Changzhou, China

Into the Countryside

In Diary on October 7, 2010 at 10:55 am

The fruit was so rare that my Chinese companions believed it to have a name only in their local dialect. Related to sugarcane, the indigenous plant was long and green, sweet and juicy, but it was significantly smaller than its popular cousin. We peeled the canes one by one, then chewed on them until they were dry, swallowing the sugary juice and spitting out the white residue. I breathed in the fresh air and looked out over the Taihu lake. This was the life.

Wait. Fresh air? In China? Yes – because we were no longer in the crowded industrial city of Changzhou, but in the remote Chinese countryside. The China most foreigners hear about is the urban one: news about the country’s pollution problems or its top-rate education, its petty crime or its rapid economic development, describes almost exclusively life in Chinese cities. In fact, fewer than 40% of China’s population lives in those cities; the rest of China lives out in the xiangxia, where the pace of life seems slower and people seem closer together.

I had come to this small village because, as an old Chinese proverb goes, “Reading ten thousand scrolls is not as good as taking ten thousand strolls.”[1] This is, at least, what my host mother told me as she explained that she had arranged for me to live for a few days out in the countryside and experience some of “the real China”.  I would do this over the early October “National Day” break, one of China’s three long vacations.  (Nominally students receive seven days off, but in fact most of these days are made up by going to school some extra weekends throughout September and October. This way, China can reap the economic benefits of a seven-day holiday towards the tourism industry without suffering the economic side-effects of having everyone work or study seven fewer days per year.)  I would be living with a different family for a few days, hiking, fishing, and learning some Chinese pottery.

Perhaps the thing that stood out most from my time in Yixing was that in small villages like these, whole families lived close together; I was later told that oftentimes a village will contain only two or three different families, each with tens of relatives.  The family I was staying with had about thirty or forty relatives living in Yixing, and throughout the day people would drift between the various houses for tea, conversation, meals, or TV.

In the city, such socialization seemed uncommon. If someone was to come over for dinner, it had been arranged well in advance, and it seemed that kids hardly ever had time to visit each other at home. In fact, since none of these students had siblings, they were surprisingly anti-social after school, generally retreating to their rooms and studying, playing video games, or watching movies. My host brother had never offered to play a card or board game with me, and the other exchange students seemed to have had similar experiences.

In the countryside, this wasn’t the case. Though these children also grew up with no siblings, they did grow up with cousins, and lots of them! I learned all sorts of card games, hand games, and other ways to pass the time with my new friends. We played badminton in the courtyard outside the house, or played “24” when it rained, a mathematical card game in which players competed to use the operations of arithmetic to make four random cards combine to equal twenty-four.

Like most of China, the countryside too is a mix of Western and Asian culture: kids have cell phones with endless functions, wear designer clothing if they can afford it, and use computers to chat with friends. But the balance is slightly different; in many aspects of life, China’s countryside still resembles an earlier China, having preserved cultural traditions already lost in the city.  I had remembered hearing, for example, some lyrics from a Beijing opera once that went something like “my mother gave me a bowl of wine before I left that morning.” This line sounds as odd to urban Chinese ears as it does to Western ones, but in the countryside, such traditions are still strong. I saw this firsthand when my Chinese cousins and I sat down one morning to an eleven o’clock bowlful of Chinese wine.

The countryside is also modernizing quickly, though. Kids go to the city for school, where they are not allowed to speak their local dialects. Many students cannot even speak the local dialect fluently, making it more difficult to communicate with older country-dwellers who cannot produce fluent Mandarin.  There is clearly something of a generational gap between the less educated senior citizens in the countryside and their more urban, educated grandchildren. Partly because I had trouble understanding the older members of my new family, I spent most of my time getting to know my cousins.

One day, my Chinese cousins and I were playing cards when a message came up on my new friend’s computer. (Though the family did not get warm running water – we had to use buckets of heated water to take baths – they had set up a relatively high-speed wireless internet connection. The miracles of modern China…) His older cousin raised his eyebrows.

“From a girl?” he asked.

My friend blushed. “I’ve told you, I don’t have a girlfriend!”

“Girlfriend? Did I say that? ‘300 silver taels are not hidden here.’”

I thought this was something of a non-sequitur.  “Mm?” I said, making sure to use Mandarin’s rising tone to indicate I had not understood.

It turned out that “300 silver taels are not hidden here” was another of those pesky chengyu; I had not recognized it as one because unlike most of these Chinese idioms, it was longer than four syllables.  It was based on an old story about a rich man who, in order to protect his wealth, buried 300 silver taels (an ancient Chinese currency, equal in value to 38 grams of standard silver) in his backyard. Still worried that his neighbors would dig it up, he put a sign up in the patch of ground that read “300 Silver Taels Are Not Hidden Here!” Of course, his neighbor was quick to discover his secret and dig up his fortune. He knew, however, that he would be the suspected criminal, so he himself erected another sign, something to the effect of: “Your Neighbor Did Not Steal 300 Silver Taels”.

Today, the idiom means that someone has revealed something they intended to hide by being overly defensive. My friend’s cousin was suggesting that my friend had been a little to quick to assert that he didn’t have a girlfriend.

“Hey,” my friend said. “What about you? You’re always texting that girl, aren’t you?”

“Who says? And plus, I’m in college, it’s okay when you’re in college.”

“Hypocrite.”

Among the many cousins was an adorable and energetic four-year-old boy called Little Wang. I remember my first encounter with him:

“Will you open this for me?” he held out a small can of a sugary drink.

“Sure,” I said. “Here you go.”

“Thank you!”

The boy, perhaps never having seen a foreigner before, had just assumed that I understood Mandarin. It was quite a relief.  If I had been talking with anyone else, the conversation might have gone like this:

“Do you speak Chinese?”

“A bit.”

“Can you open this for me?”

“Sure. Here you go.”

“Wow! Your Chinese is not bad.”

“I still have a lot to learn.”

“How long have you been studying?”

“A few years.”

“Your Chinese is really not bad.”

When I first arrived in China, this sort of exchange was gratifying; who doesn’t like a little boost to the ego? But eventually you realize that your Chinese could be awful and they’d still say this to you, and meeting new Chinese people becomes a sort of a slog. You run through the script with every new acquaintance; always the same questions, always the same answers. And even as he compliments your Chinese, your interlocutor involuntarily speaks. Very. Slowly. And. Uses. Simple. Words. Speaking with Little Wang was refreshing – finally, someone who treated me not like a foreigner but like a person, a normal person who looked like a grown up and might be able to help me open my can. We became good friends – it helped, of course, that his vocabulary was about on par with mine.


[1] I have changed the meaning slightly to make it rhyme, as it does in Chinese. The proverb’s actual meaning is closer to “Reading ten thousand scrolls is not as good as walking ten thousand miles” – du wan juan shu, bu ru zou wan li lu.

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  1. I miss 24. I was very good at it, but probably not any more.

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