It used to be that at least twice a month I fought off assaults from the undead as soon as I closed my eyes. Trapped in my apartment building, locked in a crowded bus, sprinting through the streets as a horde stumbled, limped and lumbered after me.
Any psychoanalyst worth his salt can tell you why I had the dreams; I live in China.
From a numbers approach, China can easily overwhelm. People Mountain, People Sea, the first Chinese idiom I learned—”ren shan ren hai”—basically means there are people as far as the eye can see everywhere you go. After five and a half years, though, I’ve mostly figured out how to make things work between me and the 1.3 billion people who became my neighbours.”
This is an excerpt from a recent blog post I wrote for Verge Magazine, a site dedicated to what they call “travel for change.” The magazine helps people study, travel, and work abroad, and their message of “Travel with purpose” is extremely appealing for those who like to get out in the wide open world for more than just photo ops.
The other day while going through some of my files on my computer I simultaneously discovered iMovie and several videos I took from the trip. I’m just about completely inept with technology, but thanks to YouTube tutorials, I put together a short video.
The trip still remains a powerful memory for me, and I hope to have more experiences like it in the future.
China is a country full of tradition. China is also full of people that have no time for tradition.
But most of those folks fall in line during the Chinese Spring Festival. They save up, fight for their tickets home, stuff Red Envelopes with their hard-earned cash (many of them giving up meals to do so), and spend the first week of the Lunar January with their family eating dish after dish of homemade grub. Most families pull out all the stops. Preparing the New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day meals are endeavors they labor over, choreograph, and take pride in. For days before the event, Xiao Ming’s family blew up the family WeChat Group with instructions for preparing and making the food. You’d have thought they expected Xi Jinping himself to show up.
The celebratory atmosphere lasts until Lantern Festival which is the fifteenth day of the first Lunar Month, this year that’s February 11. It’s really just the first week of the New Year that gets most of the attention, though. Once the family is all together they eat, play mahjong, watch the Spring Fesitval Gala, and some, you know, like fireworks a little bit. Starting at eleven pm you hear the crack and pop and explosive bursts all throughout the city. This goes on for about a week with minor slowdowns throughout the daytime.
For most foreigners celebrating Spring Festival in China they learn about the importance of red, fireworks, and Red Envelopes first. Those are the shiny parts of the holiday and integral to the celebrations, but another tradition is all the visiting of relatives that’s expected. The Chinese call it chuan menr – 串门儿. Just like many Americans on New Year’s Day, the Chinese pay visits to family members at this time of year.
Luckily for Xiao Ming and me, most of the family lives here in Kai Fa Qu. We headed over to the oldest male cousin’s house. He lives in the same complex as Xiao Ming’s parents and aunts. There’s like eight family members in that one complex. We used to live there, too, but it was before everyone decided it was the best place in the world to live. Now we have at least a ten-minute walk separating us!
As usual when there is a family dinner, only about half the food was ready by the designated time of 4 pm. Everyone fretted over something. Chairs for the guests, enough cups, chop sticks, who wore too little, who was too thin, who was too fat. The spread looked great. Tasted better.
After the food we all just chilled. The aunts played mahjong in the back, couple of the uncles smoked and talked about nonsense, and Xiao Ming and I watched some of the Spring Festival Gala. Every year this program takes over Chinese TV and heralds the New Year with performances from all over the country. Dances, songs, Kung Fu performances, Chinese skits of Crosstalk (Xiang Sheng), and of course over-the-top patriotic interviews with men and women in service jobs and military posts.
Then Jackie Chan leads everyone in a song of “My Home is in My Heart” while simultaneously performing Chinese Sign Language. Yeah, seriously. Here’s a better link to it.
Like Dick Clark’s Rockin’ New Year’s Eve, there’s the same host for decades, a countdown, and even a Midnight Meal. Back home we ate Sour Kraut and Pork. Here they eat…
Surprised by this, anyone?
I noticed the fireworks the most my first year in China. The noise, smoke, colors. It was the Year of the Dragon. Aside from what I read online or was told at my work, I didn’t take part in much celebrating that first year, at least not Chinese celebrations. With each year that passes that changes. Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, and now the Rooster. Being a part of a Chinese family has changed the way I view and experience China. How could it not?
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.