The power of a smile in China’s countryside

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As John and I stopped to admire a patch of yellow daisies while hiking through his village in Zhejiang, a voice speaking Chinese reached us from across the creek. “Aren’t those flowers beautiful?”

I looked up to see two smiling yet unfamiliar faces staring at my husband and me, both filled with a friendly curiosity. After all, it’s not everyday they find a white foreigner hiking across from their fields.

The warmth from their gazes made me do something so uncharacteristic in China, something I rarely do with strangers here: I waved at them and smiled.

“Yes, they’re very beautiful,” I said to them in Chinese. “And fragrant!”

Soon, we fell into a brief conversation — about why we were hiking around the creek (for fun), about what they were doing (planting some crops in the fields). Even though it was all just small talk, by the time we left and continued on our way home, I felt as if we just made a couple of new friends. And it’s not the first time this has happened.

A woman in the mountains always invites us in for dinner or a little small talk whenever we hike past her house. While cruising down the hill on our bicycles, one fellow standing outside his house with a bowl of rice and bamboo also asked us to come over for dinner. A farmer picking cherries in the fields suddenly pushed his basket of sweet red bounty in front of me, insisting I must take some home — and even forcing the cherries into my hands when I hadn’t taken enough. And then there are the countless individuals who crack an unexpected smile at my husband whenever he greets them in the local dialect with a question like, “Off work?”

It’s amazing how a simple walk through my husband’s village in rural Zhejiang suddenly opens up unexpected doors and hearts. There’s a brilliant friendliness here that shines upon us like the golden sunshine. Maybe it’s because my husband always called these mountains home — and whenever he speaks the dialect of this region, he announces his hometown roots. Maybe it’s in part that the curious presence of a foreigner in a remote mountain village inevitably opens up even some of the shyest people to a little conversation.

Yet I know we would never enjoy the same friendly welcome in a big city like Hangzhou, Shanghai or even Beijing. After living in big cities in China, I know all too well the watchful distance between strangers on the streets — where there’s no such thing as waving hello or asking someone, “What are you up to?” It’s a world where people worry about helping up a fallen little old grandmother in the streets for fear of getting sued…where you automatically assume “swindler” or even “thief” if someone you don’t know approaches you.

So of course, I assumed the same rules applied to us when we moved to my husband’s hometown in the countryside…and how wrong I was.

I’ve also watched my husband transform from the shy wallflower he once was in the US to the confident social butterfly who could charm almost anyone into a smile, even the most impossible grimacing grandfathers on the streets. Even after all of the hardships we’ve faced in the US, my husband still greets everyone in this village with a cheerful optimism that is so inspiring, especially to me.

My husband reminds me that, no matter what difficulties you’ve encountered in life, there’s still room for a smile, a nod and a little small talk. Sometimes, it’s also the best remedy for those sad and lonely days I experience here in China, where the world seems crazy and unfair and impossible. It’s like slowing down to enjoy a patch of yellow flowers — realizing the beauty and love that’s already around us, but that we’ve forgotten in our daily routines.

Someday, John and I will leave his parents’ home for bigger things. Yet a part of us will undoubtedly remain among these welcoming mountains in the countryside, which have taught us to believe once again in humanity and the power of a smile.

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35 thoughts on “The power of a smile in China’s countryside

  • May 12, 2014 at 9:34 am
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    That picture of you is absolutely beautiful – the flowers, the mountains, and your bright smile!

    It is so nice to read this – especially about the kindness of people around you and the fact that John has become a confident individual.

    I always say to myself, especially on the days where I feel a little frustrated ‘Any situation can turn into an awesome experience as long as you approach it with a positive attitude and smile.’ And I believe this so much that you will see this quote pop up a lot in my blog posts because a smile goes a long way!

    Reply
  • May 12, 2014 at 9:42 am
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    So nice. Reading this made me want to hike that mountain and say hi to those sweet persons. It is really a nice and warm place.

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  • May 12, 2014 at 9:46 am
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    I love traveling to the Chinese countryside or visiting friends in smaller cities just for this reason. People there are usually very warm and welcoming and I always miss the atmosphere when I get back to Shenzhen.

    In some remote places, people will even slaughter a pig for the visitor – not just for foreign visitors, but also for Chinese ones. For them, it’s a good reason to celebrate and get some diversion from the hard work in the fields.

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    • May 19, 2014 at 2:40 pm
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      Yeah, the countryside is really cool, isn’t it? I’ve had people offer to slaughter animals for me too (before they learned I don’t eat meat!).

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  • May 12, 2014 at 7:55 pm
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    What a heartwarming story! I agree, people are always up for a chat in the countryside, not only in China but also in other countries.
    I still feel weird here when sharing the elevator with a neighbour, in Spain we would say hello, or good morning, or whatever but here you are not supposed to say anything. The same when entering a small shop, I always say nihao or I feel too rude haha.

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    • May 19, 2014 at 2:41 pm
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      Thanks Marta! Yeah, elevator rides can be weird without saying anything…I know the feeling.

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  • May 13, 2014 at 5:33 am
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    It’s delightful to hear how friendly and generous people are when you and Jon go for a walk. You must feel really happy when you watch him acting like a confident social butterfly. When my husband returned to his hometown, he’d been away so long that his clothes, haircut and walk branded him as foreigner to the people in Gulangyu. Fortunately, they warmed to him as soon as he opened his mouth.

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    • May 19, 2014 at 2:42 pm
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      Thanks Nicki! Yeah, it’s amazing how speaking the local dialect will open people up! Some folks think my husband is an outsider too b/c of how he dresses…but as you say, once he opens his mouth… 😉

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  • May 13, 2014 at 5:41 am
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    Jocelyn,

    I’m so glad to hear the local people are so congenial to you and your husband. Wish some day every body will get such warm welcome in the entire China, not only in your area.

    Reply
  • May 13, 2014 at 6:17 am
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    This was a great entry to read; I think the right atmosphere can bring out the best in people – and, of course, the opposite is also completely true.

    I was just at my in-laws this past weekend in the suburbs and I didn’t realize how much I was used to the noise of the city until it went away.

    Glad to hear that you two are doing so well there!

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    • May 19, 2014 at 2:45 pm
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      Thanks Logan! It is nice to get away — you really appreciate the countryside (or the suburbs) when you haven’t been there for a while.

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  • May 13, 2014 at 7:37 am
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    A wonderful story of the outdoors, sunshine, flowers and and smiles. Of country life and hospitality!

    Reply
  • May 13, 2014 at 10:36 am
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    I love this post Jocelyn! May I translate it in June,boss haha?
    P.s. love the picture

    Reply
  • May 13, 2014 at 3:32 pm
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    This is is a very nice story.

    I also realized that at least in the countryside parts of China which I visited most people were more friendly than in the city. More often than not we encounter bad comments or even racist ones from Chinese when walking through the streets but this never happened in small villages yet.

    It is often said than going abroad will make you grow further as a person and it appears it worked well for your husband (I think I also developed at least a tiny bit when I moved away from Germany and had to start from scratch all those years ago:) )

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  • May 13, 2014 at 3:34 pm
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    I love hearing about your life in the countryside! But, I’ve got to say – I live in Shanghai and even though you can get the “cold shoulder” – there are still many strangers here that wave, smile, and say hello. I’ve met a good deal of people in the parks here while admiring flowers ~ who are kind enough to tell me more about the types of plants here. There are plenty of people that wave and say hello on my (almost daily) walk to the subway station. Especially if I coo over an adorable dog they are walking! And then there are my regular spots (wet market, fruit stands, a handful of restaurants, convenient stores, and the video store) where everyone always is friendly and chatty!

    When I first came to live in Shanghai my husband said that the guards in our building complex (there are always about 3-5 standing outside directing cars) never waved, smiled, and said hello until I came to live with him. So I asked him “Did you ever wave, smile, or say hello?” To which he replied, “Well, no.”

    I could see the light-bulb go on over his head!

    So, maybe it just takes someone doing it first? It can get discouraging after the 100th time you’ve given someone a big smile and said “Hello!” and they just turn and walk away… but, it’s really worth it those few times you make new friends or have a refreshing chat with a stranger. 😀

    Reply
    • May 19, 2014 at 2:50 pm
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      Rene, good point about the city — that sometimes it’s a matter of you being friendly first to open people up! I’ll have to remember that as we move to Hangzhou.

      Reply
  • May 14, 2014 at 7:41 am
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    What a lovely story. Yeah, its odd that in cities life tends to be cold, yet from what I know, in countryside there’s warmth towards strangers. Kind of interesting because one would think it would be reverse.

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  • May 14, 2014 at 2:12 pm
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    More I read your about what you experience in China’s countryside more I want to visit it instead of a big city 🙂
    you and John bring a smile to my face 🙂

    Reply
  • May 17, 2014 at 12:19 am
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    Jocelyn,
    Love this post! Glad to hear you have some new caring friends in China as well. That must be nice after you have had to stay under the radar for a while. The picture looks beautiful as well! 🙂
    xoxox
    Ashleigh Son

    Reply
  • June 2, 2014 at 5:02 pm
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    After staying in my boyfriends rural village in China it completely changed my view of China, The first time i went to China i stayed in Nanjing city, and I felt that it was very impersonal walking on the street and that people really didn’t care about other passerby’s, but when I was in the countryside it was completely different I felt a real sense of community everybody knew each other people were more friendly. So I can totally relate

    Reply
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