Beijing, China - travel

Traveling through China where a foreigner has never been!

Matthias Jens - 10 octobre 2012
Traveling throug China, Mattias, german photographer, found a new family: "I have now arrived where no foreign stranger was ever been. These sheltered people are shy. In these huts there are no televisions or wash machines. Their concept of strangers and foreigners is formed by stories".

I am Chinese. No, not ethnically. And yet I am a member of a Chinese family, have a Chinese father, mother, and siblings. Does that not make me Chinese? The primordial soup from which this affiliation has grown is not scientifically recognized as fluidium seminalis, but rather aqua vitae, known since the days of Odysseus and Judith of the Bible as the perfect facilitator: wine, or in this case, brandy. This is the essence with which our family tie was now confirmed. We were having a drink in a Beijing hotel. The murky atmosphere of the grey single-story buildings in Peking's old city, the dim light glowing from the red lamps of the traditional courtyard residences of the Houtongs prompted us to scoot a little closer together.

"The taxi has reached the city center, zipping through the pan-socialist parade ways along which span street lanterns the likes of which one would spy along a Moscow boulevard".

Again and again the drinking salutation of gan bei (dry the cup) sounded, drawing us closer and closer together. Our initial skeptical distance melted away, replaced with a growing intimacy. We discuss cultural differences, social codes, the good ol' times, and the conservative virtue of manners, but as we speak of hospitality, my little sister declares: "You are now a member of our family! You have now here a father, a brother, and me, your little sister!"

Far from home I suddenly had a family. Across various cities in China, I now had siblings, with a sister in Beijing and a brother in Chengdu. This is, of course, a welcome advantage when traveling through the vast Middle Kingdom. But first things first. I thought it best, before all else, to visit my parents in far off XiChangShi LiangShanYiZu.

Of course I had to see this city for myself. And so I made my way to a region in China which is home to an ethnic minority known as the Yi People. Upon landing in Chendu, my "younger brother" played the gracious host, treating me to the culinary side of the province. His architect company called him back to the office following our delicious excursion, leaving me with time to explore the city's cultural riches on my own.

One night later - spent in a sleeping cabin on a train beleaguered by my new landsmen with their towers of instant noodles, their trolleys, and their homemade duffel bags dragging behind - I knew where XiChang could be found: in the countryside. Mixed in with the taxis, which one shares with someone else who happens to be traveling in your direction, were wagons pulled by cattle waiting to pick up family and friends coming in on the train. With ancient motorcycles roaring past, the taxi fare is loudly haggled while innkeepers call out in search of guests who had reserved a room in advance. For 15 minutes the Train station's entrance and the street beyond is turned into a roiling market square, and then, just as quickly, the quiet of the countryside resumes, broken here and there by the call of a rooster.

"Many restaurants maintain a large, closed room in which private parties can take place. This particular private party is solely in my honor, and I and each arrival are introduced"

The taxi has reached the city center, zipping through the pan-socialist parade ways along which span street lanterns the likes of which one would spy along a Moscow boulevard. I am let out at a modern apartment hotel, the nicest place I have stayed on this entire journey. My room has already been paid for, and there it is again: the good old virtue of hospitality which we had spoken of while huddled together in the red glow of the hanging lamps shining in Beijing's old city. I am a guest. This means my two "nieces" come to share breakfast with me. This means I am never left alone, as a person without company here is a sad sight indeed.

I am picked up by the English teacher who has been arranged to act as my interpreter for the day. Not only will she accompany me to the family, but she has been delegated to show me around the city, too. We visit the (highly recommendable) Yi-People Museum and the parks which the government had created on land that once served as farmland: lakes, paddle boats, wooden bridges, pebbled pathways, bushes, bamboo stands, and snack huts. I want to know where the famers who once lived here are. "They live in the city in houses the authorities had built. They now have running water, both hot and cold, and are connected to the city's sewer system." answers my translator like any good citizen. Later, I see them sitting: an old couple with a picnic, spending the day in the area where they literally spent their lives. Here were their fields, and somewhere once stood their simple cottage. While their bodies were fed by the fruit of their labors, their souls were nourished through meaningful labor itself. As if she could read my mind, my companion added, "They are happy." As if to prove that these seniors, despite land dispossession, displacement, and forced retirement are not lacking in meaningful occupation, I first see a sign with which the local authorities encourage retirees to help with keeping the streets clean. Then I watch as two examples of diligence-in-retirement motor up on their noisy moped armed with bamboo brooms and dust bins to help maintain, on their own initiative, a clean park.

The family get-together takes place on the top floor of a delicacy restaurant. Many restaurants maintain a large, closed room in which private parties can take place. This particular private party is solely in my honor, and I and each arrival are introduced. Everyone is somehow related to the family. Make no mistake - this long-nose is introduced to the others with pride! But it is also obvious that some of the arrivals are here because they have to be, not because they want to. Even so, the magnificent feast more than makes up for their trouble. In the middle of our round table, which is at least 2.5 meters wide, is placed an elevated, circular, rotating table. It is on this secondary table that dish after dish is placed, on which dips, various vegetable plates, fish giblets, chicken feet, roast duck, rice bowls, tuna fish, bird liver, spicy sauces and chips, hot pepper pods, and steamed greens go for a spin. Everyone around the table serves themselves as a tasty dish catches their eye. I bravely poke and pick at the platters with my chop sticks. Nothing follows this main course. The buzzing conversation is only interrupted here and there by a toast, these gradually becoming less and less a group affair and more an individual salute. The atmosphere is boisterous, and as I am often toasted I respond in kind. At the end of the evening I am invited to the school in which my English interpreter works. She invites me to substitute in her class for an hour. It turns out to be a geography course, and the experience of hearing an entire Chinese class pronounce in unison "the capital of Germany is Berlin" again and again is a story in and of itself.

Finally I am headed to my family in the countryside, to my "parents". I have to admit I was a little disappointed to stay in a hotel in the city. I wanted something authentic, something not yet watered down and exposed through European eyes and cameras. Finally we are on our way, and once again we drive down the parade route. Here, next to the regime headquarters and administrative towers, the bus station as well as the train station reside. The bus terminal is new, glass, very modern, with the dimensions of a middle-sized German station and a procedure that has now become familiar to me. Ticket purchases in the main hall, check-in in the waiting area, and security check of the bags via an x-ray and a band-conveyor just like at an airport. From Platform 27, Exit 09 shine the poster-sized wall displays with numbers I can read. The driver is standing in front of his bus, smoking. A steward welcomes me and indicates where I am to store my baggage while checking my ticket. The seats are reserved and I am directed to mine. This bus is small, smaller than the others. An indication that my destination is neither often visited nor by many. It takes on a rural aura in my bus. A sack of nuts is placed on the gear case in front of me. A chicken boards. The farm lady who purchased it is carrying it in a bamboo hutch. School students who are on their way home. Stacks of produce. A toothless famer sits next to me, his faded flat cap circling continuously in his pigmented, sinewy fingers as if he wanted to turn it into a record.

At first the bus works its way down the freeway, but after turning off the toll way 20 minutes later the country road turns into just that: a single country road across the countryside. Sacks of onions are stacked along the roadsides. Trucks start out on the first leg of their journey into the outer world. Dump trucks and rickshaws jostle for room on the road, rusty forklifts and dusty gas tankers, only a few cars mixed in between. Then the pavement ends. Here, as in all of China, construction is underway. And now, the for next 40 kilometers until my destination, the roads are dirt and gravel. White dust from the road is kicked up behind our bus and the last window is slid shut. Dust covers everything. The chicken is silent. Just the school kids keep up a loud chatter concerning their schoolwork, until even they number less and less with each stop. At little hamlets they debark, on each side of the street a rudimentary brick building hailing back to the days of Mao. Occasionally they disembark from the bus on bridges only to mysteriously disappear behind them, or sometimes they get off at a crossroads, the angle of which gives us the ability to espy their walk home for minutes afterwards through the dusty windows of our bus. Even longer still can the homeward bound pedestrian keep track of our bus thanks to its dust cloud which first settles long after we have rattled past the brink of the observer's horizon. This dust covers fields and aspens, powders the poplars, blows over the river and turns the green cabbage into white cabbage - it white washes the whole countryside.

About an hour later it is my turn to get off at one of the village stops. It looks like a town out of America's wild west. One and two storey brick house with stores, barber and auto shops, fruit and vegetable stands, and a police station. Farmers are approaching an old military truck that will to take them to the fields, children are playing with what looks like the leftovers of some farming equipment. My step from the bus stirs up dust like man's first step on the Moon. The hinge of the luggage trunk creaks. My backpack is powdered white. I swing it up onto my shoulder and head toward the nearby shop, shooing a stray dog away from me. The inside of the shop is lit with neon lights. Everything a farmer would want is found here: lamp oil, mouse traps, sacks for the harvested vegetables, plastic brooms with red or blue bristles, grease, metalparts for barbecues and chainsaws. And of course vegetables and water. Schnapps and cigarettes, too. Next to cans of vegetables are cookies from England, crackers from China, and chocolate from Germany. I buy a couple little gifts and go to wait for my "cousin" and his car to come pick me up. I do not have to wait long for he and his wife, and they step out of a Toyota that has obviously been just washed. I can't help but notice the new car's shine, but am more taken with my cousins' heartfelt geniality. The folk here are small. Despite the fact that the Silk Road wound its path through the valley, bringing trade with the outside world, livelihoods on the land and the river were meager, and the local diet was never really varied, or even always enough, to produce tall statures in the people here.

My "father" is a farmer and my "brother" is a shepherd. My "family" here have been either farmers or shepherds for the past centuries, a people who live from the labor of their hands. Often exploited by landlords and gentry, indentured and caught in a feudal system, these people knew what slavery was even up until the 1960s. I had learned in Beijing - over one or two shots of rice schnapps - how Mao was responsible for giving farmers back their sense of worth. The younger generation also knows about the atrocities committed in the name of Maoism, with its complete lack of concern for culture and an ideology that suffocated intellectuality. But it is the generation of my "parents", especially those from farming communities, who honor Mao still today.

We arrive, pulling up in front of a walled farmstead. (From the outside I can see that) three sides of the cement walled courtyard are occupied by the living quarters. The fourth is made up of a brick wall with the inevitable red door at the heart of it. In this instance it is made of metal sheeting welded to an iron frame. On the right and left of the frame, ruby red festival banners boast blessings for the Chinese New Year. In front, the chaff of the recently harvested grain and beyond, a meticulously swept inner courtyard. The family is standing together, forming a happy welcome committee. In Beijing there were only men, there especially to honor Chairman Mao's mausoleum. Here I finally get to meet my "mother". It is acceptable for me to hug men, but the women are not to be touched. Even if now, as opposed to neighboring countries, it is standard to shake hands in greeting in most of China, here, deep in the countryside, the pan-Asian tradition of maintaining personal space and distance to one's fellows, especially between men and women, is firmly upheld and expected from me. Even husband and wife, despite the relaxed mien of their tanned faces testifying to well-adjusted, happy relationship, I never witness touching each other.

Following this greeting ceremony, I am shown the inner courtyard. The living quarters, the work area, and the "facilities". "When you feel the need, you can go there…" The door is a stable door, the floor wooden planks with a hole in the middle. A typical outhouse, except for the squealing pigs housed underneath in the dark.

The family's living room is pretty empty, with an open roof frame above the space to make room for storing the harvested hay and a 1950's sideboard containing a black and white television. These items do not give the impression of a furnished room. In the middle of the room the floor has a cement-lined shallow pit. I am told this serves as the fireplace on cold winter days. Today, however, the room is filled with folding tables and benches. Everyone finds a spot and then the table is set. Once again I am confronted with the family pigs, but this time in the form of sausages and ham. One half of a young pig's head is served directly in front of me, with half a jaw and snout, one cheek, and one whole ear. Only the best for this guest of honor!

After our meal we help our digestion by going for a walk. Just father and brother accompany this guest through the village and over the fields. For this walk a white mantle symbolizing an honorable guest is donned over my shoulders. A long fringe hangs from this festive finery. Though the cotton fabric is single-colored an ethnic pattern, carefully woven into the cloth, creates a contrast within the material.

Farm workers are found sitting in front of other red doors. As we pass they are all told about the new guest. We make our way to the top of a dyke. Behind this lays the river in a pebbled bed. A dinghy is presented as the family's fishing boat. It is made of metal and reminds me of the longboats the fishers on the Mosel use. My brother stuffs his pipe. A carved, round stone the white bowl is greasy from years of use. The stem is a brass pipe.

After this walk we go to my brother's house. A couple of towns away, we take the polished car again. While father's little village is situated at the base of the fertile valley, we now climb the rolling hills that cradle the river valley on the verge of the blue-grey mountains that soar upward from behind the hills.

Again a mantle is put on me. This time it is my brother's black sheep's wool mantle, colorfully stitched with colorful folklore patterns. This use of the mantle strikes me as positively Biblical. I am lead from house to house, introduced everywhere and simultaneously adopted into the village's community. Despite this formal presentation, those of the village who do not belong to the family remain shy and reserved, often avoiding the approaching convoy by quickly hiding themselves behind their plastered walls, ducking down and pushing past out of the way of the camera lens. Children scurry away to the cover of their wooden baskets.

I have now arrived where no foreign stranger was ever been. These sheltered people are shy. In these huts there are no televisions or wash machines. Their concept of strangers and foreigners is formed by stories. Their daily attire is hand washed, their best costumes for festivals or celebrations, having been passed down from former generations, are cherished, preserved, and honored. In honor of this guest these festive garbs are worn. First the daughter, then the mother and grandmother appear carefully dressed for the photo opportunity in the inner courtyard. They pose in front of the stable manure and straw, their faces set in the dignity of their ancestors. They are captured silent and straight in the colored photo, appearing just like the elders past used to look in Sven Hedin's time. Here, truly, time has stood still.

Only the camera's technology has moved forward. The shy children that we meet alone the plaster paths and the meadows between the villages hide from its lens just as they hid from this long-nose, this stranger. They approach the familiar members of their clan surrounding this tall stranger in their midst, running away as soon as I raise the camera. As it is a hopeless cause, I turn my attention to the adults and their explanation of farming techniques. I let them show me how they separate the grain from its casing by spreading it on a canvas (die Plane?), and I watch with fascination as the wind separates the wheat from the chaff… Now the once camera-shy children become less timid as this stranger shows an avid interest in this new found method for winnowing.

Again my visit culminates in a banquet, and once again a pig's head is placed in the spot reserved for the guest of honor. Again a rooster is prepared especially for me. Apparently, it is all about the head, and the rooster´s comb is considered the best part. I am expected to eat this in front of everyone. They all want to see that their guest is pleased, see how he enjoys being so spoiled in this way. And of course I owe it to these dear people, and so acquiesce and conform to their forms of etiquette. I bravely chew on the soft flesh, show them how pleased I am and actually bite into the rooster's comb. It has the consistency of a roasted gummy bear.

And now I am truly Chinese. I am proud to be a member of this gracious family.


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  • Matthias with his new father

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