Saturday, March 1, 2008

Entry Three: Welcome to Jinhua

After we unloaded my stuff in the apartment, I went with Helen to meet Joe, a 24 year old from NYC who is also teaching here. He has been here now 2 years, and this is his first teaching job. It was his birthday, but he took 20 minutes and walked with me to buy an Ethernet cord, the first step in a long process to get the internet working in my apartment.

I was supposed to meet Helen for dinner at 5:30, so I went back to the apartment to unpack. At 4:52 she was waiting for me outside my window. Her husband, a nice guy who works for the municipal government, had invited me to dinner in the countryside.

Downtown Jinhua is pretty urban, and even though it is not Shanghai, you can get most anything you need. But the countryside of Jinhua is honest-to-goodness rural China. As he drove I again experienced the theme park ride that is driving in China. Stop lights and road signs are treated more like suggestions than rules of the road, and people consistently turn left on red against oncoming traffic if they think they can make it. Yet, there is no road rage, there is no malicious intent. People drive with the same attitude as I encountered when trying to get off the train in Jinhua - every man for himself, but everyone’s smiling.

We arrived at a farmer’s home and entered the main room, about 10 feet by 10 feet. In the middle of the room there was a large circular table stacked with food. A TV was blaring in the corner, but no one was watching. There must have been 15 different dishes, none of them familiar. I tried most of them, but I do not know if I can capture what happened. It was just surreal.

The table was surrounded with large, smiling farmers. They were close friends who all served together in the army for many years. One of them was the host, and the farmer who owned the dairy. As we sat down the host arrived with a steaming basin of fresh milk. There were two bowls in front of me, both for drinks, and I sat on the stool as did everyone else. One of the bowls was filled with the unpasteurized milk, which was DELICIOUS! The other bowl was quickly filled with alcohol, as getting foreigners drunk is a valued pastime in the countryside. Being familiar with this tradition, I was able to avoid any problems by sticking with the milk.

As the meal began I looked out in front of me at the endless dishes and decided to dig in. The closest to me was a plate of what looked like duck meat, so I ate a slice. It was gamey, but the texture was more like beef than duck. One of the farmers gave a big smile and pointed at me, saying “ni xi huan che guo rou!” To translate: “He likes eating dog meat.”

In truth, it did not taste that bad. They usually do not eat dog meat this time of year, but because it has been cold they were eating it. Helen says it has a warming quality, but I am not so sure.

Probably the strangest thing I ate (or that I know I ate) were the baby swallows. The farmers catch the swallows in nets and then roast them. Because the birds are young and small, you can eat the whole thing, bones and all. I ate three or four of them, much to the farmers delight. In all honesty, the meat on these little birds was probably the best tasting dish at the table, but I got sick of crunching my way through the skulls so I quit at four.

Also I ate eel, fish, pea pods, “wild vegetable,” chicken, and pork fat stuffed in Chinese bread. No person at the table had their own plate, and everyone frantically attacked the many dishes. The strange thing is that even though each person approached the table looking for the best cut of meat, you still got the sense they were looking out for each other. I like eating this way, as I get to try many different dishes, but also the sense of community is really inviting. Sure, it is crowded, and any Seinfeld fan might have a fit about the double-dipping factor, but you really feel like you belong to something, no matter how hectic it is.

They smoked cigarettes throughout the entire meal. I do not smoke, and was grateful that they understood and did not take it as an insult that I wouldn’t join along. The last stage of the meal was to eat rice, but first there was a final round of toasts to the host. The rice was delicious, a time honored cap to a great meal.

I had explained to Helen that my mother’s family had once been diary farmers in Maine, but the government split up our farm to build a road in the 1930s as part of the New Deal. She was delighted by this display of my proletariat roots, and told the story at the table to the farmers, who were equally impressed. After the meal they took me into the dairy, and I said, “Like the farms at home.” Helen translated and everyone roared with approval. I looked at the cows, calmly stepped over the flops, and fit right in.

Before leaving we drank boiling hot tea outside. I had brought a small box of chocolates with me anticipating something like this, so I went to the car and presented my host with the sweets: a small box of 3 Lindt chocolate truffles. He was pleased, but Helen was more pleased because I had demonstrated my understanding of the culture and willingness to participate.

Everyone shook my hand and invited me back again, and off I went for another daredevil road race back into town. I sat in the backseat trying to make sense of the last 36 hours. My conclusions should not be taken too seriously, but I will share them nevertheless.

Collectivism, a term often used to describe the paradigm in China, stages the group ahead of the individual. But I am coming to see that it is more sophisticated than that. People look out for each other in China, even if it does not appear to be the case on the surface. The chaos, such as getting off the train and driving around, is actually consistent with the attitude at the dinner table.

Individuality, especially in terms of personal space, does not exist in the same way in China as it does in America. For example: YOU are not eating that plate of cabbage, WE are eating it. The same principle applies to driving: YOU are not driving in the left lane, WE are driving in the left lane, and so I do not view that spot are being yours - it is up for grabs… so watch out, I will cut in front of you.

Because the emphasis is on the group experience, individual space is not viewed in the same way. To a certain degree, the same goes for privacy. YOU are not experiencing life in China; WE are, together, and so some of boundaries that might be valued in America do not exist here in the same way.

I arrived at my new apartment at about 8 pm, and went to sleep. As I fell asleep I could hear people talking outside my window, smell fish cooking somewhere nearby, hear people walking in the apartment above mine, and music being played in the apartment below. Concrete walls can do very little to separate me from my neighbors; after all, this is China.


Julie said...

Jason - Thank you for letting us into "your" individual experiences and sharing them with us in the "Chinese Way".
I look forward to reading more.
Jules Adlard

Hannah said...

Hi Jason,

I'm Hannah Brown, one of the students who went to China with Craig in '06, so it's wonderful to hear a fresh take on some fond experiences I was also lucky enough to experience. If you haven't already, try duck's tongue. Definetly worth it.