<A>Xingtai, in all its Glory

Written by Apr 12, 2006 22:04
Add Friends:
Email 1 Email 2 Email 3

No more than 10 friends at a time, please.



I was only there for two days, but it was one of those experiences where (maybe you don't get this) every little thing was something I wanted to take note of so I wouldn't forget it. When I first got to China, everything was new and noteworthy, but before long, I adjusted. Since then, I hadn't had many experiences that felt totally new. I don't suppose I could call Xingtai totally new. But it felt pretty close.

It was the beginning of Spring break, a few weeks before the new year itself. The college where I was teaching was on a very long break and my co-workers had scattered in the winds of world-wide travel. I was left waiting for one of my co-workers to get back from a trip to Taiwan so we could hit all of China's hot spots-- Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Hainan, Kunming, Chongqing... Till then, I was just killing time. I asked around to some of my students to find out if any would let me take them up on the frequent offers to visit their hometowns. Only a handful of my 240 students got back to me, and only one sounded palpably excited at the prospect of my visit. Her name was Margaret and she lived in Xingtai, just a short way to the south of my homebase. I called her and we made plans.


When I went to Xingtai, I hadn't even been in China for five months yet. My Chinese vocabulary consisted of a few food names, pleasantries, and numbers. I was lucky enough to be working with some Westerners with fluent Chinese, which meant my bad Chinese hadn't been much of a problem thus far. I'd never even taken a taxi by myself further than down the street where I lived at that point. As I set off from my college, I had the name of my desired bus station written down for the taxi driver, but when we got to the station, the driver said something I didn't understand and I nodded confusedly while squinting out the window, since I couldn't see any busses from where he'd stopped. Before I knew it, we were pulling out and driving away. He took me to some other bus station, the one my students had told me had more run-down busses. I ended up on the worst of the run-down busses.

Xingtai by train was only 1 hour. By nice bus, just under 2 hours. By the bus I took, 2 and a half hours. It was the dead of winter and I had a window seat by a window that wouldn't close all the way.

For most of the ride, some guy who looked about my age sat by me, trying to make conversation. This proved difficult, as he didn't speak a word of English. He was tenacious, though. After the first 45 minutes of saying things I smiled blandly at, he broke out his electronic dictionary. Of course he would have an electronic dictionary, even though he doesn't speak any English. The thing was, instead of looking up what he wanted to say, word by word, he went to this list of stock phrases in there and scrolled through, occasionally deeming one appropriate to the situation and showing it to me. "How's life?" "Can I help you in any way?" "Could you pour me some coffee?"

Then I pulled out my notebook with some of my Chinese lessons in it, thinking I could find some helpful stock phrases of my own. He took my notebook and tried writing what he wanted to say. At first he wrote in characters, which is far more confusing for me than speaking, thinking maybe I could read at least. Characters didn't work, so he tried pinyin. Finally there were some words I knew. "Ok, so you're saying 'you something something friend something.' Great." This worked a little better, as I caught "mingzi," which means name, so I could figure out one thing he was asking.

Later, I had my students translate what he wrote. The first thing he wrote, in characters, was "Can you read Chinese characters?" Some of the other things he wrote included asking me for my phone number, welcoming me to visit him anytime, and asking if I'd take a picture with him when we got off the bus. I understood none of this at the time, so he got nothing he asked for. I felt bad once I figured out what he'd said. My students found all this highly amusing when I related the story. They laughed hardest when I told them that, to his questions, I usually answered "wo bu zhi dao", since that was the only way I knew how to say I didn't understand. "Wo bu zhi dao" means "I don't know." The boy was asking questions like "Who are you visiting in Xingtai?" and I was answering "I don't know."

Catching a Bite to Eat

When we pulled into a station at last, Margaret was waiting for me, along with Vivien, another of my students. Margaret had thought I was taking the faster bus, so they'd been waiting in the freezing cold for me for an hour. A third student, Sandy, was stationed at another bus station, just in case I wound up there. We picked up Sandy and hit the town.

The girls fawned over their city, telling me how much prettier it is than Shijiazhuang, where I was teaching. My very first impression was that it didn't look very different at all. Only upon further inspection did I decide it really is cooler. It's smaller--only about 3 million. It felt more like a medium-sized-for-Iowa type town to me, maybe a little bigger.

Our first stop was going to be lunch. The girls offered me a choice: KFC or Chinese food. I said Chinese food, hands down. We cut through a big cement square that must be kinda pretty in the spring or summer, but was very... cement-y in January. We took a short cut down an alley Vivien knew of. If my hands hadn't been shooting with the pain of cold, I would've taken lots of pictures. The alley was narrow, very Chinese. It was the type of Chinese you don't see much in Shijiazhuang but wish you did.

We got to a street on which all the buildings were in an old style, like you'd see at the Forbidden City. They'd been built to match a big tower at the head of the street. The tower was at least 300 years old, as I was told. It was the building where officials worked at that time. We ate in one of the restaurants on this street.

When we got inside, the waitstaff gave us a special sideroom, what with me being a foreigner and all. My girls were in slight disbelief at the special treatment being with me got them. Well... it wasn't always special treatment, but extra attention, for sure. They were always making a point of exclaiming at how everyone stared at us when we walked around. Being the worldly English majors that they are, they laughed at the backwoods manners of their countrymen.

My girls were great about speaking in English pretty much always. Even when having conversations with each other that didn't directly involve me, they'd speak in English so I wouldn't feel weird. It was really great to see them using their English so conversationally, joking around and everything.

We ordered a lot of food, and it was good food. Our waitress typified what I came to think of as the Northern China look. Her skin was dark and her face broad. Her hands were red, chapped, cracked, and swollen from the cold. In America, hands like that would never get by for a waitress. But she was neatly dressed and attentive. I wanted to take pictures of her hands and ask about her life, but she kept her hands hidden when she could and didn't seem inclined to idle conversation.


We wandered around the town, seeing things the girls thought I should see. We walked around the campus of the city university. We bought some CDs. We toured the officers' building. We saw old women burning money for the dead and old men playing Mahjong. We saw lots of cars decorated to indicate that they carried newly married couples.

In general, I felt like it was a really great day to that point because this was the closest I'd come to feeling like I was hanging out with girlfriends from home. My co-workers at the university were almost all men, so it'd been a while since I'd spent time with another young female outside of the classroom.

One of the things that got the most laughs that afternoon happened while we were having a mid-afternoon snack. There were a couple chicken pieces left, and Sandy was trying to get Margaret to "kill the chicken" (you know, finish it off). So after a lot of argument, Sandy, who's changed her English name about once a year, yelled, in a "this is settled" kind of way, pointing at Margaret, "That is Sandy's chicken!" She realized her mistake and was in hysterics for at least five minutes. Every once in a while, she'd kind of catch her breath and gasp "I said... Sandy's chicken... I'M Sandy!" Then she'd be gone again. Not long after that, someone said something while Margaret was drinking her Coke, and she started laughing. She very nearly got Coke up her nose. I found this funnier than anyone else at the table.

Around dusk, Vivien and Sandy headed home. Margaret and I set off for where I would spend the night--or, that is, nearly.

Home Cooking

Margaret warned me before we got to her apartment that her family was poor and her home was small. So small, she said, that we wouldn't be sleeping there that night. We'd stay in her aunt's home, nearby. We got to her apartment, and... she was right. It was really small. My bedroom in my apartment in Shijiazhuang was the size of her living room. There was a room with a dining table, but the kitchen was in a tiny unattached room in her yard. Margaret's room was the smallest bedroom I've ever seen. It was only as long as the desk she had in there, and as maybe twice as wide as the desk's width. Her bed was a loft. There were only two other rooms: her parents' bedroom and the bathroom (which had a porcelain squat toilet, no toilet paper).

Her parents were really wonderful. The first thing her mom did when I walked in the door was give me a big hug. They shooed me into the living room and got out lots of tasty pre-supper snacks. Margaret went straight for the family photo album, and we paged through it on the couch. It was interesting to see her pictures. There were far, far less pictures in there than any of my family photo albums. After the pictures, we went to Margaret's room and practiced my brush calligraphy. I got made fun of during this, because I knew so few characters. I recognized some, could speak more, and understand more yet. But writing... well, it was been the bottom of my priority list. So I wrote big (da), small (xiao), mountain (shan), bright (ming), mouth (kou), water (shui), person (ren), and I TRIED to write my name, but man my Chinese name is hard to write.

Before long, we sat down for supper. Since Margaret's an only child, it was just the four of us (three for the first half, while her mom bustled around outside cooking). Neither of her parents can say more in English than "bye" and "ok," both of which they'd prefer not to say if at all possible, so Margaret got to translate. I got the really strong impression during my visit that I was doing a lot to make her parents happy. They pay a lot to send their kids to my university, and I was like evidence that it was all worth it. Look how good my daughter is at English that she can speak to a real live American so fluently, you can hear them think. I'm so glad we sent her to school instead of letting her get that job selling clothes.

Her parents felt it was their obligation to make me as fat as possible. Half of what Margaret translated for me from her parents during supper was "eat more" or "enjoy yourself." Her mom was constantly piling more and more food on my plate, or, if she couldn't reach, elbowing Margaret and indicating she should do so. The food her mom made was unspeakably good. I ate till I felt sick, and still wished I could've eaten more. I can, at times, be a picky eater, as any of my friends will tell you, but somehow, Margaret managed to get her mom to make all food I really like. She must've been taking notes as i mentioned foods in passing before. We had xihongshi chao jidan (tomatoes and eggs), tudou niurou (potatoes and beef), youcai (bak choy), some sweet little fried things, chao mifan (fried rice), and mantou (sweet rolls). For four of us. That was a ridiculous amount of food, and I was expected to eat the most.

The Bride-to-be

As the meal wound up and I tried to force myself not to finish the food that kept cropping up on my plate, a girl Margaret doggedly refered to as her sister bounced in. Margaret, like I said, is an only child, but calls lots of people her brothers and/or sisters, which confused me for a long time. This particular sister was a neighbor. She was cute and energetic and more than a little hyper. She was getting married that weekend. After talking to me for maybe ten or fifteen minutes, she jumped in with an invitation to her wedding. It would be there in Xingtai, at a fancy restaurant Margaret had pointed out earlier. Many people in China get married in restaurants. At least cityfolk do. I already had plans for the weekend, so I tried to hedge without being rude while I thought about whether I could cancel my prior engagement. She took my uncertainty as a yes and practically jumped across the table to grab my hand and squeal in excitement.

As soon as we three sat in the living room to talk, Margaret's mom had more snack food out, as if we hadn't just stuffed ourselves with food. Not only that, but her mom peeled me an apple. You can't refuse a peeled apple. What'll they do with it if you don't eat it? So I continued grazing through the pain. The bride-to-be stayed for maybe four hours and didn't once run out of questions or conversation. At one point she even invited me to a second wedding celebration she'd be having after the first, way up by Harbin. She offered to pay for my train ticket and let me stay with her new husband's family, but it didn't end up working out.

Eventually, the bride-to-be left and all four of the rest of us walked for 20 minutes or so to the aunt's house (her parents just dropped us off). I slept in Margaret's cousin's bed and she shared with her aunt.

Country Wedding

The next morning, I somehow woke up before Margaret. We had plans to go to the village where Sandy lives, which is about an hour by bus outside Xingtai. Margaret had never been there before, nor did she know where it was. We took a taxi out there and the taxi dropped us not right by the village, but a five or ten minute walk away. Apparently the taxi driver didn't know much about the village either, even thought it wasn't far at all outside the city limits. Sandy had been calling/texting Margaret all morning, annoyed that we didn't get there earlier. The reason we were going was to attend Sandy's cousin's wedding. Because we were kind of late, we missed most of the ceremony and only caught some of the equivalent of the reception.

Anyway, once margaret and I found the right town, we didn't know where in town to go. This was a "village" if I've ever seen one. I guess about 3000 people live there, which is more than twice as big as my own hometown, but minuscule for China. It's not even a dot on the map. The town is called Li. It has that name because that's the name of the family who lives there. Over half of those 3000 people have the surname Li. The rest are probably still related somehow. Sandy's related on her mom's side. There's no cement in this village. The roads were muddy with melting snow and deeply rutted by bicycle tires. The roads weren't even straight, but slightly, irregularly crooked. No KFCs here. Margaret and I wandered at first to see if we could find the wedding on our own, but it was an auspicious day to be married, I was told, so there were no less than four weddings that day in that village alone. We passed maybe two of them. At the second one, we paused to watch some of the celebration. A woman was singing a traditional sounding song, and some old women in traditional clothing were doing a dance with those umbrellas you get in your drinks sometimes, except full-sized. Margaret was excited to point out to me that it must be a Christian wedding, because the song kept mentioning the Chinese word for God.

Thanks to the wonders of mobile phones, Sandy's younger brother (real brother) eventually found us and a car was waiting to drive us the few blocks to where we were going. The reception wasn't so much in a building, but in an area of buildings. Most of the guests were gathered in a little square yard thing--you know, the housing layout in which the rooms are arranged like a square around an open bit of grass. Each side of the square is a different room, if they have that many rooms. Otherwise, a plain wall or two goes up. Anyway, the guests were eating in a middle yard area, with a few more inside. Sandy said it was the biggest room in town. Sandy also said her auntie is wealthy, so this was a big wedding. It looked to me like an average graduation reception in my hometown.

I caused quite a stir with my presence. I guess they all knew I was coming and were disappointed I hadn't come earlier. I was introduced to Sandy's mom and dad and random neighbors. I met Sandy's grandma, a cute old woman who looked ancient and held my hand the whole time I was there. It's hard to describe the grins and stares you get in the countryside of China if you're foreign. Have you ever seen one of those documentaries where they bring a camera into some little village of people who've never seen a video camera before, and they chase the camera, just staring into it and grinning? It can be like that.

We left the little courtyard, went back onto the street, then into a neighboring alley, through another archway, and into a different courtyard, which was where the family actually lives. Not sandy's family, but the groom's family. We spent the rest of the time there. A new room had just been built for the new couple. This was where they would live. Their new home was a sitting room, bedroom, and computer/book room, all making up one side of the pre-existing courtyard. His parents live across the courtyard. The new couple doesn't even have their own kitchen. They'll cook with the family.

Sandy soon brought me to meet the bride, who had just changed from her western white wedding dress into a beautiful red slinky silk traditional one. Glitter was plastered on her face and hair. Her hair was ornately done with flowers and other pretty things. Two or three video cameras were fixed on me anytime I came near the bride. Me looking at the bride or taking pictures or whatever. They got me to pose with the bride for a bunch of pictures. I really think the bride could have cared less, but her mom was excited about it.

The bride wandered off and sandy's mom brought us our bowls of da guo cai. It was the meal everyone was getting at the reception--a tradition around there. It means big mixed vegetables. We sat in the couple's new home and they brought us ten bowls of da guo cai. For us three. This was especially silly because the mom wouldn't let us eat the soup once she thought it was getting cold as cold liquids are supposed to be bad for you. So again, they sat and insisted I eat more and more and more. People took video of me eating.

Village Living

At the end, Sandy asked if I wanted to see her house. Of COURSE I did. We walked the few blocks to her house with her mom. This was sandy's new house. How new I don't know. It was another courtyard affair, not fancy at all. Sandy told me almost all the homes in this village were built by the people who live there and their neighbors. The houses I saw were all bricks and thatched roofs. Not huts by any means, and the insides are nicer than you might expect, but still. They keep chickens and roosters, at Sandy's. Her parents' bed is in the sitting room. Their sewing machine isn't electric. It was freezing cold indoors. Her mom kept apologizing for that, telling me I could come back and stay a long time when it's warm. Her mom also said (as translated, of course) that she hoped I wasn't taking too many pictures of this ugly village to give outsiders a bad impression of China. "Oh goodness no!" I said. "I haven't seen anything ugly or bad yet!" Sometimes I think china is too sensitive and ashamed of some of its most beautiful things.

People kept telling me that I was probably the first Westerner ever to visit that village. Sandy and her mom both told me that. Margaret was considerably impressed by Sandy's house because it was so much bigger than hers. Then Margaret asked me how big my "garden" (aka yard) is, and how big my house is. I was really embarrassed and avoided the question. The house I grew up in is ridiculously big compared to anything I've seen here. And my yard? For pete's sake, it's big by American standards.

On the way out of town I found out that the field just outside of town is the village's. Each family is responsible for a piece of it. Margaret asked me if my family owns a field. No, I said.

Wrapping it up

That more or less wound up my two days. Margaret and I took a look at an old park that she grew up playing in. She talked to me about things that made me feel like maybe there wasn't as much distance between growing up Chinese and growing up American as I thought. She told me about running around the park and playing games with her friends. She told me being interested in UFOs when she was junior high aged.

My last night there, we had supper at a hotpot place. Hotpot is like fondue, but without the sticks. You throw a bunch of veggies and thin meat strips and tofu and who knows what into this pot of boiling oil and water. While ordering, they asked me what veggie I wanted to request. Carrot, I said. Margaret mistranslated that as luobo, which means radish. So I had radish for the first time. Big slices of it, both raw and cooked. I also ate a clove of raw garlic.

Back at her aunt's house, Margaret and I watched the news in Chinese, then some American movie about The Great Depression and a girl who runs away to find her dad and makes friends with a wolf. The adults sat in the room where I slept at night and talked in Chinese. Before she left, Margaret's mom gave me a pair of gloves she knitted just for me. They're bright red with purple triangles and black zigzag. I couldn't believe this. Margaret told me her parents really liked me a lot, and I was welcome back anytime. I haven't taken her up on that offer yet, but I sure plan to in the future.

 More Hebei Travel Reviews
1. Through the Smoke – Zhangjiakou MISHEN from NZ Jan 23, 2006 07:01
2. Spring Festival in Zhangjiakou MISHEN from NZ Jan 10, 2006 05:01
3. Tangshan is Risen MISHEN from NZ Dec 14, 2005 03:12
Comments (2)


Sep 25, 2006 03:58 Reply

AVEY said:

i think "wo bu zhi dao" is a really useful sentence in China, as if it can answer nearly all the questions (^_^)


Apr 18, 2006 04:28 Reply


Interesting. Gave an insight into village life in CHina.

Write Your Comment

You can post as a member (Login first) or a guest!

*Name: Country:

No more than 2,000 characters, please.

Send me an Email if anyone replies.

Your Reply to

You can post as a member (Login first) or a guest!

*Name: Country:

No more than 2,000 characters, please.