By Zach Etkind
A lot of foreigners believe they only have two options when it comes to Chinese New Year. They can either A) Head to South East Asia and be an absolute degenerate on the beach for a few weeks or B) Stay in Shanghai and spend their days dodging fireworks and wandering the empty streets, fruitlessly trying to find an establishment other than McDonalds that will serve them food. Well, I’d like to throw a third option into the mix: Finding enlightenment on your ayi’s farm.
A couple of years ago, my ayi informed me she had a farm in the countryside and that I was welcome to come visit her anytime. Well, over last Chinese New Year, my friend Matt and I decided to take her up on the offer. On a cold and damp January night, we piled into a big white van with ayi and her extended family, and headed off to the magical land of rural Anhui.
Prior to this trip, the most ‘rural’ area of China I had been to was Yangshuo, which has a population of 300,000. You can understand my bewilderment when I woke up after our 5-hour van ride, only to find myself in a village that boasted, at most, 500 people. The village consisted of one paved road, one convenience store and a large plot of land used for growing crops and herding goats,along with a smattering of one-story cement homes.
During my stay, I shared a room (and bed) with my friend Matt in my ayi’s father’s house, which sat atop a small hill 100 yards from the main road. Despite having to share a bed with another man in a house that lacked heat or running water, I was nothing but comfortable throughout my stay. Each morning, someone from the household fetched clean water from a well (I was elected for this task on one of the mornings) and all of our meals were cooked over a wood-fired stove.
My ayi’s father was a peanut farmer who sure did love his baijiu. At our first meal with the extended family, I was shocked to discover that not only would we be drinking baijiu with lunch, we would be drinking it from overflowing plastic cups. I’m normally not a big proponent of baijiu drinking (for the obvious ‘everything burns’ reasons) but if you’re going to indulge, do it with an elderly Chinese man in a rural village in the middle of the day. It’s a profound experience.
Getting the first cup down the hatch involved some dry heaving, but afterwards I was seeing the world through rose-tinted glasses. We walked around the village in a state of baijiu-induced euphoria, meeting villagers who had never seen a waiguoren in the flesh before.
The elderly villagers, all of whom hailed from an era where anti-Western propaganda was the norm, were definitely more cautious around us than the younger sort. Nevertheless, everyone we met was nothing but polite and welcoming. Later, when we returned to ayi’s house, we found her father out back, lying in the field and soaking in some rare winter sunshine. He enjoyed his mid-day baijiu, and I don't blame him one bit.
Part of the deal I had worked out with my ayi was that we would be allowed to spend time with the animals on the farm as long as I gave hongbaos to the families that raised them. So with cash-filled red envelopes in our pockets, we spent a full day herding goats, feeding cows and watching pigs play in their own filth.
It now makes sense to me why so many influential people in the Bible were shepherds, as herding goats was a truly spiritual and meditative experience. In Shanghai, there are always a million stimuli to send your thoughts spiraling in different directions. But out on that field, walking with the goats, I was surprised at how easy it was to quiet the mind and appreciate being alive.
One of the most wonderful people I met in the village was my ayi’s grandmother, the matriarch of the family. Despite being 80 years old and a devout chain smoker, she still seemed as healthy and jovial as could be. At the dinner table, she was always cracking jokes and would never shy away from doing a baijiu ganbei with the rest of us. She had never left the village in her life, and didn’t see any reason why she should. Her sense of pride and contentment came not from the places she’d been, but from her large and happy family.
On my last day in the village, I cooked dumplings with ayi and we ate at her uncle’s house. As we walked home from the meal, we stopped by her neighbors’ homes to wish them a happy New Year as fireworks exploded around us.
Back in Shanghai, those same fireworks would have been slowly driving me insane by this point. But on the farm, they contrasted beautifully with the surrounding treetops and tranquil Anhui night. I would be heading back to the chaotic excitement of Shanghai with a newfound appreciation for the Chinese way of life outside of the mega-cities I had grown accustomed to. I had reached enlightenment.
Then again, that may have been the baijiu talking...
If you enjoyed Zach's account of his CNY break, he's also made a video of his experience. (VPN on)
and this one.....
// Zach Etkind is the man behind web series Donnie Does, and The Monkey Kingz pranks. He’ll be sharing more of his strange experiences not caught on tape at thatsmags.com. Click here to read more about his antics.