Published on CET Academic Program’s Website Blog at following URL: http://cetacademicprograms.com/category/china/harbin/page/5/
When I traveled to Wuzhen with a group of CET students for the week of our program’s spring vacation, we had a rarely-encountered opportunity to actually bypass China’s multiple tourist sites and venture within the inscrutable walls of the homes of one of this country’s myriad families, territory which foreigners often wonder about but are equally often excluded from.
A woman that was working on a public bus we were riding in Wuzhen, named Ms. Zhang, began to chat with us and, after discovering that we needed a place to stay, offered to show us to an inexpensive lodging that her family owned. In addition, she served as our tour guide as we traveled around Wuzhen, offered to let us leave our luggage at her home after we checked out of our lodgings the next day to wander around some more, and even invited us to eat lunch with her family after we were done traveling.
They lived in a very small home on a narrow street. The small room that served as their main living area was almost completely filled with a large round tabletop that they had brought in from outside and laid on top of the much smaller table that they must have normally used to eat. The air started to fill with steam as her beaming mother brought in plate after plate of piping hot food from their tiny kitchen, everything from dumplings to chicken to beef and pea pods, until the table surface was entirely covered by the treats she had likely spent all morning making for us. Meanwhile, Ms. Zhang and her father leaned comfortably against the wall chatting and laughing with us as we ate. Behind me a small television murmured, while against the adjoining wall was the family computer. Wedged between the computer and television in the corner was a bed that contained a very frail, sleeping woman, who we later found out was Ms. Zhang’s ninety-six year-old grandmother, her entire body except for her head enveloped in a large quilt. As we were eating, Ms. Zhang’s young child, an adorable ten-year-old boy, came home from school and was fascinated (and a little scared) to find five foreigners eating lunch in his home. For all I know, we could have been the first foreigners he had ever seen. He shyly ignored us and started to play on the computer, the bang bang of the guns in his game complementing the hum of the television and our laughing voices.
While we ate, Ms Zhang’s mother told us about how her daughter had been forced to raise her son on her own after her husband left her. She also told us about the time that she spent working in the countryside when she was younger, as part of an incentive by Mao to make the people more equal by moving city-dwellers to the countryside to assist with activities like farming. Her voice grew quieter and her eyes darkened as she spoke these words, and afterwards adamantly avowed that these were the most arduous, miserable years she had ever experienced. As for that ninety-six year-old woman lying silently on that bed, I don’t think I can even imagine the amount of suffering she must have suffered in the near-century she had lived, a time that for China had consisted of almost continual upheaval and change.
When it was finally time to roll the round tabletop back outside and start preparing to depart, we took several photos with the family, and their little boy started to cry. We tried our best to comfort him—CET student Logan Krusac gave him a gift of an American dollar bill, and another CET student, Jesse Albert, had the idea to take down the family’s address so that we could send the boy a postcard in the future. As for that woman in the corner, they may have said she was sleeping, but as we had been eating I had glanced at her and seen one bright eye cracked open, obviously looking our way. As we left, I noticed that this eye had grown watery—I don’t know whether she was crying or not. Ms. Zhang parted from us at the bus station, but not before saying we shouldn’t make our farewells too emotional, or else she would almost certainly start to cry as well.
We respected them because of the hardships they had endured and the unadulterated kindness they had shown us. At the very least, they were living proof that the increasingly “outdated” concept of kindness still exists in this world.
Because of this and more, I’m sure, we connected on a level much deeper than speech. Though I’m now certain that she was awake, the ninety-six year-old woman didn’t speak a single word the entire time that we were at their home. She was wiser than the rest of us, because she knew it wasn’t necessary.