John loves this expression, and has told it to me many times in our relationship. There is truth to it. Huangshan is an impressive mountain, and has a greater scale than China’s Five Sacred Mountains — Songshan, Hengshan, Hengshan, Huashan, and Taishan. But many would argue that the Five Sacred Mountains have their own beauty, and a beauty worth seeing, even if you have visited Huangshan. I don’t mention this to John, because I know his words say more about him than Huangshan. He loves Huangshan, because his relatives lived in the shadow of its enormous spires. His people are mountain people, and come from a mountain that claims to overshadow the rest.
Though he didn’t grow up at the feet of Huangshan, he was born and raised in the mountains just southeast of Huangshan. On the top level of a double-decker bus, on a sultry summer evening in 2002, he turns to me and speaks of the beauty of the mountains in his hometown. “My hometown is a tourist destination,” he says proudly. He tells me it is Tonglu, but I have never heard of it. “We have mountains, rivers, and caves,” he says. And then he smiles gently and adds this: “You’re welcome to visit anytime.”
I don’t visit his village until six months after that — during Chinese New Year, 2003. We ride there in a grotty minivan that chooses a road just next to the highway — the route is almost identical to that of the highway, except the driver can save on toll fees by avoiding the highway, and have the chance to pick up passengers along the way. As we tumble along the rickety roads, the crowded apartment buildings eventually give way to peasant homes in the countryside, with their own plot of land or rice paddy or pond for fish farming; the hills become verdant mountains, some with jagged peaks, others with gentle rolling summits; and the landscape becomes natural. If we were coming in the summer, it would be an explosion of green — green terraced fields, green rice paddies, green Oriental Plane trees. But there is still a hint of green, and it is soothing compared to the concrete rigidity of city life in China.
After we enter his county, the road follows a river cradled between the mountains. Beside the tree-lined road, I see two- and three-story, one family peasant homes on one side, and terraced fields on the other side. Some of the homes even have fields behind them, like stairs leading down to the river. The pattern — homes, trees, fields — is simple and comforting, natural and soothing. Sometimes the pattern is interrupted with a small village that reminds me of the Chinese city where I live, with compact two- and three-story buildings and apartments and restaurants and stores. But the villages are small, and don’t last long, so once again I see homes, trees, fields…homes, trees, fields.
But as we approach his hometown, the pattern changes. We turn a corner, and suddenly there is a stonehenge-like collection of gray monoliths littered all over the fields, and piles of smaller rocks, with blue East Wind trucks and suspended diamond blades with a diameter bigger than the men manipulating them. They are partitioned into little units — factories — each with monoliths, trucks and blades, over and over again. These little stone-cutting factories invaded the fields, sitting in a terrace that once yielded rice or vegetables. Now, that terrace will yield marble pavement, or marble lion statues, or marble gravestones, or marble stairs and fencing. Marble anything, really. The stone factories don’t disappear when we pull into the main village in John’s hometown. I saw them behind the main streets. And, though I haven’t even seen his house yet, I know there is one right next door to him.
When we arrive at his house, after taking in our belongings and greeting his family, John takes me outside to look at the fields across from his house. Because he house is surrounded by a wall and gate, we must leave his property and stand on the opposite side of the road. The hills are neatly partitioned into terraced fields, their undulating borders like a real-life topological map imposed on the land, all the way to the valley, where a creek runs due South. “I used to catch fish in that creek, when I was younger,” John says. “But now, the water has turned a milky white color, and there are no more fish.” When I look upstream, I understand — stone factories have nestled into what used to be terraced fields, right next to the creek. A pipe deposits the effluent from the factories directly into the stream.
John takes a picture of me in front of the terraced fields, framing it so he leaves the stone factories out. If we are tourists here, we may be the only ones in the entire village. And then we return to his home, where the whirring of the stone factory next door blends into the background. It is not impressive.
Have you ever been surprised by where your Chinese friend/boyfriend/girlfriend was from? What about their hometown surprised you?
Memoirs of a Yangxifu in China is the story of love, cultural understanding and eventual marriage between one American woman from the city and one Chinese man from the countryside. To read the full series to date, you can start at Chapter 1, or visit the Memoirs of a Yangxifu archives.