March 1st, 2010
The Spring Festival holiday is finally over; and it was such a relief to finally have a morning where I was not woken by the ballistic explosion of firecrackers. My holidays were interesting. I decided to take some of my time off to head to the countryside with my friend Carmen.
Carmen is a wonderfully bright and curious young Chinese school teacher who dresses like a peasant. She is self taught. To save money, she did all her studying at home and only went to the university to write the exams to get the credits. I have never met anyone like her and she says she’s never met anyone like me. (I am the first female foreigner she has ever known.) She told me that she had spent her life studying, and when she finally settled down with a job she started looking for something beyond her stack of novels and pirated DVDs. So, she joined the couch surfing website and emailed me to see if I needed a guide for the city. I was only too happy to meet her.
One of the best things about Carmen; is her incredible wealth of knowledge; she reads a lot and delights in telling me the especially licentious stories she has heard. She loves talking about finding used condoms in grocery stores; or the sex scandals of China’s celebrities. She tells me how people were brutally and irreparably scarred while eating the popular hot pot dish. Once while touring her neighbourhood; where her and her mother share a one bedroom apartment -cement walls and floors with water damage, a winding staircase with no lights where you have to feel your way up each step – she chuckled to herself as she pointed out all the shops that were really just fronts for the brothels behind them.
Before meeting me, Carmen had never used a western toilet. She had only ever used the Asian style (a hole in the ground you have to squat above.) She told me she had thought western toilets were only for the handicapped. Carmen had also never been to a bar, though when I took her this weekend, she seemed not to be enjoying herself. The music I think was too loud. But true to her, she still came up with wonderful observations. “I see all of these people stripping their masks with each swig they drink. This is a place to go and just not worry.”
And last week, Carmen and I went on a trip. This trip to the countryside marked the first time that Carmen had ever left the city of Wuhan. The trip by bus took us four hours and five bus transfers. The further we went, the more toothless the locals and the more they stared. But finally at the last stop of the last bus, we arrived at the dirt road leading to the small unnamed village and were greeted by the granddaughter of our hosts.
We were going to stay with people neither Carmen nor I had ever met – the parents of her neighbour who owned a small farm in this nameless village. It was refreshing to look out at the landscape speckled with oxen and man-made fish ponds and fields full of odd looking plants some resembling dandelions.
We walked along the dirt road until we arrived at the two story stone house of our hosts. They had never in their lives seen a foreigner in the flesh and now they were going to host one. When I met nai nai (grandma) and ye ye (grandfather), they were ecstatic to learn that they could understand my mandarin. However, I understood almost nothing they said. (This seems to be the pattern, people sometimes understand what I am trying to say in standard mandarin, but because they speak a dialect, I almost never understand them).
The rest of the day was spent very pleasantly; I woke to the sound of the rooster crowing, tried to photograph the chickens, made spring rolls, played badminton, and dug in the ground to help ye ye find puchi – a small potato like vegetable, that is sweet and eaten raw. Ye Ye sells his puchi in the market and makes only about a dollar a day from it. But since the farm is self-sufficient and the government provides farmers with large subsidies, ye ye and nai nai have little use for money for themselves and save their money to help their grandchildren go to university.
Before coming, Carmen explained very carefully that I am vegetarian to the elderly couple. However, they assumed that I was just being polite because meat is very expensive for people from the countryside and they almost never eat it. They thought I was just saying that I was vegetarian to save them the expense. So, at dinner time, the spread was a lovely assortment of fresh vegetables with one dish containing meat. When nai nai was about to put the meat ball into my bowl, I told her no thank you but I don’t eat meat. Nai nai looked so shocked, I wondered if I had done something wrong. Carmen, started explaining to the couple and then they both stared at me, their eyes so wide I thought their eyeballs might fall into their tea.
The dinner continued with me unintentionally acting incredibly rudely and Carmen covering for me and explaining all my odd behaviour. It is custom for Chinese hosts to push their guests to eat and drink until they think they are going to explode and very rude for the guests to refuse. So when I refused to eat more, Carmen covered for me. It is also common for Chinese to ask personal and probing questions. So when nai nai asked me if I had a boyfriend, I replied “wo zhao bu dao yi ge hao nan pengyou.” (I am looking but cannot find a good boyfriend.) And then jokingly asked if she knew anyone good, she again looked at me in horror. Carmen at this point started laughing uproariously; apparently you aren’t supposed to admit that you are looking, just smile demurely and say I haven’t got a boyfriend yet.
But probably the pinnacle of my odd behaviour was when I told the couple that my parents were soon coming to visit and that my father was a university professor coming to work at Huazhong University. Carmen explained to me that it was as if I had just told the couple that I was the president’s daughter.
After dinner, the whole family huddled in ye ye and nai nai’s bedroom to watch the Olympics and cheer for the Chinese and Canadian freestyle skiers. This is when the phone began to ring almost constantly. Carmen through her giggles, kept translating as ye ye told the same story to each of the callers, “we have a foreigner here, she is from a very rich and important family, but she doesn’t eat meat.” Luckily, she saw the humour in how her presence wasn’t mentioned at all.
The next day, I dressed in Carmen’s clothes, hoping to blend in, and the granddaughter gave us a tour of the village, where all the villagers were curious to talk to me. They were funny and kind. And in the centre of the city, I was allowed to hit the drum and take pictures of the decorative dragon specially prepared for the Lantern Festival (the last day of Spring festival). All the villagers told me that I was welcome to come back anytime, and some joked with me that I should build a factory in their town to help them make more money. They didn’t seem to believe me when I told them I didn’t have that kind of cash.
That afternoon, as Carmen and I were preparing to leave, I felt genuinely sad. I had loved my time in the country, watching the sunset on the fish pond and feeling like a celebrity. And as I hugged nai nai and ye ye goodbye they blushed and gave me toothless smiles. “Come back anytime, you are like family now,” ye ye said and I was touched.
On the bus ride home, even though it was the first time Carmen had left the city and a special time for her, she giggled as she told me soon the villagers will forget she had even come, and there will only be this mythic story about how a foreigner, who doesn’t eat meat, once visited them.