When Sam introduced the idea of observing Qing Ming with Penny's family, I thought it would be a day trip: drive to the village, make our obeisances, and be back home in time for dinner. I had no idea, until the day of departure, that the affair would consume nearly the entire weekend. I'll admit I balked: Extended socializing has always been difficult for me. And so long in the company of virtual strangers! Even though I had met most of Penny's family, and Sam and Erica would also be there, I anticipated discomfort at being such a standout in a village where never, had a foreigner roamed. Nevertheless, Sam and I enthusiastically formulated our plans: I would ride to his house, where we would be met by a cousin who would drive us to Huangpi, a rural district of Wuhan proper.
Unfortunately, everyone else in Wuhan also had the idea of traveling on Friday night so, what should have been an hour's drive turned into a nearly 3 hour journey. We turned up at Penny's aunt's apartment a little after 10. The initial rash of greetings, of exchanging gifts, of proffering food – a snack of dumplings and tea, and then it was off to the hotel Penny had thoughtfully reserved for me, no doubt anticipating my being overwhelmed at the Chinese-ness of the get-together. She was right: a dozen people crammed into a 2-bedroom apartment would have undone me.
The next morning, I got a bit confused. Sam had said we were staying in Huangpi overnight because no hotel existed in Penny's village. I know that, in China, neighborhoods within cities are sometimes called villages – 村 (cun – tsun), and marked by an elaborate gate. Having driven through an elaborate gate to get to the neighborhood, I thought we were already in the village. I learned my mistake when we went to the actual village.
The city fell away. Wide vistas of green took over. Soon, our caravan turned onto a one-lane road, bumping along. Further: turning here and there on unmarked paths, now uphill and now around a bend, always honking the horn lest a car, or even a motorcycle come from the opposite direction and smash head-on: driving in the country is no less a skill than in the city. Soon our caravan pulled up to a cluster of 7 houses: the village.
Because of the holiday, car traffic on these lanes was heavier than usual. However, noting how few cars were parked in driveways, I had to ask: how does one arrive to the villages if s/he has no car? According to Sam, one can hire a taxi to drive from the city, at a cost of about 25 Yuan. Or, if relatives know you are coming, they can arrange for a neighbor with a motorcycle to pick you up. Indeed, 2-wheeled traffic seemed to be standard. Most every house had at least a scooter in front of it, if not a motorcycle, and the narrowness of the lanes testify that cycles would be safer and sufficient.
The home Penny grew up in follows the standard country home: 3 stories made of brick and concrete; uninsulated, unfinished concrete floors, with a lean-to kitchen – with an actual well! A later remodel provided an indoor kitchen with a gas burner, and a bathroom with shower. The ceilings were 14 feet, at least. It seems electricity was an add-on, seeing as all of the wiring was external to the walls.
What westerners would call a parlor - the first room of the house, held simply a mantle, under a huge picture of Mao Ze Dong shaking hands with Zhou En Lai, and, to the left of that painting, a sepia-toned 8x10 print of Penny's father, who died when she was 14. On the mantle was a cooked fish on a plate, some fruit and a bowl of rice, offerings to the dead. A few primitive cobbler's benches lined one wall. A square table and an electronic mahjong table completed the decor. Everything except the mantle was drop-clothed, because nobody lives there, anymore: Penny's mom recently had a terrible health scare that landed her in the hospital for 2 weeks. The family is reluctant for her to live out in the country, by herself. I daresay Mom is happy to have family support, and to not be so far away from medical facilities.
It was easy to see that the other houses in that village followed the same pattern because of the custom of throwing both doors open in the morning and not close them until bedtime. Unconsciously, I contrasted this habit with westerners who resolutely shut and lock their doors as soon as they are inside. But then: western mindset dictates that you protect what you own. Therefore, locking oneself into one's home is the norm. I think I prefer the idea that, if you have nothing worth stealing, there's no point in locking any doors. Besides: how better to be neighborly than throwing your doors wide open so that anyone can wander in?
In the quiet so deep and unsettling, disturbed only by our voices, I tried to imagine what living in this village would be like, when no caravans of cars pulled up. After all, HDTV didn't seem to have arrived there, and my phone showed no wireless networks. “What do people do for fun?” I asked Sam.
“Play mahjong” he answered. “People will play from after lunch until dinnertime, and then after dinner until midnight or later, especially when the fields are fallow.”
Here I must confess that, even after more than 5 years in China, I've yet to learn how to play this national pastime. Anyway, I found it hard to believe that any game could be so entrancing that one could play for hours on end, but soon it was proven that, indeed: country life involves hours of mahjong play.
After our third graveside ritual, we pulled up at a relative's house. There we would eat a magnificent lunch. While, from inside the house – doors again flung wide open, we could hear the sizzle and stirring of food being cooked, we sat around outside, on the concrete patio, chatting away. The children amused themselves in another part of the house, its doors also widely welcoming.
Time to eat! We were all ushered in to what again would be called a parlor in the west. A round piece of wood was set up on a mahjong table and dishes abounded. There wasn't enough room around the table for everyone, so some fixed a bowl and ate outside (there was another mahjong table in the 'parlor', but without a piece of wood to protect its felt top, it would not be used as a dining table).
Once sated, the 'party' devolved. The table was cleared off and the wooden round removed. The cry rang out: “Who wants to play?” Nobody needed to say what would be played. Penny ran in, securing a seat at our recently vacated table. Others gathered 'round, and staffed the second table as well.
And so the afternoon went. Round after round of tiles surfaced out of the mechanical tables' slots. Bet after bet was made and paid. Those who did not play, watched. Some drifted outside, to stare inscrutably to the horizon, at the pregnant rain clouds. The children played, first indoors and then out, and then in the car. Sam found a bed and took a nap. I did my best to learn the game by watching, but mahjong is not a game you can learn by watching. Soon frustrated, I dug my Kindle out of my pack and read till the battery died.
The players did not move from their seats until a little after 5, when someone declared it was time to go. And then, they all rose, seemingly as one, and marched out the door. As many as could fit loaded up in the 3 cars we had; the rest stayed behind to wait for their turn to ride. On the way back to town and the fine restaurant we would dine in, the clouds finally broke, and with them, my stupor.
Stupor? Indeed! I simply couldn't believe that Sam was right about playing all afternoon, to the exclusion of all else!
I'd like to come back to Huangpi. It is a lovely city, and there are plenty of attractions, most attibuted to that heroic warrior, Mulan. Was she from this area, or is she just celebrated here? I couldn't find much information about her anywhere on the 'Net, nor could I find any listing for tourism in Huangpi. I do know I can ride a Wuhan city bus to get there. I'll have to take my chances that foreigners can rent hotel rooms.
What a lead-in for my next entry!