Huzhou. It was the over-cooked soggy broccoli that had to be eaten. It couldn’t be put off. It had to be done. Huzhou is the city which Xin’s father calls home. It is thus also the stomping ground of his aunt (yes, the one previously mentioned) and their extended family.
My last trip here stained its name in my mind; perhaps, irredeemably so. Objectively, it is a fairly ordinary Chinese city, with its usual urban dust, smoke and honking horns. But on my last trip here I came with a heavy cold, seeming harassment for my food choices, alienation by the use of dialect around me. I was hoping this time might be better and it was (it could only be so!). It was our duty to go. (Start the Painted Black music.)
Our departure from Hangzhou and arrival at Huzhou were farcical. Our last half day at Hangzhou was spent killing time and then a seemingly interminable struggle to get to the bus station. It seemed the taxis were avoiding us. One came directly towards us slowly; we signalled to it; it turned down a side-street. We staggered with our full complement of luggage to a bus-stop and waited for a bus that didn’t seem to be coming. It was though. And all the while people waiting for it gathered. When it arrived, there was a stampede and then the kind of squashing in that wouldn’t be even remotely legal in NZ. I was cramped into a small cavity near the driver, leaving as much of my leg-room for the bags. Still the bus stopped for a few more people to squeeze into what was left of the breathing room. The bus ride was going to be about 30 minutes, but fortunately as we got closer to the station people alighted and breathing space was regained.
The station and ride were unremarkable except for the fact that I swotted up on the family tree. What I would call each person was a tricky area. Chinese relationship names are complex and when you don’t fit into the tree, it becomes even trickier.
We arrived at Huzhou and were surrounded by all the taxi and three-wheeled vehicle drivers all wanting to take us away from the station. Xin’s mum did all the talking.
‘Where do you want to go?’
‘The city centre. How much?’
So we headed off to the man’s three wheeled vehicle, piled in and took off. Xin and I were trying for photos of the inside cabin with the driver, when suddenly I became aware that Xin’s mother and the driver were seemingly arguing. I hadn’t been paying attention but the words: ‘Well, fine just let us out here then,’ wafted past my ears. It seemed that once the vehicle got moving and the details of which part of the city ‘the city centre’ became clearer, the driver had become unhappy on just ten dollars. Xin’s mum had stuck to her guns and said that ten dollars was agreed and our destination was regarded as the city centre (something Xin and I as neutral observers agreed about). Either way, the ‘fine just let us out here’ became a reality and we exited the vehicle onto a big highway. Relation with the driver and her mum became worse as the language between the two escalated. On the side of the road they traded insults that started with ‘You’re mentally sick!’ and went much worse. After a few lines, Xin and I tried to stop this childish exchange and reined Xin’s mum in, after which the driver took his chance to say some hideous insults which were unreturned, hopped back in his vehicle and went away. Now that we are in the middle of nowhere, what do we do?
Fortunately, Xin’s mother was not a stranger to the area and found us a bus to proceed in on and then came to the home. As I’ve already said, my reception by the family wasn’t warm probably because I irk them as much as they irk me. The dinner was hardly satisfying because they’d made very few things a vegetarian could eat, and their comments were hardly palatable either.
Since Xin’s mum had come, they had a little bit of an accommodation shortage. But no worries, Xin’s cousin had a friend who owned a hotel not far from the family home (a 40 minute walk). Daniel could stay there while Xin and her mother stayed at the home. When Xin’s Dad came, he could stay in the hotel with Daniel. This sounded fine on paper, and so at our first dinner I was told that the family was heading to my room to have a shower after dinner. This was because their home didn’t have a decent place to wash (nor a toilet that could flush to any great effect). It also had two fish gasping for air in the bathtub (but I say that only in passing).
So thus we head to the hotel to find the filthiest hotel I’ve ever seen. It had the saving grace of clean sheets but otherwise was a mess. You wouldn’t want to walk barefoot in the room as it was covered in ash, dirt, nut shells, an odd metal bit etc. Her aunt went for the first shower, but came out shortly after saying that the hot water was minimal and asked for her son to call reception to get them turn the water on; ‘It is on’ was the response. After this, everyone went back home, except me who got to eat walnuts watching TV about the first proper legislation allowing proper workers’ unionisation and collective bargaining. The topic was humorous. In western countries the left-wing (socialist) parties are all about the unions and the workers. The largest ‘socialist’ country however has virtually no worker protection. Xin’s mother told me about the Wolf Culture, where employers push their employees as far as they can. The programme featured interviews with workers and employers, the latter of which said the same thing you hear here: The legislation will be costly to us; We’ll go out of business; The workers will exploit it to their own ends.
Xin’s dad came and without hesitation moved the family out to a hotel of a decent star rating nearer the home (about 10 minutes’ walk). If you consider how I view my reception and treatment in Huzhou, you might be surprised to hear that they had some expectation of me doing them a favour. They aunt’s granddaughter was starting to learn English (she was about 12). And what a coincidence, I was a teacher. So many of my evenings, I taught a wee-bit of English and gave her the chance to hear English being spoken. It has been some time since I had taught a (near) absolute beginner. And she had textbook English that she had to learn and revise so there wasn’t as much freedom to use topics of interest to discuss. But it was interesting anyway. The environment they have to learn English is poor; the schools that teach it overcharge for an ineffectual service. But there is a demand for this service and so there are these schools.
Respite from Huzhou came on a trip to Guanshang. This was the small country town Xin’s grandparents lived and also where her dad spent his childhood. It was in a home that was hundreds of years old, still bearing the original carvings. It was located in the mountains and had its own tea fields and bamboo forest. On our first evening, we went for a walk in the bamboo forest (where every tree has the name of the owner) and then amongst the tea terracing.
Aunt was there too; and there were more little clashes including the one and only time I responded to her baiting (to stand up for my principles). But on the whole it was an interesting experience there. We stayed in a house, which was probably older than the state of New Zealand. I experienced the full beauty of the northern hemisphere night sky for the first time. I met her reticent grandfather and her grandmother who has been mainly bed-ridden after a stroke. There was also a possessed cat: it didn’t meow but growled words; it didn’t respond to the International Cat Name (pooosh!) and it behaved quite oddly too.
It ended rather quickly though and we headed back to Huzhou and then fled the city to Nanjing – Xin’s childhood city.