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TRAVELOGUE: MONEY AND THE COUNTRYSIDE

Children and small dogs share a strong resemblance when they vomit. As adorable two-year-old Yiyi dribbled curdled milk out of his mouth all over his mother, his dumbfounded I-have-no-idea-what-is-happening-to-me strongly resembled a white lap dog I had once seen in New York City’s Morningside Heights neighborhood, similarly letting out sludge with minimal force onto the sidewalk.

By that time, we had driven two-thirds of the way to Rudong County (如东县) and had already passed Nantong (南通), a small city north of Shanghai. Roger, the driver, had invited me to visit his childhood home in the countryside one November weekend. His son Yiyi, his wife PingPing (who was the program assistant during my Nanjing study abroad) and two of Roger’s hometown friends had crammed in the back seat for the three-hour journey. Perhaps abusing my laowai privileges, I had quickly taken them up on riding shotgun in the black four-door Audi.

That afternoon, we dined with the friends’ relatives on traditional fare for guests in Rudong, a meal I would become intimately familiar with: an assortment of cold small dishes of seafood, roasted meats and vinegary vegetables. We would eat essentially the same meal three times in a row — delicious, although a bit monotonous by the end.

The meal stretched on pleasantly as the old relatives and friends caught up. I occasionally interjected to answer some simple inquiries about the US or to ask a question.

Three glasses stood lined up in front of me on the small square table, each more foul than the last. The first was a kind of rice wine mixed with hot water, that tasted sour like sake. The second was moutai, China’s finest brand of baijiu from a partially drunk bottle that was leftover in Roger’s car from a past business dinner. Third was cheaper baijiu, a fancy bottle that belied the terrible, vomit-inducing liquor it held.

Really, the only way to drink baijiu properly is while drunk. So when our host, Roger’s friend’s grandmother’s sister’s son, I think, challenged me to match him glass-for-glass with the cheap baijiu, I decided to roll with it and got headily buzzed. I struggled and succeeded to keep it down. I’m not sure I gained face by drinking with them, but at least I didn’t lose any by throwing up.

They smoked intense Chinese cigarettes, those favored by the serious mainland smokers and foreigners entering particularly foul latrines, which sizzled as the men extinguished them in the empty shells of sea snails scattered around the table. Our host, who I’ll refer to as the Uncle for lack of a better term, took a call. It was his only son, who was studying in Chongqing, asking for money, he said, chuckling.

The Uncle (rear) offers a cigarette while my host Roger looks on.

The theme of money kept coming up. At least three times during the overnight trip, someone would ask me how much my monthly salary was. Each time, I would just answer — as Roger instructed me — with a simple “I don’t know.” It was a preposterous answer but apparently enough to settle the matter for a little while.

The importance of money would again be drawn to the fore as we left behind the two friends to go to Roger’s parents’ house. The Uncle had forced a red envelope of cash on Yiyi, presumably as a thank you for bringing home their two friends, although it covered far more than the cost of such a journey. The Uncle’s generosity may derive from the fact he is extremely well-off by the standards of the countryside, as I would soon discover as we pulled down the dirt roads toward our next destination. Roger’s childhood home was a large but very utilitarian cement building and lacked the showy tiling that coated the outside of the Uncle’s house.

I shuffled off for a boozy nap, waking up to eat essentially the same meal as that afternoon. I managed to choke down a bit more baijiu, but once in a weekend turns out to be about my limit. (I turned down liquor altogether at the 11 am meal the next day, face be damned.) Roger and his family mostly talked in their local dialect that I don’t understand, while I ate in silence. Yiyi periodically asked to go outside and say hi to Aodi, the Audi that he talks about as if it’s a family member, but his parents refuse.

Afterward, everyone split up, and Roger and I retired to a couch upstairs. We had a long conversation about his business and how his parents make money. Roger explained that in addition to the small plot of land that his parents farmed, much of which it appeared they ate themselves, his father distributed farming chemicals on an old motorcycle-pulled cart and his mother (possibly step-mother, unclear) embroidered clothes by hand at home, presumably for export by the company that had contracted her. Their household income is about $7,o00 a year.

A typical spread for guests in Rudong County.

I was astonished by how much of the parent’s life differed from Roger’s. He deals with large sums of money in his import/export business, drives an Audi (an essential for wooing clients that he takes on factory visits, he says) and lives in a nice apartment in Shanghai.

Even the bedroom he and PingPing stayed in set them off from his family. In traditional fashion, they had been married near Roger’s home, and his parents had remodeled one room to be their bridal suite. The nice wooden paneling, cushy bed and giant oil painting of Roger and PingPing on the wall gave the feeling of stepping into a luxury hotel (luxury by Chinese standards at least) after walking through the Spartan house.

All the talk of money can sometimes be wearisome, and an outsider might wonder if Chinese think money is the only thing worth talking about. Money is rightfully on the mind though. The tremendous political and social changes since the late 70s mostly manifest themselves in day-to-day life in the form of money — many Chinese previously did not have money and now they do.

A little money appears to have changed little for Roger’s parents, however. The radio circuited into the wall in their kitchen, the main living space, blares Chinese music and news like it might have in the Mao days, only now Lady Gaga has been thrown into the mix. His father continues to drink some rather vile baijiu, likely out of habit. Work is sharply delineated between the sexes: Roger’s mother doesn’t sit down for meals instead waiting on the rest of the family. There is a pit toilet in the pig sty, occupied by an enormous slumbering hog.

The tremendous change brought by money is instead evident in Roger himself. While I do feel slightly depressed at the dreary conditions of his parents life, I also am amazed at what Roger has been able to do given what he came from. For many who grew up under Mao, the Chinese Dream of simply having children who are far better off than yourself is admirable. His parents have obviously invested a lot in his success, and it has paid off. From all appearances, that trajectory will continue with Yiyi. After all, not every Chinese grandfather can say his grandchild is on a first-name basis with an Audi.

After one more round of cold seafood in the late morning, we picked up the two friends from the Uncle’s place and drove back on Sunday afternoon. We gradually eased into the sprawl of the city as dusk set in. Having been reunited with Aodi, Yiyi slept contentedly as his father delivered him and the family back to the comforts of Shanghai.


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