Is it the Chinese Year of the Goat, Sheep or Ram? The Chinese word 羊 (Yáng) is somewhat generic, referring to goats or sheep of either gender, so you can take your pick. And by the way, “Spring Festival,” I’ve been informed, is the more accurate name for the holiday. A festival sounds more fun to me than a “New Year,” but I’ll use both terms.
Had I Known…
Here are some morsels from my 2005 Spring Festival (Chinese New Year) experience in the People’s Republic of China. Had I known what I was in for, I’d never have had the guts to go to China in the first place. What a supreme blessing my ignorance was.
Mine is a true story of cross-cultural misunderstanding and extreme misadventure that led to profound change. Chinese friends and the gracious intervention of a Spirit greater than my own all played their part. My life has never been the same since. (The entire story is in my book Dancing in the Heart of the Dragon, a Memoir of China.) So here are some little bits, from then and from more recently.
The Year of the Monkey was giving way to the Year of the Rooster and I was in an out-of the-way village called Zhangcun, about a two hour drive from Nanchang, the capital city of Jiangxi Province. (In a few days’ time, I’d unexpectedly be in the hospital in that city.)
Yeming, one of my university students and my friend, had invited me to spend part of the holiday with his family. He’d met me at the train station in Jingdezhen, where I arrived after traveling 19 hours from spending time with another friend’s family in Fujian province.
Yeming and I still needed to travel two more hours. The last stretch of the journey involved narrow dirt (mud) roads, through red-soiled countryside, and a barge-type ferry, the kind with a motor that cut out a bit too much for comfort. Apparently, no foreigner had ever visited the village of Zhangcun before, and I here I was, a Caucasian from Canada. Needless to say, I was “looked at” a lot.
I was glad to finally arrive at the Zhang family home. The red banners were cheery and inviting in the midst of a drab winter day.
Upon entering the home, I made a discovery that sorely challenged the attitude of acceptance I was trying to maintain in this foreign land. There was NO plumbing. The family had no toilet! In a closet type room was a plastic pail designated for common use. How was I going to survive this?
Poor Yeming. What could he say? He finally fell back on, “This is the countryside, Ramona.” It was like “enough said, thank you very much.” Countryside was a word I got to understand better over time. I took it as a euphemism for undeveloped. Maybe for “Third World” too? I went to China wanting a new experience. Well, I got it. I was in “old China”; I was experiencing the real thing.
Yeming’s parents were concerned that I be comfortable but I could tell they weren’t all that comfortable with me. It must have been awkward having a foreigner in their home who was their son’s teacher from a big university. I couldn’t speak the language and didn’t have a clue what was going on much of the time. I didn’t want to offend them with any cultural faux pas, except I didn’t know what those might be. I’d aim to be as “agreeable” as possible, I decided.
Trying to Make Sense of it All
What I really wanted was to be a part of family activities but I didn’t want to push. Cultural differences, in general, and Yeming’s father, in particular, perplexed me. There was so much that I just didn’t get. For instance, when I made a request of Yeming to be able to join in the holiday decorating, he said he’d have to ask his father. (I’d already been through this scenario.) When I heard the same response, “I’m sorry but my father says you need to go back upstairs,” I almost started to cry. Does Mr. Zhang not like me? He doesn’t even know me! I thought.
There was a heater set up for my use on the second floor. I truly appreciated that, given how blinkin’ cold it was, a damp 3 degrees Celsius, both indoors and out. In case you don’t know–and why would you?–south of the Huai River and Qin Mountains there is no central heating in China, no matter how freezing it gets.
During most of the several hours I spent alone, Yeming was busy with family matters. I had his laptop to use. With no internet access, I listened to Chinese and Western music saved on his hard drive. I also did a great deal of journal writing, which helped me to reframe hurt feelings. It’s nothing personal. There’s no reason for Mr. Zhang to dislike me. We come from different worlds, etc.
For sure I did not spend the whole time alone, just enough to unsettle me and have me figure I’d never come back to this place. Also, enough for me to decide I’d leave the day after New Year’s day.
Firecrackers, Food and Wine
One thing I experienced was the craziness of firecrackers (as distinct from fireworks) of small-town Chinese-New-Year China. Now that was something! Giant rolls of little “gunpowder sticks” were brought out, reminiscent of rolls of machine gun bullets.
New Year’s dinner was like a Chinese style Christmas feast. I’m sure Yeming’s mom served every special symbolic dish and then some. Some of the dishes were: a whole fish “for abundance,” long noodles “for longevity,” Chinese mushrooms “for wishes to come true” and Buddhist vegetarian stew “for cleansing.” I had no problem with any of these. I did have a problem with the chicken head I managed to pull out of a serving dish with my chopsticks. I did not eat it, nor could I bring myself to even give it a second look.
Before we sat down to eat, Mr. Zhang presented me with a gift. Yeming explained, “My father has bought this bottle of wine for you to drink.” He bought me a gift?
I don’t drink wine, but I wanted to be polite in the face of this unexpected kindness from a man whose behaviour had confused me. I asked, “Everyone else will have some, right?”
“Oh no, my parents don’t drink wine. It’s only for you. My father wants you to drink it.”
“Yeming, no way. I’m not drinking a whole bottle by myself. If I have to drink it then you’re drinking it too.” Neither of us wanted any but drink it we did. It tasted like rusty nail water. The alcohol content must have been low as the buzz wore off pretty fast. I have no idea what Mr. Zhang thought.
“Not a Leg to Stand On”
As soon as we finished eating, we got ready to leave for a party across the river. The crossing’s scary in day time; what’s it like at night? I wondered. The answer: Scarier! The good ole engine conked out plenty.
The party was fun. No food, no drink, just music. I danced more than I had in years with about two dozen guys who were members of Yeming’s extended family. I felt I was beginning to fit in and it felt great. I was more than just a foreigner; I was a person they were getting to know. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t speak to any of them except Yeming. The next morning I’d be leaving. With mixed feelings that night, I referred in my journal to “the next leg of my journey.”
This was ironic as the next day I literally had no legs to stand on. Yeming and his cousin Haiming were seeing me to the train station in a taxi van. We didn’t make it to the station. A bus smashed head-on into us instead. Sitting in the front passenger seat without a seat belt, I somehow did not go through the windshield. The driver died. Seated behind me, Yeming suffered a broken collar bone and his cousin, a broken pelvis.
The Saving Grace
Relatively unprotected, I survived a head-on collision with no head injury. I also survived the rescue with jaws-of-life crow bars and the equally crude handling by well-meaning people who had no training whatsoever. The two hospitals I was taken to were eye-opening to say the least. Strange occurrences made for indelible memories.
In the second hospital, three people I barely knew took care of me: food, washing, bed pan and all. For three nights they slept on a cold hospital floor to look after my every need. They were Yeming’s sister Yanhong, his cousin Haiming and his father. Even in the midst of a robbery, police in my room and suspects hauled in for me to identify, Mr. Zhang, a man I didn’t know what to make of, looked after me with the tenderest of care.
China was a place already opening my heart. Mr.Zhang, my friend’s father, helped open it a whole lot wider. He and his family helped me learn the most precious language in the world; I figure it’s the one that can heal any rift anywhere. Speaking the wordless language requires an opening of the mind, a softening of the heart and the willingness to be seen for who we truly are, behind all the barriers. I call it the language of the heart. And the saving grace? It can be summed up in one word, love.
Postscript, 10 Years Later
In the fall of 2014, I arrived in Nanchang, PRC from Vancouver, Canada. It was my first time in upwards of ten years to revisit this southern area of China. [In 2008 I spent four months in north-eastern China.]
Picking me up at the airport were my friend Yeming and his cousin Jinming, who’d cared for me in the hospital. I had not seen them for going on 10 years! I could hardly stop smiling. 🙂
Revisiting the Zhang family was a wonderful experience. They welcomed me as a cherished member of their family, and I am Yeming’s little girl’s honorary grandmother, the Canadian one.
For their open-heartedness and generosity, I am happy and grateful. For their goodness and love (maybe all the same difference), I am smiling.
Till next time…