Late one Saturday morning, in the town of Lijiang, I boarded a bus with two friends, an American and a Yi student of mine from the Institute of Nationalities in Yunnan Province's, Kunming. We intended upon travelling to Lugu Lake, the geographical heart of the ancient matriarchal Mosuo culture. The bus was so crowded with rural talk, returning from the markets to their countryside homes with baskets and wares and a few loose or tethered animals, that we could not find seats together.
My American friend sat two rows forward, I sat next to a Han (China's majority) teenager, and, just across the aisle, the Yi student sat beside an elder Yi man. Over the heads of the other passengers, we talked briefly in a mixed parlance of Han and English, then settled back for the ride. The old Yi man studied us with subtle glances, than let his chin sink thoughtfully on his chest. After a few minutes, he turned to the Yi student.
He could not speak Han, and I could not speak the Yi dialect, so the student translated their conversation for me.
"That woman you talk with, two rows in front of us, is her hair so light from too much sun?"
The student smiled, "No, it is not a woman, but a man. He is American and many American men have long, yellow hair."
"American," the old man mused," I thought Americans had darker skin and black hair, like us. At least that's what I've seen on those television basketball shows."
"Americans are a mixed people," the student explained, "they have all colors of skin and hair."
The old man nodded, then he indicated me with his eyes and asked, "How does she communicate with them?"
"She's also from America, but her mother is Yi like us. She was raised in America and cannot speak the dialect so well."
The old man replied, "An eagle always loses his path, but always finds a way home."
He nodded again and stared into his lap, where a half dozen or more umbrellas were leaned between his knees.
"Tell her," he said, "that I don't mean to be so stupid. Tell her that living in the mountains, we are ignorant of many things. I, myself, just learned that cars and buses feed on exploding liquids instead of grass, like cows. I had just assumed. Cars and cows are both used for transportation, are they not? Oh well, I suppose we are happier now. We have no electricity up there, but we can go to town on buses and ride home again. I can get umbrellas and bring them to my neighbors. An umbrella," he exclaimed, "What a wonderful thing!"
The Han boy leaned toward me, pointed at the old man, and spoke. "The old man is wise," he said, sneering a little. "These Yi people, they come down and steal televisions, which they sit on. They steal washing machines, and raise chickens in them. But the old man is wise, he steals umbrellas."