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.