Though the days are already getting warm at this time of year in GG village, mornings and evenings are still rather cool. To brace herself against the chill, Lydia’s mom would put on a thick, rough jumpsuit over her clothes. Lydia pointed out to me the Chinese characters written on the left breast pocket; the jumpsuit had come from the fake fingernail factory where her younger brother first worked in Zhejiang province in the east. The English name “Art Nail” was written underneath the Chinese. Her brother had since moved on to a different factory in a different province, and somehow his work uniform had made its way back to Yunnan and into his mother’s wardrobe.
In all the time I’ve known Lydia’s family, her brother (younger than her by four years) has probably spoken a collective twenty words to me. But he gave me one of the sweetest gifts I’ve received from anyone in China.
A couple of months after Lydia moved into my apartment, she went home for the weekend to see her family. On the Sunday afternoon when she was to return, I heard a knock at my front door. Lydia had her own set of keys, so I was surprised to open the door and find her standing in the stairwell with a grin on her face.
“Why didn’t you use your keys? Are you OK?”
“I’m fine,” she said, glancing to the side with a tilt of her head in an attempt to direct my attention to the small bird perched on her shoulder.
“Hey, you have a bird!” I stated the obvious, still a bit confused about why she was just standing there in the stairwell.
“It’s for you!”
I had seen her brother’s pet birds on a previous visit to their home. He would go into the forest and catch birds, bring them home and tame them, and he kept them in the trees near their house. He fed them fruit and seeds by hand and would whistle and sing to them. He sent one of these birds to me as a gift, and it rode the entire bus trip back to town on Lydia’s shoulder.
The bird, a deep iridescent blue and green, didn’t come with a cage. My apartment had a glassed-in balcony, so we put a small cardboard box with some fruit pieces in the balcony for the bird while we were gone to school. I was teaching full time and Lydia was in school fourteen hours a day, so the poor bird spent a lot of time by itself on that balcony. It wouldn’t eat regular bird food. No, this bird was on a strictly fruit diet. And, without getting too graphic, let me just say that a bird on a fruit diet makes quite a mess on the floor.
After the first day of this, I told Lydia we would need to get a cage. I just couldn’t have a bird flying around the house, even if it was mostly confined to the balcony. The bird spent the next week in this cage, lonely while we were at school. I began to worry that it would die, and I was getting frustrated with having to come home each day and clean up after it…cage or no cage, birds are messy. Hesitantly, I approached Lydia about the situation. She was the first national I’d lived with, and I didn’t know the proper etiquette in her culture for how to return a live gift.
We decided that since we both were in school full time, there was no way we could make the trip of several hours to return the bird to her brother. The next best thing would be to talk to the man who sold us the cage and see if he could help us find a home for it. Birds are popular pets among old men in China, who carry their cages with them to the park in the evenings so they can socialize with other old men and their birds. Surely there was an old man in LC who would want this blue-green bird straight from the forest and could love it and whistle to it and feed it fruit better than Lydia and me.
All of Lydia’s brother’s birds are gone now, and this teenage boy who once played in the forest near his mountain village now makes fake fingernails in a factory on the east coast, as cooped up as the little feathered friend he once sent to me.
Next in the “Lydia’s Home” series: ”Dong Dong“