As a Malaysian who is of Dai Chinese descent, the road to connecting with my culture has been fraught with many hard lessons. My mother gave us a glimpse of the culture through trips to the temple and sentimental food she prepared from her upbringing. Being the KL city kid that I was, I often took for granted her efforts to connect us with Dai Culture. I still fondly remember a black fungus and tomato dish that I would only have when my mum and other Dai folks in KL congregated.
Having travelled to the Yunnan province, I was surprised to discover that Dai families had it regularly, and it was a local delicacy. Despite my mothers best efforts, I only became fascinated with the Dai culture when I was mature enough to appreciate the value of cultural identity and the uniqueness of my roots. Admittedly, I never learned the language, partially because my mother was quite busy and I was none too keen on having to learn while on holiday. As a bratty kid, I often made fun of the cringey sound of words and Mum gave up on teaching us, which in retrospect, I honestly can’t blame her for. I honestly wish I could turn back time and say “Yes, please teach me. I want to know more”. That being said, I grew up with English, Mandarin and BM. As an adolescent, the communication barrier I made had kept me from connecting with cherished family members in Dai. Mandarin was a barely adequate substitute as the older generation were not as accustomed to Mandarin either. Needless to say, the idea of spending a fortnite to a month at a temple in Yunnan learning the language amongst tiny tots just seemed like a stretch too far.
I first travelled to Yunnan when I was 15, and began making annual trips there to spend time with my mother and her extended family. To say I experienced culture shock would be putting it mildly. I felt like a fish out of water. My mother explained things as best she could, but it was a struggle, having to meet new family members and take direction without understanding what is going on. It's a strange feeling to know an entire group of people you’ve only just met are talking about you in a strange language. Being new, I inadvertently drew the ire of elders by committing social faux pas. For example, gender norms, respect for monks and barring women ont heir periods from attending religious ceremonies are ingrained into the Dai culture. As a young girl no one told me I was supposed to lower myself or bend in front of a monk to acknowledge his position. Having grown up in KL, the city of young hooligans, I was far from the polite and cultured young lady I was expected to be. After unwittingly causing offense, I’d get an earful on being virtuous and apologize, quelling their offense with a promise to pay attention in the future. Nevertheless, our misstep was always forgiven as the innocent misunderstanding spawn of the ignorance of foreigners (or put it simply in Malay, we were “kurang ajar”)
However, I was always terribly inquisitive and harangued them with questions. Some of them found my need for perspective amusing as they were not used to a grown adult asking questions a child would ask. In fact, I was 23 when I visited a friend of the family who had a peach plantation. I pocketed a peach I found and was too lazy to ask for permission. We left the plantation for the owner's shack where the elders were chatting away in Dai. I was trying to be polite while indulging in that sumptuous peach. Halfway through the peach my face broke out into itchy rashes and swollen lips. The owner looked at me with disbelief. Apparently, everyone knew that these peaches had to be skinned before they were eaten, a lesson children were taught from a tender age. Due to many of these antics, I garnered a bit of a reputation for being silly.
Along the journey to discover the Dai culture, I fell in love with Dai cultural attire. As a child, I’d find photos of women in these pretty outfits and didn’t really bother until I travelled to Yunnan. The outfits looked cute. Living in Malaysia, I was accustomed to the ubiquity of the Sarong and in the Kampung (village). It was amazing to how often Dai people use their traditional attire. Whether it’s hard labour or a trip to the temple for prayer and sanctuary, traditional clothes are always the preferred choice. There are modern iterations of the attire, but western style clothes would be somewhat rare.
Infact, there are traditional tailors who specialize in making the outfits, and are commissioned by the locals to produce matching outfits for anything from major festivals to smaller family gatherings. Dai women have a long standing love affair with gold accessories too. At momentous occasions, Dai women arrive with gold bangles, headpieces, earrings and necklaces. The typical theme is “more is more”. My sister once told me a joke, that if a Dai lady were to fall into a river, she might sink but her gold will float. Clearly, not everyone can afford gold, but they remain dearly committed to the oh so shiny aesthetic. And for some reason, witht the bold colours and motifs, it works.
My mum had a set made for my sister and I when we were there a few years ago. Oddly enough, the tailor was located at a wet market. Despite the wet floors, the tailor had a beautiful assortment of clothes to choose from. Since it was our first outfit, the owner insisted that it was on the house. I was thrilled. I got a dark blue coloured one with gold lace embroidery. Later that day, my mother told me I ought to have picked a more vibrant colour, because muted colours were for old ladies. Luckily she got my sisters a pink and white one respectively, while I strutted my stuff in Dai “old lady’ chic. I still managed to wrangle a few compliments from my relatives saying it was a perfect fit. Surprisingly, it really was a perfect fit because the tailor took traditional measurements and I didn’t have to alter a thing when I got it. I love it so much and I still have it in my closet.
Getting accustomed to the food was not easy. Firstly, the average Dai person's diet consists of many vegetables that are grown wild and foraged as needed. These vegetables are native to the area, and you’d be hard pressed to find them at your average supermarket in KL. They’re uniquely flavourful, with bitter, pungent or spicy notes that are really out to get you. Combined with heavy seasoning, you get a taste profile that really takes some getting used to. Infact, the vegetables are so rare that you can’t find them anywhere outside of Yunnan province let alone China. Dai people eat a variety of meat, fish and poultry that is raised. Only a small portion of the population stray towards the more exotic animals such as porcupine, tiger, elephant and mouse deer. This is rare because of the ethical and legal percussions, and younger generations are more skeptical of the scientifically unverified health benefits.
Music is a big part of Dai culture. The Dai people have a distinct genre of music that I can only describe as “old school”. The most popular musical instrument is a ‘hulusi’ which is a flute made from a bottle gourd. As a matter of fact, my step dad has three of them and liquid courage emboldens him to bring it out and play to his heart's content, regardless of talent. Of course, my mother eggs him on and showers him with compliments when he does it. The hulusi is a beautiful instrument and there are lessons given in Yunnan on how to master it. I would be remiss not to mention the peacock dance. This dance is elegant and theatrical, and demands the spotlight.
The Dai people are hardworking and determined. They are not afraid to get their hands dirty to get the job done. With a limited education, the emphasis has always been on working hard and making money to support my family, all of which are virtuous traits to be proud of. These values are essential to deal with the back breaking work of agriculture. The weather is harsh and the terrain unforgiving, and the rural roads treacherous, so planters take what is on offer when a potential tea distributor comes by, as they have no leverage to negotiate an equitable price for the product. Logistics can be a nightmare, and that’s why my mother has been replicated the fair trade ideal in our business to adequately compensate farmers.
The Dai people's connection to Puerh tea is intimate. My mum and entire family have built a business that has allowed us to live in reasonable comfort. This wasn’t just a living. This was my culture and my family's legacy. I wanted to reconnect with this identity on my journey to finding my place in the culture that I hold dear. That is why I take the teas of Yunnan with me, and spread the gospel of puerh tea in Malaysia. It’s a piece of my heritage that I have brought home with me. That being said, I would like to add a disclaimer that I am not a tea master, merely a connoisseur looking to share my thoughts, feelings and perspectives on puerh. So please keep that in mind as I believe I’m on a learning journey and I would like to share this with everyone.