Part II: Practicing hospitality in rural China

Bangdong, China — The first phrase I learned in the local dialect here was “you lai!” (又来) “Come again!” My teacher was Sister Two, the three-year-old daughter of the village’s best chef. There is no restaurant in Bangdong, so when the mayor hosts dinners for government officials or businessmen, Sister Two’s mother cooks up a feast while her daughter charms the guests. As they depart, Sister Two’s consummate hospitality rings out behind them: You lai! Come again!

Rural hospitality is a way of life in China. It weaves generosity and reciprocity into the fabric of the community, even from a young age, seen as indispensable to getting by. “To be a human in Chinese society is to be linked to others, to one’s parents, siblings, children and friends—and to fulfill the obligations of those linkages,” the pioneering Chinese sociologist Fei Xiaotong writes.  “Otherwise, the entire social system collapses.” As an outsider joining this small southwestern community I have been the beneficiary of such hospitality countless times and am now learning how to fulfill my obligations of those new social linkages. In the process, I have made mistakes—to the point of shaming the entire village—but thankfully for me, Bangdong’s gracious community is helping me along the process of making the village home.

The community’s main event each week is ganggai (赶集), or market day. People come from nearby villages to buy and sell goods at Potou, a town six miles from Bangdong. Ganggai is so central to rural life that time revolves around it. A week consists of five days, instead of seven, beginning with ganggai and ending on Market Five (集五), with Market Two, Three and Four sandwiched in between. It’s something like Monday through Friday, but instead of easing into the weekend, ganggai rolls around again and the five-day cycle continues. Within this ganggai timewarp, the weekend ceases to exist, and in my case, along with it brunch, Sunday Night Football and cases of the Mondays.

              Market day gathers people from surrounding villages to buy and sell fruits and vegetables, meat and even roadside dental services. Its five-day rotation is the standard measure of time in the community

Of the week’s five days, ganggai is my favorite. I ride my motorcycle to the market and people-watch over a bowl of mint mutton rice noodles. Local farmers line the streets with their fresh harvests: red peppers and purple eggplants, white turnips and leafy greens. Cleavers slam against chopping blocks as buckets fill with pig heads and pork trotters, quantifying the mess of meat on the butcher table. Grandmothers balance babies on their backs as they hunch over and tie them in with cloth straps while men in Mao hats and camouflage pants offer cigarettes to friends on the street. Young women strut though the stalls wearing their market best—high heels and frilly sunhats-dragging their children behind them. Breasts are unveiled to comfort crying babies. Unlike Monday, no one ever gets a case of the ganggais.

It’s a big responsibility being Foreigner Ambassador to Bangdong. I walk through the crowd on my usual rounds, greeted by curious stares and wide smiles. Many at the market still don’t know me; for some, I am the first foreigner they’ve ever seen. Most of them assume I’m a tea boss, here to export Bangdong crops back home, wherever it is. Or they guess I am a volunteer teacher at the local school. Some saw my profile in a provincial news feature that misreported me as a Times Magazine journalist. But most people know enough about me that when asked who I am, I rarely have to answer myself.

“He lives near old Bangdong village,” a passerby interjects.

“He’s a writer,” another says. “Works with his brain.”

“He is Bangdong’s first international immigrant,” jokes the first.

“He fixed up an old house and will be here for ten years,” another says confidently. “He’s looking for a local wife.”

Don’t believe everything you hear at the market.

“You also came to ganggai!” Neighbor Li says in typical greeting as my rounds continue. I stop at my fruit guy and pick up a pomelo and some kumquats. Carpenter Liu hollers from across the street, “See you on Market Three!” reminding me of our appointment to make wood benches for my house. I pick up cabbage and green onions from my favorite vegetable lady as her three-year-old daughter plays with a cucumber and cleaver. I visit my pork guy, spice lady and rat poison guy. “You also came to ganggai!” Auntie Zhu says in greeting from behind a stack of corn. She hasn’t sold much, so I put a couple ears in my bag and ask how much. “Just take them,” she says. We play-fight over a couple renminbi bills until I finally stash them in her apron and run away. I stop by Farmer’s Friend Hardware for a handful of screws. “Just take them,” says the boss. I get out my cash, but lose the fight this time.

              The author appears in a provincial news feature on local tea, misreported as a Times Magazine journalist dispatched to Bangdong for a special assignment

Bangdong village has only 350 residents, so it’s a welcome change to interact with the surrounding communities on market day. But ganggai is also when I most appreciate Bangdong’s small-town feel, like a Chinese Mayberry. When I see Neighbor Li or Auntie Zhu, it’s like running into an old friend at the general store. In the midst of all the other strangers, I feel like I belong and Bangdong pride wells up within me. In the 1990s, village pride used to fuel knife fights between village gangs on market day. The knife fights have since ceased, and I understand the ongoing strong village identity. After all, I am not from Mangmai. I am not from Bangbao. I am Bangdongese.

But it’s been a long process making Bangdong home. As I described in Part One of “Housework and homecoming,” there has been manual labor, aching muscles and even a power-saw accident. Settling in has also involved reclaiming the house from rats and bats, lizards and spiders, crickets, beetles and ants. One day, a four-foot snake greeted me at my doorstep. But more challenging than the housework has been the homecoming. What does it mean to call Bangdong home? Who are the Bangdongese? How do I become a good neighbor? And how do I contribute to the community even as I receive so much from others?

The first step answering each of those questions, I’ve found, is simple: join in Bangdong’s rhythms of life. Get up with the sun. Go to ganggai. Say hi. Sit and eat sunflower seeds. Invite others for tea. Join neighbors for a meal. Play cards, even if it means losing a few renminbi. Learn to hold your corn liquor. And sleep when the village goes dark.

Critical to this daily rhythm is an afternoon walk. Each day at five o’clock, I shut my laptop or lower my shovel and stroll the road that loops through Bangdong. As I do, I have watched the village change. Corn stalks grew high and new tea shoots sprouted while mosquitos replaced the fireflies of summer. Zi Kaigui paved his driveway and Landlord Li built a new cinderblock bathroom. And over the summer, the road itself—once a muddy walk—was paved with stone slabs.

                A work crew labored for a month over the summer paving the road with stone slabs as part of a nationwide campaign to connect all villages by road. It transformed my muddy walk home into a lovely stroll through the village

My walk connects me to my neighbors. “Come sit!” Brother Huang says, beckoning with his hand. I run into A Cong: “Come to my Old House tonight for some tea,” I say. And if one doesn’t feel like cooking, a strategically timed stroll can also mean good home cooking. “Come eat!” hollers Big Sister Li as I walk by her home, her gruff tone belying the warmth of her hospitality. “It’s just one more pair of chopsticks!” she barks.

My daily walk also routinely leads to the unexpected. On one stroll I came across some 50 people crowded into a courtyard. “Come eat!” one hollered as he grilled pork chunks and Chinese zucchini on an open flame. “Come Scoop the Pickled Vegetables,” another said, luring me to my favorite card game. I sat down at a knee-high table, squeezing in between Big Head and Pekingese Dog; Chinese nicknames favor accuracy over flattery.

The evening was looking to be par for the course. Cards would be dealt, wagers of alcohol raised and several of the young men would end up debilitatingly drunk. That was the Bangdong social scene. As a new arrival, I found the frequent community gatherings made for an easy induction into village life. But after so many months, it began to feel repetitive and superficial. As an outsider, I longed for meaningful connection and conversation for which cards and corn liquor were a poor substitute. I felt lonely.

Suddenly, in the middle of a hand, Old Thief pulled up in a van and Big Ant told all the men to get in. Big Head and Pekingese Dog led the way. I often don’t know what’s happening and have learned to do as I’m told. When I’m told to get in the car, I get in. And when I’m told to dig, I dig.

The grave was four feet by eight feet and sat precisely on a 120° southeast axis. Grandma Xie had died in August 2017, but a fengshui master calculated the first day of the fifth lunar month (June 14, 2018) as an auspicious day for burial. Meantime, she lay in a wooden coffin near her gravesite, hidden beneath plastic sheeting and pine branches. Twenty-nine of us worked in shifts, rotating between digging, unloading slabs of stone and warming ourselves by a small fire. The night turned cold and a north wind blew the rain under our makeshift tarp roof. We finally finished digging by 1 a.m. and, using bamboo and rope, carried Grandma Xie’s coffin up the muddy slope and laid her deep in the earth.

The fengshui master performed atop the coffin, hopping back and forth along its length, adding half-rotations and a port de bras with a chicken in his hands, like some crude ballet. The family of the deceased, each member with a white cloth wrapped around his or her head, kowtowed in respect while the fengshui master showered them with grains of rice and finally the chicken itself. Grandma Xie’s eldest son threw the first shovel of dirt on the coffin and our work crew burst into motion again. Tradition holds that tombs must be constructed the very day of burial. Some leveled dirt while others mixed concrete. Rocks were piled into a foundation and slabs of stone were crafted into a tomb on top. By 4 a.m., when the roosters started crowing, we were still 18 strong. Everyone took a smoking break at 5:30 a.m. and then shots of corn liquor at 7 a.m. Women brought breakfast of leek-scrambled eggs, spicy tomato spareribs and fresh chicken. By 10 a.m. Grandma Xie was finally laid to rest.

                A fengshui master consecrates a coffin with a chicken in performing the final burial rites. The body of the deceased was held ten months for an auspicious day of burial before being laid to rest

In Bangdong, you dig all night for your bereaved neighbor. When a friend’s daughter marries, you help for three days straight with the food preparation by day and then dance late into the night. You always offer tea or a meal to a strolling neighbor and your other work stops if your invitation is accepted.

I am still learning to distinguish between sincere and obligatory invitations. I’m certain I’ve accepted obligatory ones and have undoubtedly overstayed my welcome at times. When people stop by to see a US dollar bill or criticize my renovation work, as a good neighbor and Foreigner Ambassador to Bangdong, I invite them in for tea. My productivity suffers at times; this paragraph was interrupted by a whistle at my door and an obligatory tea break. But that’s Bangdong hospitality.

Being a good neighbor sometimes requires more than drinking tea, however. One day, my front door literally fell off its hinges as I was leaving home for a research trip. I was running late for a flight so I propped it up against the doorframe and left. Bangdong, after all, is a small trustworthy community.

I returned home two weeks later to piles of cigarette butts scattered around my couches. My suitcase had been rummaged through and a carton of Marlboros—an intended gift—had been emptied but for one pack. An envelope of cash was also gone. Mayor Zhu Hong quickly contacted my neighbors who reported a villager visiting my home while I was away. They also saw him playing on a new phone and smoking Marlboros, a rarity in the village. The culprit was an 11-year old boy.

Zhang Zhenyun is in 5th grade and lives a minute’s walk from my home. He is a quiet boy whom I’ve never seen smile. His father is a migrant laborer in the city and an alcoholic. His mother is “dumb,” (傻) according to villagers, and his grandparents are too old to properly take care of him and his little brother. Zhenyun’s family is the only one to qualify for welfare support for every single member. The boy is also cousin of the mayor.

                This four-foot snake, an eight-striped keelback, welcomed me home one day. It is among a host of other creatures—including bats, rats and lizards—that would also like to call my place home

Zhu Hong was irate. His cousin had brought shame to his family and the entire village. The next morning, both showed up unannounced at my house. The boy stood in front of me with his chin to his chest, his hair thick with dandruff. Zhu Hong stood at arm’s length with his second finger an inch from Zhenyun’s temple. “Look him in the eye,” he ordered. The boy lifted his head to meet my gaze, eyes glistening with tears. “I’m sorry.” The words burbled from his lips, barely audible between sniffles. His head dropped again. “Louder!” yelled Zhu Hong. “And look at him!” The mayor’s jaw was set and his eyes were steely. “I’m sorry,” Zhenyun tried again.

“Where did the money go?” Zhu Hong asked. The boy hung his head in silence. “Answer within one minute or I’ll report you to the police,” Zhu Hong threatened, his menacing finger still within an inch of Zhenyun’s head. The key tones of the mayor’s phone broke the silence.

“I bought snacks for my friends,” Zhenyun finally confessed.

“All $300? How can you eat that much?” Zhu Hong asked.

“I also bought a new phone at the market,” Zhenyun said. “But it’s broken already.”

Now nearly apoplectic, Zhu Hong sat on my porch and started drafting a confession. His method—and perhaps his anger—was surely informed by memories of his own time in detention as a 15-year old. When did you enter the house? By what path? What did you steal? How much? What other bad things have you done? Zhenyun confessed to eight or nine incidents of stealing or destroying things around the village. He was no first-time offender.

“Sign it,” demanded Zhu Hong. “Not there!” he corrected the boy’s placement. “Here!”

“Now date it,” he said. Zhenyun scrawled out 2018年8月21日.

“Now write ‘The above is fact’” (cishang shi shishi). Zhenyun scribbled “The above is 40” (cishang shi sishi), either misunderstanding or not knowing how to write the last two characters. Zhu Hong struck out the error in disgust and corrected it for him. He took a photo of the confession and said sternly, “Next time we report this to the police and you’ll go to detention.” Zhu Hong then said to me in earnest, “This will not happen again,” and walked away with Zhenyun close behind, his head still hung low.

Word travels quickly in Bangdong. In the coming days, I was repeatedly told that untrustworthy people live near me and that I should lock my doors. “That information would have been more helpful prior to the incident,” I thought to myself, until I realized my neighbors were conveying two important messages. First, I shouldn’t trust Zhenyun. But second, I am also at fault. I didn’t secure my home properly or hide my valuables well. “You’re not good enough to yourself,” the mayor told me. “You should’ve asked someone to help you with the door.” Zhu Hong and the village lost face because of me. That is not being a good neighbor.


                Friends and neighbors chop roast duck and tofu for a wake, which lasts several days. Family members of the deceased all wear white cloth around their heads and can’t enter anyone else’s home for a month

The week after the break-in, I held a mini-housewarming. It was time to start extending the hospitality I’d generously received for months, so I called the three guys who had helped me make the Old House hospitable. Brother Liu, A Cong and Chunsheng showed up promptly at 8 p.m. I creaked open my wooden doors with a “Come in!” and a big grin, thrilled to finally be hosting rather than the hosted.

They came in and peered around the place. None of them had seen it since I’d bought furniture and moved in. “If your parents cry when they visit, they are welcome to stay at my place,” Brother Liu chided. He sat down in my grey reading chair and seemed to carry out a quality-control inspection, pounding his palms on the arms and partially unscrewing a leg of the ottoman. A Cong, a small-framed 40-year-old with thinning hair, slouched on the couch so that his feet could reach the ground. Meanwhile, Chunsheng squatted on his haunches in the middle of my living room, uninterested in the second couch that stood empty. I set out tea and sunflower seeds, like I’d seen my hosts do countless times before. Chunsheng took a handful, cleared his throat and spit on the concrete floor. “You should lock your doors, you know,” he reminded me. “Not all of your neighbors are trustworthy.”

We chatted casually about the break-in and I explained how the 11-year-old boy smoked my entire carton of cigarettes. “Actually he smoked your cigarettes,” I joked. “But thankfully I found more,” I added, pulling out the Marlboros from my bag. “Thank you for helping make my home in Bangdong.” Brother Liu immediately opened a pack and handed cigarettes to the other two. I quietly cringed as smoke rose through the rafters into my bedroom. I hadn’t quite thought this one through. Still, it also seemed an appropriately Bangdongese way to break in my new home.

                The author hosts a Thanksgiving meal in his home, featuring mashed potatoes, pumpkin soup and a freshly killed chicken. Notable guests include Mayor Zhu Hong (second from right) and Brother Liu (third from right), who helped fix up the Old House

The three men sat smoking for over an hour as they sipped on some of Brother Liu’s home-brewed corn liquor. The quiet crack of sunflower seeds strung together conversation about their kids’ schooling and critiques of my interior decorating. It was not the deep and meaningful conversation I craved, but as I thought about their children in school, I remembered these guys also grew up together. They went to elementary school together and dropped out of secondary school together. They had had one another’s backs during ganggai knife fights and labored together in distant, unfamiliar cities. They help raise each other’s kids and bury relatives. They know the intimate details of the others’ lives from having lived through them together. What more is there to discuss?

The sociologist Fei Xiaotong describes the country’s close-knit rural communities as “mutually interdependent.” He writes: “Each member owes countless favors to the other members… The continuing reciprocity maintains the cooperation among people in the group.” I think of the free screws from Farmer’s Friend Hardware and the extra suitcase full of tea, sausage and a friend’s painting that villagers sent home with my parents after their visit. I owe countless favors. But when I get discouraged about my generosity debt, I am reminded of a neighbor’s words: “Greet your neighbors when you see them. The more you see them, the more you know them. And the more you know them, the better neighbor you’ll be.”

Brother Liu and friends lingered until the village grew dark and my house was the only one lit on the hillside. Inside, I glowed from finally being able to open my home to my friends. The hours of digging dirt and hauling bricks, backaches and blisters were all worth it in this moment. Then, without fanfare, my visitors snuffed out their Marlboros, drained their glasses and headed for the door. Formalities are unnecessary among friends. I stood on the porch and watched them disappear into the darkness. “You lai!” I yelled after them. “Come again!”