The Cajun Experience

We had the wildest experience in a mere span of one day.

Waking up in the morning, we all got ready for a seminar that focused on A Lesson Before Dying. It is a book about the last days of a wrongly convicted young black man before his execution. It’s a truly powerful book that touches deeply upon several of the most profound themes in the United States. Slavery, legal system, racism, just to name a few. The day before, we took a tour around the old prison cells in Pointe Coupee Parish just like the book described. Darkness, rust, cluster, lack of air flow, extreme humidity and heat, strong stench, the condition of the prison cells is more than terrible. We are able to feel for ourselves the condition that Jefferson, the wrongly convicted man, lived through awaiting his impending death (Although, I would imagine the plantation life to be not much better for him. But nonetheless, the prison is probably as worse as it could possibly get for Jefferson). During the time process, his humanity has been shed away by the white lawyers, juries and justices. Described as a hog rather than a human, Jefferson has lose all confidence in himself. He would deliberately imitate a hog, deliberately piss off his loved one. However, with endless loves from people such as Grant, Miss Emma, Reverend Ambrose and the entire community, the true worth were awaken inside Jefferson and he was able to realize that he was loved, he was capable of being loved, and he was worthy to be loved. Eventually, Jefferson calmly embraced his death with dignity. Andrew recited Shakespeare Sonnet 29, a poem about a desperate person regaining hope after realizing that he was still loved. We were all in absolute silence.

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We stepped out the hotel room and headed for Dr. Gaines’ house, the author of A Lesson Before Dying, hoping to learn some deep insights from the very author of the novel. We approached him with a very solemn respect for him and the subject he writes on, only to find out that he is a very funny and relatable guy. When asked how he created those characters, he responded “you don’t know what to do with them. You just create those characters. As you write along, you figure out what to do” We also asked him about his writing process to which he responded “you know the beginning. You know the ending. And you have 200 blank pages to fill and that’s it”. Frankly speaking, I did not get quite as much insights as I expected from the meeting. However, one photo shocked me quite particularly. It was a photo of Dr. Gaines’s aunt, who has a terminal disease that makes her only able to crawl on the ground for her entire life. It was this disabled woman who single-handedly brought up twelve children from the plantations house, during an era of Jim Crow laws and lynching in the deep south. It was also this woman who, when wishing to discipline her children with planks, her children would unconditionally obey and kneel before her to take the beating. Dr. Gaines only talked briefly about her but I was deeply touched by the extraordinary character of her aunt.

 The women in the middle is Dr. Gaines' aunt. Andrew took this photo.

The women in the middle is Dr. Gaines' aunt. Andrew took this photo.

Then we experience a 180 degree mood shift and began the most extraordinary representation of the Southern hospitality. Almost all novels we read touched on “southern hospitality”. Whether it is Ignatius’ mom treating the rather miserable policeman, or Binx’s aunt making a big speech about gaiety, sense of duty and gentleness; whether it is grandmere preparing her favorite food for Floyd’s little girl, or even the big gathering at the Ratignolles’ on Grand Isle, elements of southern hospitality is repeatedly mentioned and explored upon. However, we never got a chance to truly experience it for real. (To support this controversial and almost offensive claim, I shall offer my sincere opinion here: On Grant Isle we were secluded in our own house, the only local people we’ve ever met are the owners of the local restaurants with whom the experience I already described in the first blog. Coming over to New Orleans, we are surrounded by a city so richly historical yet so different from “the south”. We did meet many nice people, but I don’t feel confident in calling any of them southern hospitality rather than just general big-city politeness. It is one thing to be nice and polite, yet a whole other to be hospitable and welcoming. Hence the conclusion above.) But on the day we visited Dr. Gaines, we met some real hospitality. The story started from the day before when we visit the prison cells in Pointe Coupee Parish. Christina and several others went into the place called Raymond’s’ Family Pharmacy right next to our parking lot. With an initial intention to get some water or perhaps using the restroom, they found themselves in an extremely friendly conversation with the owner of the Pharmacy, whom invited all of us to join his son to for a boat ride the next day! and there we go: the wildest, most random and most joyful surprise of our trip, perhaps what Sadie would call a serendipity. Thus, on the afternoon of the day, we headed to Nelson’s dock, which is right opposite to the courthouse, and had an amazing boat ride on the lake! It was also my first time ever trying water tubing! I regret so much that I never seen it before. (Although, frankly speaking, it was more like water quenching. )

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The day did not end just there yet. After water tubing, we drove away from the parish to a place called Bayou Cabins several miles east of Lafayette. It is the most bizarre housing run by the sweetest most incredible southern lady who cooks the most sumptuous breakfast one ever live to witness for us every single day. Stepping outside of the van parked above a specially selected glade under the enchanting shade of the bayou forest with the perfect amount of cushioning and fractions and water permeability unsurpassed by any lame concrete pavement works commonly seen in cities, I was immediately amazed by the luxurious opulence of the architectural magnificence of the cabins capable of putting the Château de Versailles in a shameful blush. Opening the door and a smell of meticulously developed fragrance made up with the odor of antique air conditioners, uncirculated air, cup-price air freshener and some secret ingredients known only to the owner of the place unique to each cabin blew pleasantly on my face. In fact, the furniture and the interior decoration was so stylish and comfortable that even low forms of life such as ants and cockroaches gathered together in the cabins to appreciate its sheer beauty. Some say it is like a 5 star hotel, I take that as an insult to the majestic Bayou Cabins. Others say that it is the best place they ever stayed in their ten years of travelling in the United States, I totally agree and think that they’ll never find a better place ever again. Sometimes at night, I just find myself lying on my bed staring at the ceilings of the cabin, where even the spider nets seemed dreamingly artistic under the carefully designed, handcrafted and true-to-life manual operated ambient lightening system and the pleasant melodies from the nostalgically classic air conditioners. Good grace this place was the best! No wonder Lauryn was able to have accomplished such a chivalry act of kindness by humbly relinquishing her possession of the entire bed to the lonely bug that sought the warmth of her blanket and the company of her kind-heartedness at night. Everything about the Bayou Cabins is just Amazing!

 photo of the dance floor taken by andrew

photo of the dance floor taken by andrew

Add ever more drama to the already sensational day was our dinner at Randol’s, a local favorite featuring a restaurant, a bar and a whole hall with wooden floor and a stage filled with band members dedicated exclusively to dancing. Peering through the plastic glass that separated us and the dancing hall, I was able to see one young looking man dancing eagerly among a group of elderly folks, all of them, although unable to move as swiftly as when they were young, were so immersed in the joyful fast-tempo Cajun music that it seemed like their body just naturally undulated with the waves of notes coming from the stage all by themselves. After finishing our pleasant dinner, most of us joined the dance. A moment of pure pleasure where everything but the movement of the body is forgotten. What a cheerful way of life!

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The following day, we went to a Cajun music gathering at a local café in the town. When we went there, the music was just set to begin and once again, we were embraced by bursts of hospitality from local folks. The guy who played the infamous iron water bucket bass (I couldn’t remember his name, sadly) was particularly interested in introducing us to their musical insights and all the beautiful stories in the lyrics about family and love. As we were all totally captured by the music, Andrew picked up a viola from the middle of the group and started playing along with them. The entire group looked ever so joyful. It was by this performance that I truly come to appreciate Floyd’s concern for his little girl. “The ample laps of aunts, daily thunderheads rolling above flat parishes of rice and cane, the musical rattle of French, her prayers, the head-turning squawk of her uncle’s accordion, the scrape and complaint of her father’s fiddle as he serenades the backyard on weekends….” All of those are unique identities of the Cajun culture that you can only truly come to appreciate by experiencing it on the spot The hospitality, the expressions, the endless music, the easy-going characters, constant bursts of laughter and everything else that makes the Cajun culture. If they are all tripped away from the girl, good heavens will she be forever haunted by her memories for the rest of her life. The culture provided people here with such a strong identity, whom  in turn intensified the Cajun culture, a circle of continued benevolence.

Later that afternoon, we met the same group again in a local brewery enjoying life. The person who played the viola (I’m so bad with names I feel very sorry) told me that he was born and raised here and then became an engineer in Los Angeles for a long time before he came back eventually. So I guess there is always something about our home and our childhood that bond us to some particular culture and particular place. For him, it is the Cajun culture he was raised in right there at Breaux Bridge. Eventually, a high salary from a respectable occupation in one of the world’s largest cities still cannot beat the sound of viola and a sip of cold brew at home. For myself, it would be my hometown Lanzhou. Since my parents all came from different parts of the country and none of us speak the local dialect, I never viewed Lanzhou as my hometown and always wanted to get away from it when I was a kid. Finally, I succeeded in going to schools on the other side of the earth, only to find out that I started missing it desperately. It is part of me. Shed it away, and I become like a tree with its roots cut off. It is where my home is and where I feel the most at ease. Right now, everywhere I go, I introduce that I’m from Lanzhou as proud as a peacock. It meaning to me gets stronger as I grow, just like Breaux Bridge is to the viola performer, and Louisiana is to Grant Wiggins and Dr. Gaines. To modify the quote from Dr. Gaines,  of us has body and mind everywhere, but soul bounded firmly in our hometown.