What I Discovered in Small-Town China

The day things changed for myself and my volunteer friends in a small town in China was the day we met Raise Your Voice, a pop-punk band made up of a few students from Donghai University. Donghai, meaning “East Sea” is one of the hundred (or perhaps thousand) Donghais in China. And at this university, I was able to catch a glimpse of what life in “real China” might be like. The other two volunteers in the area with me, Rupert and Harry, met them first, at a sports event on a Sunday at the university. The band and a few of their friends approached the boys, lured in by the guitars they were strumming. They spent the afternoon together, jamming, dancing, and sharing their stories. I remember the text message I got from Rupert one Sunday evening as I was relaxing with some tea in my afternoon after a day of wandering around the markets of Nanshan: “Met super cool rock band at uni today. Good Sunday. We are going to jam with them Friday evening. You should join us.” I put down my Nokia phone (this is in 2009) and made some green tea. 

Teaching kids had its perks and its fair share of warm fuzzy feelings. Their innocent faces that lit up and the big smiles they gave me every time I walked in the room—their infectious energy, and their sponge-like brains with their ability to soak up all the information and wisdom I could impart during every 45-minute increment of English class made me feel accomplished at the end of the day. But I also couldn’t have a real conversation with any of the kids. And the relationship with our co-workers still bordered on the superficial. We were struggling to break down the laowei barrier. I had greater success than the boys, probably because I’m a woman. I was getting along well with one of my co-workers Grace, or Luan Qing Fang (her Chinese name) but at the end of the day, it was a professional relationship between the women in the English office. Talking to university students, however, we were given the opportunity to get much more personal with China and its people.

Harry and Rupert played guitar together every day and were students themselves back home. Being a single twenty-something with hardly any possessions and no professional career in place myself, I was pretty much at the university student stage in my life. We could relate to university kids. And they wanted to speak to us. They wanted us around. Maybe it was the university stage at play—when everyone wants to question everything and soak up all the cultural information they can, but we truly hit it off with this band and their entourage.

Almost every Friday after my last classes ended and I’d passed the swarms of parents, (most of whom were in their factory uniforms and on their motorbikes, waiting to pick up their kids) I’d hop on a minibus to Donghai. The last bus ran just before 5 p.m., and I’d usually bargain down to 20 kuai for the 20-minute ride into town. If not I’d have to pay for a taxi of over 50 kuai. The Friday after Rupert and Harry made friends with Raise Your Voice I was on my way to see them. Looking out the window of the minivan somewhere between Nanshan and Donghai which was the countryside of Shandong Province I thought of how my routine changed so quickly once in China. The feelings and memories from just a year before, when I was on buses and subways fighting snowy days and early hours with minimum wage benefits seemed world’s away. In many ways, they were. I was leading a completely different and simple life. I spent about 10 dollars a week on food during the weekends, and my teaching hours fed me during the week, and I had a roof over my head. I was learning how to teach. I was writing every day.

I was learning about a culture in which people around me in Montreal only knew about because of stereotypes, and stories that were outdated. Nothing could have prepared me for living in China.

 “We are going out for dinner, J-Rich,” Rupert told me as I walked into his apartment. Rupert and Harry lived adjacent to each other in dormitory-style housing in Donghai. They had spacious and clean apartments, and their building was on campus.

“Some guys from the band are treating us, they said. They know a good place in town,” Rupert said as he stood up from his computer to put on his coat.

“In town” in a small city in China means down the road from a university campus. Most smaller city universities, like Donghai University, have students from other cities and provinces. As a result, most of them live on campus, which is the system in many parts of China. A lot of factory workers also live on the grounds of their work. They can commit their lives to the project—whether it be work or school, and eat, sleep and play in close quarters. China has a few periods in a year that are holidays such as Chinese New Year, and that’s when most of these displaced people can return to their villages and hometowns. It is the most massive internal migration of any country in the world.

We walked down the steps and outside the building to be greeted by Lee.

“Hello, nice to meet you,” Lee said, sweeping his bangs to the side. He brushed the arm of the girl standing next to him, “This is my girlfriend, her English name is Belinda.” Belinda waved and gave us an eager but shy smile. “Hello!”

We walked outside the gates of the campus and along the road leading to the restaurant. Lee explained to me how he was the leader in Raise Your Voice. He loved playing the guitar, and it was his favourite hobby. He asked questions about Canada, about my school life there, about my thoughts on China. I explained that yes, it does get cold in the wintertime. Yes, I could speak French, but was eager to learn more Chinese. And of course, that I was loving China.

“We are so happy to meet you!” Belinda said, practically skipping down the road.

“Yes, we do not get to talk to many young foreigners. This is so exciting for us.”

After walking about ten minutes down the road and through a little park, we came to a block with a few restaurants on it. “I hope you like it. This restaurant is the best place in Donghai,” Lee explained, inviting me to enter one of the restaurants.

We all walked upstairs to a private dining area. We sat around another Lazy Susan, fitting about ten people around it. Rupert, Harry and I shared the table with Lee, Belinda and a few of their friends. They didn’t speak any English and were too shy to say much to us, but we apologized for not being more proficient in Chinese.

After stuffing ourselves with food and sharing a few bottles of Tsingtao, Lee proposed a drinking game. We went around the table, counting in multiples of three. The Chinese people had to say the numbers in English, and us in Chinese. It took a few tries, but after two months in China, I could finally say that I could count to 30 in Mandarin

And so went our typical routine for our last weeks as volunteers. We’d spend time with Lee and his band for dinner, and we’d sometimes go back to campus, and they’d play guitar in the gym or recreational centre. I’ll always remember Lee telling me one evening, “Talking to all of you, it is like magic.”

They said we helped them, and spoke so many words of appreciation. I didn’t feel like we deserved any of it, but I always looked forward to our Friday night dinners.

I don’t know about the volunteers that preceded us. They might have been much cooler than we were, much more eclectic and perhaps (hopefully not) better company. Even though they weren’t shy to tell us, and it appeared that we were the ones who were the relished guests, it was the three of us who were lucky ones.

Another image that’s stuck with me whenever my mind wanders back to how life was in small-town China is from one of those nights. A Friday evening during the drinking game, one of Lee’s friends stood up as we all sat around the Lazy Susan, and he toasted us with his tiny glass filled to the rim with Tsingtao, and in broken English, he said, “Welcome to China.”

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