8 Surprising Things I’ve Learned from Living in China’s Countryside


I was born and raised in a very white and very average suburb of Cleveland, Ohio in the United States. Yet now, I live in the countryside of Zhejiang, China with my Chinese husband and his family, where bamboo and tea bushes grow wild in the mountains, the chickens are always free range, dog leashes are optional, and central heating doesn’t exist.

Nothing in my life before prepared me for this one — and to be sure, the first time I came here I never imagined I would ever feel comfortable in this home or area. But it’s amazing how you can adapt and learn in a new environment. Over time, I’ve found myself feeling extremely at home in this home and this village. And in the process, I’ve experienced and learned things that, when I think about the woman I once was back in the US, really surprise me at times.

1. When you live without central heating, there are ingenious ways to stay warm

No heating in the dining room? No problem! Meet the huǒtǒng (火桶). You just add warm coals to the receptacle in the bottom, then sit and enjoy the warmth underneath while you eat. This is how I survived many a dinner in the wintertime (when I wasn’t bundled under the covers, with the electric blanket cranked up!).

One of the huotongs in our home is even a family heirloom, gifted to my in-laws more than 40 years ago for their wedding. And according to my mother-in-law, it still warms your behind just as well as it did the first time they used it.

2. There’s nothing like the “sunshine scent” of freshly sunned laundry

Growing up, my family and our neighbors never used laundry lines to dry clothing, robbing me of the chance to discover one of the great wonders of sunshine — that alluring “sunshine scent” after sunning clothes for an entire day. The sun-dried laundry smells especially fragrant where I live, thanks to the absence of smog and plenty of glorious blue sky afternoons with lots of fresh air.

If you’ve never experienced the “sunshine scent” from a sheet or towel or shirt left to sun for a golden afternoon, well, you’re missing out on one of life’s wonders.

3. Fire-powered woks truly rock

I’ll admit, the first time I peered into my mother-in-law’s kitchen and found a pile of wood stacked up behind her wok, a part of me felt like I was transported to another era. People still use wood to fire their woks?

But soon I discovered the wonders of a fire-powered wok — namely, that it makes some amazing dishes.

I still can’t get over the jianbing my mother-in-law once made. The flavor and even texture of it was so reminiscent of tandoori-style Indian flatbreads, and even more delicious with the vegetables tucked inside. You could never get the same satisfying taste making the flatbread in a wok heated by gas or even electricity.

My mother-in-law’s jianbing fresh from her fire-powered wok — so delicious!

Maybe it’s no wonder, then, that when I imagine my future dream home, I envision a fire-powered oven or wok somewhere in the kitchen!

4. How to clean up chicken droppings

My mother-in-law raises a flock of free-range chickens. So from time to time, they meander into the house to forage for scraps and leave behind a little something we’d rather not step on. Well, when I spotted one of these offending “presents” near the front door, I instinctively sought out the remedy my mother-in-law uses time and time again: ashes. Just cover the droppings with ashes, wait a few minutes, then you can easily sweep them up (and out the door) with a broom.

I still can’t believe “cleaning up chicken droppings” is now part of my house-cleaning repertoire.

5. Even the scariest unleashed dogs can fear sticks and clubs

I never thought that “speak softly and carry a stick” could also help protect you from dogs.

Where we live, dogs are the countryside version of home alarm systems — everyone has one. But leashes are optional. So when my husband and I take our hikes through the mountains in the village, well, you can imagine how I’ve felt when we suddenly hear a threatening bark or growl — and have no idea if “Cujo” is even tied up.

The first time this happened, my husband just grabbed a stick beside the trail and waved the stick above his head so the dog could see it. Instantly, the dog backed off from us…and I could breathe again. 😉

I don’t know exactly why this works, but it does. Along with water and a sturdy pair of shoes, “walking stick” has now become one of my must-haves for hiking out here!

6. Hot water from the tap is a precious thing

When there’s no hot water from the tap, we turn to boiled water, which we usually store in a thermos like this.

Our house has a solar-powered water heater. But when there’s no sunshine, there’s also no hot water from the tap.

Still, who says we have to go without? We can always have hot water…provided we boil it and store it up in thermoses, ready to mix with cold or lukewarm water for washing up or a bath. Some evenings, I spent an as much as an hour preparing all of that hot water to bathe.

The experience of preparing my own hot water makes me appreciate the precious hot water from the tap so much more.

7. Irrigation ditches make really awesome hiking trails

I’ll be honest, it’s hard to hike the mountains out here in the countryside, where there’s no such thing as “trail maintenance”. Sometimes we’ll be on a perfect trail tracing a mountain ridge…only to find that the deeper we walk into the woods, the more it descends into a thorny mess of bushes and vines that will slash your clothes and even your tender hands. Don’t even ask me about that time we climbed to the top of that mountain, only to take a different trail down…that landed us in the most odious field of thorns I’ve ever encountered.

So I’ve come to love the irrigation ditches out here that are built into the hillsides. The stone walls reinforcing these ditches repel those noisome thorny bushes and vines. But even better, the wall itself becomes a perfect trail, naturally “maintained” and kept open by the heavy foot traffic beside the ditches (essential for watering the terraced fields in the village).

My most favorite trail in the area includes an extra-long irrigation ditch that passes some of the most beautiful scenery in the area — from a natural river that cuts through a wooded hillside to the brilliant green terraced fields in the villages.

8. You can make a home in some of the most unlikely places

If you had told me years before I would be happily residing in the countryside — in the same home as my in-laws — I might have called you crazy or even laughed at the thought. Yet here I am, living under the same roof as my in-laws…and actually having a pretty good time of it.

Life hasn’t always turned out as I expected it, including the circumstances that have necessitated my current residence. But I feel so incredibly loved and cared for here.

Every meal with the family feels like a small holiday feast, beguiling us with the wonderful aroma of eight or nine different home-cooked dishes on the table — and always with an ample selection of my vegan favorites, from spicy pickled daikon radish to the local smoked tofu stir-fried with peppers or celery. My mother-in-law refuses to let me even lift a finger to do my own laundry, preferring instead to wash it herself by hand and then hang it to dry on the clotheslines that criss-cross the front yard. My father-in-law will slip John an overly generous sum of RMB he withdrew from the bank, refusing to let us return a single note. Our relatives in the village insist on inviting the two of us over to their homes only a short walk away for dinners as lavish as a wedding banquet, telling us to eat, eat, eat. And John and I sleep snugly in our very own private suite in the home, outfitted with every possible comfort we could need — from our soft, warm bed to the TV and Internet — and a view of bamboo fronds and orange trees just outside the window.

Most importantly, I’ve learned that it’s always home to me as long as I have my loving husband, space to read and write, and time for hiking or walks. It’s that simple.

Have you ever lived in a place you never expected to live? Did you learn some surprising things from your experience?

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49 Replies to “8 Surprising Things I’ve Learned from Living in China’s Countryside”

    1. Harland,
      If you’re not happy with anybody or anything here, you’re welcome to stay away or keep quiet. I don’t think anyone here needs your presence or comment.

      Would you please remove and ban Harland’s IP address permanently? I’m pretty sure most of us, if not all, are not comfortable with someone like him/her.

      Thank You

  1. Happy that you have adapted so well to living in rural China with your hubby and your in-laws and that you are happy and feel so loved by all. I agree that sun-kissed laundry smells so good and that wood-fired wok cooked food tastes so much better, though nowadays most everyone use gas or electric stoves for cooking.

  2. This also shows that we can (when we have to and if we want to) do without modern day mod cons and keep it (life) simple.

    My mother from when I can remember ( whether living in the suburbs or on land) always kept chickens, has a vegetable garden, baked her own bread, line dried the laundry, uses herbs and some wild flowers for medicinal purposes and milks the goats to make her own cheese. She has a wood stove so in winter she stocks it up with wood that keeps the house warm all day.

    She lives simply but happily.

  3. Thanks once again for sharing your thoughts Jocelyn.
    I specially like last point, so true, we can take a place and make it our own home.

    1. Thanks Grace! Yeah, living with the inlaws can be cool, huh? It’s not always the “nightmare inlaws” scenario you might think. All I can say is, I feel incredibly lucky to have a cool mother-in-law and father-in-law.

  4. You look so happy! I have thought sometimes that I would like to leave everything behind and live in the countryside, but I think I will be bored after a few days. I like big cities, crowds, window watching, subways… Maybe it is because I grew up in a small town with very few people, almost the countryside!

    I am curious that you had never sundried the clothes. What did you do then? Drying machine? I have never used that!

    Regarding your question… I had never expected to live in China! haha.

    1. Ha, you’re like my opposite Marta! I could totally see why you’d rather be in the big city!

      We always used a dryer to dry our clothes, no clotheslines. Honestly, now that I’ve lived here I think it’s funny I always used a dryer…your experience sounds more typical around the world.

      Gosh, I should start a “never expected to live in China” club.

      1. I will pick country life over city life any day . I love nature and the beauty of the countryside . It’ s just very healthy on the mind.

      2. I’m Chinese, I was brought up in the Chinese country. To get a so-called better life, I have to work and buy the apartment in the city. BUT country life is always my dream, and I’m always thinking when I was old and get retired, I’ll move to the country and do some farm work for my own life. Yeah, I know that is what I want.

  5. I love this post, Jocelyn. What a wonderful family you married into! And wow! Your mother-in-law has an enormous wok.

    My mom used to hang clothes outside on nice days. Sometimes I helped her when I was a kid. It was a pleasant activity.

    Beautiful countryside. In my opinion, one of the most important things in deciding where to live is choosing a place with good walks.

    1. Thanks Nicki! Yep, having a nice environment to walk in is very important to me too! You can take away so much from me…but never, never leave me without a lovely place to stroll and think.

  6. Great post! Great to see hear about the joys and surprises of your new life. Love does make a difference. Ultimately that might be the key that opens ‘home’ for us.

    I am curious about your in-laws not allowing you to do any housework. In Europe that’s often the line between being a guest and one of the family. On the other hand, in Chinese culture the xifu is normally expected to work a great deal right from the start. Something very different is going on in your loving household and my logic does not apply. Can you shed some light?

    1. Thanks Paola!

      Regarding your question on not doing housework…well, my husband has told me it’s their way of showing us love. They know we work for ourselves (I’m a freelance writer and I do projects online, my husband is currently working on two chapters), so if they can help in this way to ease our burden and support us, they will happily do so.

      It’s just a different perspective. It’s kind of like how a lot of retired Chinese parents just automatically will help care for their grandchildren — it relieves the mom/dad of much of the burden, so they can focus on their work/careers and earning money for the family.

      Of course we keep our suite clean (we don’t expect her to clean up our bedroom or bathroom) and we do other small chores from time to time (my husband is big on mopping up floors and sweeping things up in the yard).

  7. I think we may have been neighbores. I grew up in Hudson so I am curious which all white suburb you were referring to! I think you have embraced your new family and lifestyle in a beautiful way. Not everyone could adapt as you have. Thanks for sharing!

  8. This looks all familiar since I grew up in China countryside (northern China). In north, the condition is even tougher especially in winter.

  9. Yeah, Americans are somewhat unique in that most of their drying of laundry is done by the dryer, so the idea of hanging clothes out on clotheslines is alien to many of them. In fact, I don’t think many Americans have clotheslines out in their backyards anymore.

    1. I agree Definitely Maybe. And in fact, the development where my parents live now in the US actually forbids anyone to hang their clothes out on clotheslines; I don’t know the exact reason why, but I could guess they believe it either 1) is unsightly for people to hang clothes out to dry in public; or 2) is a symbol of poverty.

      It’s strange, isn’t it?

  10. It is easy to forget how drying clothes in the fresh air feels so much better somehow.
    But I am always wondering in China or to be more precise in the countryside without the heating systems. Why they just don’t build more isolated and/or build fireplaces which absorb the heat and keep it for several hours to half day. I mean in Finland we have some very old houses (wooden log houses) which were built that way over 100years ago by farmers and I doubt they had any more skills than people living these days

    1. Yes, drying clothes in the fresh air is the best!

      It’s an interesting question. Well, I think for people here, the winter is so short that they’re used to getting through those few cold months (really 2-3) and managing. Right now, we’re already enjoying Spring and even Summer-like temperatures, so the cold weather disappears very fast here.

      But I can only speak for my area. I am certain that in China’s much colder North, even in the countryside they have better methods of keeping their homes warm.

  11. My husband was shocked that my family usually hangs out clothes out to dry. We do have a clothes line. We might use a dryer during the cold, winter days. There were times where there were so much snow, we couldn’t hang them out to dry.

    My husband was also shocked when he walked in the home, he had to take off his shoes. 😀 “Your family takes off the shoes?” “Yes, always,” I said to him.

    All of this reminds me of Maine somehow. My grandmother used wood to keep her house warm, though.

    My husband (especially my husband) and I never thought we would ever live in China but it’s a pretty great adventure, to say the least (despite my husband still find it rather hard to adapt). Maybe one day I will write my own list what I’ve learned. We’ll see. 🙂 Where you live is quite beautiful, by the way.

  12. My wife is from a small village in Jillin province in the north. No solar water heating there but a rubber bag full of water on top of the outdoor shower hut does warm up enough water for a shower on a sunny day. Don’t ask about winter showers, it gets VERY cold up there. They have a similar style wok but no wood there so fueled by dried corn stalks. The wok chimney is fed through the rooms warming the brick/concrete beds in each room. This “dais” is also used for sitting and eating on. As the first “laowai” ever to set foot in the village I was warmly welcomed and during our visit we “dined out” every evening as the guests of friends and relatives.

  13. Hi Jocelyn,
    I’m a Brazilian that also lives in China (Shaanxi) contryside since 2010. Very nice to read your posts and found that I live many similar situations over here.
    Best Wishes to you and your family
    Ephraim 雷福

  14. hi Jocelyn,
    Just find your website when looking for some tips about real countryside in Zhejiang province. Currently living in Shanghai, I am looking for some genuine get away in the countryside. And I would love to know where in Zhejiang is the area you’re living in. Also any tips about nice countryside area in Zhejiang is welcomed. Thanks !

    1. Hi Tomy, thanks for the comment! I’ve lived in the countryside but honestly, I don’t know a whole lot about specific places that make for excellent countryside getaways in Zhejiang. I know they exist, it’s just not something I’ve looked into (mainly because I don’t need to — I have a home to return to there). I would encourage you to contact folks who specifically are experts in travel around China. Or specifically, travel in Zhejiang. Best of luck!

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