Howl at the moon; shoot out the lights. The folksy folks of small town China reminded me of the communities I grew up around.
As stated in my last post, the reason I chugged along 12 hours of train track southward of Beijing was to meet 99-yr-old Jing Yuan. But though she was the impetus for this destination in rural Henan province, the meat of my time was spent among the the surroundings and locals of the small town of Ruyang. This triggered some unexpected reflections about the joys of living in these cozy communities. Check it out…
I arrived groggy after a difficult night’s sleep on the train. It was one of those mornings when you witness the first light of day, but know you ought to be asleep instead. I hopped off my train car and awkwardly wheeled my suitcase over the dirt and track to get to the station platform. Hanging a left out to the town, I gratefully met my hosts. A former student of mine, June, set this all up. Jing Yuan was her grandmother and it was her family that housed, fed, and showed me around from the time I got off the train on that Saturday morning to the ride back to the station two days later.
It was 8am or so, and a bright, sunny day greeted my arrival:
For some reason these towns feature such wide streets. And only God knows why when they’re driving these things around:
It felt like the year 2011 here, but not an “American” 2011. Everything is painted with a thin coat of small-town China: a bit sloppier, traffic sporadic and disheveled, and all the little businesses along the main stretches open up with their garage-door-like front doors.
Here was June’s brother-in-law and his beautiful baby girl who picked me up at the station:
After meeting some other family, we piled in a van and went to their family-owned restaurant. In and around there was where I’d spend much of my time over the next 48 hours.
June’s sister and husband (the brother-in-law) are the owners. Super cool, cause I got to gorge on a bunch of local foods made the way mom used to make. Here it is with the owners and employees out front:
I kind of wondered about being a burden on them, but June assured me they were eager to have a visitor. I wasn’t too surprised by this as I’ve been treated so generously many places I’ve visited. The Chinese really adore Western people. Plus, June said I’d be their first American visitor. Perhaps I was the first American to set foot in this small town! Ruyang makes Bemidji look as diverse as the United Nations. So, I guess this made me the delegate for all Caucasians.
They brought me inside and offered me the goods. Time to gorge.
That’s the thing about China eatin’. They give you a bunch of platefulls of various foods that you think you’ll never even dent. But half hour later, it’s all gone! Cause it’s good. The crunchy, the salty, the sweet, tender and juicy and greasy, the light and flakey. Chinese food is awesome.
Let’s look at the trouble-makers who prepared the meal:
And I like them to add that smokey flavor:
Things picked up as evening approached and the kitchen started rockin’ and rollin':
Check it out:
Small Town Saturday Night was upon us. A group of five dudes lumbered through the door, carrying themselves without a care in the world. They requested food like they owned the place—-not in an arrogant way, but with a warm familiarity. Oddly, the vibe brought me back to my days in high school, where growing up in a small town, I remembered the same total ease and comfort with which I moved through the halls. Like these guys—-like any small town, I think—-there’s no need to be self-conscious about acting the right way among a roomful of strangers.
By contrast, when living in a large city, the familiarity with most folks around us simply isn’t there. We rely on the social scripts we have for how to act in any particular setting. It’s not as natural. And a subtle, guarded nature most of us assume when in the company of many strangers isn’t too calming, either. But even without this defensiveness, it’s at least necessary to create a mode of indifference to the many people in urban life. It seems like you got to put up some walls.
(Gee, maybe I’m a small town boy after all.)
And I find it so darned interesting that I recognized this while here in rural China! After all, I lived 18 years in tiny Blackduck, Minnesota. But for whatever reason, being in this context helped me realize this small town charm. And it all started with these jokers:
Later on, I walked the dark streets of Ruyang. Some of the locals approached and looked at me. Some would say “hello” and giggle. To them, I’m a sight; but to me, I’m the observer. It’s a two-way street when you visit a different world. I approached an outdoor eatery, the kind I’d seen all over this country and what is known everywhere simply as ‘barbeque':
Other than this crowd, it was quiet and clear this night. I’d missed that aspect of small-town living, too. The next day was a fresh look at a Small Town Sunday Morning:
And just for fun, here’s a shot of my hometown to compare:
Back in Ruyang, Brother-in-Law and I were on our way to breakfast:
On the way and enjoying the most important meal of the day:
The following day I left—-to another small town. This time not with the intention of reflecting on the past–as was the case with 99-yr-old Jing Yuan–but rather, of getting deep into the present.
For now, let’s hear it for the small towns out there: the freedom and comfort and openness.
to new plateaus,