Time to give the readers what they need! Another update on my life and work here in Shanghai! All I can say, is that the past two months have been wild. My research is chugging along at a great pace, I feel pretty settled with my life here, and the weather has just been making everything feel nicer. To give this post some type of organization, I am going to break it up into a couple of sections: Travel (Where in the world is Nellie), Teaching with Stepping Stones, and a check in on what comes next.
The past several times I have come to China, I have been here with a specific goal and a relatively restrained time limit. Because of that, I really have not gotten to see as much of China as I would have liked to, the majority of my time has been spent in Beijing and Shanghai, two cities that really don’t reflect the huge diversity of experiences of Chinese people. Because on Fulbright I get to organize my own time, it has allowed me a lot more freedom to get out of the city and see other parts of the massive country. Over the past two months, I went on two awesome excursions with really cool groups of people. First, I will describe my July 4th getaway to Shengsi Island (an island about 2 hours off the coast of Shanghai), and second I will describe my trip to Anhui, a province north of Shanghai with a friend’s family!
The trip to Shengsi was prompted because my friend Rebecca had extra vacation days that she needed to use before she switched jobs (Congrats Becks!). Therefore, we needed somewhere close, convenient, and CHEAP! Voila, Shengsi Island! The idea of spending a very chill long weekend on an island, eating seafood, and leisurely biking around sounded like the absolute perfect way to spend my Fouth of July away from the states- with a Canadian and a Kiwi! We rented motorbikes and zipped around the very hilly island, running into creepy crawly water bugs, and just enjoying being away from the city. Although Shanghai is a relatively nice city in the fact that it has so much greenery, it really can feel oppressive after a couple of months. Stepping away just for a couple of days can seriously clear your mind. We ate an ungodly amount of seafood- which was all so freaking delicious I am still dreaming about it! Check out the photos below for some goofy looks. These are my two best buds, Rebecca (the Canadian) and Michael (the Kiwi). Having a crew who is willing to go on wild last minute adventures with you is really just the best.
The second trip to Anhui was kind of a branch off of my research with Li Feng, a new friend. Because her son had been sent to live with his paternal grandparents in his father’s home village over the Summer, I knew that with school coming up that they would have to go pick him up sooner or later, so I asked if I could tag along. And they said yes! In addition to picking up her son, Li’s sister-in-law had just had her second son, and so we would be joining in on the twelve day festival as well as going to check out the apartment the family had recently bought in a city close to their hometown.
For clarification, I think it is important to first discuss the concept of “laojia” a Chinese word literally translating into “old home.” To say that we were visiting her family’s hometown would be to diminish the importance and concreteness of the concept of laojia. For many Chinese, no matter where they live, their ancestral home (where generations and generations of their family have always lived) will really be their home. My friend Michael (pictured above), had never been to his laojia until his twenties, both sets of grandparents had since moved to different cities, and he himself had grown up in New Zealand, and yet his laojia is still considered to be his home. In Li Feng’s case, her and her family have lived in Shanghai for nearly 20 years, she in no way considers Shanghai to be her home, instead her home is the laojia of her husband. Another factor at play here- patrilocal living. Patrilocal residence is the practice of the wife going to live in the husband’s village, and taking his family for her own, no longer officially counting as a member of her own family. Li Feng and her husband (Fu) come from different towns. Both towns are in Anhui, and yet their customs, traditions, way of life is vastly different. In fact, Li told me that both sets of parents contested her marrying Fu because they feared that the two villages were too far apart and the cultural gap just too wide to bridge. And in fact, it hasn’t been all easy going. Li doesn’t feel as at ease in the town as her husband does- simply because of the difference in food, difference in the style of communication, and the fact that these are her husband’s people and not her own.
Why do two towns in the same province diverge so vastly? This is an interesting phenomenon that can be seen all throughout China. Because of the hard to traverse terrain, communities in different locations developed in relative isolation, developing diverging traditions, food cultures, and languages. In the example of Li and Fu’s different laojia, Fu’s hometown eats very spicy food and lives in low to the ground concrete dwellings. Meanwhile, Li’s hometown eats very mild food, and lives in highly decorative houses. While these may seem like simple things, add on top the divergence in languages spoken and it can almost seem like a cross-cultural relationship. But enough on that, let’s get back to the trip.
We drove 8 hours to a town called Chuzhou in Anhui, and immediately went up to see the sister-in-law and her adorable new baby. I don’t think I have ever seen a baby so small (he was 11 days old at this point), and was just absolutely in love from the getgo. In China, the first month after birth is considered a really delicate time for both mom and baby, it is traditional for the mother to “zuo yuezi” or “sit the month.” During the month, the mother must observe a set of complicated rules and taboos which cover what to wear, what to eat, and when to shower. Check out this article by Sixth Tone for an in-depth coverage on the do’s and don’ts of the month (they include not washing your hair!), as well as some really interesting commentary on why it persists today. A comedic representation of the “sitting the month” tradition can also be found on Fresh off the Boat (see the video linked below). In the case of the sister-in-law, some liberties had been taken (she was allowed to use her phone!). I just think it is really fascinating that tradition continues till today, and it is a kind of lovely idea of having this month of mom and baby cloistered together just bonding.
Early the next day we took a trip to visit Li and Fu’s house in the countryside, and to visit his grandparents who are in their mid-90’s. In the era after collective farming, each rural household was given a parcel of land to farm and so a unique benefit of having a rural hukou is the ownership of land. As we walked from the family home to the grandparent’s home, Li Feng pointed out to me sections of land that are her husband’s family’s. However, since the whole family (including the paternal grandparents) are working in Shanghai, there is no one home to farm. This is a large problem that China faces, people who are able to work have all moved to the city, leaving only elders and children in the hometowns. Because crop prices are so low in China, it is very hard to make a living farming, and so very few choose to remain behind. Fu explained to me that people who migrate out will often “rent” their farmland to a neighbor, taking only a token payment or a bit of the year’s harvest in return. Otherwise, the land would be wasted.
The visit to the house was completed with a small visit to the next door neighbor, an incredibly elderly woman who seemed excited at the prospect of the family coming back, only to be disappointed by their response that they were only stopping by. Something I found really interesting, was that everyone in the village knew which house was which family’s, having all lived there together for a lifetime. It was sad to see the Fu and Li point out empty houses where the previous occupants had all migrated for work. However, there will be a wave of returnees as people like Fu’s mother and father become too old to work in the city, and return to their ancestral home.
In the afternoon of the same day, we attended the 12 day festival. The festivities had actually begun at somewhere around 6am, when firecrackers were set off outside the house (for what exact reason, I never learned, as Li Feng does not celebrate the 12 day festival in her village, and therefore was just as much of a stranger to the procedure as I was!), but were continued with a huge banquet at a local restaurant. In this region of China, it is traditional for the family of the newborn to host a banquet for all their friends and family, and for the friends and family to come armed with hongbao. At all different kinds of celebrations, it is customary for attendees to give gifts of cash in a red envelope. Over the years, this tradition has shifted and the amounts given at different events are often recorded. So for example, if I was to get married and you were to attend my wedding, your gift of $10 would be recorded and come time for your wedding, I would know that I am obligated to give $10 or more. I think this aspect is a bit odd, but on the other hand the family did throw this massive party for nearly 70 people, so it kind of evens out? My two favorite parts of the meal were as follows: it is traditional that before the meal is served, lots of firecrackers are set off outside the doors. I took a video, in which you can hear the massive pops and bangs of tons of fireworks. Right after the smoke cleared, five women came in carrying massive trays loaded with food! The second best part was when the paternal grandparents of the new baby came around to each table and did an individual toast with each person. This is another feature of Chinese celebrations; the host is often expected to drink a wine toast with each guest. The festival was amazing, but a bit befuddling for me. Why you ask? Well, the new mother wasn’t even allowed to attend because she is still in the yuezi nor was she even able to eat any of the food, as most of it was quite spicy and oily!
Overall, the trip was a great way to see the Chinese countryside in a way that I would never have been able to experience if I had gone there alone. I can’t express how grateful I am to Li Feng and Fu’s family for taking me in, feeding me copious amounts of food, and taking the time to explain the many things I did not understand. I can’t wait for the day when Li Feng and Fu come to visit me in the USA! I will add in a couple of miscellaneous pictures below this paragraph.
Next on the docket is to talk about my experience teaching English with a volunteer organization based in Shanghai called Stepping Stones. Shanghai has a massive problem with there being lots of migrant kids who can’t attend local schools because they aren’t Shanghai citizens. The Chinese public school system is not based on where you live, but where your hukou is based. Therefore, lots of volunteer programs have popped up to provide schooling for all these children who can’t receive education otherwise. The program I participated in was a summer camp, where the kids had tons of activity and some educational stuff thrown in. I would go and teach English once a week with two other co-teachers. While the session was short, I really enjoyed getting to hang out with kids once a week. Although, sadly enough just as I felt like the kids were starting to warm up to me, the program ended. I think that whenever you are taking part in a volunteer program like Stepping Stones, it is paramount that you think hard about whether what you are getting out of the experience is equal or less than what you are giving back to the group you are serving. I think for me, volunteering my time definitely helps me cope with the guilt that I feel about living in China with such immense privilege, and interacting with kiddos brings me genuine joy. On the other hand, I hope that having the opportunity to hear correct and clear pronunciation, and converse with English speakers did help to improve the kid’s English ability. At the very least, I think creating friendships and relationships with foreigners might break up some of the mythical quality that white people have to a lot of rural Chinese people. All I can hope for is that maybe my lessons sparked some interest in English for them? All I can say, is that it was a great experience and I am wishing for all the brightest in these kid’s futures!
What is next?
After a long period of deliberation, I decided to return to the US when my Fulbright grant ends, which is October 23rd. This was a really hard decision to make because I feel like leaving China after only a year and a half is giving up. But on the other hand, getting a work visa in China is very hard at the moment, and the only companies that would be willing to hep me get one would be an English teaching or college consulting company. Not only am I not interested in teaching English as a career, I am pretty morally opposed to the myriad of companies that have popped up in China over the past 20 years. In a nutshell, the majority of the organizations hire recent graduates with no experience or training in teaching, and then ask for ridiculously high prices making it nearly impossible for low-income children to access affordable English lessons. This is in an environment where English ability has nearly become a prerequisite for those looking to find a good job, meaning that the predatory system creates and reinforces inequality.
On top of all that, I am really ready to start a career in something that makes me excited to go to work. Which leads me to say: if you are hiring…. hit me up… Just kidding! (or am I?).
With only ~two months left here, I have packed in a lot of amazing stuff. First, two of my closest friends (Olivia and Andrea) will be visiting in a week, and together we will be going down to Guangxi province to stay in a small town on the Li River, site of the famous scene from the 100 yuan note (see below). Next, my sister will be coming to travel around China with me for three weeks after my program ends. Hopefully we will be hitting up Yunnan, Sichuan, and Inner Mongolia! Just like when my parents came, I am just overjoyed to be sharing such a special and big part of my life with those who I love. I think for a lot of people in my life, China had never been a thing they had thought a whole lot about except in the context of a hostile country with whom we trade with. It isn’t a famous tourist destination like Vietnam or Thailand, nor does the government make it particularly easy for casual tourists to come and visit (damn visas). So my love of the place definitely feels like a part of my life that is foreign for others, and their ideas of China are probably shaped by my experiences in a lot of ways. On the other hand, I am very excited for Andrea, who I studied abroad in Beijing with and is very familiar with China, to see what my life here is like!
I am unimaginably sad about leaving this amazing place, and scared that I don’t quite know when the next time I will be coming is, but also really excited for the next chapter. I’m just working on enjoying the next two months here!
That’s all for now, see you next month!