Chapter 43: Going to John’s China Hometown

Mountains in the countryside of Zhejiang Province
John's ancestors come from the area near Huangshan -- one of China's most impressive mountains. But his family lives in a countryside ravaged by economic development, worlds away from what his ancestors knew. (pictured: me before the fields opposite John's home, Chinese New Year 2003)

“五岳归来不看山,黄山归来不看岳” — After China’s Five Sacred Mountains, you needn’t see another mountain; after Huangshan, you needn’t see China’s Five Sacred Mountains.

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.

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5 thoughts on “Chapter 43: Going to John’s China Hometown

  • March 23, 2010 at 5:14 am
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    I’m lucky in that I love my husband’s hometown. It is beautiful, on the bank of the Pearl river and flanked by lovely lush green mountains. The village itself isn’t much, but it has its charm too. Of course much of Yunnan is like that, it is a gorgeous province. I’d totally live in my husband’s home village if it weren’t for the village attitude and the complete and utter lack of opportunities there. I think I actually like my husband’s hometown more than he does.

    I have to say though, my husband warned me about his family house, but he definitely wasn’t kidding when he said it was pretty basic. I can’t say I was exactly prepared for the absolutely disgusting outhouse buzzing with insects or the bed that consisted (at least until we purchased our marriage bed) a plank with a blanket on it. I wasn’t thrilled with those things, but I’m a traveler and honestly I’d seen worse. I think I was expecting a total pit from the way my husband described it, but I found even the house had its certain appeal, and just the idea of it, that his dad built it with his bare hands after returning from the war and marrying his mom, sort of charmed me. It isn’t like I ever have to put up with the place for more than a week at a time at the most, so I take it in stride pretty much.

    Reply
  • March 23, 2010 at 7:23 am
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    There was a lot of build up to my first visit to Guatemala to visit my now husband. By the time I visited we had already been together close to two years. Guatemala city itself, where he lived was not impressive. It was dirty, full of buses blowing smoke and people selling trinkets at red lights. His house was sufficient although in the mornings I learned often times the city runs out of water. Also, they don’t have hot water heaters, so hot water can be pretty scarce. All in all that would be ok except that Guatemala is at a pretty high elevation amongst mountains and the water is really cold. We traveled the whole country while I was there and despite all it’s negatives I have to admit I fell in love with Guatemala. I don’t think I realized it at the time, but I know now that’s exactly what happened because I find myself craving to go back.

    Guatemala is a country of contrasts, heaven and hell all in one place equivalent to the size of Tennessee. Sometimes I ask myself if I truly love Guatemala or if I love the place my husband comes from. I think it’s a little bit of both.

    Reply
  • March 23, 2010 at 9:58 pm
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    Just wanted to say thank you for writing about this! I’ve lived in China for four years, yet I am such an outsider (on the fringe, I say). Your posts, and the blogs of other yangxifus, give me that glimpse into private lives that I have missed. I do have several close Chinese friends, but seeing a place through a loved one’s eyes is totally different. Visiting my husband’s hometown in Spain was surprising, too. As an American growing up in a “young country” it was astonishing to see history around every corner. He grew up in a living, breathing museum of a medieval city surrounded by a black, sooty industrial ribbon. When we moved to China, he could relate to many things, because he had seen similar huge changes in Spain over the years – progression from a fascist regime to a constitutional monarchy, (obviously we won’t see democracy here, but you know what I mean – the opening up), from one of the most backward European nations to a developed nation (that at the moment is not doing too great economically, unfortunately.) He remembers censorship. He remembers squat toilets and outhouses and dirt roads and single stroke engine vehicles. He remembers his city and the local rivers as heavily polluted by the coal mining and steel industries. (They’ve only recently been cleaned up.) His parents lived through rationing and the iron fist of Franco (though his mother adored him – her father died a hero in one of the epic battles of the Civil War, for Franco, of course.) Some people might think that an intercultural marriage between an American and a European is not so difficult, but we have our differences, believe me! I never truly understood him until I visited his hometown (our visit ended up being a year long, so I really got to know the place!)

    @Jessica – I think the fact that your father-in-law built the house himself would charm me, as well.

    Reply
    • March 23, 2010 at 11:53 pm
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      @Jessica, thanks for the comment! I can imagine how lovely your husband’s hometown must be, as I’ve been to Yunnan a few times. You know, I do love his hometown, but I don’t love what has happened to it. There’s a lot of beauty, yet the hillsides are ravaged by the stone factories, which is tragic. I admire your ability to adapt to all kinds of conditions — obviously, you’ve seen a lot in China. How cool that your husband’s father built the home with his own hands! According to John, his father also built the family home (though, I think he had help with that). 🙂

      @Melissa, your experience echoes so much of my own in China. I am totally with you on falling in love with the place, despite the negatives. I do love John’s hometown (but as I said above, I desperately wish the conditions were better — if nothing else, then for the sake of my family there). Your description of Guatemala as a country of contrasts could easily be said of China.

      @globalgal, thanks for sharing your experience with your husband’s hometown in Spain! How interesting that Spain’s recent history, in some respects, echoes what the Chinese have experienced. And how wonderful that you were able to stay in your husband’s hometown for a year — no doubt you have some wonderful memories of that time.

      Reply
  • November 17, 2010 at 10:28 am
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    Hi Jocelyn,
    My lovely wife comes from Anhui, about 70 km NW of Huangshan. I spent Spring Festival 2004 in her village – it was *rather* spartan : Hand operated lever water pump in the courtyard, power bill of 12 RMB a year for the 2 naked globes and 12 inch B/W TV….however the hospitality was great and I didn’t hear one ‘Laowai’ or ‘helllooo’ in 8 days. It was a bit chilly though, say -6 C but I had plenty of warm clothes and never felt cold. Biggest problem was being woken at 3 am by a full bladder and arguing with myself about how long it would take to get up, pee in a secret empty bottle and then get back under the nice warm quilts. I finally settled on 54 seconds !
    Z.

    Reply

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