Our Dog is in Canada

Chinese Word of the Day:  旅游者(lv3 you2 zhe3) tourist, traveller, visitor

Our dog is in Canada, well and happy in the care of my wonderful dog loving sister Catherine, and what a relief that is.  The weather here this week has turned stifling and humid.  We got GouGou out of China in the nick of time.  The airlines won’t fly a dog if it’s too hot on the tarmac.

Picture: Our Belgian neighbours say goodbye to GouGou.  Jiangnan University, Wuxi, ChinaOur Belgian neighbours say goodbye to GuoGuo.

A week ago today I loaded GouGou’s travelling cage, her 房子 (fang2 zi, house), into the back seat of Xiao He’s car,  packed the full size plastic skeleton into the trunk along with my viola, encouraged our dog to get into her fang and we were off to the North Gate to collect my sister.  Ruth bade a tearful farewell to our dog and we headed off to Pudong Airport.  Xiao He kindly stopped at a Starbucks on our way out of town, so I had a latte and a restroom break.  Catherine wisely refused any liquid beverage, remembering her last trip to Pudong and her desperate need for a washroom on arrival.  It was a long drive.  By the time we got there, both of us were counting the seconds before we could make it through the washroom entrance.

GouGou was much admired by our fellow passengers as we moved her through the long line to the check in counter.  A Chinese gentleman behind us assured us that his son had recently sent a dog to Canada and the animal arrived happy and healthy.  At the check in there was a lot of measuring and weighing and a $240 charge for sending the dog. I had to pay 1,140RMB to fly the skeleton, which is just about what I paid for it in Shanghai.  But aside from the not unexpected fees, everything went smoothly. GouGou’s papers were in order.  Nobody tried to put her through the ex-ray machine.  A nice young man wheeled her and the skeleton away to special handling.  Catherine and I sighed with relief and went up the escalator to the bar for a gin and tonic and a light lunch.  Both really hit the spot.

Our Final Soft Sleeper Train Ride in China

After seeing Cath off at security, I made my way to the Metro/Maglev station.  Three yuan would have taken me by subway to the city centre, but fifty yuan on the maglev would do it a lot faster.  Remembering the subway ride as very long and tedious, I bit the bullet and bought a maglev ticket.  A stop at People Square for another Starbucks latte and I heard from Ruth that she was on the train and almost to the main Shanghai railway station.  She was holding, along with our guitar and her overnight bag, our tickets for Xingan in Jiangxi province.  Ruth had to transfer from the train to line one on the subway and make her way to the South Shanghai station where she had a ten or fifteen minute wait before I, warm Starbucks raisin scone in hand for her, got off the subway to join her at Exit 4.

We found our waiting lounge at the South Shanghai railway station, and soon were joined by Jenny.  As luck would have it we’d managed to get on the same train to her home town, or more accurately Xingan, the town a mere twenty-two kilometres from her home village of Shuibian.

Picture: On board the train in soft sleeper to Shuibian, ChinaOn board the train we discovered that though the numbers of our berths were sequential, we had been assigned different cabins.  That was quickly solved when the young man who had the bunk across from me offered to trade. Soft sleeper on a train is our very favourite mode of travel, especially in China.  It’s just so great to lie there in comfort and watch the country roll by.  Unfortunately most of this trip was at night, so there wasn’t much to see.  We shared our cabin with two pleasant young gentlemen. After the rigours of the day, I slept quite soundly.

Picture: a boy marvels at the foreigners in the market at Xingan, ChinaWe arrived in Xingan early in the rainy morning, and were met at the train station by Jenny’s brother with a nice old beater of a diesel crew cab pickup truck.  Luggage went into the back and we all crowded in: me, Jenny, her husband Xiao Qiang, and Ruth in the back seat and Jenny’s friend with her baby and the driver’s eldest boy in the passenger front seat.  A short ride took us to a street market where Jenny’s grandmother was selling, but in our case forcefully giving away, steamed cobs of corn still in the husk.  We all enjoyed a noodle breakfast at a tiny restaurant before loading up for the trip to Jenny’s village.

Picturee:  Jenny's village in the distance.  Shuibian, Jiangxi, China

Jenny’s village has changed a little since our last visit almost five years ago.  There is construction everywhere, and signs of the prosperity brought by jobs away from the farms.  The recent prosperity is evident in the grandeur of its houses, the more modern of which are three story concrete buildings faced with ceramic tile.

Picture:  Jenny at the door to her uncle's home in Shuibian, Jiangxi, China

Picture:  Proud prosperity in front of the old houses.  Shuibian, Jiangxi, China

-Ruth Anderson photo

The old village, crumbling into ruin, still exists behind the new.

Picture:  the old village behind the new buildings.  Shuibian, Jiangxi, China

Picture:  Jenny's uncle and nephew, Shuibian, Jiangzi, China

Living for a few days in the house that Jenny’s father built is a constant reminder that our organizational systems were all invented. Most of them are lacking here.  There’s no place designated as a makeup or shaving station.  No hooks for clothing outside the shower doors.  There is a stand with a single cold water tap outside the bathroom and kitchen, but no mirror or shelves.  The refrigerator does exist, but in a separate room from the kitchen, possibly as a result of the feng shui principle that cold should be kept away from hot.  Jenny’s father has renovated since our last visit. The old kitchen in the back has been replaced by a stairway to the added top floor, and cooking is now done in a small separate building a few steps from the front door.

Here:s Ruth’s description of the “kitchen”, taken from the China update she’s about to send to her mailing list:

Not Quite Like Back Home — Kitchen
Words can be deceiving. Just as ‘house’ doesn’t conjure up (for this Canadian at least) the apartment-like structures that many of the villagers now live in, the word ‘kitchen’ doesn’t bring you close to seeing the rooms where most cooking is done here. Jenny’s fathers new kitchen is not like any kitchen I have seen back in Canada, so clear from your mind any preconceived notions of kitchen, remove appliances and cupboards and laminate counters. Replace these with a square concrete room about 8 to 10 feet to a side. Stand in a doorway in one corner and look into a fairly dark room lit primarily (and dramatically) by the one window on the wall across from the door. Note the one bare bulb hanging from the ceiling that will light the room once the sun goes down.

To the left of the window, jutting into the room four or five feet, is the cooking area, which consists of a giant built-in wok — at least 2 and a half feet across — where most of the food is cooked and, I discovered later in the evening, the dishes are washed when it doubles as a sink. Leaning against the wall, behind the wok, is a large round wooden lid that can cover the wok when not in use.

Picture:  The cooking room in Jenny's father's house, Shuibian, Jiangxi, China

There is a smaller wok (which Jenny tells me is used mainly for soups), inset, but removable, between the large one and the window wall. There is a third cooking area in the corner, wedged between the other two, with a large pot set into it.

The cooking areas are all heated from underneath by wood fires fed through separate square openings in the side of the concrete cooking area. The openings to feed the fires are not covered, lending a nice glow to the space after dark, and a certain primal flavour whenever they burn. To the left of the doorway is wood for the fire, stacks of twigs, branch pieces and split logs, organized by kind, piled to mid-thigh height. It is in easy reach of the fire openings under the biggest wok.

      Across from the doorway, under the window, runs a narrow counter, providing a work and staging space. There is a wooden table just inside the doorway on the right. If it is close to a meal time this may be covered with bowls of food that have been cooked, in preparation for them to be brought to the table in the main living space of the house.

The kitchen and the entire cooking area, like the rest of the house, is made of concrete. There are modern touches in this new kitchen though: the counter under the window has a layer of large white tiles on the surface and around the woks you will see a faux-wood laminate that looks the same as the flooring in the third-floor room we were given to stay in. There is a sink, but you will have to turn around to see it. It is outside and across from the doorway to the kitchen, and it isn’t really a sink per se, but a tap that runs above and onto a tiled counter. The water just runs freely to the ground.                                          -Ruth Anderson

Next to the kitchen is a new bathroom with a squat toilet and a shower. The shower only has cold water. Jenny told us a mouse destroyed the hot water line.

Speaking of Squat Toilets

The toilets are a bigger issue than you might imagine. There’s almost no way I can use a squat toilet as intended. First of all, I can’t squat worth diddly. And when I do, there’s a problem with getting all the excrement in its intended receptacle without making a mess that is difficult to clean up. Fortunately there was a solution, though not a comfortable and dignified one.  The toilet in Jenny’s Father’s house is actually raised a few inches above the floor of the shower.  That meant I could sit on it.

Bath Time

Picture:  Bath time with two boys in the old wash tub in Shuibian, Jiangxi, ChinaThe adults use the shower, but for the kids it’s bath time like grandma used to do it.

Food Preparation

Much of the domestic activity takes place outdoors, centred around the well.  Nothing is wasted.

Picture:  Food preparation and laundry around the family well.  Shuibian, Jiangxi, ChinaThe intestines of the goose are opened and washed, becoming part of the soup or stew.

While we were there it was time for the annual cleaning of the well at Jenny’s uncle’s place.

Picture: Cleaning the well in Shuibian, Jiangxi, China

-Ruth Anderson photo

Ruth has more great pictures up on her Flickr site, or will have soon.

Picture:  Wringing out the bed sheets, hand washing in Shuibian, Jiangxi, ChinaThe well is the centre of activity, and the washing is still done with a wash board and tub, with water drawn from the well with a bucket on a rope.

Dinner Time

I’m told that meals are normally much simpler than we experienced, but this was Dragon Boat Festival, a time for eating zongzi (sticky rice with pork cooked in a banana leaf) and feasting from multiple bowls containing multiple creatures – frog, turtle, goose, fish, pork, eel, chicken, and veggies – all washed down with bowls of home made rice wine.

Picture: Making zongzi.  Shuibian, Jiangxi, ChinaThe women of the family are expert zongzi makers.

Picture: Making zongzi.  Shuibian, Jiangxi, ChinaDinner was always a feast.

Picture:  Jenny's family at the festival feast.  Shuibian, Jiangxi, China

Picture:  Jeny and Xiao Qiang at dinner.  Shuibian, Jiangxi, China

These are hard working farmers.  They are proud of their food and wine, and my bowl was impossible to empty.  Endless toasts, endless injunctions to 喝酒 (he1 jiu3, drink wine), followed by immediate topping up of the wine bowl, made monitoring my intake impossible.  I could only judge how much I had drunk by how drunk I seemed to be, and fortunately that didn’t seem to get out of hand.

Picture:  Bowl of rice wine.Picture:  Boy with slices of watermelon, Shuibian, Jiangxi, China

Picture:  the family enjoys a festival meal in Shuibian, Jiangxi, ChinaThe homes all have concrete floors.  Any scraps of food or bones simply fall on the floor, to be scavenged by the chickens or dogs and swept up later if inedible.  This is one aspect of the lifestyle I can really appreciate.  We westerners are all so anal about our living space.  There are other ways to deal with life.

Picture:  Chickens are welcome in the living room.  In fact, they have their own dooor.  Shuibian, Jiangxi, China

Picture:  Chicken and chicks in the living room, Shuibian, Jiangxi, China

-Ruth Anderson photo


If I had to come up with one word to describe Jenny’s village, it would be “texture”.  The old walls, the pathways, the various surfaces, all have delightful texture and colour.  This is not something we see in a modern city.

Picture;  Xiao Qiang and Jenny in her old village.  Shuibian, Jiangxi, China

Picture:  Chickens and a mossy wall, Shuibian, Jiangxi, China

Picture: a back alley in the old village, Shuibian, Jiangxi, ChinaThen There’s the Countryside

Picture:  The shining green fields of Shuibian, Jiangxi, ChinaIncreasing rice prices have brought prosperity to many rural areas.

Picture:  The shining green fields of Shuibian, Jiangxi, China

The land around the village is stunningly beautiful at this time of year.  I was constantly reminded of the line from the song, 童年 (Tong2 Nian2, Childhood)

(Yang2guang1 xia4 qing1ting2 fei1guo4 lai2 yi1 pian4 pian4 lv4you2you2 de dao4tian2,
In the summer sun the dragon fly skims the shining green rice paddies.)

And that’s just what was happening.  In the summer sun, the dragon flies were flying in formation, squadrons of mosquito eaters patrolling the beautiful green fields.

Picture:  Tobacco field, Shuibian, Jiangxi, China

Unfortunately many of the rice paddies have been replaced with the cash crop you see in the picture above – tobacco.  Jenny says that this may not last, as fewer and fewer Chinese are smoking.  China is changing.

This is a place where the 水牛 (shui niu, water cow) is still in important component of rice farming, though we were seeing more and more of the robo-mules sitting in the fields.

Picture: A robomule in a field near Shuibian, Jiangxi, China

-Ruth Anderson photo

There must be practical advantages to the cold metal tractors, but they sure don’t have the charm of the beasts.

Picture: Farmer ploughing with a water buffalo near Shuibian, Jiangxi, China

-Ruth Anderson photo

I suppose a lack of charm is something for a foreigner to lament, when we aren’t the one walking behind the water buffalo pulled plough.

Picture:  A water buffalo wallows in his pond near Shuibian, Jiangxi, China

Picture:  A farmer walks his cow home after a hard day of ploughing.  Shuibian, Jiangxi, China

A Different Attitude Toward Life

I remember my uncle Bill knocking down the swallow nests in his garage because they pooped on his car.  In this place, they consider swallows a bringer of good fortune, and welcome them right into their living rooms.  And this is how they deal with the poop:

Picture: Swallow nests with poop catchers in a living room in Shuibian, Jiangxi, China

-Ruth Anderson photo

There were swallows flying in and out of these nests as we enjoyed the visit to Genny’s grandparents.  These cardboard poop catchers solved the droppings problem.  Swallows eat mosquitoes.  That seems like a darn good reason to encourage them.  It made me sad to think of my uncle knocking down those nests when he could have hung a poop catcher under them and enjoyed the free mosquito control.

On the Train Back to Shanghai

Unfortunately we missed our chance to buy tickets for the Wednesday train back to Shanghai, and couldn’t leave until Friday.  That was embarrassing because it’s the first time either of us have missed classes.  We sent a text message to our assistant Dean, Linda Song, and got a rather terse reply: “I see”.  不好意思 (bu2 hao3 yi4 si, feel very embarrassed).  I could read a world of meaning into that message, but there was nothing to be done about the situation, of course.  Travel at any time around a Chinese festival like 端午节 (duan1 wu3 jie2, dragon boat festival) is always difficult as the whole country heads from the big cities to the home village for a family celebration, just as Jenny and her husband did.

Picture: David in his longji, aboard the train for Shanghai.

-Ruth Anderson photo

I’m writing this on the train back to Shanghai. The long ji I bought in Thailand is serving me well. What a great garment this is for hot and humid weather, and I suppose the fact that I am a foreigner is contributing to the acceptance of this dress-like attire by my fellow passengers, none of whom seem to be giving me a second glance. It was with great relief that I shed my heavy trousers with the bulging pockets. (Actually, the reason my longji isn’t hanging with its usual elegance is that I have my trousers on underneath it.  I almost forgot to get this picture, and didn’t want to shed the trousers to take it. ) I wonder whether the world will ever be more accepting of gender specific clothing on the wrong gender. Maybe men have a battle to fight similar to the one women fought to gain the acceptance of trousers.

I mentioned the longji. Perhaps I should also mention the huangjiu I’m drinking. It’s been a feature of every meal since we arrived, home made rice wine by the bowl full with constant toasts and directives to he jiu. Since I expressed appreciation of this beverage, Jenny’s father gave me a two litre bottle to sustain me for the journey homeward. I’m working my way through it, but there will be enough left to share with Panda and Gloria on our arrival.

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