Yangjiaya village, Nanchong city,
Distance from Shanghai – 2,203 km
It was around 11 a.m. on a bright day in the rolling countryside in the western part of the Sichuan basin when I passed a group of six or seven men standing by the road. I said hello, as I did to everyone, and one of them invited me over to join them. We chatted for a while, and someone brought a stool out for me to sit on – a nice but unnecessary gesture. I placed my camera on it.
“It’s nearly lunchtime. Would you like to join us?” one man asked. I naturally accepted the invitation. We walked in single file along a mud wall between the paddy fields at right angles to the road, toward a picturesque farmhouse among trees and bamboo.
Up the slope and into a courtyard with chickens, and washing on the line. There were stools outside the door and we sat down in the pale sunlight. A small table was brought out on which was placed a large mug of tea for me. The house walls were composed of horizontal wooden struts and vertical pillars of stone blocks, with the squares filled in with flagstone rectangles and mud bricks. There were holes in various places, and it looked rather ramshackle, but it was home for them. I asked how old the house was and the best answer I could get was “several decades.” I also asked how it was to live in.
“It is cool in summer and not too cold in winter,” said one of the men. I commented on how charming the scene and setting were, which puzzled them. I pointed over our heads to the rich bamboo fronds above us.
“The bamboo beside the house is just lovely,” I pointed out as an example. He laughed and said to the others: “You know, he sees things we don’t because it is new to him.”
The plump old mother came out wearing the standard red woolen hat for older ladies in this region, an apron and a big smile.
“She has never seen a foreigner before,” said the son. “Probably in thousands of years a foreigner has never been to this house.”
“I’m honored to be the first,” I said.
The lady said something to me that I did not understand.
“She says that she is concerned that you will think this place is dirty,” her son said. It was not clean for sure, but it had all the warmth in the world.
“Not at all,” I said. “It is a pleasure to be here.” She could understand my Mandarin, nodded happily and went back inside the house to tend to the food cooking noisily on the stove.
The talk turned pretty quickly to international politics.
“I think Bush is a criminal,” the son offered.
“Well, I agree he was not a smart man,” I replied. “But I am not sure criminal is the right way to describe him.”
The son, whose name was Ren, asked me about the US and why it had invaded Iraq. “Why would you say?” I asked.
“Energy,” he said.
As a one-word explanation, that was pretty good, but I suggested that the view of the US as an aggressor was somewhat simplistic.
“I would say the long-term goal of the US is a stable Middle East, which is what China needs too, due to its very large oil imports from that region,” I said. “China in many ways benefits from US actions but prefers not to publicly support them.”
We moved into another courtyard nearby where there was a round table set up under a tree, with big, deep bowls of food in the center and no plates, only chopsticks, at each setting.
“This is the local way, no plates,” said the boy sitting next to me. He was a graduate from a college in Chongqing in what he called “electronic business,” which turned out to be the study of internet commercial activities.
I had told them I didn’t eat meat and so there were three or four bowls that were vegetables only and delicious. One of the men pulled out a bottle of grain alcohol – baijiu – and the drinking began, with the vile liquid being poured into paper cups. It was Tuo Brand (沱牌) baijiu, and it was vicious. I looked up the character in my phone’s Chinese dictionary and it said the word means “tearful.” That made sense to me.
Sitting at the table were three brothers, the old father, two nephews, a friend from across the road, and a girl from the town of Nantong just north of Shanghai. She had married one of the brothers and given him a son who constantly had morsels pushed into his mouth. Her husband was the biggest drinker of the group and wanted me to drain my paper cup as quickly and as often as possible. I continued to sip in the face of the pressure but got mildly drunk anyway in the sunshine.
“The US economy is built on the military, and it is the main arms seller around the world,” he challenged me.
“I believe China has just become the main arms supplier to many countries in Africa,” I countered. My goal in these conversations is always to introduce an alternative viewpoint without being confrontational. Not always an easy task when alcohol is involved.
I asked him how it was living in Nantong as a migrant worker.
“Let me put it this way,” he said. “There is someone else from our village who lives in Nantong and he invited me to visit, but he has done well and is well-off. I told him I cannot come to visit you and I cannot invite you to visit me, so we will have to wait until we are both back in the village to meet again.”
The chip on his shoulder was in full view. He poured some more alcohol.
“My wife says I drink too much, but I know how to handle liquor,” he said.
The courtyard in which we were sitting consisted of long wooden structures on three sides with maybe eight doors to each side facing out into the courtyard. It looked a little like a motel from the 17th century. But only one side was occupied – the other two were shuttered and abandoned, with vegetation starting to encroach from above and around about. The tattered remains of New Year’s couplets around the doors looked as if they were from at least a decade ago.
“The people who used to live here have moved away,” said Ren.
t come back now. Maybe we will knock it all down and build a big villa here. You can buy it for almost nothing.”
The man on my right was aged 40 and worked in Shenzhen.
“He and I went to primary school together,” said Mr Ren, the man who had invited me into this little world. “We were the most naughty children ever in our school and were terrible students. We did not go on to high school. But our teacher always says he is proud of us because unlike many others we did not end up as thieves, robbers or cheats. We both have our businesses in Shenzhen.”
“That’s right,” said his friend. “Being self-employed is a big freedom. It means I never have to worry about the expression on the boss’s face.”
I asked the young man sitting on my left, the one who had graduated in eBay studies, what he was doing now.
“I work as a clerk for a company,” he said. “The job has nothing to do with what I studied. By the time I find a job that does I will probably have forgotten everything I learned in college.”
How about setting up your own company, and working for yourself?
“That is what I’m thinking,” he said. The two men, one a self-employed welder, the other driving his own truck, encouraged him in this idea.
The graduate said he had just bought a laptop, and the man to my right asked him if it was an Apple. Wow. The long arm of Steve Jobs.
The time came to leave, and after we took some photographs and exchanged names, I walked back to the road with an alcohol buzz and Mr Ren showing me the way.
“If you ever need any welding done, just let me know,” he said as we shook hands and parted.
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Graham’s book, The Great Walk of China, can be purchased from Blacksmith Books and at all good bookshops.