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Life in China in the 1980s: Adrift With a Cormorant Called Kai

A Village I Love

It is twilight in a village outside Guilin. A small village near the Normal University. A riverside hamlet.

I often come here on nights before I will depart from China and return to the century, country, and culture into which I never have comfortably fit.

Time and tide advance as inexorably in this community as everywhere on earth. Little else changes, however.

A small number of people farm, forage, and fish, harvest small lots of wood for carpentry and fuel, repair diminutive homes. Weave nets, mend lines. Wash crockery, clothing, their children, and themselves in the Li River.

Shoo mosquitos and flies. Tend coveys of ducks and chickens. Catch frogs, trap crabs. Cultivate rice, farm vegetables. Collect nuts, pick fruits.

Gather at sundown beside outdoor fires built with scraps of wood, bits of brush, and briquettes of dried fertilizer. Boil eggs. Steam dumplings. Bake sticky rice wrapped in river reeds. Steam fish with black bean paste and soy. Simmer soups. Stew cabbages and turnips. Steep tea. Brew wine.

An elderly woman brushes the dirt pathways with dried fronds tied with twine to a haft of bamboo. Children cavort behind her, chase chickens, copy animal calls. Poke, prod, run, stop, whoop, holler. Their plump cheeks shine in the fading sunlight.

Adults cry out to them as they pass by, greetings, badinage, encouragements, cautions. The children pause in their play. Bow to the elders. Stare solemnly at the uncles. Giggle with the aunties. Rush off. Dash here, dart there. Shout, laugh. Tumble in the dust. Pile sticks into towers. Toss pebbles from the riverbank.

In a clearing beneath a broad banyan tree elderly women and men perform tai-chi. Leisurely graceful movements, peaceful, crafted. Their faces are cleared of intention, cleansed of consciousness. Drawn deeply within, alone in their assembly, communal in their solitariness, they gently dance in the sunset.

A cluster of aged men sit together on wooden stools perched on a bed of fragrant pine needles. Dense spires of bamboo circle their copse.

They meet every day at dawn and again at dusk. Each brings to the coppice a domesticated songbird encaged in a shelter woven from finely wrought sprigs. The men hang the coops on canes or burls, feed them bits of bread and bites of fruit.

The birds are pals. They have accompanied the men for many years. They chitter and chirrup to one another as the men chat below. Converse, gossip, expound, pontificate, sip tea, play checkers.

The village is surrounded by steep mountains and soaring karst stalagmites. Magnificent by day, the formations fade from view in the gathering twilight. As the sun sinks beyond the ridgeline, their mass and shape recede into silhouette and shadow.

Bats and swallows swoop and swerve, feed voraciously, romp acrobatically in the darkening sky.

A drift of free-range pigs poke for tubers, root for grubs, grunt, wheeze, herded by a gaggle of hissing, spitting, sniping geese.



The moon rises. The mountains and calcite spires assume new dimensions of figure and form, frame the village and bank the river.

This is the landscape the outside world associates with China, the scenery you see in paintings and photographs. The Li River, its steep bends, its serpentine course, its sublime aspect of tranquil perpetuity.

Matches spark, glare, catch, glow. Paper lanterns, oil lamps, cook fires, outdoor hearths.

Strands of music accompany the burble of the river. Strings, flutes, radio broadcasts, snippets of opera, folksongs. Brass bells tinkle, gongs sound. Warding off unwelcome spirits, welcoming loved ones.

Water buffalo low in the distance. Hens cluck. Pigeons coo. Frogs croak. Crows caw. Crickets chirp. Cicadas shrill. Children are called home. They implore, linger, get yelled at. Comply.

Two grannies sit side by side on a slab of stone. A sedate gosling settles at their feet. Breezes flutter. Wooden wind chimes clunk percussively. People smile, wave, chant hello as I pass by. We are familiars. I come here often.

A young teacher at the Normal University was born here. His parents are so proud of him that in his presence they emit a seemingly radioactive luster. They invariably refer to him as Our son the scholar.


Fisherman Ng

This night we will fish with his father. A first for me, a constant for them.

Mr. Ng is sixty-two. He is lean, lithe, strong, fit. An accomplished artist. His sketches and calligraphy astonish me with their beauty, confidence and gentle power.

“My father taught me. His father taught him.”

Mr. Ng fills our teacups, sips from his, sighs. “This son of mine?”

Casts his soft eyes lovingly upon my friend. “Our son the scholar is a poor calligrapher. He is a disgrace to the brush.”

My friend, widely acclaimed for his calligraphy, groans histrionically as he translates this inevitable calumny. Chinese parents never praise their children. Especially in front of guests.

Mr. Ng rubs his hands together briskly. “Well, Foreign Friend. The full moon tonight will make the fish hungry. Shall we go?”

Mrs. Ng hands her husband a bamboo hamper stuffed with snacks, and accompanies us to the river. We shed our shoes, leave them on the bank, wade to the boat.

When he was a young man, Mr. Ng hewed a fourteen-foot flatbed skiff from a tall, thick trunk his father felled with a handmade hatchet. He moors it with a jute cord tied to a stout sapling rooted in a shallow just offshore.

The skiff sculls from a standing position with a single oar, a tall stalk that expands at its base into a curved scoop. It has been worn smooth by decades of daily use.


Kai The Cormorant

A tapered platform stretches across the craft’s ribs from bow to almost midpoint. Jutting from the starboard gunwale several bolted driftwood limbs secure a six-foot pole. This is a perch for Mr. Ng’s tame cormorant, Kai.

Most fishermen in Guangxi Province row with a set of four birds. Mr. Ng always has worked solely with Kai.

As we approach the boat the bird is sleeping on a plank stretched across the skiff. He wakens, stretches his angular neck, tilts his narrow head, opens his elegant beak, and honks loudly once, twice.

Mr. Ng unfolds his clenched fist, flattens his palm, and feeds the bird a chunk of suet soaked with soy. Then runs his hand along the creature’s trembling belly, murmurs endearments as he strokes his silky down.

Kai flaps his wings excitedly, crows to the other birds as they greet their humans, hops across the decking to his perch. He bobs impatiently as we stow Mrs. Ng’s basket, settle the oar into its fitting, untie the tether, and coast into the current.


Are You Edible?

Mrs. Ng waves once, circumspectly, cautions her husband and son not to drown, and joins the other wives clustered on the riverbank. Their uxorial banter filters from the shore as their husbands gather their birds, adjust their oars, untie their skiffs, and cast off. Each will trawl his own favored eddy, seine, deploying his own style and skill.

Mr. Ng offers me the oar.

We laugh. If I try to steer us we for sure will smash against a rock, a snag, a spit, any of a hundred hidden hazards. It takes years to learn the art of navigating this seemingly benign waterway.

Not to mention strength. Mr. Ng is pushing us upriver, the skiff’s flat broad prow set against the swift current. He sculls slowly. This work is a feat of endurance, not a sprint.

The blade plashes quietly, metrically. Tendrils of mist, pale, glimmering, lift from the water, drift along the shoreline, float fitfully with the river’s flow.

No one speaks.

The bird watches me warily. His eyes, darker than the night, burn twin beads of anthracite from his perch to my thwart in the stern.

My friend nudges me. “I believe Kai is deciding whether you are edible”


Kai’s Craft

Twenty minutes pass. Thirty.

Our pace slows. Stops. My friend stands, leans from the boat, fills a small plastic basin, sets it carefully on the floorboard.

Mr. Ng maneuvers us alongside an archipelago of miniature islets. Ships his oar, squats on the hull, drapes a metallic ring over Kai’s head, along his gullet, across his throat.

Most fishermen tie a twine, strong but thin, on their birds’ left leg, just above the webbing, at a joint that looks as though it could be a miniature ankle. Mr. Ng does not. Kai flies and fishes freely.

He chants to the bird, caresses his crest, sends him aloft. Kai circles upward a foot or so, spins in midair, plummets into the river, disappears beneath the surface with a sodden plunk.

Wavelets ripple outward. Bubbles gleam phosphorescently. The surface becomes placid. Then buffets as the bird’s beak breaks water. His body breaches, wallows, rights itself.

Fluid drains from his plumage as he drifts with the current. Constricted by the metal ring, a scaly tail protrudes from his horny projecting jaws. It shines in the moonlight as the fish flails from side to side.

Despite his prey’s frantic flapping, Kai flies effortlessly onto his perch. The writhing fish showers us with particles of flying spray.

Mr. Ng whispers a command. Kai leans from his roost, opens his mandible, regurgitates his catch. It falls onto the deck. Squirms, wriggles, writhes.

A carp of some kind. Surprisingly large. How could it fit inside the cormorant’s slender throat?

My friend presses his bare foot against the fish’s side, holds it fast, cups it with both hands, lifts it carefully, releases it into the catch basin. The fish ceases its struggles. Gulps the water, swishes its tail, nuzzles the container’s circular sides. Mr. Ng slips several strands of algae into the tub. The fish noses them tentatively. Flicks his tail now and then. Settles into a listless fluttering.

Mr. Ng congratulates the bird. Pets his wings, caresses his crown, feeds him a suet.

It is growing darker. My friend unpacks two lanterns, one red, one green, sets them into their slots, opens their glass, lights their wicks.

Mr. Ng murmurs another command. Kai levitates, pivots, dives.


Kai’s Courtesy

Again and again in the moonlight the bird flies, spirals, plunges, retrieves, releases. The basin fills with fish of many shapes, sizes, and colors.

Up and down the river from every inlet and cove we hear fishers chant, cormorants caw, lanterns sizzle, fish flounder.

Every now and then men call out to one another. Usually an insult or a gibe, provoking chortles from adjacent boats. Matches flare. Lanterns being lit, braziers, cigarettes. Some of the fishermen sing as they work. Entreaties for good fortune, hymns of gratitude, dirges of sorrow. Regrets for the past, hopes for the future.

Hours pass. It is late now, but the evening is so pleasant that no one wants to depart.

As Kai plies the depths, Mr. Ng asks his son what I have taught today at the university.

“Oh, Bee-dah was talking with our students about The Ideal Personality in the West.”

Mr. Ng asks what this means. What is an Ideal? What is a personality? Why do Western people think and behave as they do?

Their words and tones, the rising and falling cadences of their conversation sound as liquid as the water, fluid as the river, fluent and fleet as the current.

Mr. Ng digs in his hamper, finds a packet of sunflower seeds. Eats several. Plucks the meat from the shells, tosses the husks into the waterway.

Kai surfaces. Flutters to his perch, deposits his final catch, the last of many. The basin is so full that the fish barely fits.

Mr. Ng bends over the bird, removes the ring from his gullet, fondles his beak, rubs his sopping black noggin with his own graying head.

He stands, secures his oar, sets us adrift, guides us downstream.

The bird arches his wings, holds them akimbo, dries them in the breeze as we float slowly downstream.

Someone’s wife has packed a curry. Hints of turmeric and cumin drift our way.

Time passes. Almost home.

Their home. I cannot imagine how I will leave here in the morning and, twenty hours later, reenter a universe completely dissimilar from this in every canon, custom, and calling.

Kai leaps from his perch, scuffles his wet webbed feet across the floorboards, stops in front of my feet, stares at me with his fierce eyes. Jumps onto the seat beside me, tucks his head beneath my arm, cozies into the warm part, the pit, nibbles and nuzzles like a kitten seeking comfort and consolation. He croaks and clucks in there, burrows with his bill.

Mr. Ng laughs softly, says something I cannot understand. My friend laughs, bends at the waist, slaps his knees.

“What did he say?”

“Ah, my honored father said Kai courteously is pretending that you are an Ideal Personality of the East.”


This is an excerpt from my book Foreign Friend: My Life With The Geniuses Who Made Modern China, 1982-1989.

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