Monday, September 5, 2011

Country Living in China

I grew up in America’s farm country, Iowa and Illinois, with frequent trips to Indiana where I had relatives with a real-life farm. My hometown, Moline, is the headquarters of John Deere. Yet for all of that, my actual experience with farms mainly consists of driving past them with the windows up and my nose occasionally scrunched up in the classic, condescending grimace of a city boy smelling other people’s animals.

Those were American farms, though, at once more unobtrusive, human-friendly, and massively concentrated than Chinese agriculture. I’ve marveled at the Chinese way of farming since my first summer in-country, when I observed through the windows of speeding vehicles the tiny little carved-out spaces lush with green which seemed to spring from dusty orange clay.

Chinese farming is a paradox for me, at once phenomenally productive (filling the supermarkets of hungry Dalian every day) and desolate. The countryside is filled with the elderly, the youths having left for better-paying jobs and greater flexibility in the factory towns of China. But the young factory people must be fed by someone, and as far as I can tell it’s the old farm-hands who work the land and send their products to the factories, ironically being paid so little that their children must go off to the factories, work slavishly as laborers, and send their excess home to provide for their parents a living that the selling of farm products doesn’t. All these issues, grand and humble, came together for me when I went to visit Ma Lei’s family in the family village.

Ma Lei’s family is a demographic archetype. Her grandparents were born to local landowners, and therefore vastly wealthy by the standards of the early 1900s in northeastern China. There’s some sort of a story involving her paternal grandfather, now 90 years old, working with a bank from Hong Kong, but my Chinese isn’t up to actually following it. The parents still work the farm, though Ma Lei's father also works construction. Both Ma Lei and her younger brother have gone off to the cities for work.

I’d eat brambles to be able to hear and understand the family's stories, and I have redoubled my language studies in the hopes that I can one day commit the family story to print. I’ll have to do it before Ma Lei’s English is good enough to understand what I’m writing, though, because she tao yan’s any hint of my writing about her, or her family, or indeed about anything at all personal. She is aware that she’s engaged to a writer, and she knows that I write about stories from China, but I don’t think she has quite realized that means her.

(Tao yan, by the way, is one of those magnificent Chinese terms that means a dozen different things. It’s sometimes joked by Chinese students of English that our language has ten different words for the same thing, whereas Chinese has one word for ten different things. What’s especially interesting to me, philosophically, is that Chinese often uses the same word for opposite relationships. Tao yan, for example, can mean “very bad,” “disgusting,” or “nasty,” when it’s used as an adjective. But as a verb, it means “hate” or “be disgusted by.” Couple this with the fact that verbs are often omitted from Chinese sentences, and “Wo tao yan” can mean either “I am disgusting” or “I am disgusted.”)

Ma Lei’s family had been rich, by local standards, and had owned land rented by others. Hence they were tao yan after the Revolution and the Mao Ze Dong wenti, as they call it — “the Mao Tze Deng problem.” There was a time when Ma Lei’s father and grandfather moved far north, to Jilin province, where Ma Lei was born. There was an incident during which Ma Lei’s sweet old Yeye (grandfather) was beaten with belts by a crowd of Cultural Revolutionaries. As Ma Lei tells the story, her father tracked down the instigators of that incident and gave them an eye for an eye, but I cannot verify that story. Ma Lei’s father is an unusually good man, that much I can see from his face, but the Cultural Revolution was a time when no one stood up for anyone else, and children frequently were the tormenters of their own parents.

Be that as it may, I knew a bit about Ma Lei's family before I went out to the family farm. I was amazed, though, at the life I saw there. I thought I would find a hardscrabble existence of poverty and deprivation. Instead, I found proud people with a very comfortable life and ample provisions.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Visiting the Countryside

Last weekend, I made my first visit to see the village where Ma Lei’s family lives.

As you may know, going to visit a woman's family in China is tantamount to an engagement, so it was potentially a very important trip. If her mother and (especially) father disapproved of the relationship, that would be the end of it: very few Chinese girls will go against their parents' wishes.

Ma Lei was pretty nervous, but I wasn't the least bit. I figured that her family must be pretty good folks, or she wouldn't be as down-to-earth and open-minded as she is. They'd let her get involved with a foreigner thus far, so they were at least open to the possibility. And besides, there wasn't too much I could do about it either way. They were going to think whatever they were going to think, regardless of my stressing about it.

Their farm would be an hour from my university, if I were driving my own car. However, taking a bus, then another bus, then another, it was more like three hours. We rode through the town of Jin Zhou, right past the little restaurant where the pretty waitress had tried on my bike helmet, five or six months ago. In Jin Zhou, we picked up a scrappy-looking little bus through increasingly remote farm country along a road parallel to the one I took on the bike trip to Zhuang He.

Around 1:00, the bus pulled up the tiny cluster of eight or ten farm houses where Ma Lei was raised. Quick introductions were made as I was whisked into her family's house and Ma Lei distributed gifts of moon cakes and Peking duck we'd brought from Beijing. I was seated next to Ma Lei's father at a small dinner table decorated with Snoopy characters. As Chinese tradition requires, Ma Lei's female relatives quickly began filling the table with a gigantic feast — perhaps twenty plates overflowing with food for ten people.

Ma Lei's younger brother was there with his girlfriend, whom he's been dating for more than a year. They somehow didn't look reluctant or put-upon, despite the fact that my coming to visit the family had caused him to be more or less shamed into coming, too. His girlfriend had not yet been introduced to the family, a point that their mother didn't fail to mention to him once or twice in the build-up to my visit. Ma Lei’s brother and his girlfriend were placed directly opposite me, next to Ma Lei's 90 year-old grandfather, who sat next to her father. Ma Lei's aunt, mother, and two unrelated people sat on the side of the table opposite from the two men of the house. Ma Lei was at my side, to help me with food and translations.

Ma Lei's mother is a compact, good-natured woman. With the dutiful character of a Chinese farm wife, she let her husband do almost all the speaking for her. But she keeps an immaculate house, cooking and cleaning with professional efficiency.

The father is a good-humored man in his mid-50s. Though I couldn’t understand his dialect at all, when he told stories I could tell from his body-language and from people’s reactions that he’s an excellent raconteur. He welcomed me to the house warmly and took great pleasure serving me beer and baijiu, which we drank together in ritual fashion.

When Chinese men drink together (and women almost never drink, not in a traditional family), it is a highly social experience. You are not to lift a glass on your own: you move your hand to your glass, and wait for the other man to notice and raise his glass along with you. Without looking at each other directly, you swing the glass toward your partner as if to clink a Western-style toast, then raise it to your lips, being careful to sip for about the same length of time he does. On the way down, you make a smaller gesture to your partner, then set your glasses down simultaneously. Tough luck, if you want to drink more than he does, or less. Tough luck, if you want to drink while he's got his hands on his chopsticks or while he's telling a lengthy story. It's quite rude to force someone to interrupt his eating or talking, by putting your hand to your glass. It's best to let the host set the pace, rather than appearing to be greedy with someone else's alcohol. I’d been told some of the rules of this custom in the past, but I’d never really experienced it before. I think Ma Lei’s father enjoyed having a drinking partner; there’s not much social life in their tiny little village.

The ritual is at once mildly stifling, and intensely bonding. One becomes unusually aware of the partner's behavior, his body language, his pace and rhythm of eating, as well as (obviously) how much he is drinking. Coupled with the fact that the Chinese method of sharing food at the table requires you to coordinate your eating, only reaching for what you can grab without interrupting someone else's reaching and grabbing, it gives a much more intimate connection with the other person than you get at a standard Western-style dinner.

With so much food of such variety, there is generally a quick feast at the beginning followed by a long period of socializing, storytelling, and picking at the remaining food. Northeasterners in China speak with the thickest, most incomprehensible of accents, as if their mouths were stuffed with sponges. Other Chinese people have a hard time communicating with them, so of course it’s hopeless for a foreigner. To make things even more complicated, about half of the people at lunch speak not Mandarin but the local dialect, which is significantly different. So Ma Lei had to act as a sort of Chinese-to-Chinese translator, going from her family's Chinese into Chinese I could understand and back again. We communicated some, but mostly I listened and tried to understand their body language.

After a couple of hours, Ma Lei's brother and his girlfriend left the table. Ma Lei made sure to have me take her picture with her brother and his girlfriend before she would let them leave. Ma Lei is the one in black and white, on the right-hand side of the picture.

After the young couple left, the other local residents slipped away, leaving the four of us to go back to the table. Presently, Ma Lei's mother offered me a small bowl of noodles, which I had been instructed to accept no matter how overstuffed I already felt.

This was another tradition about which Ma Lei had warned me, but which I had never heard of before this weekend. If the family likes and accepts their daughter's suitor, after a meal they will offer him noodles. Noodles are a sign of long life, and they are typically eaten on every birthday as a way of saying "...and many more." So by offering noodles after the introductory meal, the family is wishing that the couple will stay together for a long and healthy life.

If, on the other hand, the family had decided that they didn't like me, they would have instead offered me jiaozi (Chinese dumplings something like won tons). Although jiaozi are a favorite food of China, and it seems as though the list of traditions associated with just about every holiday in China ends with "... and you must eat jiaozi," jiaozi also seem to have a kind of negative connotation. I've heard Ma Lei say "he can eat jiaozi" in the same way I might say "he can go to hell." It's perhaps akin to "let them eat cake."

So under the circumstances, I accepted a very small bowl of homemade noodles with a delicious mussel sauce. Ma Lei's mother complained that I hadn't taken enough, but I made a joke about being too fat already, and she let me get away with my small helping.

We were in the farm village for two full days, returning early in the morning of the third day. Later that evening, while I was off teaching a private class for a company in downtown Dalian, Ma Lei’s father called her up. He asked for Gao Meng (my Chinese name — it sounds a lot like “Garmong”). I don’t know why he asked for me, since we couldn’t have communicated over the phone anyway, but he was disappointed when I wasn’t there. He didn’t particularly want to talk to Ma Lei, he just wanted to know when I could come out to drink beer and baijiu with him again.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Abdul's politics

Tonight, I went for lamb-kebobs at the stand of Abdul, the best Muslim barbecue vendor on my street. While I was waiting for my lamb to cook, Abdul asked (in Chinese) if I was American. "Dui," I said, "yes."

He asked if I like George Bush, which took me aback a little. I don't think I'd ever heard a Chinese person say the name "George Bush." Bush was already in the world's rear-view mirror when I came to China.

While I was pondering my answer — my Chinese being nowhere near good enough to say "No, I don't especially like George Bush's politics, but for reasons almost the opposite of what most people who don't like him would name" — Abdul went on to say "I like George Bush," in Chinese and, for emphasis, in English.

"Do you like Obama?" He asked in Chinese. This, I could answer quickly and ponderlessly: "Bu xi huan" ("I don't like"). "Wo ye bu xi huan" ("I also don't like"), he said enthusiastically, and continued in Chinese: "Obama doesn't have heart or balls. George Bush has heart and balls." (The "balls" part I didn't exactly get from his words, but I inferred it from his two-handed interpretive gesture.)

I guess on that level, I can't disagree. And thus, with a nod of my head, I concluded my first-ever political conversation in Chinese as Abdul took my spicy lamb kebobs off the flame and handed them to me with a flourish.

Interestingly, the Muslim street vendors are often the most pro-American faces in China. They are typically ethnic minorities who see themselves as being repressed by the ethnic Chinese, so they see us foreigners as natural allies. It's perhaps not what one would expect from Muslims in some other parts of the world.