COVID used to be more of a stranger in China. The virus wasn’t generally lurking next door. We didn’t worry about getting infected when we dined out or ran errands at the bank or visited a tourist spot.
But in early December, China eased restrictions to open up, and soon the virus ripped through my workplace, faster than I ever imagined.
Of the 10 people in my office, I’m one of three who didn’t get COVID. It’s a miracle, as the virus infected every person in the cubicles next to me. Some estimated 80% of the employees at work caught the COVID virus; the same may hold true for the overall population of Hangzhou.
Witnessing the rapid pace of transmission in the office stunned me. It began with a manager, whose mother-in-law was running a high fever. Then others retreated home — many as close contacts who soon came down with the virus. And then the two colleagues who sat directly beside me reported sudden fevers, which sparked fears that I was next. On that day I rushed to get free medicine and antigen tests from my employer, who was rationing Ibuprofen (only two pills per person). Outside the workplace things were worse, from hucksters hawking meds at a premium, to a shortage of antigen tests at pharmacies.
Thankfully, I dodged COVID then, but would still brace for the threat of more cases in the office, including two other people beside me who were infected. By then I was wearing N95 masks, and altering my work routines, such as having breakfast and lunch at home instead of in the office.
Our community grocery group buying outlet soon shuttered — the neighbor in charge caught COVID. I flipped open the apps for other outlets, and couldn’t get groceries on any of the major platforms. One said delivery slots would open at 6 am, which would mean rolling out of bed at dawn to battle with hordes of desperate netizens — and no guarantees of any deliveries. Oranges, lemons and pomelos were going for two or three times the usual prices, inflated after an onslaught of panic purchasing. Jun and I took stock of our pantry and produce, including the veggies and fruits from a recent visit to his parents’ rural home, and determined we could survive for a while without buying much. For the garlic, ginger and onions I needed, we bought online from a lackluster rural supermarket, which charged more than usual and slipped us a partially rotten piece of produce. We cooked a lot of fried rice, a lot of garlic and olive oil noodles, and, thanks to an enormous pumpkin from my mother-in-law, a few pumpkin curries.
Soon the emptied streets and cubicles lent an eerie post-apocalyptic vibe to the world around. I stopped bothering with the GPS to check on traffic because there were almost no cars on the road and no more rush hours. One day, I was the only person working in the office for a morning; outside the windows, I rarely glimpsed anyone wandering the grounds. The absence of people, of vehicles, brought to mind a new twist on the title of that Simon & Garfunkel classic — that I was nearly “the only living girl in Hangzhou”.
The worst week, ironically, led up to Christmas. It was hard to embrace seasonal cheer while wearing an N95 mask that pinched my ears and getting tested daily to confirm I wasn’t positive. When I streamed holiday music, I preferred the bitter cold and austere landscapes of “In the Bleak Midwinter” to the discordant warmth and exuberance of “Wonderful Christmastime”.
Following Christmas, my workplace scrapped its free PCR testing services, in the abrupt way that real Christmas trees get tossed to the curb just after the holiday. A colleague sick with COVID hurt his back that week, but couldn’t get an ambulance to take him to the hospital due to a shortage of beds. I doubled down on my protective measures, which meant continued use of N95 masks, a lot of hand washing, and little contact with people.
In the weeks to come, I started seeing more masked people on the streets, more cars on the road, and a growing number of colleagues reappearing at work. Soon groceries could be bought on major online platforms throughout the day, without an early rise. A local community center promised Ibuprofen to residents free of charge — too late for most, in all likelihood. And my employer urged anyone still negative to get vaccinated as soon as possible.
So, I received a booster shot, together with Jun, in a community vaccination site with a skeleton crew and nobody else waiting. The staff at the entrance reminded us that you can’t get a shot if you’ve just had COVID. “You’ll have to wait six months.” The COVID surge had, among other things, cleared the queue for vaccination.
Now, as the two of us still remain negative in China, we’re the strangers in this post-pandemic world — the few who haven’t gotten COVID.
According to stories in the media, we’ve passed the peak of infections here, though we may have to brace for more waves ahead, including during and after Chinese New Year. But if this pandemic has taught us anything in the past few years, nothing is certain with COVID. So we will continue to keep calm, carry on and wear N95 masks, while hoping for better times.
I listened to the dialogue, in Chinese, between my husband Jun and the hairdresser trimming my chestnut brown tresses. But even though I was fluent in Mandarin and could easily have responded to every question, I remained silent, resting in my chair while wearing a shy smile.
It was easy to appear abashed because I genuinely felt that way, wondering, What if they all really knew the truth? And every now and then Jun and I swapped knowing grins, in recognition of the success of our “performance” that very evening.
Once again, we played “foreigner and translator” for a captive audience — and nailed it.
“Foreigner and translator” are the roles my husband and I adopt for certain public situations in China, where I pretend to be just another outsider who can’t speak Chinese, and my husband the local providing language assistance.
While it might seem strange to engage in this subterfuge in a public place, like a hair salon, it has its benefits.
First of all, if people know we’re a couple, it immediately piques their curiosity, because they probably never saw a Western woman married to a Chinese man before. The surprise triggers a cascade of questions, including some that get intrusive — and which we’d rather avoid. “Foreigner and translator” helps us to sidestep a lot of awkwardness.
Plus, sometimes I just want to unwind — to savor the scalp massage and stylist’s work — instead of getting grilled about my life. So with Jun as “translator” I can just relax and be the “foreigner” enjoying the moment.
In the end, the haircut turned out perfect — one of the best I’ve had in years.
Before we walked out the door of the salon, I couldn’t help saying “Xie xie” — thank you — in Chinese, which once again sparked awe from our small audience, remarking how “good” my Chinese was.
Ah, if only you knew, I thought. If only you knew.
I’ve often heard that life is what happens when you’re making plans. Never have we had a more salient reminder of that reality than the COVID-19 pandemic, which has ravaged not only our lives but also our best of plans.
For American Apryl Reagan, a singer and actress in Beijing, and Ma Yinliang, that meant facing a wedding in Beijing where, due to the pandemic, Apryl’s family could not attend in person. So she decided to add a little American flair to the special day by inviting some Americans she didn’t know to join in the ceremony, according to a recent report on the Beijinger:
When asked about her decision to invite strangers, Reagan says that the choice was simple.
“Of course, a wedding is a great place to celebrate our love, but it’s also just a great place to celebrate! And judging by the amount of energy these Americans brought to our group chat, they were guaranteed to make it a party,” explains Reagan. “I also really wanted to give my new Chinese family this opportunity to see how Americans party! But even more than that, sometimes I am afraid they see me as ‘America.’ Since they have never met another American, I worry that anything I do will be seen as what ‘all Americans do.’ So, I also wanted them to be able to have a chance to be around Americans other than me, meanwhile experiencing first-hand some of the cultural differences between an American wedding and a Chinese wedding.”
Americans filled two tables at the Beijing venue — the Palace International Hotel — with many of them meeting the newlyweds for the first time as they went around to personally thank all of the attendees.
Despite the year’s Covid fears and border closures, however, Ma and Reagan kept their hearts open to love. At the ceremony, the maid of honor noted in her remarks that their whirlwind romance inspired many friends present who hoped to one day build a partnership on the same foundation of care and respect.
You can read the full piece and peruse the lively photos from the evening — which included dancing to the Macarena! — at the Beijinger.
You know your holidays have hit a low point when, halfway through, you end up doubled over in a chair in the emergency room with an IV drip, hoping and praying you won’t vomit into that ugly little fluorescent green plastic wastebasket at your feet.
Yep, that was me on the fifth day of the new lunar year. The only thing that would have made the whole situation worse was if the nurse had forced me to get that shot in the butt right there in public. Apparently, it’s what everyone does in the hospital. (Fortunately, she let me take the shot in a private room.)
I was shrouded in a soft white baby blanket printed with roses – a thing of beauty that was quite the foil to my ugly situation, shivering in my chair because I had vomited three times already that afternoon. That included the two instances in the little red VW polo we borrowed from a friend to drive down the Zhejiang coast, forcing me to turn the little plastic bag that was supposed to be for our fruit and other snacks into a makeshift vomit bag.
Between wishing to god that I wouldn’t once again have to anoint the wastebasket with the few remnants in my stomach, a bigger question loomed before me: How in the heck could this have happened to me?
Granted, I didn’t come into the holiday in the best shape. The night before February 18, Chinese New Year’s Eve this year (the most important day of the year), I had literally just wrapped up a substantial paid project for a client in the US that involved multiple late-night interviews to write up four articles. Just as I had made it to the finish line, hoping for a breather, another one appeared before my weary eyes – the end of the Chinese New Year holiday that stretched before me.
On top of it, I got maybe four hours of sleep that night worrying about all of the horrible things that might happen to me when I sat behind the wheel of that little red VW polo the following morning. It would be my first time driving in China and visions of all the gory tabloid news stories I had watched the year before tugged at my consciousness. You know, the kind of massive, bloody accidents that could make anyone swear off getting behind the wheel in this country.
But ultimately, I could have recovered from all of that – the marathon project before the holiday, the lack of sleep, even the stress of driving itself – with a nice sedate holiday filled with lazy late mornings in bed, curled up with my favorite e-reader devouring a memoir or novel.
Unfortunately, “sedate” is not a word you would use to describe my Chinese New Year with the family this year.
Don’t get me wrong – there are things I love about Chinese New Year. My mother-in-law always outdoes herself each year with a feast that could give some of the best restaurants in Hangzhou a run for their money (even the vegetarian ones). The house is overflowing with the best treats of the year –sugary pecans, dulcet green dates, and honeyed black sesame cakes. And I have an excuse to visit some of my favorite relatives – such as John’s grandmother, who still manages to charm us all into laughter despite the fact that I can only understand maybe 50 percent of her speech in the local dialect.
In theory, a day or two of this togetherness works amazingly well.
The problem is, Chinese New Year with my husband’s family lasts at least three or four days (if not more, depending on where you are and how long you’re able to say). It’s all about being with the family day after day…after day…after day. And what sounds great at first soon becomes tiring and even overwhelming.
And if you’re already exhausted coming into the holiday, like I was, you’re at risk for even worse outcomes if you push things a little too much. (Like attempting to drive some six hours in one day to visit a friend in south Zhejiang.)
What about the holiday can wear you down? Here’s my list:
1. Visiting people and/or having guests over every single day
Once the lunar new year arrives, so with it arrives the annual custom of bainian (visiting with relatives during the new year). In my husband’s family, for at least three whole days you’re either hosting family or schlepping your way over to someone else’s house. The thing is, this isn’t a couple of people – we’re talking about 10 or sometimes even 20 people in a house at the same time! And because Chinese love it “renao” (literally “hot and loud”), every house is a boisterous mix of loud chatter, drunken toasts, and a cloud of smoke as people exchange far too many cigarettes around the table.
I’m an introvert myself, so just being around huge crowds of people already makes me nervous (which is tiring). Add to that the concerns that someone might actually light up indoors (I detest smoking and cannot handle secondhand smoke) and the pressure is even worse.
It’s a shame too, because invariably many of these meals dish up some of the most delectable things I’ll eat all year! I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve either wolfed down my rice and dishes or simply passed up a few meals simply because the whole environment was too exhausting.
2. Firecrackers and fireworks
If there’s anything destined to steal away your precious hours of rest – especially the first night of the new year – it’s these traditional holiday explosives.
Imagine me, a shadow of myself that first night, desperate for some much-needed slumber – only to have my ears assaulted in the early morning hours by what must surely be the closest thing to being camped out in a war zone. The neverending blitzkrieg of fireworks, firecrackers and anything else that sparkles or booms happened to occur at 5am to 6am or so (it’s traditional to set them off when you first open your door in the morning of the new year) – coinciding with the time when I was supposed to be in my deepest sleep.
When I finally rolled out of bed sometime around 11am, my husband remarked at how my “panda eyes” – those dark circles I used to have years ago around my eyes – had returned to my worn out face. Ugh.
3. Being asked to eat WAY too much food
It was the afternoon of the first day of the new year, only a couple of hours after we had all polished off enough food to easily feed all the people in the minibuses that zoom through the countryside. John and I were sitting at the dining room table in his home, discussing some business with friends. The sunlight cast lazy, relaxed shadows on the wall as we were all enjoying the conversation and nibbling on pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds.
If only my mother-in-law hadn’t barged into the room with five huge, steaming bowls of dumplings that nobody could have humanly consumed at the hour.
“No, no, we couldn’t possibly eat these!” The protest came from everyone at the table, most of all the friends’ daughter, whose blood seemed to drain from her face at the sight of this food being forced on her. “Please, I can’t!” she squeaked in a pathetic voice that made me feel so sorry for her. After all, the girl said exactly what I was thinking.
This was the middle of the afternoon. We were all expected to eat elsewhere for dinner (surely, yet another gargantuan feast where the relatives would demand you to eat, eat, eat!). How could we make it through with the dumplings in our stomachs? You always have to eat something when visiting someone else’s house.
When did eating suddenly turn into a task, a chore even?
Even worse, when I passed on the dumplings, as did John’s friends, this “responsibility” of cleaning the bowls was transferred to John, as well as John’s dad and mom (his dad actually grumbled a little as he shoveled spoonfuls of dumplings into his mouth).
Just seeing the whole scene tired me out and drained my appetite too. That evening at dinner, I only devoured a fraction of what I had eaten for lunch. Too bad, because John’s aunts fried up one of my favorite Chinese dishes, the silky smooth and fragrant chao liangpi (fried bean starch).
4. Preparing just the right gifts for the family (especially if you’re on a budget)
Experiencing Christmas as an adult has taught me that gift-giving can easily raise your blood pressure a few notches as you agonize over getting someone the elusive “perfect gift” (which almost never really exists anyhow).
Well, in China you can’t do Chinese New Year without giving things too. Every time you visit a relative’s home for the new year, you must arrive with some Chinese New Year gifts – such as organic milk, fine wines, nutritious crackers and cookies, or even fruit (invariably wrapped up in little red giftboxes like the above photo). It’s etiquette…and trying to plan for it all (especially if you have a large extended family like we do) will drain your mental resources as well as your finances.
5. Traveling during the busiest (and craziest) holiday season of the year
When I told people I was going to drive in China after getting my license, many responded that they were too scared to do it.
Now I understand why!
Let me tell you, the highways in China during this holiday felt more like a large-scale game of dodgem in real time, with drivers constantly whipping and weaving through the traffic at all times, just barely missing our front bumper. Almost no one uses their turning signal to change lanes; they just change at will, use whatever space they can find, and think nothing of tailgating even at well over 100 kilometers per hour (over 60 miles per hour). Even when it’s a downpour! It’s no wonder we saw a multiple rear-end collision in a tunnel involving four cars (and three horribly crushed bumpers).
Getting behind the wheel while I was already fatigued was the final strike against me – and what ultimately sent me into the emergency room in that little city on the Zhejiang coast.
Here’s what I’ve learned. While I think short distances are manageable, even on a holiday, I would never, ever, drive more than two hours during a vacation time like that. It’s suicide. Even my husband’s friend on the Zhejiang coast said we’d be better off doing the high-speed trains next time around.
Of course, if you’ve got to move around during the holidays and haven’t the luxury of a car, you’re not off the hook. Train and bus stations transform into a suffocating sea of people that make you truly understand why China is the most populated country in the world. You’ll even feel the crush of humanity at the airports. And good luck trying to score tickets for travel when everyone else is trying to hoof it home!
In the end, I’m reminded of what my husband’s dear college friend – the friend I first met in that emergency room during the holidays – told me later on: “We usually just spend our holidays traveling instead of visiting family,” including travel out of the country. While I wasn’t in any shape at that moment to attempt international travel, one thought did occur to me: I could definitely use a holiday from this family holiday！
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.
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
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?
Whenever my husband calls me his nèirén (内人), we both erupt in laughter — and for a good reason. Nèirén, a traditional Chinese term for “wife”, also literally means “inside person” — a perfect catchphrase for my current situation. After all, I spent my days either inside our home or inside our village, almost never venturing into the nearby town or beyond.
I have to confess, it’s a little strange to admit that my life remains pretty much confined to this rural mountainous village in Zhejiang Province and, specifically, to the family home.
You might wonder, why don’t you and the husband travel? You could go to Shanghai or some other nearby city? You could visit friends in China or see the country? Well, we have our reasons for sticking around here instead — reasons I’m unable to share here on the blog.
Still, here’s the really odd part for me — I no longer even run errands, things I used to do many years before when John and I lived in Shanghai. Back then, I used to go shopping on the weekends, mail things at the post office, and more. But here? Nothing.
In a sense, that reflects the fact that I’m living under one roof with my husband, his parents and other family members. My father-in-law handles pretty much all of the shopping for our home and does all of the post office runs — so if anyone needs something, we just let him know and he takes care of it.
But what if I wanted to go shopping in town on my own? Maybe I’m curious about what that local Falian Supermarket actually has on the shelves? Every time I’ve suggested anything like this to the family, I’m always met with a resounding “no”! Usually they say, with a grimace on their faces, “Don’t go, it’s too much trouble!”
Yet it’s more than just a matter of trouble, as my husband has told me. “It’s about safety,” he once said to me while we were walking through the mountains. “It’s better if people in town don’t see you.”
How could my simple stroll into town create a safety problem?
According to my husband, it works like this. If I head into town for shopping or other errands, invariably I’ll turn a lot of heads. People will stare, giggle, and talk about me — and if I’m unlucky, the wrong kind of person might notice me. You know, a thief.
Among this beautiful mountain village hides the ugly specter of theft. Every year, someone in the village is robbed, especially just before Chinese New Year, and past victims include my husband’s uncle and aunt who live just next door to us. My mother-in-law cited all kinds of shocking tales — of people who were at home while the robberies happened, of thieves who pried open the bars on windows to enter, of homeowners fast asleep as the criminals tip-toed into their rooms and bedrooms to steal valuables. As crazy as the stories sound, I believe them. Every evening I tune into the local Zhejiang news, reporting the latest batch of outrageous robberies in the province — and every small tragedy reminds me that the whole family must be careful, especially me.
The problem is, most Chinese think foreigners are wealthy, making my home an especially tempting one for any would-be burglar. Since it’s such a small town, it wouldn’t take long for anyone to ask around about where I live. In China, people love to talk — particularly when you have a yangxifu (foreign wife of a Chinese man) in town, the only one around for miles.
And if people came to rob my suite, they’d probably rob from the rest of the family too I would feel horribly guilty if my selfish desires to explore the town — a town that, when it comes right down to it, doesn’t have anything really special to offer — ended up harming the entire family.
Hence, being an “inside person” has become my life.
Sometimes I’ve wondered, how long can we keep this up before the wrong person discovers where I live? Well, as my husband and family sees it, the problem people would be in town, not in this village. Here in the village, only locals — folks who grew up in this area their entire lives — reside (it’s still against the law to buy or sell property in the countryside). But in the town a 15 minute walk away from us, you’ll find restaurants, rooms for rent, and all the other signs that outsiders (Chinese from other areas) and migrants pass through. Most Chinese believe that outsiders tend to commit crimes — and even though it’s a stereotype, it sort of makes sense. Everyone in China returns to their hometown for Chinese New Year, so why would you spoil it (or worse, increase your chances of being caught) by, say, robbing your neighbor there?
Still, please don’t feel sorry for me. I may be a good daughter-in-law who sticks to home and the village…but what a heck of a playground it is!
Yes, now that I think about it….I could get used to this whole “inside person” life here in China. 😉
When my mother-in-law shouted the news up the stairwell a few weeks ago, I was dumbfounded. It was 4:30pm and we never ate dinner until at least 5:30pm. But more importantly, nobody told John and me we were having dinner out this evening. And we weren’t the only ones surprised, as we learned when we met my mother-in-law downstairs.
“They’ve already made dinner,” she said. She was wearing her favorite blue-and-yellow felt apron, evidence that she had probably been working on dinner for us when someone from big uncle’s home came over with the news. “It’s bad not to go. Just go over there and eat a little.”
A little, however, was not what big uncle had in mind — as John and I discovered when we walked into the dining room. Eight people were already huddled around a dining room table filled with more than 10 different dishes, a delicious assortment of stir-fried meats and vegetables that would have rivaled some of the most lavish banquets I’ve ever attended in China.
I couldn’t help thinking how my family back in the US would never pull off such a huge spread at the last minute. People would need days if not weeks of notice, and even then some people might not be available. Yet here, it just happened one afternoon, all because big uncle wanted to share his generosity with us.
Even though I still equate the word “invitation” with advance notification, I’m also learning to understand that invitations don’t always work like that — especially out here in my husband’s village. Sometimes it’s not an easy thing to accept when, like me, you’re so used to setting your own schedule and being told well in advance of upcoming dinners, meetings or other events. But there’s also beauty in living spontaneously, in not always having every moment and every second planned out…especially when, like big uncle’s dinner, it turns out to be a tasty surprise.
The other day, John’s grandma invited the two us over all of a sudden for dinner at her house. When I say “all of a sudden”, I mean that she interrupted us in the midst of preparing handmade dumplings and told John and me we were dining on fried rice noodles instead.
As much as I love fried rice noodles, her invitation arrived on an evening when I had been craving the very handmade dumplings we were preparing with John’s father. But what could we do? Here was grandma, who had been hospitalized for two months in fall of 2013, standing at the door and asking us to dine on the noodles she had already finished preparing. It was the kind of situation with “just go with it” written all over it. Besides, my mother-in-law said we only had to eat a little, just to be polite. So I hid my dumpling disappointment behind a smile, hooked my arm in grandma’s arm, and strolled out the door with John beside us.
Once at grandma’s home, she immediately plunked heaping bowls of rice noodles in front of us — each bowl easily three times larger than her own. When she said dinner, boy did she mean it.
“Aiya, too much!” John said in protest, which I repeated in turn. What happened to just eat a “little bit”, like my mother-in-law said?
“Not too much!” Grandma said in a gruff voice, followed by nagging us to “Eat, eat!” as if we had to finish our bowls of rice…or else.
So we tucked into the rice noodles with our chopsticks and discovered that, if this was indeed a “responsibility”, it was the most delicious kind. I couldn’t help savoring the baby bok choy perfectly seasoned with garlic and dark aged soy sauce. It wasn’t too salty or overdone, and arguably it was the finest rice noodles she had ever fried up for us. So as I cleared the last of the noodles in my bowl, I couldn’t help but tell her, “So delicious!”
For grandma, that wasn’t praise but rather a cue to provide seconds. Before we could utter “bu yao!” grandma was on her feet, trying to shovel more rice noodles into our bowls. We each shielded the bowls with our hands, pleading to her not to add more. And when that failed, we simply rose from our stools and headed for the door itself.
Grandma chased after us with mandarin oranges, trying to press the fruits into our hands with far more strength than you might expect from a recently hospitalized woman over 80. But we pushed them back into her hands and then trotted outside, saying “Save them for next visit!”
“You know, she shouldn’t have made us those rice noodles,” I said to John on the way back home, shaking my head. “She’s still recovering from her heart condition.”
John shrugged and smiled. “That’s how she shows her love for us.” His words echoed what my mother-in-law would say after we returned home: “She shouldn’t do it, but she wants to do it because she likes you.” You could say the same about the black striped polyester pants I never asked her to buy for me (and which I could barely squeeze into) or the hulking bag of puffed rice sweets she delivered to us one afternoon.
Grandma has never hugged or kissed me, nor told me she loves me. But these days — and especially after this impromptu dinner — I’ve never felt closer to her.
It’s March 8 — International Women’s Day — and time for an update to my list of blogs by Western women who love Chinese men!
Last year, I had a little over 40 on my list. Now we’re up to over 50, so the community keeps growing! I’ve still grouped the blogs loosely according to their focus, and I also added a *NEW* tag to denote all new additions to the list.
“The feelings between my wife and I were not so harmonious. So [this past summer] we officially divorced,” wrote Huizhong, one of my husband’s xiongdi — male friends so close to him that he refers to them with the Chinese word for “brothers.” Just like that, Huizhong became a new statistic in the rise of divorce rates in China. Continue reading “Another Friend, Another Divorce in China”
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