Allow me to introduce my good friends, the Zhang’s.
Xiao Zhang (Little Zhang) was my second Chinese friend and my first Chinese teacher. In the summer of 2008, when I lived two months on the farm up here, he was the foreman, Timothy’s right-hand man. When we began construction of my biogas digester, he was in charge of the workers and thus it was to him that I [attempted to] communicate my design. At first, it mainly consisted of pointing to drawings and grunting, but as time went on, I learned enough Chinese to communicate a little bit verbally. The more I learn now, the more I realize I know nothing now and even less then, so I’ve developed a deep appreciation for his ability to deal with stupid foreigners like me.
But even before I realized that he has superhuman powers of communication, I knew he was special. He’s a ninja. He can make anything out of concrete or, if you would prefer it, wood. He can weld absolutely anything; I remember one time we cut some rebar for stakes but didn’t have anything with which to grind them to a point so he welded a point on to them. He’s sensible and practical, like my dad only not anal retentive as well. Also, he cooks. I know, right?
Xiao Li (Little Li) is his wife. She also worked on the farm, sometimes with our crew and sometimes helping out around the house. She is a dumpling-making machine and I am hoping to learn from her on this trip. She’s very nearly as good as Xiao Zhang when it comes to communicating – actually, the first sentence of Chinese I remember learning was from her: 你来，帮我 (You come, help me).
Xiao Zhang wanted to meet me at the bus stop but he was working, so I took a taxi over to their apartment. I was so happy to see them that I jumped out of the taxi and hugged them both before the word “awkward” even made it into my mind.
We took my stuff up to their apartment, then Xiao Zhang returned to work. I’d only been to their home once, on my very last day in China that summer, but it feels comfortable and familiar to me – I think I adopt homes and families as my own quite easily! Their apartment consists of a bathroom, kitchen, and two rooms with heated floors that serve any number of purposes. Xiao Li and I chilled out on one of them, enjoying the warmth underneath us as we caught up. It was effortless to converse with her, and totally natural to be able to talk this way even though last time we met I had the verbal skills of a slow Chinese first-grader. I learned the proper names, with characters, of a bunch of things that I’ve been wanting to know since I started studying Chinese. The street with Donghai and the pump store and the sheet metal bender and the generator shop – basically Home Depot in the shape of a street – is called 建材街, literally Building Materials Street. Go figure! Xiao Zhang’s full name is 张广新 and Xiao Li is 李春影; I also learned the names of all the other workers even though I won’t be able to see them on this trip as they’re all back home in Harbin.
Xiao Zhang came back around 6 and we went to dinner. They took me to a place I hadn’t been before (because we’re saving DongFang, best restaurant in the world EVER for tomorrow) for barbecue. One of the interesting parts of this trip is finally figuring out what things are Chinese, and what things are northeastern or Fujian. I’ve lived in Xiamen for nearly 9 months now, and have yet to see this style of do-it-yourself barbecue – and believe me, I’ve looked. Apparently it’s something special to this area, and Hunchun is perhaps the best place for it.
The dinner was a buffet – the waitress brought over all sorts of food, mainly meat, and we grilled it ourselves on a big stone slab.
The meat was delicious, just what I expected in Hunchun. There was lettuce to wrap around the meat, plus grilled mushrooms, bread, garlic, and quail eggs (which, by the way, you can eat without peeling. And it tastes fine!). We ate our fill, then went for a walk.
It was quite cool after the sun set, but fine weather for a walk. We strolled down the streets, mostly dark because stores close very early here. I entertained myself by reading the street signs – it it SO exciting to be literate in this town finally!
We walked by a night market and went in to look around. I remember this market so vividly, and my stomach remembers how it reacted when I saw some of the food available for consumption. I’ve gotten a little cocky after getting used to Xiamen’s worm jelly treat, but that walk reminded me just how many things are left that I haven’t tried – and perhaps wouldn’t dare. Live scorpions, fetuses of unknown animals, cockroaches, or pig feet – anyone?
There was a nice town square directly next to the night market, of which I have no memory. How is it possible that we never went there? It is the place to be in the evening, I think – there was roller-blading, massages, crafts, and a blow-up bouncy castle. Dude!
We watched some TV when we got back, then they went to bed. They work at 7 in the morning, which makes me hurt a little bit to think about . . .