the fields to the closest gulley to dump the stalks.

Later that afternoon, a Kubota approached another of their plots and Sheng Sheng ran off to get in line. I picked up the pitchfork. Cart by cart, Uncle Huang and I slowly cleared the two mu of stalks and chaff. It was miserable and boring work. Endless. It took six hours to clean two mu. I would soon learn there was a much easier way to go about it.

As we carted off the last pile, the sky opened up, the forecast storm finally touched down. I hurried off to the other plot to find Sheng Sheng using the hand scoop to slowly fill the bags with wet wheat kernelsUncle Huangs greatest fear. Uncle Huang and the Golden Bull we're not far behind. In pouring rain, the three of us hurried to shovel, bag and load the multi-colored bags onto the Golden Bulls cart. We used the extra bags and tarp to insulate the bags from the onslaught of big rain.

To the left and right of us, other villagers with freshly cut wheat moved in similar states of anxiety. I suddenly noticed the Huang women looked as if they could have stepped out of a Mao Zedong era propaganda film. They wore heavy double-breasted wool coats of dark grey and dull blue. There was not a nylon rain jacket in sight. I had stepped back in time.

The burps and sputters of the Golden Bull brought me back to the present. Uncle Huang cranked and cranked until the engine clicked into gear. It was loaded down with 15 bags of wet wheat kernels. Out in the middle of the fields, there was no hard-pack road to get the wheat to safety. I watched as the Golden Bull ahead of us lost speed, sputtered and dug into the mud. Family members rushed to push it through the waterlogged field, but it was stuck deep in the mud. They ditched half of their bags and made it across the treacherous field to the safety of a real dirt path on the other side.

Uncle Huangs Golden Bull lurched forward and Sheng Sheng and I began pushing. We made it across the first field and Uncle Huang steered us right for the field that had swallowed the other Huangs Golden Bull. Shen Jing Bing , Sheng Sheng cursed Uncle Huang, but the pounding rain drowned out her cries. Our fate was sealed. Uncle Huang veered wide, aiming at the sturdier earth along the edge of the field. We made it just passed the other Huangs tractor-wreck and then our wheels bogged down in the mud. The tires spun and spun through the soft soil and our pace slowed. Sheng Sheng and I put our shoulders into the back of the cart and pushed but it was futile. The Golden Bull was stuck. We quickly followed the lead of the other Huangs and unloaded bags. With half a load of cargo we we're able to push out of the muck. The Golden Bull made it across the field to the safety of the hard-pack road. Nine bags, each at least 100 pounds we're 150 meters behind, soaking in the rain.

The three of us ran back to the wheat bags. Sheng Sheng helped me lift the first one onto my shoulder and I was off, intently placing one foot after another as I crossed the field. I made it to the waiting cart bed and victoriously launched the wheat bag from my shoulder onto the other bags. The tie burst and the wheat kernels exploded through the mouth of the bag. Half of the bags contents scattered over the cart and mud. Uncle Huang delicately placed his bag onto the cart and we scurried to save as many wheat kernels as we could. We raced back across the field and Sheng Sheng prepared two more bags for our shoulders. Two by two we hauled the stranded wheat bags over the treacherous earth and reloaded the Golden Bull. Sheng Sheng and I returned to our pushing positions and slipping and sliding we pushed the Golden Bull and it's precious cargo along the deteriorating mud path to the garage.

After unloading and separating the wet wheat bags, I was allowed to eat my dinner in peace. The Huangs had weather on their mind. All I wanted was a hot shower to scrub the mud from my body. Alas, it was not to be, no sun equated to no hot water, so like all the previous nights, Sheng Sheng warmed up some water for me on the wood-fueled stove and I splashed it over my body, rubbing off the caked-on dirt.

Harvest Day 3

It rained most of the night, but cleared up the next morning. There was not much we could do that day; the earth was too soggy for the Kubota to make it out into the fields. Uncle Huang and I headed to On-the-Street in the morning to buy more meat and vegetables.

Once again, Uncle Huang changed into his good, clean pants and put on his loafers. My shoes we're still wet and muddy from the night before; Uncle Huang forced a brush into my hand to clean them off. Looking good, we arrived at nine-thirty, the market had already started to die down. Farmers we're packing up their mats and leftover vegetables. Uncle Huang insisted on buying another jin of beef for me, it cost 40 kuaia substantial amount of money in the countryside. The guest must eat well.

At lunchtime, Sheng Sheng cooked up the fresh vegetables and meat. All the preceding days and following days, we had, and continued to, sit down for three hot meals a day. It did not matter how busy the Huangs were, breakfast, lunch and dinner we're sacred. Each meal I ate at the Huangs table preceded in the same manner.

I should have anticipated itUncle Huangs Chinese sense of hospitality became much more intense at his own table. "Eat peanuts" turned into "Eat the beef!" "Eat the beef!" In a brief lapse of judgment on my first day in Huang Ridge, I had casually responded to one of the other Huangs questions about my height: Americans are tall because we eat lots of beef and drink lots of milk. Uncle Huang was within earshot and made a mental note of the fact. From that point on, milk was forced on me whenever I reached for a cup of water, Shui meiyou yingyang ! Uncle Huang repeated, Water has no nutritional benefits! Even during the ninety-degree heat at the end of the week, water simply would not do. I had to drink peanut milk.

Similarly, beef was forced on me at every meal. I wouldn't have been so opposed if the beef had tasted similar to the American beef Uncle Huang insisted I craved. In fact, it was served cold with the consistency and toughness somewhere between a filet and beef jerkyprobably closer to the beef jerky side of the scale, if I have to be honest about it.

From the first time beef was served, Uncle Huang made clear it was special treat to be eating beef. We never eat beef, it's very expensive, usually we eat pork, it's a fourth of the cost. But you are a special guest so we must eat beef! The plate of sliced beef was placed in front of me at every meal. And each meal, as my disposable chopsticks headed for the peanuts and eggplant, Uncle Huang become angrier and angrier. Eat the beef, eat, his chopstick pointed at the plate of beef slices in front of me. Usually just a Yes or a Yes I will eat it followed by inaction threw him off my trail. But as the meal went on and I continued to bypass the beef for peanuts, anger grew in his voice, Eat the beef!..Eat!!..Eat the BEEF! At that point I had to shovel a few slices into my bowl. He assumed I wasnt eating out of politenessthe guest did not want to eat the precious beef. Each new meal was the same. The plate of beef went from the refrigerator to the table and back every meal, each cycle a couple slices lighter than the meal before. Like the other dishes, nothing was wasted. We ate it until it was finished, then something new could be cooked.

Beer often distracted Uncle Huang from the beef. With little to do during the first couple days, I was willing to humor Uncle Huang and have a beer over lunch and a couple at dinner. Once the harvest started, that was the last thing I wanted. Uncle Huang slowly started to break down my resistance. At lunch, he preached endlessly as he tried to get me to accept a little plastic cup. It prevents fatigue! It resolves fatigue! It gives you energy! He lectured me. Similar to the beef, his tone became more anxious and higher pitched with each of my refusals. Na yi ge beizi! he said holding out his hand. Take a cup!

Well, I must have at least one beer bottle if I am going to work in the afternoon, he continued. All through the afternoon, the badgering continued, Look I am not tired, I had two beers at lunch! At dinner time I obliged him and took the cup forced in front of me. But the rationale reversed. Drink up, Drink! Uncle Huang commanded while pointing at my overflowing cup. Another cup or two will help you sleep! Pointing out the inconsistency was met with a laugh, Yes, beer is powerful!

On the third day of the harvest, Sheng Sheng accepted a plastic cup at lunch and I gave in as well. With a cup in front of me, the musings only heightened. Drink! he told me as he filled the little cup to the brim, the foam spilling down the sides. Two or three Drink! commands and I would take a sip. As soon as I placed the cup back on the table, Uncle Huangs hand was on the bottle moving to refill my cup. The perfect state of my little plastic cup was just barley overflowingand Uncle Huang maintained it with a passion.

Sheng Sheng was my only savior. Yes, yes drink up but you cannot get drunk. Drink, but you are not allowed to get drunk. She was always the first to voice caution. Uncle Huang often fell in line afterwards. Yes drink up, but Sheng Sheng is right, you cannot get drunk, he said reproachfully as if that was what I was secretly aiming for.

By the last day I learned to hide my cup on the coffee table beside me. Uncle Huang could not access it without standing up and walking over to it. This annoyed him greatly. You are not drinking! Put your cup on the table! At some point during the harvest I became so tired I began to ignore his constant slew of table commands. It was the easiest way to get through a meal.

Harvest Day 4

On the fourth day of the harvest the three of us we're back at the waiting game. Cloud cover blanketed the fields from direct sunlight, but it finally began to get hot. By the afternoon, every type of tractor was out in the fields. The mellow pounding beat of thousands of Golden Bulls formed a collective heartbeat of the countryside. The Brothers Huang and Kubota added their high-pitched, beep beep beep Dao Che Dao Che beep beep beep.

The local safety bureau was not to be left out. It added it's symphony to the countryside tune. It sent out a mian bao che (bread loaf mini-van) with Prohibit Burning Wheat Stalks Propaganda Vehicle bannered across it's nose, and a sizable red loudspeaker pasted to it's roof. For the rest of my time in the countryside, the mian bao che made hourly laps around the fields.

To ensure the smooth progress of the wheat harvest, we announce the following regulations: One. Pidian Township is now a key township, the requests are increasingly stern, methods are increasingly hard, punishments are increasingly strong, whoever starts a fire will be punished and whomevers land burns will be punished; because the mechanism to deal with perpetrators needs to be resolute in it's enforcement, we will uniformly detain perpetrators. Two. The combine harvesters must strengthen their tools, the leftover stalks cannot exceed 15 cm The list continued to point number six. The commands replayed on loop from the loudspeaker as the Prohibit Burning Wheat Stalks Propaganda Vehicle made laps around the countryside.

To reinforce the severity of the law, that night we came home to a pink letter posted on our door:

Prohibit Wheat Stalks Burning Notice

Fellow Peasant Friends:

The wheat harvest has arrived, and in order to effectively carry out the work of prohibiting the burning of wheat stalks, we announce the following related policies:

  1. Burning stalks is illegal criminal behavior
  2. Burning stalks can lead to your detainment for 15 days, and a 2000 Yuan fine; criminal plots will be critically looked into
  3. Whoever sets the fire will be punished. We ask peasant households to clear their land of wheat stalks in a timely manner, and reduce the hidden danger of fires, and reduce unneeded trouble and loss
  4. The harvesting machine cannot leave over 15 centimeters of chaff, otherwise the peasant households have the right to refuse payment for harvesting the wheat
  5. Report hotline: 8632012

Pidian Township Government

Received (Commitment letter)

Person to commit (family representative) solemnly swears: our household has received the Prohibit Wheat Stalks Burning Notice, and promises not to burn the wheat stalks. If the law is broken, I am willing to accept punishment and bear responsibility before the law.

Promisee (family representative):

The government never came around to collect the promisees signature but the added strength of the law was clear. Until four years ago, nobody wasted time clearing the leftover wheat stalks and chaff from the fields, We would burn it off. It is a lot easier. Uncle Huang told me. For the time being, the peasants we're content to work harder and obey the new government regulations.

By the end of the day, we had cut, bagged, and hauled another six mu, about fifty bags of wheat kernels. I developed a growing familiarity with the wheat bags. During the endless monotony of scooping wheat kernels into the bags I began to read the characters labeling each woven-nylon bag. The big beige and yellows bags, easily the heaviest when full with wheat kernelsCarbamide (a nitrogen fertilizer). The relatively light orange and red bagsAgricultural Use Sodium Bicarbonate (baking soda), Top Quality Product. The white China Top Brand, Large Pig Farm Specialty Feed. I took to counting scoops to a full bagbig beige took 11, little orange took 9, the pigs got 10.

The bags labels spoke to their original uses. Each new planting season added to the Huangs stock of red, orange, beige and yellow fertilizer bags. And before heading to the cities to work in 2004, Uncle Huang had raised pigs to supplement his income. The white feedbags are still in use. Holes in the bags are inevitable and most carry stitched-in patches emblematic of the many harvests they have seen. Nothing is wasted.

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Posted in Greenhouses Post Date 09/07/2018