I’m one of those people who can’t say “no”. Some might call that trait a curse, or that I have no backbone to put my foot down when I don’t want to do something, and sometimes both assumptions are true. But generally, my inability to say “no” opens me up to a lot of new experiences that I wouldn’t have experienced otherwise. Like going to a co-worker’s hometown.
On Monday, one of my days off, I was in the office finishing up some lesson planning so that I’d be prepared for the weekend classes. All of my co-workers were already in the office working a half day because it is the norm to work a six day week in China. Most of my Chinese friends not only work six days a week at their full time job, but they often have one or even two part time jobs that they go to in the evenings and their days off. What’s even more amazing about the amount that they work, is that you will almost never hear a Chinese person complain about their workload or stress. Because who wants to hear about that anyway? We foreigners get spoiled with two days, three days, and sometimes even four days off a week, and we get paid between 3-4 times as much as the local staff. And we complain. We love to talk about stress, and jobs, and not fun stuff. When expats get together it sometimes seems like a competition of foreign teachers fighting to win the prize for most stressed or worst gig ever.
But that is besides the point. We’re talking about hometowns. Sorry for the detour into the admirable work-ethic of the Chinese.
Anyway, around twelve I started packing up my things to go home, planning to spend the day prepping meals for the week, going on a nice long run, and ending with an evening of binge-watching PPTV episodes of 2 Broke Girls and Shameless.
“What are your plans for today?” Nancy asked me as I popped my laptop into my bag.
“I’m pretty busy. I’m going to run and stuff,” I said, brandishing my hand over my sexy unbrushed bun hair, oversized sweatshirt and yoga pants. “What about you?”
“I think you should come to my hometown today,” she said while scrolling through her WeChat moments. “And then we can go to Yichang next week.”
“Wait, like… today? Like… now?”
“Yes. We will come back early tomorrow evening. Maybe six or seven.”
Already my head is starting to panic in a bubble of “SAY NO! Say no! You know what will happen! You won’t get to hang out with your best friends Max and Caroline while they deal with the perils of opening a cute cupcake shop in New York City. And what about running? You need to run today. And you need to cut cucumbers and carrots for the week so that you can take them to school with you! Say no! You’re too busy!”
So I said yes.
And an hour and a half later we were on a bus to Baima, a teeny tiny village about 90 minutes outside of Jingzhou. It’d be easy to miss. There’s one little shop that more resembled a forgotten storage unit than any type of a store, and it also served as the town bus stop, recycling center, and gossiping post. The buildings all sit in short rows of about three or four, and each house has a little vegetable garden sprouting little tufts of green things. The town was a spattering of strange houses that look as if they were just dropped into the middle of yellow rapeseed flower fields. Some of the homes were squatty, simple, one floor buildings with cement walls and floors, and high ceilings. Most of their doors were open, revealing the room that served as a kitchen, dining room, living room, washroom, and meat drying facility all in one. These short buildings were distinctly Chinese, completely symmetrical with roof corners that swept up into a slight rise. And some of the homes were trying very hard to be European in the same way that the American cookie cutter suburban homes try desperately to achieve some distinction.
Nancy’s home was a three story, faux grey brick European Chinese building that towered over the two squat buildings on both of its sides. Six chickens clucked around her garden and a dog and tiny tumble of curls ran up to greet her as we walked up to her home.
If you’ve never been to a hometown of a Chinese friend, it goes a bit like this:
- You will be offered loads of food. Constantly. From the moment we walked up the steps to the moment we stepped back on the bus, Nancy’s mom was chasing me down with sugar cane, rice cakes, and light ten course meals that she’d whip up in a matter of minutes if it had been more than two hours since I ate. And the food is usually delicious. You will be full far before you ever stop eating. And God bless you if you’re a vegetarian, because not eating meat is a concept that the Chinese simply cannot understand, especially if your hosts happen to be two farmers who make their own sausage and dried fish.
- You will be asked about your current relationship status. You will be offered up to relatives. While I played badminton with Nancy’s nine year old cousin, an old man came smiling by and told Nancy that he’d told the entire village that I was Nancy’s brother’s girlfriend, who was absent at the time of my visit. Just roll with it. I was told by an eighty year old woman that Nancy’s brother is quite handsome and tall. Quite the catch really.
- At least six old ladies will try to set you up with a “rich, and handsome Chinese man.” I mostly laugh and say “Okay”.
- You will be asked what your salary is. I usually tell people it’s a secret, because, as I said before, foreign staff usually get paid four times as much as local staff and the expectations are much lower.
- You will be introduced to all of friend’s neighbors, cousins, aunts and uncles, old teachers, plumbers, and the hundred year old woman who lives two houses down. Bring your pretty face. Pace those smiling muscles.
- There will be a lot of relaxing and sitting around with old ladies as they gossip over water chestnuts and knitting circles. Bring good reading material. It’s nice and peaceful, and the air doesn’t stink. Enjoy the laziness of sitting on the front porch with nothing to do but listen to the chatter, smell the rapeseed, answer strange questions, and occasionally try out your Chinese skills.
- Sixty year old women and men will stand up and offer you their seat. They will also refuse to sit back down even if you insist that it’s unnecessary and don’t accept the chair offering. The Chinese are incredibly giving and kind hosts who will bend over backwards for their guest. Be sure to repay their kindness by being a gracious visitor, and I’d also recommend bringing a bottle of wine, a fruit basket or little gifts from your country to show your appreciation.
- You will have your picture taken approximately 1,304 times. Get that peace sign up.
- If your friend is single as well, there will be an impromptu town meeting where the main concern discussed is how and why she needs to hurry up and get a boyfriend. A woman pushing eighty will officiate the discussion, and the entire council will be made up of the wisest elders who will express their opinions for no less than two hours. Your friend will sit on her mom’s bed with her head hung to her lap as she stares at the piece of tissue paper she’s been wringing in her hands since the word “boyfriend” was muttered. Don’t worry. This is apart of her weekly visit home. She knows how to access her happy place while her life choices are questioned and put on display for dissection.
- You will go dance with the ladies after dinner. A few years back China got on a health kick, and groups women and men, between the approximate ages of middle age to ancient, started choreograph dancing in public spaces to stay fit. It’s everywhere now. You cannot walk outside after 6pm in any city without running into a group of fifty-six gyrating grandmas and grandpas. All of whom have more rhythm than I will ever have. But that didn’t stop me from participating with the twelve ladies who danced under the only street light in their village.
As I wrapped up dancing and started to walk home with my new knitting circle, I couldn’t help but smile at the places that not saying no gets me into. Nancy, her mom, and I walked back at that slow speed crawl, the kind of strolling that only happens in the country when the worries are far from the present because the same day of doing nothing is all that is approaching. When we got back to her house, her mom rushed into the kitchen to make another four course meal for second dinner.
“What do you want to do now?” Nancy asked me as we sat at the table.
“Nothing.” I shrugged. Her mom brought out some rice noodles that were a specialty in their village, and we all ate, and then migrated to her mom’s room where we sat around, watched Chinese soap operas, and ate even though we were full.
Going to hometowns are for doing nothing, the same kind of beautiful nothing we do with all our favorite people in any hometown in any part of the world. Cause we’re all the same, and we all like doing nothing with the people we love.