With a bottle of water hanging from his left hand and a long, wand-like brush in the other hand, an elderly man dipped his brush in the water to write calligraphy on the paving tiles of the Summer Palace.
“Let’s stop and interact with this man,” Evan, our Overseas Adventure Travel (OAT) guide, suggested.
Evan began chatting with him as we watched. “He comes here every day and practices calligraphy as a form of exercise,” Evan learned. Each time we had a people-to-people encounter, Evan would remind us that it was a learning and discovery opportunity – a trademark of OAT.
As I watched, I knew that I had chosen the right tour to immerse myself in China.
While spending my junior year in Hong Kong in 1961-62, the United States continued its policy of prohibiting citizens from visiting China and maintained an embargo. In Hong Kong there was a several mile restricted area separating Hong Kong from Mainland China. Only indigenous villagers with permits were allowed in that area. I only knew China from books and movies.
On November 7, 1961, I wrote to my family about my visit to Macao where I was able to be close enough to see China through the chain link fence separating Macao from the Chinese mainland – and resisted the urge to stick my hand through the fence so a part of me could actually be in China.
“Macao is separated from the Mainland by only a river and actually connects on a small peninsula. I could sit in Macao and see the villages and fishermen, which seemed only a stones throw away. Being so close to the Mainland, close enough to see the people, I began to wonder how we [America] can, in a sense, fail to recognize that they exist. Here are human beings as real as ourselves, and whose relatives and countrymen have, here in Hong Kong, became dear to my heart.”
I knew that when I was finally able to visit China, I needed to be able to interact with and get to know people in the same way I did when I studied in Hong Kong.
Our tour guide and local guides not only shared general information, as well as intimate details about their lives, including their hopes, dreams and concerns. They also facilitated informal interactions with local people, like the calligrapher in the park, as well as enabled us to visit in local homes and share meals with a number of families.
Evan told us that he was from Xian and part of one of China’s minority groups. Xian is at the end of the Silk Road which introduced Islam. He and his family are Chinese Muslims, although he is married to a non-Muslim Han Chinese woman.
Linda, our Beijing local guide, lives with her family in one of the city’s suburbs in an apartment. “I get to work with my BMW,” she told us the first morning – clarifying that it stood for Bicycle, Metro and Walking.
Our first home-hosted meal took place on our second day in a village near the Badaling Great Wall site. It is also located very close to the 2020 Winter Games ski area. The village in its present form may well have to change to accommodate the increase in population related to the Olympics. So many other villages have been torn down and replaced by circles of towering apartment buildings.
The Jia family welcomed us to their home and kept bringing plates of food to the two tables. The mother-in-law told us she had collected the greens, with special health-enhancing properties, from the nearby hillsides earlier that morning.
Mark, one of our tour members, had brought a plastic placemat with a map of the United States. We all wrote our names on our respective states. Mark left the placemat and permanent marker so they could have future tour group participants indicate where they lived.
As we were riding to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City the following morning, Evan admitted that when he first started guiding, “my tour guests were gob smacked that I didn’t know about the 1989 student protest.”
He would have been a young child in 1989. He went on to explain that information about the protest is not found in books or Chinese online media.
Later that evening after we finished eating in a private room at a neighborhood restaurant near our hotel, we had the opportunity to interact with and hear the perspective of a teacher who was born during the three-year famine and grew up in Beijing during the Cultural Revolution.
“My parents were ‘intellectuals’ who came to Beijing from South China,” he disclosed. “My father was a physicist and my mother a chemist who came from the same town as Chairman Mao.”
He explained that intellectuals were persecuted during the Cultural Revolution and his parents were sent to the countryside for ‘re-education,’ and he and his brother were left behind. Schools were closed and at one point the Red Guard came to their home and took away books.
“We were pretty much on our own,” he explained. “When I was a teenager I was having a good time, but later taught myself so that I could get into college, which by then was free.”
Students that he knew were agitating for greater educational freedoms and against what they felt was corruption. They asked him to join them at the protest. He is glad that he stayed at home.
“My father has died; however, my mother is still a supporter of the former Chairman Mao,” he confessed reluctantly as he passed around some of his mother’s Mao memorabilia. “She doesn’t approve of my speaking to groups about my experiences.”
At times our guide seemed to be using us as a sounding board to help him process some of his concerns. On our way to one of Beijing’s Hutongs (old residential neighborhood) the next day, Evan expressed his anxieties about caring for his parents as they age. “This is a very controversial topic in my generation,” he explained. “How can I do my job, care for my family, and also assume responsibility for caring for my parents? My wife also works and by tradition, she would be expected to provide the care.”
The notion of having others take care of aging family members is beginning to be introduced, but many of his friends will not even think about this as an option. “I am open to thinking about a nursing home, but scared to talk about it.”
A member of our tour group, who is the medical director of a hospice and palliative care organization, was able to offer some ideas about how he might talk with his parents.
As we entered the hutong, Evan pointed out a facility for seniors.
A number of residents were sitting out in the square and as started chatting with them, he learned that they liked their living arrangement and enjoyed the public facilities in the square.
Some of our group joined community members in morning exercise and tried out the exercise equipment.
A woman walking her bike through the square followed us into the public toilets and started asking us questions. She had very good English and told us she had been an English teacher in a public school.
Further along we noticed an elderly man picking up cigarette butts.
Linda and Evan struck up a conversation and learned he was 98. “I take care of the environment by picking up cigarette butts,” he told us with a serious smile, and then added, “Smoking is very bad.”
On our first day in Xian our local guide Jenny told us her parents had lived through the famine and when she was young her mother scolded her saying she should not waste food. “You were probably told to eat all your meals because there were starving children in China. We were told ‘eat your rice – there are starving children in America’,” she laughed.
We learned that after so many years when religion was banned, the some Chinese people are beginning to explore their spirituality.
“I am not Buddhist,” Jenny expressed as we were arriving at the Wild Goose Pagoda. “However, I occasionally go to the temple to pray if I have a concern”, covering all her bases.
“How do you like my hometown?” Evan asked us as we were riding the bus back to our hotel.
“Ding, ding hau,” we replied in unison.
Evan gave us an opportunity to experience Halal food at a restaurant in the Muslim Quarter that evening. Following our meal, he led us on a walk through the Muslim Quarter that pulsed with activity on a Friday night
and encouraged us to try special pastries and freshly made pomegranate juice.
The next morning on our way to the Terracotta Soldiers, Evan wondered out loud with us about the future of China’s Social Security system, which has been in existence since 1995. Workers are required to pay into the locally-managed system for fifteen years in order to receive a pension upon retirement. With the decline in the birth rate, 30% of the population will be of retirement age by 2030.
“Since I am self-employed, it is up to me to make the payments and I am thinking about if it is worth it to continue,” he lamented. “There is a lot of corruption and I am wondering whether there will be sufficient funds in the system when I retire.”
A lively discussion ensued about comparisons with the U.S. Social Security system, options for investing for the future, and other related topics that enriched our understanding of life in China.
On our final day in Xian, we participated in OAT’s trademark people-to-people experience called “Day in the Life” at Donghan village – population 600,000!
Before the bus let us out at the local market, Evan divided our group into two teams He gave each team two items to buy at the farmer’s market, which we would take to our respective host family to help them prepare for lunch.
He slowly told each team its grocery list in Mandarin – without telling us what the English equivalent would be. From my painful six weeks of listening to a Mandarin CD, I tried to write the words in pinyon (Chinese phonetic words) with intonation symbols.
I could only recognize the first two words – “I want.”
“I think we should let Judy take the lead,” suggested Bill as we approached the first vendor.
However, as I struggled to say each word slowly to make sure I used the appropriate intonation, others on the team tried to ‘help’ by pitching in. Since several of us were talking at once, we presume the farm couple just gave us what they wanted to sell – lotus root and mushrooms.
Our team returned to the meeting point first and were feeling proud – only to discover that we were supposed to buy one kilo each of eggs and tomatoes!
When the other team returned – with the correct items, we accompanied Evan to purchase additional vegetables
As we were leaving the market, we passed a vendor with baskets of freshly-picked strawberries. Someone on our team purchased some to take to our host family.
We rode the short distance to the more rural part of the village by tuk-tuk.
As we headed down a deserted-looking lane, one house appeared to be occupied and Evan called a greeting in the door, which prompted an impromptu visit with the 83 year old woman who lived there alone – by choice, which is unusual in Chinese culture. She invited us into her meager home where she had been resting on a pallet. The only light came in through the open door.
As we asked her questions through Evan’s interpretation, she brightened. As we left, she said that our visit was the highlight of our day and stepped proudly outside for a photo.
As we continued down the lane towards the newer part of the village, it was clear that this stretch of homes would soon be demolished and replaced with tall apartment buildings like those we could see not too far away.
As we approached the gate to the new section, some of the villagers greeted us in costume and started to dance, encouraging us to participate. A white-haired woman came and offered me her hand and led me into the dance circle. After a while, she decided that I was a poor student and let me watch, inviting another tour participant to join her.
We filtered down the street and joined our respective families. Nini, our host, has owned her home since 1997. In addition, to contracting with OAT, she operates her home as a guest house, with two upstairs bedrooms and a bathroom, through Airbnb.
While Nini and her mother-in-law had done all of the pre-preparation tasks of chopping vegetables and making noodle dough and filling, we were invited into the kitchen to help finalize the meal. A couple of the women assisted with stir-frying, as Nini’s mother-in-law cleaned and cut up the lotus root and mushrooms we had brought (fortunately, they had stocked tomatoes and eggs in case we came with the wrong ingredients!).
We took turns helping to flatten the dumpling dough with our hands, add filling, and with coaching from Nini’s mother-in-law, learned how to crimp the edges of the dumplings.
Even the men joined in.
When everything was ready and food was on the table, we all sat down to eat together
and share information about ourselves, our families and learn more about Nini’s family. I retrieved my phone and she enjoyed looking at a picture of my grand-daughter Lilli at her school’s recent father-daughter dance.
Following lunch, our local guide Jenny walked us to another home where the family grows, dries and processes the local chile. The chile roaster somewhat resembled the ones seen outside of markets throughout August and September in New Mexico.
The husband sprinkled some dried chile on the grinding wheel, turned it on and began sweeping it back under the wheel as it spread out.
He then asked if any of wanted to take over. I quickly volunteered and quickly mastered the rhythm of sweeping the ground chile before the wheel came around again. “I may not be able to dance,” I laughed, “but I can sweep chile.”
This day was certainly one of the highlights of my trip and just the kind of experience I wanted to have in China.
After exiting the airport in Chengdu the next morning, we met up with Heather our local guide who began to fill us in on the local customs. “We are known for our ‘spicy’ girls and ‘soft-eared’ men,” she explained.
After a noodle lunch, we rode the bus to a park in Chengdu which is a favorite gathering spot. Marilyn joined in a game like badminton. “We won’t engage with the locals as we walk along the path,” Evan told us adding, “and don’t take photos obviously.” While Chinese men and women from the younger generation want to make their own marriage decisions, parents and grandparents don’t want to leave things to chance. The path was lined with pieces of paper that were the equivalent of ‘single’s ads,’ only placed by parents and grandparents who fret that their offspring has not yet married.
At another location in the park we watched locals doing karaoke and dancing.
Behind the singers a lighted digital sign kept track of the decibels – averaging about 80 dB. They were accompanied by a brass band.
Our final home visit was at Shi Bao Zhai, a village along the Yangtze River whose residents were relocated to make way for the Three Gorges Dam. As we sat in our host’s modern, spacious 3rd floor apartment, the local guide facilitated the discussion. Our host told us he used to be a farmer and was among the third group moved out of the area that would be flooded when the dam was constructed. He was given land in town in exchange for his farm. In addition, he was given a cash settlement that he used to build the four-story apartment. He rents out two floors, he and his wife live on one floor, and his daughter and her family on another. He lives on his pension and takes care of his grandson. “I am very satisfied with my life,” he shared. In addition he likes the low electricity rate as a result of the dam’s hydroelectric plant.
After leaving the visit, the local guide suggested that if we wanted to shop, we could stop at the ‘Hello Market,” where the vendors would call out ‘hello lady’ to encourage us to stop and browse. “You should be prepared to bargain,” she added. I hadn’t intended to shop, but did stop to check out a potential gift – and counter-offered the initial quoted price. I hadn’t bargained at a street market since the end of my year in Hong Kong when my Cantonese had improved to the point where I could communicate effectively. She showed me a price on her hand-held calculator and I countered by holding up my fingers. It was a deal.
The toilets in China show the gradual shift in norms. According to our guides, who all had western toilets installed in their apartments, it has been difficult for older Chinese to accept western toilets. While all of our hotels had western toilets, public restrooms were a different matter! While most toilets at tourist facilities and restaurants were the traditional Chinese style,
very frequently there would be one or more western toilets, indicated with a variety of signs.
Given a chance, most of us would wait in line to use the western toilet rather than squat.
Rebecca, our River Guide along the Yangtze River, told us a personal story. She has a western toilet in her apartment in Chongking. When she invited her parents, who still live in a village, to come and visit, her mother did not want to use the western toilet, but finally relented. When her mother emerged from the bathroom, she was impressed and wanted to know how to get one.
All of the encounters our tour arranged or facilitated with local people greatly enriched my visit to China. I felt like I was getting to know new friends, not just gawk from the outside.