This chapter is about hospitality as I experienced it, and is excerpted from a larger work of ethnographic memoir about the time I spent in two subsequent summers in a tiny peasant village, Dang Jiashan (also spelled Dang Jia Shan), in northern Shaanxi Province, China. I originally visited this village as a volunteer through Earthwatch to document this traditional village with the Principle Investigator of the expedition, Dang Anrong, who grew up in this village, and we stayed in an unused home in the village, where his family cooked and cared for us. I returned the subsequent year independent of Earthwatch but concurrent with another volunteer team who came with Anrong. Li-Li, his niece, was my private translator. I don't explain who everybody is here, I haven't made this a self-contained essay, it's just an excerpt ... but you can catch on who is a volunteer and who is a local. If you read some of my other essays from the village, you'll start to become familiar with everybody.
We were gifted with such incredible and endearing hospitality in the village ... sure, I've met lots of friendly, kind and generous people around the world, but the hospitality in the village was really special, and I thought some readers might find this interesting, the traditional ways of the rural population, and the kinds of gifts we exchanged.
In the early summer, the dates are huge and plump and juicy. Date trees grow everywhere around Dang Jiashan and provide bumper crops of fruit. Their crinkled, reddish brown skins glow like bronze in the hot sun. While the fields of crops struggled against the heat, the dates prospered and filled baskets in every courtyard. My first year in the village, they were one of the principle gifts of hospitality.
To people like me and most of the volunteers on the Earthwatch teams, the kind of hospitality shown to us within the village was charming. Being foreigners, being with Anrong, and being looked upon as well-educated “expert” volunteers, perhaps we were particularly well-treated. There was never a home in Dang Jiashan or any other village we visited in which we were not offered fresh fruit and vegetables. To say “offered” is actually an understatement, as the food was quite literally forced upon us.
It’s not like a malevolent sort of thing, but perhaps it’s just completely incomprehensible to them that someone would not like fresh fruit and vegetables; the host is convinced you’re refusing either out of decorum (which happens to be an important component in Chinese culture; one should never jump to accept a gift, and in fact it’s bad form to open a gift in front of the giver, for the recipient would appear greedy in their eagerness), or if you continue refusing past the polite three or four times, they may take it as an affront.
It’s unfortunate that I don’t much care for the taste or texture of watermelon, for this was the delicacy most often offered to us. I struggled as best I could to eat a piece now and again. Honestly, as far as watermelon goes, it was unequivocally the best I’ve tasted. But I just can’t eat very much. I had to resort to visual trickery and lying to convince hosts that I’d eaten several pieces.
The watermelon was so juicy that it just ran down our arms in streams. We were naturally concerned about getting the juice on the floors of our hosts’ homes, as we never had plates, and we had nowhere to spit the seeds. It was comical sometimes as we tried with one hand to both stanch the flow of juice and hold spit-out seeds. Inevitably the host insisted we not worry about the juice on the floor, and gave us damp cloths or tissues to mop our hands with. Sometimes they brought out a spittoon for the seeds, but many hosts insisted we just spit the seeds onto the floor. It was hard not to feel wrong and naughty for doing this, but when in Rome …
The second year I enjoyed many plump tomatoes (which, fortunately, I like) whose juice also ran down my arm and dripped off my elbow all over the floor. But it was another misfortune my first year in the village that I didn’t like the dates the villagers harvested. So I had a tough time dealing with the onslaught of villager hospitality. In retrospect, I feel bad for how I handled it, because it hadn’t fully sunk in to me at that time how monstrous the ghost of famine had been, haunting this land for ages. In America, we think nothing at all of tossing away food we don’t like. And we don’t have to deal with this forcible hospitality; if you don’t care for something, you just say so and usually no offense is taken. That first year, plateful after plateful of dates was passed around to us. Once, Papa sat next to me at one of his relatives’ homes and I tried the visual tricks—pretending to close my hand around a date but in fact not grabbing one—as well as the lying thing, but Papa was on to me; he kept nudging me with his elbow to take more, take more. And so finally I did and slipped them into my pockets. Later, I threw them out into the fields. I thought that was the best way not to seem rude, because if I had tried to eat one in front of Papa I would have made an awful face as I tried to swallow it, probably even gagging on the skin.
But now I feel that that was a more egregious affront to the villagers—even if they didn’t know I did it—than being firm about refusing them and getting Anrong to explain to them that I was simply a freak who didn’t like the taste of dates. Every scrap of food has been important to these Chinese peasants. Millions and millions of people through the ages, right into the 20th century, literally starved to death here on the High Loess Plateau, in the hills surrounding Dang Jiashan. Any of those gaunt skeletons could have lived for days on what I callously threw away just because my prissy taste buds didn’t agree with it. It’s a tedious, well-worn type of guilt, but it fits like a glove when you’re in this position. It’s even worse in China, knowing now what paramount importance food, and the exchange of food, plays in social customs. Between my first and second visits to the village, I read a lot of Chinese history and ethnographies and came back far better educated.
So there was the food that was handed to us upon entry to a family’s home. But then we also quickly learned to be very careful about what we said in their home or pointed to in their garden, or even how much we relished something we ate. The peasants picked up on everything we did as if they had a sixth sense for these small gestures. One time, looking at a family’s courtyard garden, Irene pointed out to me a head of kohlrabi. We’d been having discussions about this at dinner, for it had been served to us shredded, and I’d said I didn’t know what this vegetable looked like and so I didn’t know if it was sold in our grocery stores at home. So now Irene pointed it out to me, and we walked over to it and I said, “Ah!” But the wife of the family had apparently been watching me from the corner of her eye while she was talking with Anrong, and took it for an exclamation about how yummy it looked, because suddenly she came sprinting out of the house with a plastic grocery bag and quickly picked the three biggest heads of kohlrabi and thrust the bag at us. It happened so quickly, Irene and I were too stunned to react for a moment. Then we tried to refuse, tried to explain to Anrong that we didn’t want it for ourselves, we were just commenting on it. While we were making our case to Anrong, who was now holding the bag, the lady hopped back into the garden and picked her largest cucumbers for us. In the end we just had to accept graciously.
That sort of thing happened frequently, and I often felt like a bull in a china shop, wreaking havoc with my innocent comments, starving the villagers out of their own gardens. At that point, I generally just wanted to get the heck out of Dodge before they were giving me the kitchen sink (so to speak… of course they don’t have sinks since there’s no plumbing).
Somebody told me and my husband somewhere along our sightseeing travels in China that if you don’t want any more food or tea, you should leave your plate/glass full. It’s something we noticed intuitively, but it was funny to hear a Chinese person state it like an official axiom of social behavior. It’s the only way to get your hosts, or the waitresses in restaurants, to stop filling you up; you have to physically bar the way with food and drink left untouched. In Dang Jiashan, if we ate more than half a watermelon presented to us, the host would start in slicing open another one. When Anrong’s family served us our meals, they would put two plates of each item on the table, and if one plate became empty—even if the other was completely full—out came another hot plate of that item. I remember one particular restaurant my husband and I ate at in Beijing; we couldn’t take more than two or three sips of tea before it was refilled. It was frustrating because my mouth has a low threshold for heat and I always have to let my tea cool before I can drink it; as soon as it had cooled enough for me to drink, just as I began to enjoy it, it was filled with boiling hot liquid again. The only way to drink a full cup of just-right tea was to guzzle it down in one go, like a shot.
A table full of food and Anrong's eldest sister bringing in more food for us volunteers .....
My second year in China, after I left the village and my husband and I spent about a month sightseeing, when we returned to Beijing (from where we would fly home), Anrong had returned to his home there also. I had a package to deliver to him, and so he invited us to his home for dinner. We brought a bottle of wine, but then learned Anrong and his wife didn’t drink. So we felt a little bad, but by the time we left we felt like real heels in the face their hospitality. First, his wife had spent all day cooking for us. No fewer than ten different dishes. That alone was astounding to me. And she spent half of dinner in the kitchen getting the next dish ready and hot. Of course, politeness dictated we have some of each dish even though I was physically very uncomfortable trying to stuff it all in.
Then his wife, whom I had never met, presented me with a gift of a beautiful wallet—I get compliments on it all the time—and Anrong presented my husband, whom he’d never met, with a very nice metal bookmark. And they gave each of us a set of hand-stitched insoles for our shoes. Then they escorted us to the subway station where we caught a train back to our hostel on the other side of the city, and they insisted on paying our subway fare. It actually got physical, trying to push each other out of the way to get our money into the fare booth first. (They won.) The previous year, when I was sightseeing on my own in Beijing, I watched a really funny “fight” between two older women on a public bus who were insisting that the other take the one empty seat; they were each trying to manhandle the other into the seat. Finally one woman used both hands to shove the other lady down into it, and then they giggled. (I was already standing up, lest you think me cruel for not offering my own.)
In the small cities (small by Chinese standards) that the Earthwatch teams stayed in briefly—Yulin and Jiaxian—we could estimate the condition of a place by the magnanimity of the personnel or local officials welcoming us, for the “star-rating” of a property seemed to be inversely proportional to the degree of personal hospitality offered. When people fell over themselves to attend to us and present gifts, we could just bet that the accommodations were going to be grim.
My first trip to Jiaxian City, in 2005, we arrived at our hotel and found in each of our rooms a plate of pumpkin seeds and freshly sliced watermelon, and a pack of Hao Mao (“good cat”) cigarettes, with the top opened and the cigarettes neatly pulled part way out for quick and easy grabbing. The toilet leaked at the base, so flushing it merely transferred the water to the bathroom floor where it lazily drifted toward the shower drain. The mirror was covered with black mold. Later, the electricity (hence, the air-conditioning) went out. Then the water main was broken by construction workers down the street. So the hotel staff ran across the parking lot to a restaurant and filled buckets, some with cold water and some with water heated hot by the cookstove, then struggled back across the parking lot (in 95-degree heat), came to each of our rooms, plugged the sink and poured a combination of hot and cold water into it to allow us the simple Western pleasure of washing our hands in warm water before dinner.
Pointing out the black mold on the mirror ...
Unsolicited hospitality is still a cultural mandate to many Chinese. But in the seemingly inevitable trajectory of a modernizing society, people are becoming estranged from one another by new values associated with individual property, by socially isolating technologies like television, cell phones, motorcycles. People don’t need to depend on one another as much, and somehow that seems to produce the behavior of “what I don’t need, I also don’t give.” (Like how in America it’s usually only people who have hitchhiked who pick up hitchhikers.) It’s almost as if self-sufficiency and generosity/hospitality are mutually exclusive. When people have little, they give a lot, and that grace is the expression of social status. When people have a lot, they give little; their material belongings infect them with a strange disease of selfishness, and private, personal property becomes the expression of status. My Chinese tutor here in America complained often of the increasing materialistic nature of her countrymen back home. “People weren’t like that before,” she would sigh.
The urban young people of large cities are growing ever more callous and irreverent, even downright rude. The old codes of hospitality and honor are being forgotten. Families split apart and don’t live together anymore; grandparents seldom see their grandchildren; children abandon their Confucian obligation to care for their elderly parents. Workers in a common factory or office are starting to drift into separate social components, no longer part of a work-place community; people spend hours commuting to work in isolation. (It used to be that a person’s danwei, their employment, was the center of their social structure—employees all lived in the same apartment complexes, sponsored by the employer.)
Right now the biggest cultural difference regarding China doesn’t seem to be as much between Chinese and Westerners, but rather within the country itself, between modernizing urbanites (homogenizing with the rest of the world) and the rural peasantry still clinging to traditions and community. Urban Chinese have more in common with urban Westerners than with Chinese peasants. I think it’s a worldwide phenomenon that our differences are now reflected more in urban versus rural than in nationality versus nationality.
This is something I found really funny: In Beijing the people are being given lessons in smiling. My Chinese tutor warned me before I went there in 2005, that the people in Beijing may seem unfriendly because they do not smile; there are just too many of them, she said. “If you smiled at everybody your face would be too tired.” For the 2008 Olympics, the government tried to train their people to be more appealing to Westerners. First there was a big campaign on manners and cleanliness, personal hygiene (and no spitting!). Then the campaign for smiling.
In the village, though, the people are always smiling. Smiling and laughing any time they caught sight of us. I guess I don’t know for sure, but I’m pretty confident Anrong didn’t have to give them lessons ahead of time on smiling. Their smiles were as genuine as their astounding hospitality. Papa and Mama melted my heart every day with their marvelous smiles. This is not so different from my small hometown in Colorado where East Coast urbanites who relocate to the area or pass through think we’re mocking them or being snide when we smile or say “hi” to strangers.
One of the most endearing expressions of the social code of mutual hospitality happened to my husband and me while on a train from Datong to Hohhot. You can read more about it in my post, Ho-ho-Hohhot: Up North in China.
Anju took care of most of the needs of the volunteers within our village yao. I found his presence there, particularly when he came to fill our water jars, calming and pleasant. We tried to protest that we were doing fine on water (knowing how little water the spring was supplying); we needed it only to wash our hands and faces in a small ceramic basin (though because it kept being supplied, we took to conservatively washing some clothes, too), but as with everything else, our protests were denied and he carried on. He knelt down with his soft countenance and gently ladled into tin buckets the old water left in the jars and carried them out of the courtyard on a shoulder pole, presumably to be poured on plants. Then he carried in on his shoulders buckets of fresh spring water. Several trips into the yao to fill the jars. He was like some fluid himself when he did this, languidly filling and emptying buckets of cool water, coming in silently, humbly, into our yao of cackling women. Blinking those soft eyes that made me think of llamas, smiling that wide, closed-lip smile, lifting the heavy load of water onto his shoulders as though it were merely a cotton ball.
At night, Mama always wanted to know if we wished to have the kang heated. It seemed absurd that we’d want a heated bed in the middle of summer; the stone kang in the back of the yao was delicious in its coolness. But she worried about us getting a chill. Particularly with the first team in 2005, she perpetually asked, “Do you want this?” and “Do you want that?” It was like code red in the village; everyone on heightened alert to see that we were OK. The villagers seemed more relaxed the second year—they had by then become accustomed to the volunteers’ needs and had come to understand that we were a little more hearty than they had expected.
It had been suggested in the Earthwatch expedition guide that volunteers bring small gifts as a show of friendship and appreciation to the villagers; they were all accepted graciously by the villagers whenever we presented them. My second trip to Dang Jiashan, I had a better idea of what might be fun gifts for them, and I came fairly laden. In case you might wonder what I brought: I gave things like magnifying glasses and singing magnets to the children, though they ended up being just as big a hit with the adults. To each of Anrong’s sisters I gave pretty polished rocks. Those were also a hit, and as I myself wore a polished rock on a necklace, they all wanted to know if they could make a necklace from their stones, too. I brought a wide variety of liquors in little “airplane” bottles for the men, so as to have the widest selection for tasting parties. Li-Li took this pic while Anrong was explaining to Papa and Anju about the liquors; I love Anju's humble gesture, like, "You mean, these are for *me*?"
I brought a pocket-calendar for Wei of monthly photographs from around my state with my birthday noted on it, which he was very excited to know; a pen light which I ended up giving to Wei’s cousin who spent a couple days with us when we first arrived in Yulin City and bravely carried my heavy backpack for me, and upon my giving it to him, completely broke with Chinese decorum and threw his arms around me in a big hug (I actually hadn’t intended that as a gift, it was for my own use, but Zhong Feng touched me with his sweetness and so I gave it away, and after the hug felt completely justified for doing so); magnetic necklaces and bracelets for Li-Li and Cao-Yu; writing journals and pens and English storybooks for the older children like Wang-Wang and Pan-Pan; flavored chapstick for the girls and women; animal stickers for Lei-Lei; and the art supply set especially for Xiu-Xiu. I gave as a gift to Mama a tea towel that my grandma had hand-stitched a little bear onto. (Towels are very useful things to the villagers.) So she could see exactly who it was that did the stitching, I showed her and Papa a photograph I’d taken earlier the same year of my grandparents standing beside their first tractor, which Grandpa recently had repainted shiny red. They were very taken by it. I really meant just to show it to them, but they liked it so much that I let them keep it.
For me, it was enormously fun to give out these things to people that I loved and who were so greatly appreciative, and who had never had things like these before. But this second year I had to deal with something I hadn’t had to the previous year—some of the children wanted to reciprocate and give things to me. As with the predicament of having to accept the little rug from Xiu-Xiu’s grandmother, this made me a bit uncomfortable, and it hadn’t occurred to me that I would be offered gifts myself. It was another form of guilt—I know I have vastly greater economic resources than these folks (though by American standards I’m on the lower end of the economic scale), and I didn’t want them giving to me from their meager materials.
Wang-Wang was the first to ambush me with a little silver star earring. I have no idea where she got it from, but I took one of my own earrings out and she put it in my ear, and was terribly pleased. One of my favorite photos from this trip is of me and her, cheek to cheek, with me pointing to my newly installed earring. I wore it until my ear got horribly infected. I suppose I’m lucky I didn’t get hepatitis or something (can you get hepatitis that way?). But the infection still acts up a decade later out of the blue. She tried to give me more gifts later but I kept pointing to the earring and telling her that she’d given me enough already.
Li-Li, my laughing star, pestered me for several nights about what I wanted as a gift. “Tell me what you like,” she said, “and when we get back to Yulin, I’ll buy it for you.” I had to make her swear to me she wouldn’t buy me anything. In the end, she gave me her supply of laminated paper-cuttings that were given by the government officials in Jiaxian City to all Earthwatch team members. (She was considered an official aide to the volunteers and Anrong.) I had plenty of them myself, and I tried several times to give them back, but I ended up taking them home.
The night before I left the village for the last time, my beautiful astronaut (as I nicknamed her in "A Childhood Far From My Own"), Cao-Yu, gave me a bracelet of brown beads with Chinese characters etched into each one. This was the hardest thing for me to accept, though I’m not sure why. The characters didn’t really mean anything, they were just sort of nonsense words, words without context. I tried to ascertain from Li-Li whether or not the bracelet was something Cao-Yu liked to wear herself or if it was something she didn’t really care about. I would have more happily accepted it if I thought it was the latter. But Li-Li was obviously trying to guess the answer I wanted to hear and tell me that answer (the former). So I don’t really know how important the bracelet was to Beautiful Astronaut. In any case, I made myself get over it. But it’s another one of those things that is too special to me—like the stitched insoles—to actually wear for fear of losing it. So it sits on my dresser.
It was difficult leaving the village each year; it’s amazing how emotionally attached you can get to a place in just a short period of time. At my first parting, in 2005, in a final frenzy of generosity and good will, Anrong’s family came with a basket of fresh-picked dates and began stuffing us with them. They were so happy in the giving of this gift, the way I felt the following year about giving the villagers things I was sure they would like. They were really tickled to be able to provide us this special bounty. I couldn’t possibly refuse it. But I thought I was somewhat resourceful—when Anju came to me with the date basket, I unzipped the cargo pocket on my pants which already had my wallet in it, indicating that was all the space I had for food, which fortunately wasn’t too much. I was pleased with my little ploy, as other volunteers had much more room in their pockets and handbags. Suddenly, I felt a tug at my back. Anju had gone around and unzipped my daypack and poured the basket of dates in there. He came back around with a smile so warm and delighted it was a silver dagger in my heart. All I could do was thank him profusely.
When we arrived back in Yulin, Anrong had reserved a couple of hotel rooms for us to rest in and shower if we wished before boarding our flight back to Beijing. The other women volunteers and I gathered together in one of the rooms to sit and chat, and we all marveled over the quantity of dates as we each emptied our supply onto the little table in the room to see the effect of the accumulated date supply. But by then I was not the only one who couldn’t eat dates; most everyone else had eaten so many in the village they didn’t really care for any more.
After awhile, as our departure time drew near, we each got distracted with securing our luggage for the plane ride and buying some last minute items in the city, and recapping with one another what a remarkable experience we’d just had. By the time Anrong came to the room to tell us it was time to go to the lobby and head out to the airport, we’d completely forgotten about the dates. We stood in the hallway as Anrong took a quick look around the room to make sure we hadn’t forgotten anything, and he spied the table piled high with fruit.
“The dates!” he cried. “What about your dates? Aren’t you taking them?”
“Oh… no.” We now realized we shouldn’t have just left them there.
“But my brother gave them to you as a gift. They’re a gift from my family for you to eat!” A trail of hurt and confusion leaked out of his voice. And we were all stunned into shame. Only at that moment did it sink in how important this was for the villagers, what a sacrifice of their personal resources. I felt like a rotten shmuck. Fortunately someone had the sense to think quickly and said, “But we can’t take them back to America; we’re not allowed to take fresh fruit through customs.” We all chimed in on that note and explained to Anrong the customs regulations. And it’s true; we couldn’t have taken them back to America. But that was only an afterthought.
Forlornly, Anrong closed the door of the hotel room.
Anrong, of course, forgave us and I believe eventually came to understand our mistake, how our ignorance and our First-World relationship with food unintentionally took on the form of callousness. It was a big lesson to me, and I'd rather not share my mistakes with the world, but it happened and maybe it can be a lesson to others if they find themselves in a hold-out pocket of this world where such hospitality and community exists among strangers, to remember the context in which hospitality is being offered and adjust your grace in accepting to reflect the spirit and magnanimity in which it was given.