The First American In China

After an hour by train, five by bus, two by taxi and a short trip aboard a small wooden ferry boat, I stepped onto the beach of the small island of Xun Zhou in the south eastern part of China. I was, reportedly, the first American to ever visit the island’s small fishing village of one thousand people, of which exactly none spoke English and only some spoke either Mandarin or Cantonese Chinese, two dialects I am fluent in…assuming we are only discussing food. One of my hosts, was a thin, good-looking, and slightly gaunt figure who, though actually in his late 40’s, had suffered from the intense rural Chinese sun and, I assume, cigarette smoke, which had wrinkled his skin and faded his clothing well beyond their actual age—though his sharp features, dark skin, jet black hair and deep eyes had earned him the nickname of “The Handsome Uncle.” Upon arriving, he asked me “So you are an American?” to which I nodded. He looked me over a bit, paused and with mild contemplations said, “So are you a Bush or a Clinton?”

I was to spend the next four days on the island.

In mainstream American newspapers and on television, not a day goes by without a story of the unprecedented growth in China. The shining, postmodern skyscrapers of Shanghai, the frantic and methodical re-birth of Beijing for the 2008 Olympics and the financial markets and shipping epicenter in Hong Kong are often splashed across front pages, web banners, and nightly news lead-ins. And, yes, China is growing (and fast) but what the media often fails to mention is that of the 1.3 billion people in China (Over 1/5 of the world’s population), only 30% live in Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong and other cities, while 70% of the country lives in rural farming and fishing villages—similar to the one I was now visiting.

I had been invited by my Hong Kong friend Sheena to join her family on a trip to visit her grandma in their homeland. This was an exciting chance, I figured, to get off the beaten tourist/backpacker tracks to see the “other side” of China that is rarely spoken of in the media outside of Asia. What I found, I think you’ll find very interesting, and I will try to share it with you in writing, photos and videos in this and my next few posts.

The best way to sum up the village in a few short sentences is to say that it is a place that is about 75 years behind where I come from in the US (or probably any other developed country). There is no running water, some motorized vehicles but not modern cars, and limited electricity—which they’ve only been hooked up to for less than a decade. The island appeared to subsist on fishing and basic, small-scale agriculture (rice, vegetables, grains), and there was a very obvious lack of mechanized equipment to do most things—outside of a few small trucks and scooters running with small, two-stroke engines.

But while the amenities were not as “developed” as where I come from, in no way do I mean that the people were not. The house I stayed in was a rather nice three story home, and it may not be the best representations of where most of rural Chinese people live—the family obviously had done well for themselves and were able to provide a relatively comfortable and well provided life. (Watch for a future post with a video tour of the house). And despite a lack of air conditioning (it was about 100 degrees Fahrenheit outside), having to take a shower out of a bucket (no running water), and having a limited variety of food (vegetables and lots of seafood…it was a fishing village), I think life in this particular home would be comfortable, in a relative sense.

What struck me most about the experience was that despite the lack of “modern” amenities, the lack of any English and being surrounded by foreign people in a foreign land over 10,000 miles from my home, most everything was eerily familiar. My mother’s parents were wheat farmers in rural western Nebraska (USA), and each summer we’d make an annual trip to visit them amongst the dusty bluffs overlooking the Oregon Trail and amongst cows, sheep, corn and wheat. This visit to Sheena’s grandma’s home in China, despite the obvious differences in context, had all the same ingredients. There was the long drive with eager anticipation to get their; the rowdy laughter, smiles and gift exchanges upon arrival; the crazy aunt who was always over eager to, metaphorically, “squeeze your cheeks;” the doting grandmother, the little kids running underneath the dinner table, and the eager questions from relatives about the goings on in your life. And, despite the fact I was a foreigner from a place they knew little about and I spoke a language they could not understand, they took me in like family, and they asked me lots of questions, laughed at my jokes (well, kind of), were generous with their time, and overstuffed me with food—-exactly as my grandparents had once done to me in Nebraska.

Chinese culture puts a high value on family and oftentimes it goes above all else (it even comes first when they write their names): Children live with their parents typically until they are married, grown children who work often give their parents part of their monthly paycheck, and which family you come from often can tell a lot about who you are. As we walked around the island through rice fields, fishing net shops, oyster harvesting, and village streets, I often got dubious looks as an obvious “foreigner”, and at times they would ask, “Who are you?” When I told them I were staying with the Zheng family, I was greeted with wide smiles and warm invitations. Despite my differences, I felt, in a way, part of the family, and in a home so very similar to my own grandparents on the other side of the world.

“Are you a Bush or are you a Clinton?” I later figured out was not a question with political motivations, but in fact an honest question of who I was. In China, your family often tells a lot about you, and my host, knowing only two American “families,” was asking me an honest question of where I come from. “I come from Iowa…in the United States….I said,” which may have caused The Handsome Uncle to wonder for a moment how different a place it was. I assured him and I assure you that, cultural differences aside, it’s a lot more similar than you might at first imagine.

Fishing Village

The rooftops of Jinxua, China at sunrise.

3 Responses to “The First American In China”

  1. Ban Chen Says:

    Hello,Andy. I ‘m Sheena’s brother! Welcome to my homeland. My daughter had looking for you when you gone, she asked me:where the brother? Hehe!

  2. Nikki F Says:

    Hi Andy! Was the food good (I like reading about your food adventures!)? It sounds like you had a great time there! You really make me want to drop everything and go for some hard core traveling!

  3. Feline Says:

    This is a really great story.

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