Chapter 14: In which I go to the countryside
I had bought my tickets a few days before. They weren’t ideal. I had foolishly waited too long, taking bad advice on how hard/easy it was to obtain seats around New Year’s. The result was hard seat reservations for the five hours from Shanghai to Yuyao. In the train station Old Wang called me. To this day I’m still not sure why, but I suspect it was that he wanted to invite me to his house for a meal. That would have been nice.
The ride to Yuyao wasn’t. I went through multiple tissues and the seat back was so straight that I gave myself indigestion. I spent three of the five hours with painful gas that I couldn’t alleviate. I tried to sleep, as it was quite late when I the train finally screeched up to Yuyao station. I didn’t see any of the architecture, because Hong Li and Yang Bo were waiting for me as promised and whisked me away into taxi within what felt like seconds. On the train I had a dread moment of thinking I was totally nuts. I was going to spend three days with practical strangers in a place I didn’t know. What if they turned out to be psychopaths?
Thankfully, they weren’t. We drove in our hired car out to their place in the farmlands. I was shocked at how expensive the ride was, nearly 100 kuai, this was three times what the most expensive ride across Shanghai had ever cost me. We were spending the night at Hong Li’s place. It was a two story boxy modern building with little in the way of insulation. I was so cold. I think it was snowing outside. They wanted me to eat, but I was too tired and uncomfortable to even think about eating. We had a communal foot washing and then went off to bed. I hardly took off any of my clothes. Yang Bo and a couple water bottles were tucked in beside me. I curled up in their collective heat and slept. It was the night the Treasure God was being welcomed to homes, which meant that firecrackers were going non-stop, but I’m not sure I heard any of them as I drifted into the sweet oblivion of unconsciousness.
I was still sick the next day, but things were looking brighter. It had indeed snowed last night and the sun glared off the white and into the house like a particularly enthusiastic welcoming party. There was a balcony off the front of our room with wide paned glass doors. I was in a double bed facing a TV. Yang Bo woke up soon after me and we stared at dubbed foreign films of the American persuasion placidly. They were dumb, but it was too early to get up proper, so we didn’t mind overly much.
Around seven it was deemed a respectable hour to rise, so we got up and dressed. Hong Li was asleep in the next room. Yang Bo crawled into her boyfriend’s bed and woke him. He lumbered out of bed and the three of us went down the wide low stairs to the kitchen. I noticed that there was no front door and the frigid outdoors was just pouring right inside. We had empty steamed buns and hot water for breakfast, which was OK. I drank the hot water and they had milk. I can’t stand drinking straight milk, even though I am told this is what Americans do.
I got to explore more of the house after we had finished our repast. There was a small closed sitting room adjacent to the dinning room and a corridor to the back. The hallway led to a modern kitchen, bathroom and then a large, ancient kitchen. The big hall of food preparation still had wood stoves with large iron pots built in designed for steaming rice built into them. I insisted on taking pictures of this room. They thought I was crazy, but I loved that kitchen.
We had the big Spring Festival meal around noon. It was the best I’d eaten yet. I refused the wine pickled raw crab and the turtle swimming in quickly congealing sauce, but I devoured the water buffalo, fried starling and fresh rice. Eating raised my body temperature enough that I could take off my coat. I couldn’t believe Hong Li’s sister wasn’t worried about her infant. The kid wasn’t dressed any warmer than us and seemed impervious to the cold. Maybe it’s a blubber thing.
When the meal was finished we went into the sitting room. We ate nuts and played cards, or at least that was the idea. I wasn’t so hot at the cards or ma zhang, so mostly I ate nuts. It caused embarrassment beyond my bad card playing skills as I couldn’t crack the nuts. We weak westerners just aren’t used to cracking nuts with our bare hands I suppose. I still can’t figure it out. I practice gongfu for goodness sake and I can’t crack these puny nuts that soft and delicate Yang Bo broke with ease. There’s some trick about placing the nut you want to crack next to another one and then closing your fist. I know the theory, damned if I can do it in practice.
Eventually I was so frozen feeling that I had to move. I suggested a walk around the neighborhood. Most of the snow had melted, so there was just enough to accent the beauty of their hometown. It was all farmland. I saw neat squares of land with raised lanes in between dotted by the occasional provincial home. Most of these were modern Western style affaires like Hong Li’s, though some were old clay shingle roofed traditional Chinese abodes. I enjoyed trotting down the streets with my new friends. They tried to show me the local temple the old folks visited (young people are primarily atheists), but it was closed. I did get to see lots of animals. I saw a duck farm where the stock was so adorable I thought about swearing off eating duck meat forever. Too bad those little feathered cuties taste so delicious. I also got to see a barn full of water buffalo. They look at lot like cows, but have flatter noses and more exotic horns. I got to pet a couple young ones.
I went to bed early that night. I had the companionship of the water bottles, but Yang Bo slept with her boyfriend. I had stripped fully to my nightgown and missed her warmth. I didn’t sleep well, always turning over wishing there was another person there to cuddle up to.
The next morning I was dealing better with the cold. Not the viral one in my system, which was quite robust, but the one associated with weather. We moved over to Yang Bo’s house. Her place was very old. I guess it was a wreck, but I was enchanted with the hand hewn stones, the Buddhist swastika windows and outdoor kitchen, an entirely different building consisting mostly of imperious wood stove.
This house not only wasn’t insulated, but had big gaps in the roof. The first floor had three small rooms and the upstairs was essentially a loft with five beds, a TV and a lot of drafty air. Who needs windows when the ceiling doesn’t fit perfectly into the walls anyway? Though to do the house justice, Yang Bo says that a decade ago it was beautifully furnished with Chinese antiques, however the government had taken them all away. Yang Bo’s parents defied the One Child policy in their desperation to have a son. They got their son, but the price was that the government took anything of worth out of the house and charges a yearly fine. Yang Bo says that her family all agree the price was worth it.
That day was a bit boring. We didn’t have anywhere really to go. Hong Li and I played Chinese Chess. He underestimated me the first time and I beat him, so he played aggressively the second time and creamed me. I was fascinated listening to Yang Bo talk to her mother. Yuyao hua sounded a little like Shanghai hua, but the word hao had turned into hai, just like in Japanese! I still don’t buy that thing about Shanghai hua sounding like Japanese, people were always trying to convince me of this, but there are some startling similarities between nihongo and the southeastern dialects.
The next day we took a walk to a museum. I saw little fox hound puppies and old graves that were planted right in the middle of the rice paddies on the way. Putting graves in crop fields is forbidden by the government now and with good reason. Spreading disease in your food source is never a good plan. We went all the way to the bus stop. It started to rain. We caught a funny local bus with few seats to the museum. There were people sitting on the floor and the road was quite bumpy. I was relieved I made it to our destination without getting motion sick. The museum was very old fashioned, think Victorian view of the world, type of place. My archeology friends would have cringed. It made me twitch as is.
I’m not sure how much real research went into the excavation, but it seemed that little had gone into the display. Even to my untrained eye, their conclusions seemed a little strained. The ancient village was set up as a set of panoramas with bronze figures acting out primitive scenes. There was one of cooking, basket weaving, tool fixing, weapon making etc. I’m afraid that when we got to the one of Ancient Mating Rituals, neither Yang Bo nor I could resist bending over to see if the man was anatomically correct. He wasn’t, for the record. Every pointy object was labeled a phallic symbol and anything unusual must have been a ceremonial object. I tried to be polite and keep my skepticism to myself, but it was hard.
By the time we were walking back home Yang Bo’s behavior was getting on my nerves. She kept clinging to me. Every time we walked she wanted to hold onto my arm and lean on me. I felt like pointing out that Hong Li was her boyfriend, not me, but it just felt too rude. Besides I knew this was just a sign of friendly affection. It started to rain and we called another overpriced cab to take us back to Yang Bo’s home.
The food continued to be great, though I couldn’t eat the fish after seeing Yang Bo’s mother scale it live. That still sets my teeth on edge. I felt comfortable enough to ask for rice with my meal, which made it more pleasant and I sampled some of the yang berry wine, which was not pleasant at all. Everything was starting to become familiar, but tomorrow I headed back to the city, so the acclimation wasn't going to do me much good.
We spent half a day in Ningbo before I took the train back to Shanghai. We wanted to travel together as far as Hangzhou, but they had waited till the last minute to buy tickets and none were available on my train. We amused ourselves by going to a bookstore. I found some great comics and some scrap booking supplies. Hong Li was shocked at my choice of comics.
“Ah? You like that kind of book?” He exclaimed.
I reexamined the cover and felt very embarrassed, I knew I was buying a romance, but I didn’t realize that both the protagonists were male. Well, I’m an equal opportunity romantic, so it didn’t really matter in terms of whether I’d enjoy the work, but many Chinese frown on homosexuality and if it was anything like Japanese male-male romances it had probably been made specifically for the purpose of female titillation. I didn’t want Hong Li thinking I was some sort of Western pervert who enjoyed objectifying men.
Actually when I finally sat down to read it on the train, I realized it wasn’t a homosexual romance at all though, it was a story about a cross-dressing woman and a slightly clueless man. I love gender bender stories and to make it better, I knew the author! I was very excited to sit down and read it, but I didn’t really get a chance. The people sitting next to me kept inspecting what I was doing and in the end everyone on my bench read the book before I had a chance to. As an alternative source of personal amusement, I pulled out my photo album to start describing the events the photographs portrayed, but this was also an item of some curiosity, so instead I spent the whole time explaining who the pictures depicted rather than writing descriptions next to them. My stomach became gaseous and upset again from the uncomfortable angle of the chairs, but some nice little old lady sitting across from me insisted that I stretch my legs out on her lap and that made me feel a bit better.