An Adventure in Rural China

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There’s nothing quite like getting stuck in the mud . . . in rural China.  Just outside Changchun in northern China there are large stretches of cornfields and grazing livestock.  In some respects, it looks a lot like the Midwest in the United States, but there are definite reminders that this isn’t Kansas.

After spending a lot of time in large, crowded cities, I was delighted to head out to the countryside and explore a small village in the middle of nowhere.  The plan was to have a dinner with a local farming family and attend a traditional bonfire show put on by the locals.

The drive was long, but relatively easy until paved roads started to give way to dirt. The first challenge was a small herd of cows intent on taking over all lanes of traffic.  We had to stop and wait for the very slow moving cattle to clear the road.  While waiting for the cows to move, I took in my surroundings and was very surprised to see so much corn growing in vast fields.  And the further we went, the more cornfields I saw.  I never thought of China as a huge corn-growing mecca, but I was wrong!

As we traveled down the rutted road, simple homes made of mud brick and woven plant fibers dot the landscape.  Some served as a family home, while others were in disrepair.  It’s a hard life and not everyone can make ends meet.  The same is true most everywhere.

Cow blockage turned out to be far less of a worry when the dirt roads went from sand to mud. As we moved deeper into the heart of the rural community, the mud got increasingly deep and thick thanks to a recent rainstorm. The road got really bumpy and it felt more like an off-road adventure than leisurely drive in the country.  After one big bump, we came to a screeching halt.  The bus was stuck in a huge rut and we couldn’t go any further.  Everyone was told to get off and to start walking.  What a perfect day to wear sandals! Luckily, we aren’t too far off from our destination.  By some miracle, my practically bare foot did not land in mud pile.

Along the way, I got to meet some locals, who were incredibly nice and very curious about us.  One woman in particular was very excited to show us how she calls her chickens when its time to feed them.  When she grabbed a wooden spoon and beat a metal bowl the chickens came flying towards her from all directions.

The woman’s husband was a proud man who was intent on showing us his home and bragging about the success of his son who lived right next door.  It’s a big deal for a son to move away and establish his own homestead in this region.  Farming doesn’t exactly bring in the big money, so multi-generational homes are the norm, (three generations of one family often live under the same roof).  For his son to be successful enough to strike out on his own, is a huge source of pride for his parents.

While poverty is apparent throughout the village, there were indicators of progress peeking out from unexpected corners.  Technology is relatively low in this region as rural communities are not usually able afford modern conveniences, but there are always exceptions to the rule.  At one point, I spotted a brand new Volkswagen parked next to a well-built brick house.  The disparity of wealth and poverty is quite extreme everywhere in China, even in the boondocks.

I spent the evening enjoying a large dinner prepared by a local family.  All the food was grown in the fields of the surrounding farms and it was absolutely delicious.  It was here where I indulged in the delicacy of the “thousand year old” egg.  Essentially, an egg is buried in a mixture of clay, ash, salt, lime, and rice hulls for several weeks to several months.  It looked disgusting on the plate as it had the unappetizing color of greenish gray, but the taste more than made up for the icky appearance.  I was the only one brave enough to try it and I ate the whole thing.  No one believed me when I said it tastes like a hard-boiled Easter egg with a lot of salt and a few extra spices.

After dinner we went outside and enjoyed a lesson in traditional folk dancing.  Once again, I confirmed I have no rhythm, but I enjoyed the experience of bonding with people despite a language barrier.  Music and dance really do bring people together in ways that can’t be explained.

It was dark by the time we started heading back to the bus.  Street lights are non-existent, so it was pitch black once we left the home of our host.  I had a small flashlight, but it barely cut through the darkness.  Mud was still everywhere and it threatened to swallow any misplaced foot.  My sandles eventually became caked in mud chunks, but thankfully my foot never sunk below ground level, (which is more than I can say for a few friends of mine).  Before boarding the bus, I remembered to look to up at the sky.  With no city lights, the Chinese sky lit up with millions of stars. I smiled at such a  fitting end to an adventure I’ll never forget.

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c.b. 2012

20 thoughts on “An Adventure in Rural China

    • I never thought I’d see anything like this, but I’m glad I did. It puts everything in perspective both globally and in my own neighborhood. Things really do look different when you seem them through someone else’s eyes.

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  1. Nick Wilford

    What a great idea to get off the beaten track (literally), it sounds like an amazing adventure. I think those who don’t have much certainly appreciate it a lot more.

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    • What I found most interesting is how friendly and warm these people were. They didn’t regard us as something to be afraid of but rather someone new to meet. 🙂 It’s a very warm and embracing culture.

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  2. Thank you for sharing, esp the photos. In college, my anthro advisor hailed from China. His professional studies took him back to rural China almost every summer. I read much about this part of the world…it was nice to have a visual with your short ethnography ~

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    • Thanks! 🙂

      Through my profession, I was able to apply for a grant. By some miracle, I was accepted and was able to go on a three week sojourn with other teachers. We trekked through major cities and rural communities for three weeks. It was an amazing experience that changed my life both personally and professionally. 🙂

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  3. What a wonderful travelogue! You were very fortunate to have the opportunity to travel to such exotic places. The cows on the road reminded me of something a Facebook friend posted the other day about patience – a car trying to pass an elephant ended up in the ditch because it spooked said elephant into attacking the small car! 🙂

    I had heard of the great disparity between wealth and poverty in China. Your pictures made this very clear. My mother worked in the office of a boarding school, here, where many wealthy Chinese families sent their daughters for an education. To think that there are many more children who probably never got the chance for an education at all because they were poor farmers, like the ones you met.

    Did you travel with a translator while you were there? I would imagine it was difficult trying to communicate with people who were probably hearing English for the first time.

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    • I had the amazing opportunity to visit several schools (both rural and urban) and I’m hoping to write about them soon. Education is highly prized in China, but access can be very difficult for a number of reasons that beyond funding. It was an eye-opening experience to say the least.

      Thankfully, we had several translators because we traveled to so many different regions. There are so many different dialects, we had to change to a local translator to understand what anyone was saying. 🙂

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