Its about noon, or sometime later. It doesn’t really matter, time has become more approximate for me now that I don’t have to start classes at 10:10am, or 2:00pm sharp in Beijing. I’m hungry and ready for a break after our morning’s 50 some km. As we ride in from the countryside fields, today’s small market town in Anhui province, China looks similar to all the others: two story concrete washing off white-washed buildings along the provincial road we’re on, shops on the ground floor, living quaters above; perhaps an intersection with another provincial or national highway if its a bigger town. This is a one road town.
I start scanning the shop signs for fanguan, caiguan, fandian, xiaochibu - the various labels for restruants. Oop, there’s one, and another, and likely more ahead. Hmmm, decision time. We choose one on a whim, no good reason. The laoban (boss) comes out to greet us. “We’re 5 people, Can we eat here for lunch?” Her restaurant of two tables is empty besides one young woman working for her. With a smile, Mrs. Zhang warmly welcomes us, “Of course! Come on in!” Immediately I have a very good feeling about Mrs. Zhang. She is especially warm and friendly, asking us to sit down at one of her two tables. A couple of us go with her back to her kitchen to order, a common practice in the Chinese countryside - no menu, just look at what vegatables and meat they have, ask them how they normally cook it, or order commonly known dishes using those ingredients. We have our favorites - eggplant, potatoes, fragrant pork, pumpkin, always pumpkin for Nakia, and fried peanuts…always the peanuts for Jim, and now for all of us as we’ve adapted to eachother’s favorites.
Her kitchen in the back is half open air with a beautiful view of hills and vegetation, including our first Banana tree spotted on this trip as we move south. Mrs. Zhang is asking us questions. As we take turns answering and explaining bits of our trip to her, her interest grows, constantly smiling, attentive with interest. I ask if I can take a few photos of her kitchen, and we wind up getting shots with all of us together, Mrs. Zhang thoroughly enjoying the process of setting up the self-timer shots.
Soon, Mrs. Zhang brings the dishes out to our table. The first one looks impressive, but within a couple minutes, our table is full of colorful dishes that look amazing, especially the pumpkin dish. The taste is even better, rich and so fresh. “This is the best lunch we’ve had so far on our trip!” I exclaim, met with agreement. Every bite is amazing (not something I’m used to in our usual whole-in-the-walls), and I finially break out the camera to get a shot of our spread.
After eating, we ask for the bill. “Its embarracing to take money from you. Its not normal for friends to exchange money,” she says. “No no, really, no problem. How much?” we insist. We pay, through her embarracement. Around 50 yuan, US$6 for all of us. We chat further, and we tell her that we’re actually planning on staying in her town for the night, asking if she knew of any inexpensive luguans. “Oh yes, I know a good one. I’ll call to be sure, and then I’ll take you there.”
After a phone call, she’s excited and tells us that her friend has a very nice place, recently refinished, and she’s agreed to host us all for our usual rate, also 50 yuan ($6.00) total. We walk our bikes, following Mrs. Zhang across the street and down several shops to a luguan. I go up to check out the rooms. They’re beautiful, and cleaner than most, indeed recently redone. We have three rooms with a total of 6 beds, including one single with its own bathroom in it - a luxury we almost always don’t have. Usually a place of this quality would go for more, but Mrs. Zhang had arranged things for us with her friend, and we were warmly welcomed, despite all of our stuff and the usual chaos of onlookers from the street 5 foreiners on loaded bikes create in small Chinese towns.
“This evening, I’d love to have you for dinner again,” Mrs. Zhang tells me, “but you should eat here at my friend’s luguan since she agreed to such a reasonable price. When you’re done eating, be sure to come over to my place to chat and drink tea! I’ll be waiting for you!”
After dinner, Adam and I wander over to Mrs. Zhang’s place. She is sitting alone in her front dinning room watching TV. As soon as she sees us coming up, she immdiately jumps up to open her door and welcomes us in to sit down. She serves us tea, and we begin chatting. She doesn’t speak English beyond “hello” and other simple phrases, like nearly everyone we meet in China.
We learn that she’s 41 years old and used to live in a village near this town, but bought this restaurant/ upstairs apartment 3 years ago. Her son is 18 years old and lives with her husband in a small apartment near his school only 15km away. Her son comes home once a month to visit, and her husband comes home most days around lunch, though I didn’t remember seeing him. This is her son’s last year of highschool, so his entire life is consumed by studying for the Gaokao, the dreaded Chinese college entrance exam. She comes from a family of 3 children, but even if she could choose for herself how many children she could have, she’d still only have 1 child due to expenses.
She gets up from the table and begins preparing jiaozi (dumplings) at the other table. “I’m making you dumplings. No need to worry about cost, its free!” she says. “Oh no no,” Adam and I exclaim in unison. “We just ate, we’re still full from dinner!” “No matter, I’m making you jiaozi! 15 each should be enough, right?” ”Aiya! Not that many!” It’s obvious we’re going to get 2nd dinner dispite our protests. When Jim comes in later, she ups the quantity.
While she’s hand making each and every dumpling, we continue chatting. Suddenly, she makes a comment about how she only graduated from highschool, but Adam and I graduated from college so somehow we are better than her. After Adam and I quickly exchange some English to figure out her meaning, we tell her that’s definately not true. Her rich life experience trumps our book learning, she’s had so many big life expereinces like marrying and raising a child that we haven’t had yet. In fact, I go on, “Both Adam and I feel we are the ones who are subordinate. We’re just struggling with Chinese to communicate with you, there’s still many aspects of Chinese culture we don’t understand, and we are newly-arrived guests in your restaurant and town that you understand far better than us, etc.” Finally, she accepts this and moves on.
Its difficult to pull away to retire for the evening, but after a long goodbye and mutual well-wishing, we part company. Another amazing person we’ve been blessed to meet along the way.