Part 1: Renovating a mud house in rural China
Bangdong, China — I first visited the Old House on a crisp December afternoon. Only two such buildings were left standing in the village and the mayor thought I might be interested in renting it during my two years here. We took a small dirt path past a neighbor’s outhouse and followed it along a rock wall, tiptoeing between beer bottles and candy wrappers that Neighbor Li had tossed from above. To our right, a chayote tree grew up and over the trail, its vines eclipsing the blue sky. We ducked underneath and followed the path up a small embankment to where the Old House stood.
The two-story facade was made of interlocking wood panels and the three surrounding walls were of mud, two feet thick. Roughly chiseled stone steps rose to a porch of hard red dirt, worn smooth by thousands of footsteps and walled in by a jigsaw of granite. The front doors creaked on their wooden hinges as we swung them open, revealing dirt floors and cobwebbed ceilings. Chickens had overtaken a side building where the mud walls inside were shiny black from years of cooking over an open fire and the floor was thick with droppings. I liked the place immediately.
I had originally planned to live in a homestay for the two years of my fellowship. On my first visit to the village the previous year, I had lived with a family for a week and hoped to deepen the relationships I’d made. But I came to realize that the culture of Chinese hospitality, especially heightened in rural areas, would no doubt overburden my hosts with a sense of obligation—and inconvenience—with me as a tenant-guest. Without my own space, I would also constantly be on the receiving end of hospitality from friends in the village. But I wanted to extend hospitality, too, not just receive it. So we drew up a handwritten contract for about $500 a year and formalized it with red thumbprints and a posed photo. Thus Neighbor Li became Landlord Li.
Fixing up the Old House to make it habitable would become more than a renovation project, however. Certainly I learned much about pouring cement and electrical wiring. But more important, I also learned about myself and the community around me. What is my role in this village? How do others perceive me? How do we communicate during conflict? It would be an endeavor not merely to work on a house but to find a home here.
The Old House sat abandoned for four years before we started fixing it up. The out-building to the right is the kitchen-turned-chicken coop
The Old House was actually new not too long ago, built in 1982—my birth year—amid the upheavals of China’s rural reforms. Agricultural production had been low throughout the Great Leap Forward (1959-61) and the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) because of inefficient communal farming and famine. Scholars estimate that anywhere from 20 to 40 million people starved to death.
In a desperate, radical move, eighteen farmers in Xiaogang, a village in the eastern province of Anhui, signed a secret pact with local government officials to divide the collectivized land between them and allow them to keep any crops beyond their production quotas. When output skyrocketed in 1979—more than the previous five years combined—the central government began reallocating land to individual households (分田到户) across China.
Landlord Li and his family were given three acres outside the village to grow corn. They also had a house and small garden on a half-acre in the village where they applied for permission to build a new home. The house they lived in—just thatched bamboo walls smeared with mud—was rickety and becoming too small for seven children.
Li Shaorong, the fourth of seven, sat with me on his concrete porch and reminisced about the once-new Old House. “We were one of the first families in Bangdong to have a house with a wooden frame,” he told me between gurgles of his bamboo water pipe. Construction took two months and village families were tasked with chopping down a tree and hauling it to the site. “I remember the day they raised the five main cross beams,” he said. “We wrapped a small piece of silver in cloth and fastened it to the beams. Gold protects the pillars, silver protects the crossbeams. (金包柱子银包梁).” He quoted an old adage and grinned, revealing teeth of various shades and several gold fillings.
“But otherwise, there was little celebration,” he continued. “Food was scarce, so life just went on.” Now, Li has more to celebrate. His tea crops are doing well and recent government subsidies enabled him to build a new three-story house. Next door, the Old House had stood abandoned since 2014.
Members of our toddler work crew take a break to check out Landlord Li’s action shots. Most days, they would show up in the morning and stay until their grannies called them for lunch
Blowing the bull
There was much to be done. The building had no electricity, water or bathroom. Inside, the walls were plastered with mud and straw, and the wood framing was covered in one big spider web. The floorboards upstairs were littered with empty beer bottles, cigarette butts and playing cards; it looked like a treefort for grown men. But I saw past the filth and romanticized a life with dirt floors and cooking over an open fire. Perhaps I’d grow some corn in the front yard.
My illusions were fleeting. Few in the village lived that way anymore, and certainly none aspired to it. “Playing peasant” quickly came to seem disingenuous. Realistically, my new hopes were modest: to make the house livable if not slightly comfortable. I envisioned concrete floors, some windows, a Western toilet and sealing the gaps between the walls and roof to keep out pests. I’d probably have to share my home with all sorts of critters anyway, but they would at least have to work for it.
Thankfully, I was not alone in my endeavor. Liu Congyou, the homestay father during my first visit to the village, happens to be the go-to guy in Bangdong for construction projects. He served two terms as mayor (2010-2016) and has a sterling reputation for hard work and problem-solving. I got to live with his family again while we fixed up the Old House, when each morning at 7:30, Brother Liu, as I respectfully call him, would holler up at me, “Ma Tai, wake up! Come quick and eat!” We’d eat our fill of rice, soup and leftovers from dinner and then sip some tea. He would smoke a cigarette on his bamboo water pipe and then we’d be off to work on the Old House. Lunch was a repeat of our breakfast routine—rice, soup, tea, and smoke gurgles—after which we’d work until dinner.
In the evening, we would squat on short stools in his open-air courtyard and “blow the bull,” as Chinese call shooting the breeze. Liu is soft-spoken and at first seemed self-conscious about talking to me in his heavily-accented Mandarin, preferring his local dialect, which I struggle to understand. His eyes dart aimlessly when he speaks and he picks at his calloused hands as he searches for the Mandarin. But Brother Liu can “blow” with the best of them, especially over a jug of his home-brewed corn liquor. He would roast some corn or sticky rice cakes over a corncob fire and I would ask about changes in the village, local politics or holiday customs.
“Does burning paper money to your ancestors really work?” I asked around Tomb Sweeping Day. “I don’t know, I’ve never gotten timely feedback,” he snarked, his wide smile rippling to his ears. Then he would adjust his denim cap to sit even more askew on his head and talk unprompted for another hour until the corncobs burned down to an ashen glow and we’d call it a night. As always, morning would come early: “Ma Tai, wake up! Come quick and eat!”
Brother Liu builds the bathroom walls. Most homes have separate outhouses that are either ditches in the dirt or slots in the concrete floor. We pick-axed a doorway through the two-foot thick mud wall to connect the bathroom with the rest of the house
The days were long and the work painful. Early on, we hauled bricks, sand and concrete, and dug out the dirt floor. Since the house had been built by a generation suffering from malnutrition, my head almost hit the ceiling even at my meager stature of five-foot eight. My back ached and my hands had no more grip after hours of clinging to a shovel. Small cuts covered my fingers and palms and stung when I would wipe the sweat from my brow. Fortunately, in addition to Brother Liu, a crew of three- and four-year olds would show up every day with their plastic dump trucks and spatula-shovels. “Laowai, zai ma?” they’d yell from my vine archway. Is the foreigner here? Sometimes their grandmas would come supervise, but other times I was left alone to resolve toy disputes and enforce the “No power tools” rule. They never met their production quotas, but I’d still let them ride in the wheelbarrow. “Laowai, zai lai!” they’d shriek. One more time, foreigner!
Laowai is a slang term for foreigners. It literally means “old outsider” and can be used either as a term of endearment or scorn, depending on the context and tone. (Currently a laowai in Hong Kong is suing his employer for using the Cantonese equivalent of the term.) One commonly hears it from wide-eyed children on the street or perhaps more pervasively among laowais themselves using playful self-deprecation. But in Bangdong, I didn’t want to be a laowai. There were already enough barriers setting me apart from the community and I wanted my neighbors to see me as a person with an identity, rather than simply a foreign object. Villagers said I could never get the kids to call me anything else. “They’re too young to understand,” Landlord Li told me. But I was determined and didn’t press my luck with any elaborate name changes. Thus I became laowai shushu—Uncle Foreigner.
There was something about the shushu—a term of respect for the generation above you—that added a sense of dignity to the label. Admittedly, the children didn’t take to it right away. I had this conversation about 100 times that first week:
“What are you supposed to call me?”
“Noooo, call me Uncle Laowai.”
“Oh, right, Uncle Laowai. Hey Uncle Laowai!”
“Yes, here I am…”
Pretty soon, they were correcting one another and even their grannies started calling me Uncle Laowai. I might always be an outsider, but at least I’d be a respected one.
We had a hard-working support crew for any task involving the dirt pile
Who’s the boss?
We made steady progress on the house. Brother Liu lived up to his reputation as a hard worker and A Cong, another friend, also came to help for larger, more technical projects. We blew out a doorway in the mud wall and bricked a bathroom. We poured concrete over the dirt floors and puttied the walls white. We built a septic tank and laid PVC plumbing. We also ripped out our PVC plumbing when we realized we’d built it to spec for a squatty potty and we re-laid it to fit a Western toilet instead. And I learned useful new vocabulary such as grout, circular saw and asbestos roof tiling. The Old House was being transformed.
But for the progress we were making, it seemed people had only negative things to say. Villagers would frequently drop in and were always quick to point out what I was doing wrong:
“You should make the porch concrete.”
“You need to paint this old wood.”
“You’re not using that tool right.”
“This old house is no good! You should tear it down and build a new one.”
It became very clear very quickly that my neighbors and I have different ideas of how things should be done, and that included Brother Liu.
“What do you think about using the old wooden door as the bathroom door?” I asked him one day.
“That door is damned ugly!” he replied.
“You don’t like it?!”
“Give it to me for free,” he said, “and I still wouldn’t want it!”
“Well, do you think it’s doable?”
“What you say goes, boss.”
“I think we see things differently.”
“I agree,” he concluded. “We see things differently.”
Kitchen before and after: The exposed mud brick wall met with little approval from village critics
I laughed off such criticisms at first, but with time, they led to a breakdown in communication. Often, I knew the final outcome I wanted but had no idea how to actually achieve it. I wanted hot water, but had no idea how to do the plumbing. I wanted windows, but had no idea how to maintain the structural integrity of a mud house. Brother Liu’s input was critical to making good decisions—and safe ones—but he never offered his suggestions, even when directly solicited. He only ever said, “What you say goes, boss.”
“But I don’t know how to do the electrical wiring.”
What you say goes, boss.
“Is it even possible to have a triple light switch with dual control?”
What you say goes, boss.
“Well, how many wires would it require?”
It takes two wires to make a circuit. Don’t you know that?
“I know that, but I don’t know how these switches are wired.”
What did they teach you at university?
“Not that. If you tell me, I can learn.”
You can’t do it because you’re from the city.
Well how do you want to do it?
“I don’t know, can you even have a triple switch with dual control?”
What you say goes, boss.
And on we would digress until we pretended to busy ourselves with other things. Later, I would ask A Cong separately. He would lay out the pros and cons of my options and I’d quickly make an informed decision.
Why was communication with Brother Liu so difficult? In one frustrated conversation, he told me: “Listen, if you still don’t understand, maybe you should get someone else to help you.” We worked the rest of the afternoon in silence. That night we shared a quiet dinner and I turned in early.
To our credit, however, Brother Liu and I were both quick to find opportunities for levity. I found one self-deprecating joke can right a thousand wrongs and Brother Liu’s wide grin would return. Despite seeing things differently, we had an unspoken understanding that our friendship was more important than the task at hand and we would eventually find our way forward—even if that meant getting someone else to help me.
The next morning was a new day and my morning wake-up call came as always: “Ma Tai, wake up! Come quick and eat!” Rice, soup, tea, smoke gurgles and back to work.
Upstairs before and after: The village consensus is that the Old House has way too much space for a single guy. Most suggest I remedy the situation by finding a local wife
Just a flesh wound
Soon, the place was almost done. We hacked rectangles out of the mud walls and installed glass, and we wired it with 220 voltage—double the US standard. I also started finding furniture: a bed from Lincang, a closet from the village market, and two sleeper sofas from Taobao, China’s Amazon. Incredibly, I discovered, couches from Guangdong could be delivered straight to the village market. The Old House was beginning to feel like home.
But I still needed bookshelves. I had a couple boxes of books I wanted to unpack and a stack of wood panels waiting to be repurposed. I borrowed a power saw from a neighbor and went to work on the woodpile. Partway through, the saw stopped working. I took it to a friend who fiddled with the wiring and got it started again, so I went back to the bookshelves. I didn’t know that he had also accidentally exposed one of the carbon brushes. They conduct electric current between wires and moving parts—what makes the saw go ’round. When I fired up the saw on my next cut of wood, I inadvertently touched the exposed brush. Those 220 volts of standard Chinese electricity coursed through my body and threw me straight to the ground. Instinctively, I threw the whirling saw away from me where it thrashed about on the ground. But as it went, the blade skimmed the top of my right index finger, taking off an inch strip of flesh from my fingernail to my joint. The exposed wound was a dull white outlined by bright red, and it bowed in as if someone had taken a bite out of it.
A friend drove me to the local health clinic six miles away. I cringed, clenching my teeth on the way and my compassionate friend told me to hang in there, that we were almost there. “It’s not that,” I said. Thankfully the tops of our fingers have few arteries and nerves so it wasn’t bleeding and I hardly felt any pain. I explained, “I’m imagining the more-likely scenarios where the electric shock and free-spinning blade don’t result in just a minor flesh wound.” He replied in his most sincere English, “You good luck.”
Viewer discretion advised: The saw blade took a bite out of my finger but fortunately missed the bone completely
At the clinic, the nurse wore a white lab coat over her fashionably ripped jeans; fake Timberland yellow work boots completed the uniform. She asked me how my injury happened and seemed unsurprised when I answered about a power saw. “Yeah, those are really dangerous,” she told me. “You should be more careful.” Then she dumped an entire bottle of hydrogen peroxide on my wound, punishing me for my carelessness, and basted it with iodine. I also needed a tetanus shot that was available only in Lincang three hours away.
It was nighttime when I arrived at Lincang City Hospital No. 2. I was welcomed to the emergency clinic by a 200-pound unconscious guy belly-down on the floor. He was suffering from too much corn liquor while his four friends were also suffering trying to lift him into a hospital bed. Sidestepping them, I was directed to the nurse’s station. The nurse sent me to get a number from the lobby receptionist, who sent me to the fifth floor doctor to assess my wound, who sent me back to the first floor nurse who told me I should have gone to the pharmacist, who then told me I needed to pay the cashier first who, once paid, sent me back to the pharmacist to pick up a skin test and then finally directed me back to the nurse’s station. I was relieved this wasn’t an emergency.
The nurse pricked my left wrist with the medication to check whether I was allergic. Meanwhile, I waited outside the drunk guy’s room as three nurses tried to give him an IV in his ankle, still unconscious. Five other patients shared three beds in his room. Down the hallway, a Special Police team escorted three men in handcuffs. A typical Thursday night in the ER.
The tetanus shot administration chair of Lincang City Hospital No. 2
When I ended up having a minor allergic reaction to the medication, the nurse sent me back up to the fifth-floor doctor. The entire floor hung thick with smoke. Old men had gathered in the stairwells puffing cigarettes. Women washed clothes in a sink and hung them to dry at the end of the hallway. Children roamed the corridors and played on their cell phones in the hospital rooms. Patients rely on family members for food and basic care because Chinese hospitals provide little service beyond medical attention.
The doctor suggested dividing my tetanus shot into four doses in order to monitor any allergic reaction. “Great,” I thought. “Four for the price of one.” He sent me back to the first-floor nurse, who told me to go pay the cashier again, who sent me to the pharmacist, who then sent me back to the nurse, who told me my papers were wrong and sent me back to the pharmacist, who told me my papers were wrong and sent me back to the cashier who apologized, signed off on some new forms, and sent me back to the nurse who said, finally, “Great, you’re all set!” The nurse led me to the back office and started preparing my first dose. I asked if I should go ahead and take off my long-sleeved shirt to make it easier. “Actually, you can leave that on,” she replied, “but pull down your pants. We give this shot in your bottom.” The ride back to Bangdong the next day felt especially long and bumpy.
When I arrived in the village, a crowd was gathered around a table playing cards at Landlord Li’s convenience shop. “Laowai shushu!” hollered my work crew of toddlers who were roughhousing while their mothers gambled. Everyone had already heard about my accident—news travels fast in the village—and they all urged me to be more careful. “Those saws are no toy,” one said. “You must learn from your mistakes (吃一堑长一智),” counseled another. Several bared scars from their own power-saw accidents.
As I turned to leave, one neighbor invited me over for dinner. Another asked to see the Old House, following me past Landlord Li’s outhouse and under the vine archway. “This path is bad,” he said. “You should fix it.”
“It’s good to be home,” I thought.