During the National Holdiay in October, I was invited by a Chinese friend to travel along to her home town Nantong for four days. Nantong is a city of over seven million inhabitants, situated between the ocean and the Yangtze river about two hours north of Shanghai.
During my stay with my friend Wen, I learned a lot about Chinese culture and lifestyle, and I even had the opportunity to go out into the countryside and visit my friend’s grandparents. These are some of my personal highlights from my time in Nantong and its surrounding area.
The National Holiday in October is one of the busiest times for traveling in China, since almost everybody gets of work for a week. Even though we left early afternoon on the Wednesday that was still a workday, the two our bus trip from Shanghai to Nantong took us over five hours. It was 1am when we finally arrived. Luckily, China is prepared when it comes to consuming food in the middle of the night. We went to a night restaurant in which I experienced my first dinner with a Chinese family, trying a whole fish, shrimps with the shells still on them and a lot of other dishes. It was quite the late night adventure. And I must say, I loved most of the food.
Since the time of the National Holiday brings the entire family together, it is also a prime time to celebrate engagements and weddings. Such events usually take place at the parents or even grandparents house. My friend’s grandparents still live in the countryside and I had the honor of being one of the first foreign visitors to the little nameless village. People were quite curious about me, but would only talk to me if I initiated the conversation first. A tricky thing given the dialect of the region. To me, this little village was a beautiful place and I was very happy to stand at the edge of a rice field with the two new friends, I had made.
I took a lot of pictures while walking around my friend’s village and I kept finding purple beans hanging on the hedges of property borders. Curious to what they were, I asked my friends, who preceded to ask the owners of the hedge who had come out to look at what we were doing. While they were able to tell me the Chinese name, we had no idea on how to translate that into English.
The loveliest part of the encounter with the beans however was that the owner, a very sweet lady, tried to make me take some of them with me. She had no intention of selling them, she just wanted to give me a couple of them. In China, one usually doesn’t accepts a gift right away. It is a small back and forth struggle, before the person accepts. However, I had no intention of taking those funny purple beans with me. But I really didn’t want to insult the sweet lady, so I asked for a picture of her with the beans instead.
During my stay, I witnessed a marriage as well as an engagement meal. The importance of these meals can not be underestimated, told me my friend, since during them the couple seeks out the approval of their elders, which includes all the extended family members as well. For the groom getting married, my friend couldn’t even explain to me how exactly she was related to him. She just referred to him as her cousin. In order to not only appease the living family members but also the ancestors, both times a lot of liver and kidney from different animals were served. I was brave enough to try them but they were not my favorite dishes. Fortunately, there was also a lot of other food, in fact so much that the bowls ended up being stacked in three layers on top of each other. This ended up in everybody turning the serving platform around and around trying to dig up a dish that was lost somewhere in the pile of food.
While the village itself was less than two hours from the city of Nantong, the lifestyle was quite rural. I visited different houses that fascinatingly had a shower but no sink or toilet. My friend’s family raised their own chickens, gees, goats and sometimes pigs, planted their own vegetables, sold their peanuts and cooked over an ancient stove with a fire underneath kept going through a fan mechanism.
The greatest development during my trip, was however, when we were exploring an over one-hundred-year old area of Nantong. This area is largely unknown by tourist, since it is in fact still a living space for people and kept the way it was long ago. Some structures dated back to the early Qing dynasty or even late Ming dynasty. I felt transported back into history.
We explored for quite some time and finally stopped to marvel at a particularly beautiful entrance, when the owner came by and invited us into her house, right into her father’s birthday party. Every member of the woman’s family that still lived in China had made their way to Nantong to celebrate their grandparent’s birthdays who in fact where to sets of twins who had married each other. Between the two men and woman, they spanned 360 years. We were not able to refuse the lady to sit us down and offer us her food. She served us pieces of birthday cake, a soup and even whole crabs, which the Chinese eat with out tools.
I had an unbelievably great time and I am very appreciative of the hospitality and kindness the people I met and visited showed me.
Katharina Gruenewald is a student at the Iowa State University and a TEAN Featured Blogger. She studied abroad with TEAN in Shanghai, China.