Our friend Huolin invited Justin and I to a picnic/barbeque this past Sunday. Huolin is famous for leaving out all of the important details–we really didn’t know where we were going or who would be there with us or what (if anything) we should bring. We received a mysterious text message from him on Saturday night telling us to meet him at our school gate at 8:50 AM the following morning, so we set our alarms and went to sleep, not knowing what exactly the following day would have in store.
We ended up being surprised on several counts. For one thing, Huolin did not actually meet us at our school gate in the morning. He left his friend Judy to the awkward task of picking two foreigners out of the crowd from her car and shouting to them from the driver’s side window to hop in. I’m starting to lose count of how many strangers we’ve accepted rides with over the course of the last several months. But we really weren’t worried about Judy, because she knew Huolin and assured us that we were going to meet him and caravan behind him in her car (because like us, she also had no idea where we were going). And we had the forty-minute car ride to talk to her and get to know her a little better.
Before long, we were well outside the city bustle of Huzhou and headed into the rural countryside. We eventually began ascending a very narrow two-lane road that winded in and out around a mountain. I snapped a picture (seen above) of the large gate to the mountain neighborhood that would be our final destination. Judy squealed with exasperation the further our caravan climbed. “How does he expect me to know this place? I could never find this on my own!” The car in front of us frequently sped away around corners, seemingly forgetting that there were a handful of cars behind it trying to keep up and follow. However, the further we climbed up the mountain, the more narrow and rugged the road became, and the more our cars had to slow to avoid all of the obstacles in the street. We drove past men wearing the quintessential pointed straw Chinese hats, carrying loads of bamboo shoots as big around as my arm. We saw housewives hanging their laundry out on the line to dry and carrying squawking, flapping chickens upside-down by their feet. We were only forty minutes away from the city center, but I felt like we were in another world–or transported back in time. The country people in the neighborhood were watching me just as closely as I watched them, all stopping their work and staring intently at our unusual caravan of cars as we drove past them.
We finally reached the end of the asphalt road and the beginning of a dirt road which wound even further up the mountain. Everyone started parking their cars, so Judy followed suit, and we got out and began walking up the hill towards a pink tile house. “Huolin, what is this place?” Judy asked in Chinese, and he explained to her that he was born and raised in this country neighborhood. We didn’t actually go inside the house where he grew up, but instead, we were invited to use a house belonging to a friend of his. His friend’s house was the highest on the mountain, which was an indication of his social status among his neighbors (as Huolin confided). Huolin always seems to surround himself with the most important people in the community–doctors, lawyers, engineers, foreigners, etc. But that day we were all going back to the basics with our outing in the country.
Once we reached the house, a few more surprises were revealed. For one, we weren’t actually going to eat outdoors. The plan was to eat inside of the pink tile house instead. Also, we weren’t going to be grilling any meat–isn’t that what a barbeque is? Instead, we would be eating traditional Chinese cuisine. It wasn’t exactly the barbeque/picnic I had been picturing in my mind, but I wasn’t complaining. I was enjoying being out in the country in a rural mountain neighborhood. The surprising detail that did have me complaining was when Huolin announced that we would be climbing up to the top of the mountain after lunch. If I had known that, I would have worn some sneakers! Instead, I was wearing my flimsy little plastic jelly-shoes–not the best footwear for hiking. Oh well.
I was surprised (though I really shouldn’t have been) to discover that our lunch was still alive when we arrived at the pink house. The owner of the house apologized that he hadn’t started cooking the two chickens sooner, explaining that he had climbed to the top of the mountain that morning to chase down the wild chickens, and it took longer than he expected to catch them. Now there’s a funny mental image. Judy sagely confided, “Perhaps the chickens on the top of the mountain are much more delicious than the chickens at the bottom of the mountain.” But she also gave me a little laugh, to let me know that she wasn’t being completely serious. I watched with interest as the owner of the house (let’s just call him “lao ba,” which means “the boss”) carried the chickens down to the bottom of the driveway to kill them and de-feather them, but I had to turn my head when he chopped their heads and drained out the blood into the bushes. I know that the chickens I buy in the supermarket all meet the same end, but some parts of country living are still too grisly for me to stomach.
I got a laugh when the guy pictured above approached Justin and asked in a somber tone, “May I have permission to take a picture with your wife?” Justin laughed and replied in true American fashion, “It’s up to her! Don’t ask me for permission–ask her!” Of course I agreed. All morning the other members of our party had been snapping away at us with their cameras, fascinated by the foreigners in the group. To be fair, I had been taking just as many pictures of them and the surrounding neighborhood. Judy laughed at me and said, “To you, we are the foreigners, right?” “That’s right!” I said with a laugh, snapping another picture of the ladies hard at work in the kitchen.
I felt a little guilty that I wasn’t helping cook our lunch with the other women, but honestly, I am not that great with cooking American food. Trying to cook Chinese food? Forget it! I probably did them a favor by staying out of the kitchen.
I asked Judy which dish was her favorite, and she pointed to the raw sliced tomatoes. “Really?” I asked doubtfully. “Yes, because this is the one I brought!” Judy replied with a big smile. She’s so silly. Judy had me laughing all day.
We got to see Mark from Canada one last time before we leave to go back home. He’s actually headed home soon himself. He’ll be back in Canada before we reach America. He’s taking his young daughter Emily with him for the summer, but he’s leaving his wife behind (seen in the picture above, on the far left). He didn’t say why, but I assume it’s because it’s too difficult for her to get a visa to leave China. He’ll be back in time to teach again next school year. This is actually his sixth or seventh year living in China–I can’t imagine!
This guy didn’t leave his Lao Ba’s side the entire time we were there–a very loyal guard dog! I asked Huolin if the dog was friendly, and if it would be alright for me to pet him. He said, “Yes, he’s friendly!” and only seconds later I saw another man in our group try to pet the dog and almost get bit. All of the men thought it was funny, and they crowded around the dog and tried to pet him as well, only to get snarled at and snapped at. I could tell that the dog wasn’t mean, but just scared of the large group of people in his usually-empty house. After about an hour of talking sweetly to the dog and trying to coax him over to me (and, I admit, cheating by feeding him a few pieces of my chicken from the dinner table), he finally approached me and mushed his wet nose into my knee and let me pet him. Success! I am the dog-whisperer!
After lunch, true to Huolin’s promise, we all climbed a trail to the top of the mountain, to see an old Buddhist temple that someone had built there. Justin and I were excited to finally get to explore a bamboo forest, just like the one that hosts the epic kung fu fight scene in the Oscar-award winning film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (which, fun fact, was filmed in Huzhou)!
The climb was a little bit daunting with a belly full of food and a steep, tricky path made of rocks and gnarled tree roots. But it was really peaceful. For once we were away from the bustle of people and the honking of cars in the streets. The only sounds for miles were the whisper of leaves brushing against leaves as the wind blew through the bamboo trees, and the babble of water streaming through the irrigation canal system set up by the farmers.
I was surprised when Huolin finally made his way back to the pink house about ten minutes after we’d gotten there, holding a giant armful of shrubbery. He told us that he picked some plants he found that are good for cooking, and everyone took a turn holding the leaves to their noses to get a whiff. Huolin intended on giving the herbs to his friend, which made me laugh. It reminded me of Kasia’s going away dinner, when Huolin presented Kasia with an old, dirty, cracked watch face (minus the watch strap) as a going-away gift. Kasia took a good long look at it before replying, “And what the h#$@ am I supposed to do with this, Huolin?” He told her it was an antique, and she should keep it in a drawer somewhere. Apparently, Huolin has a knack for giving “unusual” gifts. I hope his friend knows what to do with that giant bushel of herbs–but I can’t help but imagine his friend having a similar reaction to Kasia when Huolin shows up on his doorstep and offers up his prize (dirty roots and all!).
In all, it was a lovely day in the country, and another cherished memory of our time in China that is quickly coming to an end!