By the end of January, 2003, I had lived in China for more than two and a half years, spoke fluent Mandarin Chinese, and had John, my Chinese boyfriend. It’s easy to believe you know China, that it feels familiar and comfortable when you settle in one place, and have close loved ones by your side.
But the Chinese know better. Lin Yutang once wrote that the happiest thing for a Chinese is to return to his hometown, and speak in his local dialect. Outside of their home region, even a Chinese could feel like a foreigner, lost in a world where no one speaks their home dialect, or eats the local delicacies they loved as a child. Sometimes, you only have a cross a mountain or two in China to find yourself in a completely different world.
John and I crossed many a mountain to reach his village in the countryside of Tonglu, and I couldn’t have felt more strange. I was already a stranger to his parents. But I also faced a home and village that was like nothing I’d known before — even in China.
John’s home was a white-washed, two story concrete building with an open hallway, almost like a balcony, looking out into a courtyard that held a hidden garden of bamboo, osmanthus, orange trees, and chrysanthemums, and surrounded by a concrete wall that was more than six feet high, and a foot thick, with an intricate steel gate.
I felt unsettled as I walked through those gates with my bag in hand, knowing I was alone in being the only foreigner there, and likely the only foreigner to ever have entered this home. I clutched my dark brown hooded down parka, which extended all the way down to my feet, in the wet winter cold — while the temperatures hovered around 0 degrees Celsius (or 32 degrees Fahrenheit), the humidity made it seem more colder.
As a girl raised in the suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio, I felt alien in this new world. I saw the windows and front door wide open downstairs, which meant this home had no heating unit, apart from space heaters or, as I would soon discover, hot coals heaped into large metal woks that we would huddle around. The kitchen stove ran on dried rape stalks and firewood. There were chickens running everywhere around the first floor, and a pig kept behind the kitchen.
His parents didn’t even welcome us in the way I remembered from boyfriends past. There were no handshakes, no grand introductions, no smiles or nods. I didn’t even see them when I walked in the door, because John’s mother was busy in the kitchen, preparing food, and John’s father burrowed himself in a room upstairs. And when they did come, my Ni Hao somehow drowned in the unintelligible chatter of the local Tonglu dialect, as John explained who I was.
Still, not everything was so strange.
“Sweetie, where is the bathroom?”
John led me around the front of his home, to a structure built just to the left of the room before the kitchen. Inside, stood a sink with a mirror, racks for towels and a granite countertop in a room with new white and blue porcelain tile flooring. John slid back a frosted door opposite the mirror, to reveal a new white squat toilet set into the same porcelain tile flooring.
Nothing else about John’s home would have made me believe they had a flush toilet. “You just installed this bathroom?”
“When you were in Hangzhou. That’s what I was helping with here when you called with your visa problems.”
Did they install this just for me? I wanted to ask. But I didn’t know how — and, when I thought about it, the answer was obvious. John’s family had lived just fine without indoor plumbing their whole lives. Yet, all of a sudden, when one of the sons decides to bring his foreign girlfriend over, they just happen to install a toilet?
I had to smile inside — because it was the most thoughtful way a family had ever welcomed me.
Still, even this toilet had its own countryside characteristics. After I finished using the bathroom and washed my hands, I cocked an eyebrow at an odd squealing noise in the room behind the mirror before me — they built the toilet beside the pig sty.
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.