Chinese people know about it, know Santa brings gifts, trees get lit up, and shops fill with a flurry of purchasing mania. It’s that last economic fringe benefit of the holiday that mostly affects the Chinese, though.
But here in China a holiday does get celebrated right about this time – Dongzhi: the Winter Solstice. So, like a bunch of pagans, the entire country observes the shortest, darkest day of the year. Don’t be offended by the pagan joke. I love pagans.
As is the case with most Chinese holidays, the family gets together during Dongzhi and eats a meal together. In the South it’s the sweat, colorful rice balls called Tangyuan. In the North – where Dalian is – Dumplings are eaten.
And of course they’re homemade. When Xiao Ming and I arrived at our Xiao Yi’s house, her mom and dad were making them. That quickly changed when they pulled us over and put us to work.
I’d made dumplings once, years ago, but couldn’t seem to convince them of that with my completely inept dumpling stuffing and folding technique. My mother-in-law had to patiently show me at least four times before my dumplings looked edible instead of lumps of amorphous flour.
I kept this up for a while, catching my stride and trading small talk with her as Xiao Ming rolled out the round pieces we stuffed with meat and vegies. Then, just when I was beginning to think I didn’t totally suck at such a simple task, my father-in-law comes over and shows me how to pinch the tops of the flour together one side at a time to create an even cooler look. Once again, my first attempts looked like I’d done them blind, in the dark.
They tasted just fine, though.
The family – a small showing of only 10 for the evening – gathered around the table in the kitchen and ate. We toasted each other with red wine (Not sure where the Bai Jiu was that night), beer, and hot water.
What do Chinese families talk about at meals like this?
My father-in-law told jokes about some hillbilly businessmen who used to colorful sentence enhancers in every sentence during a meeting where he struggled to keep a straight face. That kicked off everyone telling jokes that involved swearing with wonderful DongBei (Northeast) flavor. They can really lay the profanities on thick in the North. I thought I got creative with merging English and Mandarin!
Then there was a large portion of time given for comparative linguistics. Well, kinda. They sat around joking in different Mandarin dialects, trying to sound like authentic Hebei or Tianjin locals. Xiao Ming told them about the time I had a full on five-minute conversation with a four-year-old Sichuan boy on the plane that all the passengers around us listened to and ended with a drawn out, rising and falling “man zou!” that made everyone laugh when the boy said it to me in his adorable accent. (Man Zou is said like Mahn Zoe). Then we drank, toasting gan bei in different dialects.
The final topic we all got going on about was familial titles and how to refer to different people. Unlike American families that just use “Grandma/Grandpa,” “Uncle/Aunt,” “Cousin,” and all the other simple titles we know, Mandarin Chinese calls for every person to have their own unique title. Your father and mother’s side don’t use the same, either, so no doubling up. Males and females have different terms as well as older or younger generations. I’m still hopelessly lost once we get beyond first cousins, but they still like to quiz me and each other. Even Xiao Ming makes mistakes! It’s not easy!
After dinner we all hung out in the living room and talked. We showed the family our pictures (some are in the previous post), and they all sat and stared at them for about fifteen, twenty minutes.
And like that, we passed the darkest day of the year together.
I’ve passed the booths and tables many times. Always a young girl sitting and playing on her phone while before her, laid out on the table, are booklets, posters, and framed photos of newlyweds in all sorts of poses.
In the spring and summer couples flock to the local parks for their outdoor shoots, and descend on the foreign-looking buildings because it’s fashionable to take photos in front of them, and even schedule elaborate trips in order to capture on-site images instead of using green screens or poster backdrops. When Xiao Ming and I were in Nice a few years ago we saw two photography groups following Chinese couples around!
We talked about taking the pictures ourselves around the time we got married two years ago, but neither of us wanted to really commit to it. We’re not picture-takers. But after Xiao Ming’s cousin got her photos a few months ago we decided to just get it over with. So, on November 6th we spent NINE hours dressed like what felt like fools in a few of the outfits, and, yes, even got some shots of us in front of foreign looking buildings out in the middle of nowhere about forty minutes away.
Not going through that again.
LiYing Wedding Photography is a two-floor shop down a side street beside iMall (No connection to Apple products whatsoever). The mall used to be the only competition for Ansheng Shopping Center across the intersection, but now that a Wanda Shopping Center opened just up the street Kai Fa Qu consumers have plenty of places to spend their money. We arrive before 8 am, and Xiao Ming is ushered into the back where her make-up is applied by women with questionable cosmetic choices themselves.
A Chinese girl so small I could probably toss her across the room comes up to me and says she’ll be putting make-up on me and doing my hair. I laugh.
I make it clear to her that my hair is the way I want it, and there’s no way in hell I’m getting any make-up put on me. Shit, my mom and aunts had to hold me down as a toddler just to apply sunscreen!
So then after Xiao Ming is dolled up enough that I might mistake her for someone else, we put on our first outfits. We’d gone in two weeks before to select our clothing and decided on at least a few shots wearing the traditional red Chinese gowns (I also insisted on having shots done with us wearing our normal clothes and leather jackets!). We donned them and then traipsed upstairs for the first round of pics. It’s no good. Babies are everywhere being asked to smile and say “eggplant.” Qiezi, the Chinese for eggplant, is basically their “Cheese” for photos. Saying it makes them grimace just like saying “cheese” does for us Americans.
So our entourage packs up for a place they call the “basement” that’s in Jinzhou, about thirty minutes or so away. Sure, whatever. Just let me change back into my normal clothes first. Nope! We both walk outside in our flashy red gowns for all the Sunday morning busybodies to see.
Along the way we stop for some Chinese breakfast – still my least favorite of the Chinese meals. After the food everyone dozes as we drive toward Jinzhou, the county to the west of Kai Fa Qu. When we get to the “basement” it’s pretty clear the name is a euphemism.
Tian Lai Wan is a mostly abandoned complex that looks like something you’d see in England or parts of France. Pale stone slabs for the exterior, statues, and columns. Close to the coast and eerily quiet, you could almost forget you’re in China.
The facility is shared by seven photography companies, and they’ve all put money into the place. Sets – that’s the only way to think of them – are everywhere. Castle, Bar, Pool Hall, Library, Wine Cellar, Park, Bridge, Nondescript Rustic Foreign Place, etc.
Once there, we begin.
NINE hours and a lunch break later, we finish.
The day is done and we’re wiped out. Xiao Ming is just swearing up and down in our pidgin Chinese-English mix we’ve developed as a couple together (we’re so cultured! Haha). I’m half asleep and hungry sitting next to her. But we’re done.
It’s about a month before we get a call that says we can come in and see the digital copies and make our final selections. Apprehensive and skeptical, we go in and look through the 200 pics. We were nervous because the dresses Xiao Ming wore were a bit too big on her, the make-up was way more than she ever wears (which is none), and I have a notorious habit for making monkey faces in my pictures.
After pouring over the photos for about half an hour, we narrow our selections down to 44. There are some decisions about sizes and layout, and then we’re told it’ll be another half month. We wait. Three weeks later we’re called. Yay! Picture pick up!
Except not. We get there and are shown the digital book pages that will become the printed hardcopy books. It took three weeks to put this together, I ask. The woman nods hesitantly. I straight up ask her what they’ve done in three weeks. I tell her that if I’d had the digital copies I could have arranged them just like what she’s shown us in one day. There’s nothing she can do, I know, but sometimes bitching about nonsense feels good.
She tells us it’ll be another half month before we can pick up the books!
And so a few days ago we got the call and went to retrieve the pictures we’d taken in the Autumn.
You can tell the good girls from the bad girls here by gathering a few basic facts, I was told about five years ago. The facts may be closer to stereotypes than reflections of real people, but who doesn’t listen to stereotypes once in a while?
A young Chinese woman who smokes – bad egg.
Tattoos – Watch out!
If she admits to visiting Five Color City frequently – Oh, boy!
FCC is about two or three blocks of bars, restaurants, massage parlors, and a few random civil service offices. Tucked between the Qing Gui (Light Rail Train) on the north and a large public square used by retirees at night for their Square Dancing on its south side, Five Color has a way of feeling like the center of Kai Fa Qu when you’re standing in the midst of it all.
Growing up in America where smoking, tattoos, and drinking with friends out at night are just common, none of these “Bad Egg” traits stood out to me as indicative of moral depravity. China, for all its robust growth and headlines touting progress across the board, is still a nation of very traditional values – that’s what most people say when you ask them.
Really, it’s a country playing tug-of-war with itself. One side yearning for a wide open field of complete and utter modernity and the moral ambiguity that goes with it while the other tries to anchor their end of rope in place to something like good old-fashioned Confucian principles with Mao’s flavor of Communism laced in there for good measure. Enter the wide-ranging foreign influence along with humanity’s natural inclination to make a buck and you’ll see why a place like Five Color exists.
Advertised in the late eighties as a tourist spot in Dalian, Five Color City drew crowds of families because of its trippy architecture and wholesome vibe. They even had a Western Restaurant! In time, though, the neighborhood-sized attraction lost its appeal, and it shut down in the late 90s.
When the doors began to open again in the 2000s it was for a different clientele. International companies and their foreign workforce needed a watering hole, and FCC provided it. Bars and restaurants opened, and soon the ridiculous facades of the buildings resembling something Disney or Tim Burton might see during a particularly rough trip on LSD became the backdrop of many, many drunken shenanigans.
Every few months a bar closes and another one takes its place – often just a name change marks this event. Painting, remodeling, cleaning are not requirements. In my time in Dalian I’ve seen at least a dozen new bars come and go. Only a handful seem to have any staying power.
Anchorage, Cafe Vienna, Holmes, The Nagging Wife, The Lazy Hog, Gold Bar, Memories – These are basically the only ones still around from more than five years ago. A few Japanese bars may make the cut, but even they turn over just as often (And they don’t like non-Japanese speakers). The bartenders working these joints are often young girls in their early twenties. In the summer you’ve got your college kids looking to either improve their English or up for some partying. Throughout the rest of the year, though, the girls tend to be a bit more worldly.
The shelf-life of a Five Color City employee is about 1-2 years. Anymore and the place works its evil, toxic poison on even the sweetest, bright-eyed cutie. Those in the life much longer than that have a way of aging physically and mentally much faster than they should. Some names come to mind, but I won’t call them out here. A few girls play the seasonal game where they pick up shifts strictly around the holidays, not totally succumbing to the effects of being a full-time bargirl. Probably the best route if you’re going to be a part of it, I suppose.
Start making friends with some of the owners and it becomes apparent that there is a network of power and influence that runs through the entire place. Some bosses command more respect than others while still others form alliances that benefit their bars. I have a friend who does shows. He’s played all throughout Dalian, but early on in FCC one particular bar owner sunk her claws into him and claimed him. He is unable to work in any other bar in Five Color without serious consequences – a threat he feels would actually be enforced. Girls jump ship occasionally, pulling the clients they’ve befriended (or bewitched) along with them. Behind the scenes, however, they all have a common foe.
All the bars give the local cops red envelopes in order to be left alone. A few bar owners have complained that around this time of the year the money gets hard to pull together because many of their foreign customers are traveling for the holidays and the police want bigger slices of the pie. Despite this overhead, bars keep opening all the time.
Sometimes the “Bosses” aren’t the owners, and figuring that out adds another layer.
Turns out, a lot of Japanese or Chinese business men like to be the money behind some bars, but they pick a pretty girl to be the face. Flower, the “boss” of Rainbow Bar a few years ago swore up and down that she owned the bar. Bubbly, charismatic, and just suggestive enough to keep folks coming back, Flower played her role well. She had that ditz thing down pat, but come closing time she could tally tabs and offer advice to her girls like a pro. She almost had me believing she was the sole proprietor until she closed down the place to do some remodeling one day and I caught sight of a shady looking Japanese guy paying the workers.
Sugar Daddy, of course.
The foreigners – those that stick around a while – become personalities around Five Color, too. The obnoxious Australian Seaman Jimmy ran Anchorage with his “wife” Summer when I arrived, but has since disappeared. Jolly enough, the guy never had a shirt on and could bullshit with the best of them. He cut off mid-story once to leap into a fight that had broken out between some Russians and Chinese in the bar. Barely got out of there alive myself. Turns out that was a common occurrence for Jimmy. Probably why he’s not around still. Tall, charming, English Dean and Summer got together shortly after that. He had a hell of background and an ex, though–don’t we all? He told me about it a few times. The owner of a local restaurant, she would fight with him in other bars, often breaking windows and glasses. That ran its course and he finally managed to reinvent himself as an entrepreneur without needing to set up shop in some high-rise office . He helped Summer remodel the bar, got back into shape, and stopped punching people. He’s still here keeping Anchorage afloat. Love running into that guy!
No more picking on fellow foreigners…
Then there was that one period of time with all the “Nanas.” For a while it felt like every other girl had the name! “Lily” had the same thing going on for a while. The odd names – Flower, Apple, Seven – never get old. They may be attractive in the right lighting, but tread carefully, friends.
Of course there was a stretch of time where I walked into several classic traps.
Flashy, sexy Eva flirting with the whole bar, but secretly giving eyes “only to me.” Drank like a sailor throughout her shift, and then balled her eyes out when I walked her home. Oh, how I wished there was more beneath that coarse exterior. For a while, I thought so, but in the end, her stories of wanting to spend a year in a different city, not getting along with other women, and the jaded heart just got pathetic and transparent.
Aggressive, worldly, and direct – Jess seemed like she could be fun to get to know. Turns out she just wanted a new wardrobe and her last victim had finished a contract with one of the multinationals around Dalian. Ah, so many of the women actually fit this mold. Sad, but true.
If you’re looking for a relationship you’re better off picking a coffee shop or even the cold approach in a mall. Go the Chinese route and have someone introduce you to a single friend, why don’t ya? Pepper in some Mandarin if you can, and good luck. Bars – though I technically met my wife in one – are not going to be harems of the best China has to offer. And likewise, if you’re always at the bar you’re putting yourself in the stereotypical foreigner category yourself. Been there, so I know. My life in China got so much better after my year of drinking five nights a week.
Brothels don’t really exist here like they may have back in the day, but there are of course a number of ways people get what they want. Shady massage joints litter every Chinese city. You know you’re in trouble when you walk by their front doors and a smiling face peaks out and says, “Massageeee.” The more discreet girls will doll themselves up and sit in one of the bars I mentioned above, waiting for their Mr. Tonight. They’re the ones at the corners, nursing a cocktail for hours or a hot water with a lemon in it just to keep them alert for business opportunities. Unfortunately, these ladies tend to pick up the lonely foreigner around midnight whereas the Chinese businessman will arrange his girl before even commencing on his night out. You can always tell. Much older man with a super young and flashy girl. They barely touch each other the whole time, but she never leaves his side. He ignores her completely, save for a place to rest his hand. She says not a word to him or his buddies, choosing instead to chat with the female bartenders. They leave together of course, but he’s so wasted it makes you wonder if he’s going to seal the deal or if it was all for show, for mian zi, in the first place.
The whole place is that way – one big show.
At night the lights come on, the actors assume their roles, and the performances begin. The cracks in the paint and the ramshackle jimmying of doors or tables is overlooked. Vomit on the street is sidestepped, and the sound of someone voiding their bladder on the side of a building is ignored. Lies are told and swallowed, conversations long memorized like bad scripts get recited, and the motto of every bar in the country rings out ad nauseum – gan bei!
For a long time Five Color City was my hangout. I’d work, hit Starbucks, and then grab a few drinks at one of the bars. Much of my Mandarin foundation came from bartenders or random Chinese drinking partners. Some of my strangest, most entertaining, and loneliest nights happened in FCC. Backflips off a dais at a dance club, cutting my hand open doing a roundoff in the street, bar fights, getting swept up in crowds of Japanese business men out for the night, feuding bars, and, of course, meeting my wife through the machinations of a mutual friend trying to set me up with another girl.
And Five Color almost ruined that relationship from day one. Walking down the main drag with Xiao Ming on our first date at least half a dozen bargirls leaned out their doors and called out to me using either my English name or my Chinese name at the time. Luckily Xiao Ming laughed it off and chose to think of me as a “Five Color City Star,” a reputation I’ve since tried my absolute best to squash and bury. With the turn-over rate of most places working to my advantage, I’ve almost succeeded.
That advice I got more than five years ago may not be the Gospel Truth – hell, even if it was, I wouldn’t have listened completely, who would? – but there is a lot that can be said about moderation and a set of standards. If I’d had either of those five years ago I’m sure I’d have bypassed a lot of trouble, but I’d also have nothing I can shake my head and smile about.
Being married to a Chinese woman isn’t exactly like those melodramatic TV shows or the ridiculously formulaic Korean dramas that people can’t seem to get enough of here.
Ever watch one?
Turn on the tube and chances are you’ll catch one of five types of show:
Dynastic China with subtle, watered-down undertones of political commentary, a World War II series that usually makes the Kuomintang out to be insufferable fools and the Japanese as subhuman monsters while the Communists are righteously wielding inferior weapons and still coming out on top, a medical drama with absurdly handsome and young people staring very sternly at one another, a game show where people just straight up do stupid shit for really nothing but the audience’s applause, or the Korean family drama.
Korean dramas usually follow the boy meets girl story, and then they throw a wammy of boy meets girl’s family and must win over the overbearing parents. Follow that up with boy marries girl. Then girl must win over the overbearing mother of the boy. Once they all like each other there is usually an issue with the pregnancy or stress put on the girl for a boy (the more desired). And in the midst of it all someone gets themselves tossed into the hospital because of a sickness or some stupid behavior that in the end brings to light that they all just love each other and want good things for the family. Yay – happily ever after.
I may have sidetracked myself.
My point is that being married to a Chinese woman isn’t always like that, but dealing with parents in this culture does require some flexibility. Xiao Ming’s mom and dad have always welcomed me, but man can they push my buttons, too.
I come home one day a few weeks back and ol’ mom and pop are there hanging out with Xiao Ming. Her dad motions for me to follow him into my office, so I do. We stand in front of the dresser and he points to it, saying that he fixed it. I open the drawers and sure enough they slide open and shut seamlessly. The flimsy bottoms had begun to bow and made those motions difficult. Great! Fixed. Thanks, Dad.
Except the second thing I noticed was that everything in the drawers were now somehow reorganized. I don’t just have a dresser of clothes. I use three drawers for other things like nik-naks, notebooks, etc. Nothing too crazy personal, but still, personal. To fix the dresser he had to take everything out and then to put it back the way he did, he had to carefully think about how to put items where. So he just went through all my stuff.
If you’re thinking to yourself, Jordan, he fixed the dresser. You’re right. Absolutely. If I were a better person, I’d see that and stop there. I’m not, and I didn’t.
I pulled Xiao Ming to the side, told her I appreciated the help. I didn’t ask for it, but, sure, thanks.
Side note – I grew up working on most weekends helping my stepdad maintain our rentals. I know how to do home maintenance. And, yes, it does bother me to have someone in my home doing things I can do myself. That make me a small man? Fine. I own that.
So I tell Xiao Ming that I’m uncomfortable with the way it all went down. They pop over all the time unannounced, and even come in and fiddle around when we’re not home from time to time. Whatever. No issues. But going through my dresser, even to fix it, was something I’m not okay with.
Xiao Ming gets it. She even admits that she told her father not to do it because I wouldn’t like it. Love her. She knows me. But I’m still seeing red. I have to say something, I tell her. To him. Right now. No, no, she says, but I don’t give in.
I greet him in the living room – damn he’s a small guy – and I very politely thank him for helping with the dresser. But, I add, next time – oh no, he senses my tone and is bowing his head with that uncomfortable smile – I’d like to fix something like that myself. He nods and I walk back to my office like a horrible troll that’s collected a tax for walking over his bridge. Immediately I feel crappy. He does, too, and I can hear him talking to Xiao Ming about it.
What should I have done? That was my line.
In the end, it blows over. After all, we’re family!
And today I come home to a house with a few lights on that I know I turned off. Strange. I go into the bathroom to wash my face and get a shower since I’m sweaty from the gym. Can’t do that. The handle for the bathroom sink is missing.
And the drawers under the sink are sitting oddly. I pull on one and it falls out. The tracks it’s supposed to be on are sticking out of the trash, all rusted and old looking. Obviously Xiao Ming’s father has been here.
So apparently he plans to fix the bathroom sink and the drawers. True, both are due for an upgrade, but they were manageable. A call to Xiao Ming to see if she knows anything. Nope. Her dad has just pulled one of his ninja moves. So now instead of having a sink that works and one that I can fix on the weekend, I have no sink and I have to wait until he feels like finishing what he’s started in case I upset him like I did last time when I asked him to stop fixing things.
As I typed this he sent a message to Xiao Ming –
Tell Jordan, the bathroom’s sink head is broken.
I’ll buy a new one and put it on tomorrow.
Yup, I’m a rotten person.
Xiao Ming has her own battles with her mother, though. She gets on Xiao Ming for everything from our habit of getting delivery most nights to driving habits. She’s always giving Xiao Ming grief about not cooking a lot, about how the apartment could be cleaner (It’s pretty damn clean!), and making Xiao Ming call her everyday just so her mother knows she made it home from work. We eat with them usually once every two weeks, sometimes less. I don’t know, but for me that seems like a good amount for most adult children. Of course her mother makes her feel bad that we don’t eat over there most nights like her cousins eat with their parents. The fact that the cousins still live with their parents and don’t work the same hours as we do doesn’t seem to affect this sentiment at all.
I couldn’t imagine life here without the whole Liu Clan. Everyone from the quiet, meddling father and nagging but caring mother to the fussy aunts and noisy uncles makes life here richer and more meaningful.
Along the coast in Kai Fa Qu there are a series of ramshackle properties that look like they’ve just come through a rough storm. Maybe at some point in the past the paint was fresh and the awnings didn’t flap in the wind…
The Liu clan pulled up in front of the one open and well-maintained restaurant there while Xiao Ming and I stood along the shoreline looking out at the dark water. We tried to imagine the potential of such a naturally pretty area. Couldn’t tell if it was a lack of money or ambition that had let that whole stretch of coast go belly up.
We greeted each other and commented on our surroundings, wondering out loud if we’d all come to the right place. This was the meal where the whole family would meet my other cousin-in-law’s new husband (not the same couple from the previous entry).
It’d been a quick relationship so far; one could even use words like shotgun or wedlock to describe it. Everything with this cousin, though, tends to be extreme or unorthodox. Her past is more than a bit spotty, full of secrets only Xiao Ming (and now I) knows. I could do an entire entry on her particular version of Buddhism – the one that can convince you your body is indwelt with spirits that wish you ill intent. She has a shrine with their names written on parchment.
Anyway – it is the right place. We go in and are ushered to room 307. A small room with a big round table. The guests have arrived before the hosts, everyone exclaims when we enter and no one is there. A bit rude, but not too unacceptable.
As we stand around, Ni Ji, starts asking me how tall I am. I forget, I tell him, so he asks me to stand back-to-back with him. He’s slightly taller. People are obsessed with your Shen Gao, height. There are set standards for desirable men and women – 175cm and taller for guys, 165-170cm for ladies. At 5’9, I’m at the threshold of passable, a mere 175.2 cm.
And then they arrive.
The cousin, Zhao Jing, her husband, Hong Jiang, and his mother walk in. Zhao Jing hides her face behind a pink scarf for a few minutes and then removes it to reveal puffy, splotchy cheeks, some sort of allergic reaction they haven’t identified. Hong Jiang, a tall, barrel-chested guy with a large head and skinny arms shakes everyone’s hands and tells me in English that he’s happy to meet me. His mother, a woman who looks almost too young to have a son his age, is tentative but polite as she talks to all present in turn.
With the arrival of Lao Jiu – the loud uncle who runs the local industrial zone – his wife – a local government official with some clout of her own – and his son our dinner party is topped off with 17 adults and two children.
We all stared at the table.
As with everything in this country, there is an etiquette to observe. One’s place at the table is a matter of importance, not just vague guesstimation. Basically, the rules are that the eldest or guest of honor (GoH) sits farthest from the doorway, and the youngest or guest with the lowest status takes the place closest to it. Spreading out from the GoH, on either side of him or her, the status of the individual goes down incrementally until the two sides meet. I’ve been on either sides of the table before, but for that meal, Xiao Ming and I, Ni Ji and Lulu, and Dong Dong (Ge, the male cousin) were on the end nearest the door. The token Lao Wai doesn’t always get preferential treatment.
But the “adults” had a hell of a time figuring it all out. Xiao Ming’s dad sat on the “low” side, the aunts didn’t know how close to the GoH to sit, and the two kids just kept leaping from one chair to the next. Hong Jiang’s mother kept telling everyone to sit, but of course they didn’t – couldn’t for fear of a committing a faux paux. Then we realized there weren’t enough chairs anyway and three more had to be brought in. What do I do in this situation? Nothing. I wait until Xiao Ming tells me where to sit. It’s the safest play.
We do, finally, sit. I’m to the right of Xiao Ming and to the left of my Xiao Yi, the youngest aunt – Lulu’s mother. The first courses are brought out, all unfortunately selections of seafood that scare me. I picked at some of the vegetables and listen to as much of the conversations as possible until some of the main dishes arrive. These are your meats and big vegies. Shrimp, huge fish, and pork. I dig in.
And then the toasts began.
Hong Jiang welcomed everyone, gave compliments to the oldest present, and then commented on being a part of the family. Bai jiu! In hindsight, Xiao Ming told me, it was quite a vague speech. Then directly to his left Lao Jiu stood and spoke. Holiday, family, happiness – and a lot of vocal inflections pretty much sums his up. Bai jiu! When Lao Jiu sat down we all continued eating. Then, after a few more minutes Zhao Jing’s father, my San Yi Fu, stood. I began to get nervous. A pattern had emerged. He toasted to the family, the holiday, and his new son and happy daughter. Gan bei!
At this point, I leaned over and asked Xiao Ming if everyone – of particular interest: me – would have to make a toast. No, she said. I almost believed her. Six people sat between San Yi Fu and me. The next one to give a toast, San Yi, lifted her glass of Bai Jiu and issued a short speech that at times dropped to almost a whisper. He eyes, as usual, looked heavy and she seemed half ready to sleep, but then she smiled and bid us all gan bei. At this point those drinking the rice liquor had to top off their second or third glass of the stuff. If you haven’t had, just know it’s potent enough to get a rocket into space. My Xiao Yi leaned over then and asked me if her face was red. It wasn’t, yet. She was sweating, she said. I wondered if she was nervous.
San Yi Fu’s mother, the oldest present, didn’t toast. Hong Jiang’s mother, though, did. She played it safe with the warm wishes and the happiness. Eating, eating, eati—another toast! My mother-in-law stood and lifted her glass. She wore a bright blue blazer with a silver pin that Ge’s wife, my Sao Zi, had to reposition from the right side to the more appropriate left side before we walked into the restaurant. Xiao Ming and I can’t recall what she said at all. Characteristically, my father-in-law didn’t speak. Standoffish to the point of rudeness sometimes, he is a frugal, timid, quiet man who is known for showing up for food and then disappearing before the real drinking starts or the bull-shitting (ba xia – to peel shrimp) gets underway. No one even remarked on his silence.
We ate some more. At this point I began running over possible lines in my head. So far only the oldest and the most eccentric got a pass. I’d given up on the hope that I could secure a bye myself. And then Xiao Yi stood, her face now a rosy tint, and held up her glass. Totally consumed by the prospect of yet another toast, I didn’t catch much of this one, either. Except the end – gan bei!
A few more bites taken. My heart beat kicked it up just a bit.
Hong Jiang and Lao Jiu both said something that sounded too much like a request for my toast. I ignored them, focusing instead on helping Xiao Yi refill her glass. My mother-in-law, bless her heart, said that I’d already given a good speech at Lulu and Ni Ji’s party that summer. Xiao Ming concurred. No give. Then Xiao Yi nudged me on. Betrayal!
I smiled, grabbed my glass, and stood.
“Let me think,” I begged with a tight grin, glancing off to the side as if the words had been stashed there for me to find. Think, think! Despite my instincts being right about the toast, my preparation had yielded only a theme—dining etiquette. Around and around in my mind a phrase revolved, and then finally it was out. “In China finding a place to sit when you eat is hard.”
They nodded, agreeing hesitantly with this observation. So far so good. One or two repeated the line back under their breath, no doubt adding the appropriate tones.
“This is also a part of Chinese culture, right?” Agreement. “Today we came in and had a hard time finding a seat, but I’ve noticed that once we finally do sit and begin eating and talking, the seat isn’t that important anymore. What’s more important is the family that’s together.” A turn toward Zhao Jing and Hong Jiang. Glass raised. “And now I’m very happy because my family keeps getting bigger and bigger. Gan bei!”
Even with the Bai Jiu sprinting up to my head, my hands still shook. My heartrate pushed the alcohol through my system quicker and quicker so that added to the mix was a not-unpleasant dizziness. Xiao Ming loved it, she said. Everyone “Hao, Hao-ed” me – Good, good. Jiu Ma, Lao Jiu’s wife (also a woman worthy of her own entry) stared at me with a suddenly very serious look and complimented my Mandarin. Said something about me going on this game show where foreigners speak Mandarin. I thanked her, but demurred at the notion I could hang with those on that show.
Ni Ji got up next, but he also played it safe with a vague rendition and a bit too much distance between him and those around the table, Xiao Ming later told me. Ge represented his father, he told the family. Happiness, family, holidays! And then Jiu Ma’s turn came round.
Everything she said was good. If it’d come from anyone else, there wouldn’t be any issue. But Jiu Ma is a 38 year-old PhD government official who, fifteen years ago while still a college student, developed an affair with Lao Jiu that ended his first marriage. Lao Jiu even likes to joke that her PhD is a fake! Condescending and ultra-task-oriented, she tends to only smile after she’s gotten something she wants from someone. Her four-year-old, Lele, is constantly in the care of the aunts (mostly Xiao Ming’s mom), and yet she loves to wax poetically about a mother’s responsibility to her child. And so her toast took on the form of a lecture. Familial piety was her message. Taking care of mom and dad above all else, even the marriage! She even observed that two years ago none of the cousins even had boyfriends. Wrong! Xiao Ming and I have been together more than three years, thank you! Who knows if this was deliberate. Well, she got tears in her eyes, leaned over and clinked glasses with Zhao Jing and Hong Jiang (She sat close enough to them to do so), and ended her toast.
Nothing about this woman surprises me anymore, and so I just continued on eating and drinking. Xiao Ming balled her fists and punched my thigh. She and I both dislike Jiu Ma’s practical, manipulative personality, but because neither of us have ever needed any help from Lao Jiu or Jiu Ma or their guan xi, she doesn’t make requests of us. It’s a consolation we content ourselves with.
The round of toasts complete, we ate uninterrupted for a while. My father-in-law leaves around this time, slipping out of the room like a ninja.
The second round of gan bei(s) have little responsibility attached. You simply call out to a family member, raise your glass, and tell them how much to drink. It’s usually the whole damn shot glass of Bai Jiu. You can tell when people begin to get winded because they start saying “just a sip” or “half.” At that point in the drinking festivities, every time I pick up my glass it gets set down empty. When the Bai Jiu is gone, we switch to Snow Beer.
I ate and ate, drank and drank. To quote Forest Gump, “When I had to, you know, I went.” I got in on some of the conversations – Chicago verse New York, teaching, fishing. Hong Jiang made a toast to Xiao Ming (pretty sure he kept staring at her throughout the meal). The two kids ran around the table jabbering away at the tops of their lungs. Smokes were smoked. More glasses of beer!
And then it is time to leave.
It’s just about 1 pm and I spend the rest of the day hungover.
On the heels of Duan Wu Jie—Dragon Boat Festival—this past June, my cousin-in-law got married in Harbin, Heilongjiang’s rusted, cramped, forgotten Russian outpost that’s served as the province’s capital forever. More well-known for hosting the winter snow and ice festival that gets national attention in the colder months, the city is stuck between what was surely its heyday during the birth of Chinese industrialization and marching into the modern stage of economic development. There are stretches of city where chains of crumbling, derelict one-story homes stand sentry in front of glass and steel monuments freshly minted and opened for business as if their purpose is to guard against the rushing tide of modernity that will render them piles of rubble in the near future.
Our over-night train from Dalian deposited us right in the heart of the city at the tail end of a storm. At 4:25 am. Working on about three hours of rough and dreamless sleep, I struggled to carry on conversations with my Chinese family in my usual upbeat manner as the train slid into the station and we alighted. My male cousin, who Xiao Ming calls Ge, or big brother, a short, tanned guy who shares the same national addiction to nicotine as most other Chinese men, also nursed a hangover headache as we all pushed our way out into the rainy morning. When he showed up at the train station with the rest of the Liu clan he was already pretty toasted. He had spent most of the previous night chatting away with me in broken English and Mandarin; convinced that a friend of mine in America could help him get his hands on industrial machines that he could turn around and sell to his customers, Ge boisterously lectured me on the merits of American, German, and Japanese technology and how the Chinese admired their craftsmanship.
With the exception of me—the one lao wai in the group—we were a fairly average group of travelers, considering our destination and purpose. The roster included Xiao Ming and I, her parents, the two aunts and their husbands, and the cousins Ge, and Zhao Jing.
The cousin getting married—Wang Lulu—was already in her husband’s hometown of FangZhang, three hours outside of Harbin. Her parents, my Xiao Yi and her husband, whom I referred to as Xiao Yi Fu (Each and EVERY member of a Chinese family has a specific title they are known by: as the youngest blood-related aunt, Xiao Yi, or “little aunt” and Xiao Yi Fu “Little aunt’s husband”), seemed excited for the occasion, but they’d already had their moment, really. Lulu and her groom/husband, Ni Ji, had already held a ceremony down in Dalian two weeks before, but this one was for his side of the family. Only his mom and dad could make it the first time, so Lulu and Ni Ji got two wedding ceremonies. The big difference was that this one would be a traditional Chinese wedding, something I’d read about, but never participated in. When we got married, Xiao Ming and I only had the Gan Xie dinner with the family where a few toasts were made, red envelopes got handed out, and Bai Jiu imbibed.
An older uncle on Lulu’s side picked our troupe up at the Harbin West Station, and walked us to a local hotel a few blocks away where we all—eleven of us—hung out for five hours in one room. It was about as fun as it sounds. After changing and cleaning some of the sweat and travel off, we all sat around and chatted. Unable to nurse the migraine that had developed while everyone rattled on about raising children, methods of education, and family stories I had no context for, I took a walk.
Harbin at six am is quiet, wet, and full of taxis. The cool air and brisk morning breeze woke me up a bit as I wandered around. After a while I found myself in a park watching older couples run through their exercise routines—walking backwards, patting their heads, speed-walking, and Tai Ji Quan sets. I’d heard that Harbin had once been considered chic and westernized. I wondered how long ago that was.
The building across from the hotel had broken windows and boards nailed to others without glass altogether. I’d thought the place vacant and abandoned until a man pushed his way out of the crooked front door. The Russianesque architecture couldn’t be original, either. Imitation has become another Chinese national custom, and it didn’t surprise me to see official office buildings that looked built within the last ten years topped with rounded domes and eaves sporting archangels as though commissioned by Russian patrons themselves. Sure, there had to be authentic bits thrown in throughout the city, but I didn’t see many that morning.
At approximately nine am we headed back to the train station and picked up even more family members. After shaking hands, snapping a few photos for posterity, and standing around, we hopped into a large van and drove out of the city just as it was beginning to fully wake up.
I slept. I tried to sleep.
Then, in a daze, I came to around two pm as we pulled into a small town about one traffic light removed from a village. A big family lunch got underway when all I wanted to do was shower and stretch out on a flat surface big enough so that my feet didn’t hang off the edges. Xiao Ming could tell I was in a bad mood. I get cranky when I have to do things in a big group, especially when it deviates from the plan. I was told we’d be checking into a room where we’d be left alone for the rest of the afternoon until dinner. An impromptu lunch with forty people was cramping my style.
But as soon as we began eating I also began to wake up and my bad attitude drifted away.
Mandarin chitchat rolled off my tongue as red whine imported from Australia loosened my lips. I filled up on fish, chicken, turkey, greens, and rice. Ge and I began joking with one another, parlaying his Japanese with my English and Xiao Ming’s French in funny ways, using Mandarin as the lingo de franco when communications got cluttered. The whole round table consisted of cousins and friends of the bride and groom—all under forty years old. We were at the “kiddie table” while the adults sat on the other side of the wall laughing and eating.
As is usually the case at a Chinese meal, toasts began to be made. It always starts with one of the Big Wigs holding up a glass of Bai Jiu and the whole table standing as the speaker gives a hearty welcome full of gushing sentiment and red-faced cheer. This goes on for a few turns, each speaker putting their own flare to the toast, until finally the toasting does one of two things: it either breaks off and becomes about toasting those you’re sitting next to or, in the case where the party is big enough to have more than one room (our situation), the tables begin to mix and toast one another.
Ni Ji’s uncle, a barrel-chested man with a shiny dome and a wide face was first. The Biggest Wig present, he owns (somehow) one of the most popular food streets in Dalian, and is a successful import/export man. I didn’t understand all of his words, but his speech was more of a performance to watch than simply a toast to be heard. Dramatic volume changes, varying shades of red cheeks, and sweeping hand gestures made me wonder if he’d missed his calling as a Shakespearean stage actor.
Eventually, though, Lulu and Ge stood up. Then they looked at me. Waving me up from my seat, they said that they were going to the other room to give a toast and to represent the Liu side of the family and our room. They joked that they wanted me to be the English translator, but it was clear from the apprehension on Lulu’s face that she needed to surround herself with supporters. Why she didn’t ask anyone else around the table besides me, I have no idea. Maybe it was that she and I have always been on good terms. Maybe it was that Ge and I were the “men” on her side of the family. Hell, maybe my white face was a distraction that took the focus off her.
Whatever the reason, I didn’t hesitate. I’m fairly certain that the wine played a part in my lack of inhibition, but at that point it wasn’t about me.
The three of us entered the other room, the “adult room,” and, as expected, we caught everyone’s attention. Lulu held out her glass and in her quiet but clear voice thanked everyone for coming to celebrate her and Ni Ji’s wedding, expressed her gratitude, and then nodded toward Ge. He glanced at me and asked me to translate. Jokingly referring to something he and I had said earlier, I used my announcer voice to say, “Thank you, ladies and gentlemen.” Everyone laughed, and then he began his toast.
As he spoke, I zoned out.
At my own wedding dinner, I’d given a brief, frankly childish speech. The crowd had been deeply forgiving and open. No one faulted me, I knew. But I also knew that mian zi played a big part in moments like these. Playing the token lao wai in China is easy. The role is made just for us foreigners. Everyone knows the lines we should speak and the faces we should make. I’ve played that role before. But as Ge spoke, I looked at my mother and father-in-law. They’d never treated me that way. I’ve always been a part of their family, not some comic relief.
I had to try.
As the toast ended and the glasses rose to peoples’ lips, I lifted mine and added in slow, careful Mandarin, “I’d like to say something.”
I wanted to make sure I was understood. Chinese people give me the benefit of the doubt occasionally, but older generations tend to struggle to comprehend more complicated sentences from me. As the table clapped and then fell quiet to listen, I ignored my pounding heart and hoped my face wasn’t as red as it felt.
“I’ve been in China four and a half years,” I continued. “And I know that China has a long culture and history that I cannot ever understand. But what I have discovered is that the most valuable part of Chinese culture is family.” And with a lift of my glass, I turned to Lulu beside me and added, “I am so happy to be here now to take part in Lulu and Ni Ji’s wedding. Gan bei!”
When it was over and my glass empty, I noticed that Xiao Ming had snuck into the room. No doubt planning on coming to my rescue. Instead of translating any mistake I made, though, she beamed with obvious pride. She took my arm and led me out of the room as everyone clapped and carried on. When I asked her if what I said was okay she smiled and said it was perfect. When we returned to our table everyone clapped for me, and it was only then that I realized that the entire group of people from both sides had heard every word.
It wasn’t something that was going to end up in the papers (although in that town maybe it was the first toast delivered in Mandarin by an American), but I’d made Xiao Ming proud, and, as cliché as it sounds, I did bring honor to the family.
When we finally did make it to the motel, I was impressed. Despite being a small town, the accommodations were great. We had a large room, bigger than my first apartment in China, with tan oak walls and a fantastic shower. The rest of that afternoon was blissfully free of any family obligations. In the evening the younger members all ate together again, and then most of them went out for barbecue afterward. Xiao Ming went with them, but the lack of sleep had finally whittled away my second and third winds. Was I on a fourth wind? I stayed in the room and got a good night’s sleep.
The next day, “The Wedding” started early. Xiao Ming’s folks knocked on our door around seven, and we were dressed and outside before eight.
The Groom, Ni Ji, was not on site. He and his Groom’s Men would show up in a convoy of black Mercedes Benz later, but the Bride’s side had work to do first.
Aunts and Uncles, Cousins, and family friends all piled into one motel room – even with the cabinesque feel and size to it, the guests filled the room out. Standing room only, along the perimeter. I got the usual questions and comments, but some were present the day before for my spontaneous toast and I thought maybe they showed me a bit more consideration beyond open curiosity.
Dumplings got made, rolled and stuffed and then boiled, steamed, and baked. One aunt took a butcher knife to half a cow. The little tank of a lady worked at the task with incredible focus. Xiao Ming, watching her, began to cry.
“Li Niang Rou,” she tells me. Leaving the Mother Meat. It’s a custom of cutting the meat from the bone, a symbol of the child leaving the mother forever.
Soon after that the younger women, Xiao Ming and the other cousins, barricaded themselves in the back room with Lulu, the Bride. Ni Ji had arrived. Climbing out of the first Benz, he and two friends strutted up to the hotel room decked out in Tuxes, Red Envelopes in hand.
Without warning, everyone is rushing around in the motel room. The door is slammed closed, the male cousins press themselves against it, and pull me along with them. We’re blocking the door so Ni Ji can’t get in? Yes, yes, we are.
During a Chinese wedding the Groom has to overcome multiple obstacles to prove he’s determined to marry and provide for his new Bride. The first of these obstacles is getting through the front door.
Ni Ji arrives, yells to his Bride, “Lao Po! Wo Lai Le!” Wife! I’m here! We press ourselves against the door as he and his friends try to push it open. We hold.
Second obstacle: the third degree. Suddenly everyone starts shouting questions at him. Why are you here? What do you want? Who are you? And then the long line of Who am I? Followed by Ni Ji referring to everyone with the familial title specific to his position – I’m Er Jie Fu.
Third: The Payoffs. We don’t open, yet. Instead, people start asking for money. Seriously. Ni Ji starts sliding those red envelopes under the door. I collect two. Others get more. Later, when I look inside, I find 150 RMB!
Finally, we let him in. But it’s not over. He has to convince the girls to open their door. Another round of questions and payoffs.
Another task is left, though, before he can kiss or even look at Lulu. He must find her shoes.
Hidden around the room are the shoes she’ll wear at the ceremony later, and he must find them before he can claim his Bride. It takes him a while, too.
When he does succeed and the family relents in their attempts at keeping Lulu, Ni Ji whisks her away in the Benz. We all follow after in the other half a dozen Mercedes Benz! We pull up in front of an apartment complex I’m told is where Ni Ji’s parents live. Up to the apartment we go for pictures. A ceremonial wedding bed is made and the Bride and Groom sit on it while a professional photographer snaps shots of them and family members around them.
A large, thick, highly decorated wedding blanket is stretched over the bed, and in the shape of a heart are different nuts and seeds, all Chinese homophones representing marital hopes for the family. Dates, peanuts, lotus seeds, and dragon eyes “Zao Sheng Gui Zi” – Give birth to a boy quickly, is the phrase you hear when all the ingredients are said together. Subtle.
After the photo shoot, it’s off to the dining hall.
This is the most familiar part of the whole event. Dozens of big round tables, beer, food, an MC who tells jokes and gets the Bride and Groom to make speeches, balloons, music, slide show of the relationship, more pictures, and a little bit of dancing.
And then it’s over.
Getting back to Dalian seems to take forever as we retrace our steps back through Harbin city, to the train station, the over-night ride south to Dalian, and then the drive back to our home. Despite the rush and the moments of exhaustion during the weekend, I realize how lucky I am to have been along for the ride. Everyone made me feel welcome, a part of the family.
We all parted at the Dalian train station. Saying goodbye, I noticed that the apprehension of being with the whole family the entire weekend had been replaced by a stronger emotion, one harder to name.
If you happened to anchor in one of China’s ports during the 19th century often enough to pick up the language, or manned posts on Chinese soil while working as a Foreign Service Officer during the ridiculously complicated years surrounding the Chinese Civil War, then you may have been a China Hand—中国通.
As a foreigner, being called or recognized as a bona fide China Hand by a Chinese person is about the highest compliment there is. Doing business here, teaching English, or even marrying a national doesn’t qualify you as one. Reciting Tang Dynasty poets like Li Bai, Du Fu, Bai Juyi, or Wang Wei won’t get you the moniker, either.
As with any term steeped in culture and history, it changes and evolves with the times. Just like the common address for a young man today in China, Handsome Guy, shuai ge—帅哥. It’s the modern watered-down distillation of a word with a very different original meaning. Yuan Shuai used to refer to a military position of some rank. A soldier at this rank undoubtedly possessed some stellar qualities—probably admirable and honorable to boot. It’s not too hard to see how the title got commandeered and repurposed to describe particularly handsome guys. Knowing the history doesn’t make it any less annoying when people flit around calling everyone shuai ge.
I digress—China Hands! This distinguished nickname now gets toted out and tossed around whenever a witty comment or an insight into Chinese history is made. In a culture where exaggeration of worth and value is expected toward strangers and acquaintances but nit-picking and denigration is par for the course within families or tight circles mixed signals abound for those new to China.
Any expat making even the flimsiest attempts at Mandarin will be complimented as soon as they utter Ni Hao. Mention Mao Zedong, throw out an idiom, or even talk about any one of the two dozen holidays on the calendar (lunar, of course), and someone will call you a China Hand. That seem contradictory to what I already wrote? It’s not-ish. Because you probably don’t really know the person you’re talking to when you hear it. They may be a merchant, a co-worker, a prospective business contact, or even your weekly A Yi. What I’m saying is that chances are, they don’t view you as a family member or even as one of their inner circle. Those expats that are fortunate enough to make it into these close-knit relationships can get the honest answers, the honest compliments. And 99% of expats here are not China Hands.
I don’t know any of the merchants from two hundred years back, but I know a little about the guys that hung around China seventy years ago. John S. Service, Owen Lattimore, John K. Fairbank, John Paton Davies, Jr, and my father-in-law’s favorite that he likes to bring up whenever we talk about modern Chinese history, journalist Edgar Snow—these are the 中国通 that got caught up in one of the most pivotal times in Chinese history.
If anyone deserves to be called 中国通 it’s them. They mingled with the top brass in China—both sides. Chiang Kai-Shek and his beautiful wife Soong Mei-Ling, Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai…These China Hands saw history unfold and often influenced its outcomes in various ways, sometimes not always for the best. China Hands like these folks just don’t come around all that often because they are frequently a product of tumultuous times themselves, thrust into positions because of necessity and duty. Thankfully, things are a lot more stable these days, but the idea of the China Hand is still very present among the people.
Why am I bringing any of this up? Well, it’s because I just had my Five Year China Anniversary. I say that like it’s a thing, I know. For me it is. All of this was originally supposed to be a One Year Stint. And then it became more.
My father-in-law constantly brings up the idea of me being a China Hand. He wants me to study Mandarin and modern history without pause. Xiao Ming is more practical about it all. She’s flat out told me that no one can become a 中国通 in less than 10 years. So, I’ve got time. No rush. Who knows if I’ll ever actually make it…
Regardless, it’s a hell of a life. That’s the big thing for this year, that realization. China was an experiment for me. It was something that I’d check out. Spend a year looking around and then go home. Move on. If I’d gone home after a year, two years, maybe even if I went home at the three-year mark, that’s all it would have remained—an experience. But now that it’s five years and a day, and with all that’s changed and happened, it’s clear that the China Experiment is over and the China Life is what it’s become. My China Life. Life.
Maybe my wife is right, she usually is, and I have five more years and a day before I can be counted among the China Hands. It’s not like one day you wake up and they give you a card or anything. But how cool would that be?
Speaking of official documents, a Time Out Shanghai article recently shed light on a topic I’ve heard rumors about. The visa hurdles here in place are not to be taken lightly, but China has a plan. A new ABC ranking system where they categorize foreigners working here as either top talent (A), professional talent (B), or unskilled worker (C) is being implemented.
As the roll out date is this April, I wonder how this will affect me and others like me. Are they going to actually test expats with Mandarin exams? Will they give preference to those that have been here for a long time? Married into a family? They promise to provide “helpful guides” to foreigners, so I guess I’ll wait in line for those?
Anyway—Five Years has been great.
I do, in fact, know a bit about one of the merchants from way back. John O’Donnell was the first merchant to ship China-made goods to Baltimore. After amassing a fortune from this trade business and becoming one of the big names in Baltimore, he named his plantation Canton. This name comes from Guangzhou, China and is how it appeared on maps for many years. Well, I’m from Canton, the one in Ohio, not Maryland. Turns out that the surveyor (of the Ohio Canton) admired O’Donnell so much that he borrowed the O’Donnell plantation name for my hometown. It’s random. It’s true. Look it up.
I guess sometime soon I should write about Malaysia, Singapore, going back home, DC, SC, Xinjiang, Gansu, and getting back into the swing of school again. Maybe later.
Crossing China is no easy task. It’s simple, most of the time, but not always easy. Planes will do the job quickly, but they’re costly and get hung up by silly things like typhoons (We got delayed in Detroit and Shanghai recently because of three that decided to hangout along China’s coasts). On the international flights they feed you a bunch of times, you’ve got a bit more legroom, and more and more they’re getting better movies to watch. The shorter and the long flights can present the noisy child scenario, the angry old people scene, the hot-shot-above-the-law-of-avionics skit, and the militant flight attendant just looking for an excuse to use her self-defense skills to put you back in your seat with the tray in its upright and locked position.
Trains are cheaper, and can still make good time. You’ve got your seat tickets, hard sleepers, and soft sleepers to choose from. On the short trips, on the High Speed Train, seats are fine, but when we took trips to Lhasa, Xi’an, and Chengdu we opted for the sleepers. We even did the soft sleeper once.
If you happen to luck out and get the bottom bunk, good for you. You’ve got the most coveted spot on the train. The middle bed is Okay, but you’re unable to sit up like a normal human. The top bunk, forget about it. Most people with those spots just visit them to sleep. Otherwise they’re the ones hogging the few spring-loaded seats by the windows, leaning over the limited outlets like Shmeegle and his Precious. There’s basically nothing to do on a train but eat, sleep, read, look out the windows, and play on any tech toy you’ve charged up. The Chinese tend to put all their chips in the eating basket. Chances are high that if they’re awake they’re eating. They gorge themselves on Instant Noodles, dry tofu, rancid smelling meat sticks, boiled tea eggs, and a dozen other aromatic treats that will singe your nose hairs.
Often on the longer route trains there are few western foreigners, so I’ve gotten plenty of attention riding them. On the way to Chengdu we had 40+ hours on the train, and for the first 15 I was a curiosity to the others in our car, but the last 25-30 hours I was the honorary uncle of three kids. The youngest, a 6 year-old boy, thought of me as his hairy, foreigner jungle gym. He climbed into my lap, onto my shoulders, and pulled on my arm hair constantly. They taught me a new card game, and I showed them one I learned as a kid. And then they wanted me to play with them for hours. I always like talking with Chinese kids when they’re not shy. My sense of humor in Chinese is comparable to a child’s, so we usually get along well. Also, they almost always understand my bad tones whereas adults sometimes get hung up on a phrase I utter incorrectly.
Traveling out into China’s rural areas by train is also a unique way to see a land that is truly stuck between the old and new world. Miles and miles (or kilometers if you’re, you know, the rest of the world) of land seems to have barely been touched by civilization, other stretches just by villages, and even the cities you pass that have aspirations of full-on urbanization are still only just developing. Out west, many roads are still being constructed; the concrete bases that will bare the weight of the highways portend coming changes to the villages and towns, mountains and rivers they traverse.
Nighttime on a train can be gorgeous. When we went to Lhasa we stargazed like we never had before anywhere in China. Pristine, virgin land gives way to breathtaking mountains and lakes that make you pray humanity just sort of goes away.
Buses, now. These are always packed with colorful people that make you wonder how we justify calling ourselves the top of the food chain. Right now as I write this, we’re on our way to Kang Ding, a Chinese city close to the Tibetan border. However, this trip, which, taking a direct westerly route, should take only about 4-5 hours, is going to take about 10 because the ONE ROAD that goes to Kang Ding is impassable right now. So we’re taking a mountain-hugging road that looks like it’s just been finished way south toward Yunnan, then taking (we’re guessing at this point) the only other road this far out of the way toward Kang Ding.
Behind me are three people who I swear to God I wouldn’t mind dangling out the window. One, the grandpa, intermittently juggles screaming into his phone with an incomprehensible dialect of Mandarin so hard on the ears that Xiao Ming and I cringe when we hear it and singing songs that were probably only around during the Cultural Revolution, loudly. The adult son is second. Mostly a complaint-free individual, but pair him with the grandson and you have a duo I’d like to kick into the DaDu River we just passed. The boy hollers like an insane child that he is Spider-Man while his dad goads him on by fake fighting him. They kick, slam, and crash into our seats like they’re staring in a Jet Li flick while the grandpa, seemingly oblivious to them both, sings or assaults his phone’s receiver and our ears with his brand of gibberish. The incessant honking, jostling, and sudden changes of speed that make up the physical bus are second on how awesome buses can be. I’m not a mechanic, but some of the noises I’ve heard while riding buses make me wonder if they’ve got caged animals beneath our feet. The cloth seat covers are sometimes a nice thought, except when you notice the booger, gum, or dried blood that very likely could have been on them longer than I’ve been alive.
Oh, look at that. We are turning back toward Kang Ding now. Xiao Ming called it. I thought we’d have to abandon ship and just hang out in Kunming for a few days before heading back to Dalian. Now that’s one way I haven’t traveled here—a ship. With the unfortunate capsizing stories lately, I’m not sure I even want to.
Right now I just want to listen to some Kang Ding Qing Ge—Kang Ding Love Song—and tune out Spider-Man and the Chinese Barry Manalow. Coincidentally, the Kang Ding Love Song was recently featured in Netflix’s Daredevil, so it’s getting a lot of attention now. It’s cool actually seeing the place in person.
Kidney Stones and fireworks rounded out my first Spring Festival in China more than three years ago. I wrote the first draft of a novel while staying in Dalian my second time around. Xiao Ming and I brought in the year of the Horse in Cambodia my third festival. The fourth time I 过年了(guo nian le), or passed the New Year, I celebrated it married to Xiao Ming and eating meals with her family (and finishing another novel).
I remember looking out my apartment window on Tong Niu hill that first year and comparing the scene to a war zone. With explosions of lights and noise erupting all across the city’s skyline, fireworks going off within apartment complexes, out in the intersections, and right in front of stores with people still walking by, that seemed an apt description. I kept thinking that in America you can’t light off a bottle rocket without your neighbors calling the fuz. They’re so afraid of any number of accidents that could transpire—burnt grass, burnt tree, burnt forest, and, you know, standing in the ashes that used to be their house. Well, I wasn’t in America.
The Chinese live with the fear that everything around them could blow up at any time, for a straight week. And they smile and have a hell of a time doing it. I might be exaggerating.
The clouds of smoke and sulfur eventually clear, the street cleaners in their neon orange and yellow suits bring out their tree-branch brooms, and the smoldering debris gets swept away, ushering in the lunar calendar’s New Year.
Some fingers get claimed, announcements are made denouncing the wanton use of fireworks, and each year a new animal controls the world—er, I mean uses his magical guanxi to bring prosperity to his devout followers. No, that can’t be right, either.
Traditionally, this week for Chinese people is a BIG DEAL. Students, adult children and their families, and even migrant workers all make a mad dash to their hometowns—no matter how far away it is, the Chun Yun (wrote about that last year, HERE). I had a friend need to get all the way from Dalian to Lhasa one year. I’ve done that trip by train. It takes a long time! She was a poor college kid, so she took buses and trains. It took her more than three days, and all of her savings for the year. Well, most. The rest she spent buying gifts for every person in her family, including stuffing as many Hong Bao, Red Envelopes, as possible.
It’s tradition, though. The magic word that makes people break their backs to follow its mandates. Any straying from the course that’s been set in the terra-cotta stone gets you branded as un-filial child—the mark of Cain for the Chinese.
The problem is China’s national identity is threaded together by traditions that families can trace back hundreds, sometimes thousands of years, and yet their cities and economy are growing based on principles they adopted back in ’79—1979. The last few decades have definitely pushed Chinese citizens up against the traditional ropes.
Young Chinese are increasingly at odds with the older generations. I’ve read handfuls of articles about how much stress the Hong Bao causes between family members and co-workers, what the pressure to marry young does to the profession-oriented young adult (apparently it leads to attempted ABDUCTION , or RENTING a DATE for others), but most valuable to me has just been living with and making friends with Chinese people dealing with these trials of tradition.
Definitions are important. My students keep notebooks filled with definitions they need to know for high stakes tests, and understanding the terms in a treaty keeps countries happy. The way a nation defines itself is largely based on the past and the traditions that make up its culture. When those traditions are being challenged by a change that happens to also make a large portion of your people richer, values can also shift.
The Logo Love (just TM’d that on my own) that so many wealthy Chinese share for foreign brand names, the extravagant spending that borders on and often crosses into corruption, and the constant drive for more, more, more is chipping away at some of those traditions—carving a new idol for the masses to get behind. Move over Mao.
The tried and true of family first still seems to be strong, but it’s getting nuanced, too. I wonder how the next few decades will shape the modern family of China.
THAT, was a huge digression. I just wanted to throw up some pics from the last few weeks and make a few jokes.
Every time we eat at Xiao Ming’s parents’ her mother tries to elicit a promise that we will eat there at least once a week. She believes that all the wai mai de fan, food we order from restaurants, is trash and unhealthy. She loves to spend hours preparing good meals for us, taking pains to include all the Chinese dishes that I enjoy–even skinless, leg less, headless shrimp and nearly boneless fish. It’s ridiculous, the amount of pleasure she derives from having us over.
She is a short, portly woman in her early sixties with a mind trained on family and any path that leads that family to wealth and health. The former is generally the focus of her attention. Absurdly practical and frugal, she simmers for days right after nearly every store purchase, lying in bed weighing the benefits and cost of buying even the simplest of household products. Face is important to her, and this cultural obsession with it hasn’t always made her the warmest of mothers to Xiao Ming. Performance, achievement, and filial piety are her virtues, making her a tough but simple woman.
Xiao Ming’s father, on the other hand, quietly helps boil, fry, or bake the dishes, never insisting on anything other than me studying more and more Chinese. Infinitely patient, he only ever shows his disappointment or concern by calling his daughter by her family nickname, his voice dropping low and grave as he says, “Ming Ming ah.” He is an incredibly unassuming man,full of limitless curiosity and interests that he discreetly pursues and cultivates without the slightest hint of ego or need to influence others. Unfortunately, none of his hobbies stand a chance of making him or his family rich, and his wife has spent years lamenting this fact not-so discreetly. Almost a complete Yang to his wife’s Yin, he seems to have resigned himself to a constant tug-of-war within his marriage.
In order to make sure they get all the ingredients, her parents wake up early on the days we’re expected and go to the markets together. I imagine their conversations are a series of grunts, criticisms about one another, and questions about what their wai guo de son-in-law will and will not eat.
Products of a generation that saw Chairman Mao as a savior and cruel task master, both of Xiao Ming’s parents felt the full effects of the Cultural Revolution. When the college entrance exam Gao Kao was suspended due to the chaos of the time, her mother and aunts were placed in reeducation camps in villages, and Xiao Ming’s father, unable to enter college the normal way, entered the citizen’s army where he did a lot of farming. Afterward, he received a recommendation for college and went, but by then his youthful ambition had been dulled, and only a meek persistence remained.
They didn’t have a whirlwind romance, but they shared a lot of love. Even after getting married and they had to live with relatives, Xiao Ming’s father doted on his young wife. He caught a lot of flak from cousin-in-laws for not being able to afford his own place, but eventually they moved out and had Xiao Ming. But by then the trend of criticism and let downs had already been established.
When Xiao Ming first began telling me about her family, it felt natural to see the dad as the hero and the mom as the bad guy. While the mean mom complained and demanded perfection, the gentle dad provided support and unconditional love. There were the stories about how the mom berated the dad for building a large birdhouse on their small balcony to take care of pigeons, the times the mom sided with her sisters against the dad, tales from when they slept on the large table at her dad’s work because they hadn’t found an apartment yet, and even when she yelled at Xiao Ming, complaining that her own daughter wasn’t being a good, filial daughter. These and so many more stories I heard prepared me for a formidable, frustrated old woman, but that is not the lady I’ve come to care about.
Likewise, the memories set Xiao Ming’s father up as some sort of unsung saint, but that was a bit exaggerated, too. Too quiet sometimes, he will slip in and out of the house without telling anyone where he’s going, and when asked, responds only, “out.” The pigeons that he loved so much and gave so much space to, took up serious amounts of real estate in a one-room apartment too small for two people let alone three and a flock of birds—and they stank. He bought the place they live now without consulting his wife at all, based solely on the fact that it was ground level and he could have a garden in the back yard. He repeated the move recently when he put 20,000 non-refundable RMB down on a 32nd floor apartment for Xiao Ming and me without telling anyone. We tried to be gracious, but in the end really could not make ourselves like it. After an inordinate amount of irritation that included meetings with landlords, agencies, and talks of getting lawyers involved, her folks decided to go all out and buy the place for themselves while giving us their big apartment in which they still currently live. After getting the details and looking at some of the stories objectively, I can see a bit more how Xiao Ming’s mother might feel that without constant supervision and redirection, her husband might do something illogical and costly.
Through the Mao era, their own poverty, personal differences that have nearly led to divorce, family emergencies like Xiao Ming’s mother getting stabbed by a serial killer, big family moves, and a lifetime of hardships, the two of them have remained husband and wife. They raised a brilliant daughter, love their family, and have even accepted into their midst a Lao wai like me.
Watching them as we sit at their small square table and eat together, I can’t help wonder how they see me. No, that’s not quite true. My curiosity isn’t that egotistical. I wonder how they, after living through all that they have, view the two of us–their daughter and an American–being married, what they think of their future grand babies being both Chinese and American, about what they’d like to say to me if I were totally fluent, and I wonder if they genuinely bless our union. I’ve been given answers to all of these questions and more, and they’re all overwhelmingly positive. My in-laws love me, or at least tolerate me in good spirits. But I always wonder what my difference, my not being Chinese, truly means to them.
Tonight we’re going over to have dinner with them, and I know the food will be great, the conversation will border ontopics I can contribute to and others that will pass me right on by, and I know that my mother-in-law will sit across from me and smile, ask me when I’m coming next, and pack all the left overs into a plastic tub for us to take. My father-in-law will try to include me in talks about cultural differences, offer me home-made Bai jiu, and encourage me to keep on studying so that I can become a Zhongguo Tong, a China Hand–expert on Chinese customs. For the Chinese, sharing a meal together as a family is one of the most important ways for them to spend time. I count myself immensely blessed that they have opened their kitchen, home, and hearts to me, expanding my family from all over America and reaching into the Far East.