One of my good friends, a 4th year student, invited me to come and visit her hometown. It sounded like fun and a good chance to experience some authentic Chinese family life. I asked her if there were any hostels close by that she could recommend, but this was met with horror. “No, you must stay at my home! We live in a village and my father owns a factory, we have a large home. My family are waiting for you!” After much attempted backing out on my part (mostly to make sure the offer was genuine and not just a polite show of Chinese hospitality that was never intended to be taken up), I felt happy that she meant it.
When I got off the plane from Shanghai, Cindy, along with her brother and sister, were waiting for me in arrivals. They’re biological siblings, not cousins or family friends who are labelled as brother and sister, as usually happens in China. Her brother, who wanted an English name, was christened Charlie. He’s 10 years old and cute as a button. He could tell me his name and his age, but after that he was paralysed by fear or lack of vocabulary, and that’s all I heard from him. Cindy’s sister, Sally, is 12 but looks older than some of my university students. Her English was a little better, as was her Mandarin, so I was able to communicate with her a bit more. They advised me that I had arrived on the perfect day, as it was their mum’s birthday! Feeling embarrassed, I whipped out my phrasebook for a speed lesson in how to express birthday greetings in Chinese before I got in the car, which seemed to go down well.
Cindy lives just outside a small city called Jinjiang, in Fujian province. We stopped along the way for some noodles (traditional ‘welcome’ food), then made our way to her village. The village wasn’t quite the Emmerdale hamlet I was expecting. Once upon a time it had been a farming community, just like most places before the opening up in the ’80’s. Not a large industrial farmland, but rather a small community with communal fields where people would grow their own fruit and vegetables to sell at market or prepare for the family. Today, the villages have grown and merged together so an untrained eye can’t tell where one ends and another begins, although in the minds of the locals there are clear borders. Along the dusty roads are houses, small factories and shops, and every now and again you could see the inside of someone’s half torn-down home, compulsory purchases to make way for factories. Wedged between buildings are open fields where children pick from the rows of strawberries and sugar canes. Mopeds, cars and bicycles whip along the narrow, elevated roads, careful to avoid the edge and thus a drop into the irrigation ditches either side.
We made it along the narrow winding roads, between high walls and fences, to Cindy’s house. At 3 storeys, by Chinese standards it was huge. The ground floor consisted of a wide, dark central lobby area, with a bedroom, bathroom, kitchen and office coming off it. Against one wall in the lobby was a huge Buddhist shrine, with a table full of offerings of fruits, sweets and incense. Just like traditional Chinese houses with a central outdoor courtyard area, this central room wasn’t the heart of the home, not a place to congregate, but rather a perfunctory connecting space that you have to pass through to go from one room to another. Her grandparents live in the downstairs bedroom, and cook for the family in their kitchen. Cindy’s father is the oldest son, so it’s custom that his parents live with him. Up the sweeping marble staircase we came to the first floor. This opened up into a lobby which looked more liveable – it had a 3 piece suite (rock solid of course) and a TV, with a smaller Buddhist shrine on one wall. However, no-one ever sat in here. Cindy showed me to her bedroom, with a double bed and double mattress on the floor, which she usually shares with her brother and sister when she’s at home from university. She told me to put my bag down anywhere I liked – Charlie had been sent to sleep with the grandparents during my visit, so I could choose the big bed or the small one. I must confess I was a bit surprised that we would all be in such close proximity during my stay, but this was the ultimate sign of hospitality and I didn’t want to be rude so I plonked my bag down. We went up to the second floor, which featured a Buddhist shrine, a Mahjong table, and empty guest bedrooms and bathrooms. This floor was barely used but we went up to play Mahjong a few times. I hinted at having one of the guest rooms, admiring how comfortable they looked, and won’t I be getting in the way in your room? But to no avail. I was to be a full member of the family during my stay
That evening, after an unsuccessful cake making attempt that brought great shame upon my cooking skills (I’m definitely blaming the lack of scales for the flat buttery mess that everyone politely ate), we went out for a meal for Cindy’s mum’s birthday. We stopped along the way to pick up various cousins, aunts, uncles and family friends, until the 7 seater was carrying at least double its legal capacity, and made our way to the seafood restaurant. We ate crab, octopus, and sea snails, all so fresh they had been swimming in tanks at the front of the restaurant when we walked in, as well as many other local delicacies. My main take away from Fujian is the amazing food, as you will see. Key features of Fujian cuisine are the sweet taste, fresh seafood and animal innards, all cooked simply but really well. If you’re a bit squeamish about your food then you’re going to go hungry in Fujian. The banquet involved much communal toasting, drinking and urges to “eat more!” The local dialect is Minnanhua, as opposed to Putonghua (Mandarin), so I didn’t have a clue what was going on most of the time. They would speak to me in Mandarin, and I would reply, but even then I struggled as their accents were so strong and the pronunciation of many sounds is very different to in the north. Mostly I chatted to Cindy and her cousins, and drank the wine whenever anyone raised a glass.
Our days mostly revolved around eating. In the morning, we’d go downstairs and sit on footstools around the small table in the kitchen. Cindy’s grandma cooked for the family every morning; a big pan of rice with sweet potato as the staple. We’d fill a bowl each and take it to the table, where, in the middle, were several freshly prepared dishes – fish, eggs, pork, dough balls, broccoli and veg. We’d eat from our bowl, adding a bit of this and a bit of that with every mouthful until our bowls were empty. When we finished, we covered the dishes with a big fly-cover and left it for the next round of breakfasters. We’d then head out. The first day, we went into Quanzhou, a neighbouring city. Here, we walked around a Buddhist temple, with walls of interesting stonework depicting the evils of humans unto nature, and seemingly urging us all to be vegetarian. Outside the temple, we walked down the busy central street – a road of traditional buildings with shops spilling out onto the road, mostly selling shoes and children’s clothes. The factories in Cindy’s village all make shoes, and those in the neighbouring area make children’s clothes. Pedestrians, mopeds and buses fought for space on the narrow, busy road. We stopped at a cafe and I was treated to a local delicacy of some type of worm in a clear, salty jelly. They were very chewy and didn’t have much flavour, and luckily no face, so I added a bit of soy sauce and garlic and got stuck in.
After, we wanted to get to a mosque, and so we piled into two bicycle rickshaws at the corner of a busy intersection. It’s one thing watching the honking, squeaking and swerving of Chinese traffic from the sidelines, but it’s another to be perched on a rickety bench being whipped right through the middle of it. Like most road users, our driver had scant regard for anyone else as he ducked and darted between traffic at a million miles an hour. I relaxed into it after a while, thinking that if I die then I die, no point worrying about it. We made it to the mosque unscathed and without reappearance of the worms. This mosque has been around since 1009AD, and according to the plaque, is the #1 temple in China. In a country of about a trillion temples, that’s not a bad accolade. Once upon a time Quanzhou was the maritime start of the Silk Road, with ships arriving in the port from around the world. Many of the traders were Muslims from the middle east, and so the religion quickly spread in the area. Today, most of the old mosque is worn down walls, but through a gap in one wall you come to the newly built mosque that’s used today. As we were leaving, we noticed a few Muslim men arriving. At the front of the mosque, a man put his hands to his mouth and began the call to prayer; a hypnotising song that didn’t reach much beyond the borders of the temple, but was an important part of the routine. Usually the one asking the questions, it was nice for me to be able to explain this to the group, who thought he was just clearing his throat.
Later that evening we wandered down through a fish market, stopping for snacks like salty zhongzi, triangles of rice wrapped in banana leaf, meatball soup and sugarcane juice. Every place we went to, every shop and cafe and restaurant, had a Buddhist shrine. There was a converted public toilet, locked up, with a Buddha in the window and rows of incense burning on the ledge outside. Even the flashy Toyota dealership, when we went to collect her cousin’s new car, had a shrine. It was becoming apparent that Buddhism was alive and well in Fujian. Every village has numerous temples, some to worship Buddha, but many of them were ancestral temples. During key festivals, family members come to their ancestral temple, make offerings of food, and pray. When a person is dying, they should be brought to the temple so that their final breathe is taken within its walls, so that they can be with their ancestors in the afterlife.
Cindy has a part time job in a local English school, so on the second day we went into the city. There are no buses in her village, and the most common method of public transport is to hop on the back of someone’s moped. I clung on for dear life for the 15 minute journey, kicking myself for not having googled which way to lean when going round corners and worrying that my ignorance was going to end in our deaths, or at least scraped knees. No such malady occurred though, and we arrived safely but with my breakfast threatening to reappear. Cindy said that my driver had gone a little fast, something I had suspected by the fact that I arrived at the school a good 3 minutes before she did. Whilst she was teaching, I met up with Emerald, the girl who showed me around Xi’an, and we went to a building site in the middle of the city. They had knocked down most of the traditional houses in this site, but kept a few of the prettier or more robust ones. In the rubble of the old houses they were rebuilding old-looking houses, with the plan to make the area an ‘old town’ tourist trap – something which I came to experience again later in my trip. We were able to wander around and have a poke around inside some of the old houses, overgrown with shrubs and grass, the furnishings removed and empty bottles lying around. It was interesting to see the layout of a traditional village, the one-storey houses with the detailed wooden beams under the guttering of all the houses. Most were painted panels, but the wealthier houses had scenes created from 3-dimensional wooden sculptures, like a puppet show running around the top of the house. One end of the old town was already open to the public, and were filled with sweet shops and tea shops.
Later, we met Cindy for lunch. We walked through the hot, busy city, past markets and restaurants, past a table with a severed goat’s head and three limbs chained to it (I was too horrified to take a picture), to a restaurant on one corner, with apparently the best noodles in Fujian. Like all the best restaurants in China, it was open front, cheap and dimly lit, with scant regard for hygiene reguations. In the front was a table with all of the various ingredients bowled up, half protected from the beating sun by an umbrella, and we selected three or four things to go into our noodles. Cindy wanted to show me the local flavour, and so I ended up with fried chicken, pig’s intestines and chicken’s heart. The intestines were a little grim, tasting pretty much as you’d expect. I was hesitant but saw that my friends clearly weren’t dying, so I ate it. Taken as a whole, the noodles were delicious, and by the end of my stay I was eating pig’s intestines left, right and centre, so often was it served.
On the third day, in the morning as we were eating breakfast, Cindy’s grandma showed us what she was cooking – Jinjiang sausage. We had eaten this on the first night and it was delicious, so I wanted to watch how to make it. She was making it to take as an offering to the ancestral shrine the next day. Cindy’s mum had bought some sausage from the shop, and grandma had decided she could go one better and make it from scratch. With a mischevious glint in her eye she showed us evidence of her mum’s lack of domesticity – the shop-bought offerings, still in their plastic bag. I was amused, but thought how difficult it must be for so many wives to have to live with and compete with their mother-in-laws, on everything from cooking to raising their children.
Later that day, we went with Cindy’s cousins (to this day I have no idea how they’re actually related, or even if they are) to Xiamen. Xiamen is right on the sea, and is the go-to place in Fujian for the laid-back atmosphere. Again, our day revolved around food, making pit stops at various restaurants and cafes to sample local delicacies. In the afternoon, we took a boat ride over to one of the Kinmen Islands, across the bay from Xiamen. As we were waiting for the boat, we read on the news about the flight from Taiwan that morning, heading for the Kinmen Islands, that had crashed into the river. Being so close to the incident was a bit sobering, but we didn’t meet anyone who had been personally affected. The island we went to attracted mainly tourists, and was a nest of hotels, cafes and souvenir shops. The sky was overcast but we had a nice day eating food and smelling the sea air.
This day happened to be a festival in Jinjiang. Particularly in the south of China, where traditional ways of life are still preserved, there is a festival somewhere pretty much every day of the calendar. The festival today was for employers to thank their employees. We piled into the downstairs room of Cindy’s father’s factory (his partner was the father of one of the cousins, which explained the link). We arrived mid-way through the celebrations, and so the employees had already eaten and were onto the cigarettes and toasting. We tucked into the food that was left for us, and sipped on the wine. People kept dropping in; leaders of local organisations, the local governor, high-ranking people that showed that Cindy’s dad was an important man. The drink was flowing and the volume got louder and louder. The employees would come up to me, one after another, and raise their glass to drink with me, welcoming me to Jinjiang and imploring me to drain my glass with them. This I did once or twice, but after a while Cindy’s chivalrous cousin told them that I’m just a girl and can’t be expected to drink so much… Everyone was rather merry by this point, and one employee who we’d consider to be the weird uncle at a party, kept slurring nonsense at the kids and cousins, slowly chasing Charlie around the room for a deep and meaningful as this poor 10 year old backed away, hands behind his back feeling for an escape route between chairs and drunk men. Eventually we piled into the cousin’s car and slammed the door in his face in fits of laughter and went home to play Mahjong.
My flight was at midday the next day, and Cindy wanted to showcase some of the local cuisine. So we skipped grandma’s breakfast and headed out around the village. We passed old rickety barn style houses, a 1960’s mansion that belonged to her late uncle, and every type of house in between as we walked through alleys and footpaths between the buildings. We soon came across an old lady selling fried rice cakes on the street. It turned out to be Cindy’s great-aunt, and we were plied with free rice cakes and sent on our way. We passed through 4 villages in total, stopping for zhongzi, dough sticks, and finally rice noodles at the best place in town. The shop was just a street corner with a corrugated metal roof balancing on a wall, but the food was delicious. The owner asked me if I’d help him to spread his business to the UK, and I said I’d be delighted to.
We got back to Cindy’s house, stuffed, at 11am, where Cindy’s mum had taken over grandma’s kitchen to prepare me a special leaving lunch. This might have had something to do with the sausage incident the day before, and despite being absolutely stuffed, refusing was not an option. We sat down to salted fish, pig intestines stuffed with rice and sprinkled with sugar (not as bad as it sounds), king prawns, Jinjiang sausage, pork, scrambled balut (fertilised, half-grown eggs – these weren’t too far gone so just tasted like meaty scrambled egg), and three types of vegetable dishes. Time was pushing onwards and I was vaguely think that I had a flight to catch, but I was told not to worry and to keep eating. No-one else seemed to be in a rush and I guessed they knew more about the efficiency of Quanzhou International Airport than I did, so I ate a bit more. Finally, cousin arrived to take me to the airport, and so I grabbed my bag which was waiting at the bottom of the stairs. It felt much heavier but I put that down to the 5kg of food in my stomach. Grandma pressed a red carrier bag into my hand filled with Ferrero Rocher, two jars of meat floss, and three packets of local speciality beef jerky. I tried and tried to refuse but again, to actually refuse would be rude, and so I hooked the bag on my arm, saddled up and made for the door. As I was leaving, Cindy’s mum took my hand and put a beautiful bracelet on my wrist, one that matches Cindy’s and Sally’s. This just sums up the warmth and hospitality they showed me throughout; even though we could barely understand each other, they had been so welcoming and I knew that my gift of Swedish biscuits and English tea would never match the kindness they’d shown me. I was more choked still when I arrived in my hostel in Kunming later that day, unpacking my rucksack to reveal that grandma had surreptitiously stuffed it with rice cakes, two foot-long sugar canes, biscuits, more beef jerky and aloe vera drinks when I wasn’t looking.