‘I grew up in a small village’, she said.
An open face and a tentative lip, a direct manner and a shy blush, but above all a question mark in her eyes: why had I come? Why was I so full of questions? What is a ‘foreign’ friend really like?
But I was interested in something far different: her life growing up in a small village in Shandong Province. I had been to other villages in China, up in the mountains or out west, but I had not visited this one. The image relied purely on her words.
‘Where?’ I said.
‘Near the big lake in Shandong province’, she said. ‘Zhaoyang Lake’.
‘The one on the border with Jiangsu province?’ I said.
‘Yes, that’s the one’, she said. ‘We lived on the north side’.
‘How many people are in your village?’ I said.
‘Oh, maybe a couple of hundred,’ she said.
‘Do you come from a big family?’ I asked.
‘I am the youngest of five children’, she said.
‘Five …!’ I paused. ‘That’s not what I am used to seeing in China’.
‘Obviously, I was born before the one-child policy came into effect’, she said. ‘I am the baby of the family, born when my mother was already forty’.
‘A big family!’ I said.
‘Many nieces and nephews’, she laughed. ‘When we all get together for spring festival, my parents’ house is very full and very noisy (renao)’.
‘Does any one of your brothers or sisters still live in the village’, I said.
‘One brother and his family’, she said. ‘They help with my parents – who are in the eighties now’.
‘What do they do for a job?’ I said.
‘They are farmers’, she said. ‘But the way they farm has changed much, with technology, computers – you know, all the modern stuff’.
‘But tell me what it was like to grow up in a Chinese village in Shandong?’ I said.
‘I was born in 1970’, she said. ‘I remember we had to go to a well in the middle of the village to get water and everyone worked on the land’.
‘A well?’ I said.
‘We used it for drinking water (after boiling) and washing water’, she said.
‘Does your village still have a well?’ I asked.
‘Yes, of course’, she said. ‘But each house now has running water. At first – I remember the moment when I was a teenager – we had hand held pumps in the house. Pull up and down and the water would come out. Taps and basins came later’.
‘What about the well?’ I said.
‘Oh, we believe the water is very fresh’, she said. ‘But we must make sure we drink it all if we take some’.
‘The local dragon will get angry if we waste it’, she laughed.
‘What did your father do?’ I asked.
‘He was a teacher in the village school’, she said.
‘Did he teach you too?’ I said.
‘Of course’, she said. ‘He taught my brothers and sister, as well as my cousins. He was the only teacher’.
‘What did you learn?’ I said.
‘Many people think it was still a traditional time, before the reform and opening up’, she said. ‘But it was already after the revolution of 1949, so we learnt about the Long March, Chairman Mao, along with reading and writing’.
‘At a young age?’ I said.
She laughed. ‘Yes, our textbooks for reading and writing told the stories of the revolutionary struggle’.
‘And Confucian teaching?’ I said.
‘That was more at home’, she said. ‘It is Shandong Province, after all, where Confucius was born. We are very serious about his teachings’.
‘But why at home?’ I asked.
‘Well, you know …’, she said. ‘During the Cultural Revolution, Confucius’s thought was not so popular. It was seen as part of the old, traditional China that had to be overcome. So we learnt it only at home’.
‘Since then, a new form of Confucianism has flowered, hasn’t it?’ I said.
‘Yes indeed’, she said. ‘But it is a bit different, since it works together with Marxism, or rather, socialism with Chinese characteristics’.
‘What did your family experience during that time?’ I said.
‘Since my father was a teacher, he was seen as one of the intellectuals’, she said. ‘Part of the old tradition in China, held up by the intellectuals. So he was not able to teach’.
‘What did your family do?’ I asked.
‘We farmed like everyone else’, she said. ‘But we were very poor … again, like everyone else. And I remember as a child eating endless baozi, steamed buns made out of wheat’.
‘Not rice?’ I said.
‘No’, she said. ‘Shandong is towards the north and is famous for its wheat’.
‘What about today?’ I said.
‘It is both the same and very different’, she said.
‘How so?’ I said.
‘The village is still very traditional in its outlook’, she said. ‘I am a traditional woman. It is very important to me. But much has changed. Farming has been modernised; the school system has been reformed a few times; my old home now has running water, electricity, internet …’.
‘And you now work in a modern Chinese city’, I said. ‘What is it like to visit your village again?’
‘We all return for spring festival’, she said. ‘At least those of us who do not live in the village’.
‘And your parents?’ I said.
‘They are very close now’, she said. ‘In their eighties’.
‘Why do you say “now”?’ I asked.
‘Well, it was an arranged marriage’, she said. ‘My mother is one of the last of her generation to have small feet. She came from a big peasant family and the marriage was arranged by her family and my father’s’.
‘Really?’ I said.
‘Yes, and they did not really like each other for a long time,’ she said.
‘While all five of you were born’, I said.
‘Yes’, she said. ‘I remember they argued all the time. But then, some time in their sixties, they fell in love with each other. And it has been that way ever since!’