I’m exhausted — mentally, emotionally, physically, exhausted. But I couldn’t be more content. Last week was Chinese National Holiday, also known as October Holiday. (think: July 4th on crack). It is basically a week-long celebration of all things patriotic in the Red Country. Most businesses and schools get the week off as a majority of Chinese residents travel to see family. I decided to take advantage of the free week to fly south and see some graduate school friends.
Through the course of some unexpected events leading up to my departure, I was invited to travel with a few friends and their Chinese co-worker to his home village. A plan for five cities in six days was drawn up, bus tickets were purchased, and I flew Monday night to Shenzhen — bordering Hong Kong, a two-hour flight from Hangzhou — where I stayed at my friend’s apartment for the night. Flying alone on domestic flights in China is interesting as a foreigner. I would sit down and automatically dozens of people would whip out their camera phones to take my picture. This is not the place to live if you want to live in peace and blend in, that is for sure.
Tuesday through Sunday we city hopped around China, taking in the mountains that rise like exclamation points in Guilin, bamboo rafting down the Yangshuo river in Yangshuo, and exploring the Cantonese culture of Guangzhou. We traveled by bus, spending two nights on sleeper buses and countless hours on dirt and gravel roads getting from city to city.
It is an extreme feeling of accomplishment to buy tickets, find the right bus, and get to the next destination using broken Chinese and body motions. I have found that the Chinese people are generally very understanding of illiterate foreigners — trying to help me as I played charades in the bus station trying to find the right bus, or the bathroom, or something to eat.
Seeing so many sites and traveling at such an intense pace was so fun. But what strikes me the most as I reflect on the trip is the two days and one night we spent at our Chinese friend Wesley’s house in a village called Ma Ping, (literally translated as “horse field”).
We arrived two days into our journey and were greeted by Wesley’s elderly grandmother who was waiting outside on a stool for us. Wesley had not been home since January, so we were honored to tag along for his rare homecoming. Wesley is the only boy from the village to have attended college, and I can only imagine what the village must have thought about him bringing four foreign girls and one foreign boy along.
We hiked through open fields, passing cows and water buffalo along the way to his childhood friend’s house for a banquet. There were firecrackers going off for the holiday and they were also celebrating a 1-year-old baby’s birthday. We ate a meal of all meat and played with the children while the party of about 30 people watched the foreigners intently. I can’t believe they just welcomed us into their home, fed us, and allowed us to sing and play with their children without any questions.
We then hiked to a reservoir where water buffalo swim and spent the evening watching Chinese news, attending a singing competition on the side of the street, and enjoying a feast with Wesley’s mom, dad, and aunts from the village. It struck me how simple their lives are, and it was popular discussion amongst the foreigners if we could live there forever. I think I could — just give me a life-time supply of blue mascara and Dove deodorant and I’m good.
In a group of people who do not speak each others’ language it is interesting to see how interaction is created. There are just so many things we wanted to say to each other, but couldn’t. There is so much I want to know about their lives, how they feel, what they care about, but none of these things could be asked.
I want to tell them about Florida, palm trees, dolphins, that my little sister is an artist and that my parents allowed me to come to China even though it is so far from home. I want to tell them that my mom cooks in an oven and that my dad is over 6 feet tall, that my sister thinks their tanned skin from working in the fields is beautiful and that my pale skin they admire so much is considered pasty in America.
I want them to know that I know the meaning of family and how proud they must be of Wesley for leaving home and becoming a teacher. I want to tell them that I left home and became a teacher, too…that my mom and Wesley’s mom could bond over sending a child far away and watching from a distance as they grow.
We have so much in common, and so much to learn from each other, and yet couldn’t speak a word, as they speak a village dialect and don’t understand Mandarin. They would grab my hands at the dinner table and laugh. I laughed along, not really sure what was funny, but thankful for the emotional release of laughter.
My caravan of foreign teachers left Thursday morning excited for the next leg of the journey (Guilin-Yangshuo-Guilin-Shenzhen) but sure that our short time in the village would be the most impressionable part of our trip.
It was so great to see some friends from America. Finding familiar faces in this country is such a comforting thing. It was a hilarious traveling group — never a dull moment as we traipsed our way around China looking for another adventure, another weird thing to eat, or another memory to be made. As I looked around I kept thinking to myself, “Is this really my life?” and another popular thought, “How am I still alive after all this?”
I came back to Hangzhou with extremely smelly laundry, a backpack covered in dirt, and a heart full of thankfulness for the generosity of the villagers of Ma Ping.