During the time I lived in China, the area around my university — South China Teachers University in the village of Shipai — was largely farms and small villages. Behind my apartment building were experimental farms of the agricultural college. Beyond the college was a small mountain where my ex and I sometimes ran — he ran, I bitched. I hadn’t become a great runner yet. Sometimes we encountered a guy doing Monkey King Tai Chi as he ran up the mountain. He had to have been in a very unique zone to have managed those moves while running.
In I. J. Khanewala’s recent blog post about Guangzhou’s New Town, I saw what “my” neighborhood is like now.
I wouldn’t know it. As I read his description, I Googled a map of Guangzhou and looked specifically for the “Tianhe District.” I had never heard this term. I lived in the village of Shi Pai. White Stone.
I studied the map, orienting myself (ha ha see what I did?) partly to get a sense of the images and discussion in the blog post, and partly to imagine “my” China so radically changed.
In looking at my slides, I see things as they were beginning, including the major freeway that runs around the city. People sat on the road breaking rocks and concrete by hand, waving at us as we went by on our bikes on a road that, on this map is a highway, one of the wide yellow roads. The subway runs on the bus line, bus 22. If we missed it, we took bus 11 — our two legs.
So, here is what the urban world of Tianhe District looked like in 1982/83
There are a couple photos of Shenzhen which was a “special economic zone,” designed to attract foreign investment, between Guangzhou and Hong Kong. It’s now a city. But the agriculture there was typical of Guangdong at the time.
People sometimes ask me whether I want to return to China. I don’t. I can’t. It’s not just a place on the map, it’s also a time and a way of living that is long gone. It’s paradoxical. While I don’t want to go to new China, (Xin Hua) I would not want China to remain where it was when I lived there. It was a very hard life. For most people — including my ex and I — life centered on finding food. The REAL Chinese greeting is not “Ni hao?” (“You OK?”) it’s “Chi baole ma?” or “Have you eaten?”
For me, foraging came up against a time crunch. My colleagues taught two classes a day, Jim taught three, I taught six and I was expected to do coaching after school and teach graduate students. Lucky us, though. We had a fridge!
The daily necessity of finding and preparing food was complicated, but it needn’t have been complicated. The college had two women who cooked three meals a day for us. They were good cooks, and I really liked them, but food from home is important when you are so far away. We ate lunch in our dining room and breakfast and supper in our apartment, usually. I’m glad we did that. I wanted a Chinese life, and that problem was part of a Chinese life.
Peasants were up at 3 in the morning picking vegetables, loading them in bamboo baskets, hoisting them on their shoulder poles and getting on a freight train to the nearest village market which opened at 7 am. The vegetables were better than any I’ve eaten in the United States ever. Fish was easy to find, but meat and chicken were not, although nearly every day the sounds of a pig being slaughtered blasted the walls of the college. Sometimes this was followed by one of the cooks yelling up to my apartment, “Ma Sa! Ma Sa! Jiu ro! Jiu ro!” Martha, Martha, pork, pork. I’d meet them in their kitchen and we’d part out the hunk of pork and laugh. They respected me for cooking, for being human.
My love for chile peppers was famous in my village. And when they went out of season, and I couldn’t have them any more, and I asked, I learned for the first time in my life about nature’s imperatives. Months went by without chiles and then, one day, a peasant woman in the market grinned at me and said, in Mandarin which most of them did not speak (there are countless village dialects) “Lao she! Yo la jiao!” “Teacher. I have chiles.” She held out a handful of red peppers. Everyone around her laughed. The price was exorbitant but my god, she remembered (I was kind of a sore thumb) and prepared a sentence in Mandarin. I felt like a million dollars and paid her five mao. We carried our money — everyone did — in crumpled piles in the front pockets of our pants.
I’ll end this agriculture post with a story. By June, the rain had stopped and the weather warmed up, slamming us with tropical heat, less painful than it had been when we’d first arrived from Colorado. We headed into town on our bicycles (the road is on the map, but I don’t see a name). As we passed the edge of our village where some new buildings had been put up (since torn down) we saw men from Sinkiang selling small watermelons. We stopped our bikes — me, my Chinese brother and my ex — and bought three. One of the men cut them open. We took them to the shade of some trees across the road and sat beside a field, enjoying the sweetness of a fruit from Sinkiang (western China, Moslem and Turkic), spitting seeds into the canals between the green vegetables and laughing.
The best watermelon I ever expect to eat.
To learn about my village of Shipai today, look here.
Exploring Guangzhou’s Urban Villages: Shipai, Xiancun By Tristin Zhang and Jocelyn Richards, May 30, 2017