Into the heart of China

On summer vacation, Joshua Cohen and a fellow English teacher based in Hunan venture into the rural north to visit their star student -- and get a glimpse of rural realities.

Published May 12, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

We were going 40 miles per hour on the motorcycle when we had the accident. It was a clear, sunny summer afternoon in northern China; the road was straight and smooth. We had left at 9 that morning and had made great time with little traffic. I was sitting on the back of the bike, blithely enjoying the weather, when without warning an irresistible force slammed me forward into Paul's back as the tires shrieked bloody murder, dragging us to a dead stop as we fought to keep from flipping.

I wasn't surprised by the accident; I was surprised it hadn't happened sooner. We had been jolting our way through northern China for half a month on our Shanghai-made motorcycle, bouncing over rock-, bottle- and pothole-strewn roads, dodging oncoming trucks and cars, swerving around stray fruit stands, errant bicyclists and (except for one memorable incident) stray chickens. We had been averaging two breakdowns a day on the shoddy vehicle -- everything from punctured tires to burned points -- and our effortless morning ride had left us wary, if elated. Our near-death experience promptly quashed that.

After a brief pause to pry my glasses out of Paul's back and catch our breath, we determined the cause of the accident: The aluminum chain guard had fallen off again, this time winding itself like party bunting through the spokes of the back wheel, locking it firmly. It took us an hour of prying and poking to disentangle the mess, but finally we managed to free ourselves and limp on, our shock-distended chain flapping slackly beneath us.

The reason we were there, a hundred miles from nowhere, was to visit Michael, a student at the college in Hunan where we taught English. In a classroom full of bored and restless students, Michael stood out: He didn't nap, spit or read comic books in class; he always arrived on time; he helped us with out-of-class projects; although a novice English speaker, he translated a French instruction manual for a pocket computer by guesswork and analogy well enough to program his daily schedule into it. And, unlike most of our other students, who came from well-connected families in the provincial capital, Michael came from a tiny farming village in north China, one of the poorest regions of the country, on the border between Ningxia and Gansu provinces.

So when he stuffed a scrap of paper with his address into Paul's hand just before the end of term, we felt obliged to make an effort to drop by.

The first man we showed the scrap of paper to pointed us down one of the two paved streets that constituted the town. At the other end of the street another man pointed us back the way we had come. We were yo-yoed several times this way until we chanced upon a farmer walking beside the road. He looked at the paper and pointed to a narrow dirt path leading off the paved road toward the distant surrounding hills.

The trail was the petrified record of a generation's worth of cart and bicycle traffic. I dismounted so Paul could negotiate the heaves and ruts carefully on the bike. Ahead, a skinny boy in a blue cotton Mao jacket watched openmouthed as we approached the outskirts of a mud village. We showed him our slip of paper and he promptly vanished, reappearing a minute later with a crowd of curious villagers, none of whom was Michael. The villagers encircled us and began enthusiastically quizzing us on our age, marital status, occupation and salary until Michael arrived several minutes later. He beamed as he squeezed through the crowd of babbling farmers, obviously surprised that we had come. Our arrival would doubtless be the talk of the town; the last foreigner to visit was a surly Russian engineer 15 years before, who stayed just long enough to survey the nearby hills before vanishing during the night without a trace. Michael hopped onto the back of the motorcycle and I trotted behind as we threaded our way through the crowd into the village.

The village seemed to have been carved out of the yellow clay countryside itself. Michael steered us down the main street, a wide dirt avenue bordered by high adobe walls that were interrupted only by narrow cross streets and weathered wooden doors. Evil-tempered dogs were chained to each door, attempting to supplement their meager diet of rice and vegetable scraps with unwary passersby. The dogs were cunning enough to lie motionless on top of their chain next to the door, preventing me from estimating their reach, then suddenly lunging just as I came into range. After two episodes of this I played it safe by sliding along the opposite wall whenever I encountered a dog.

Finally, Michael told Paul to pull over and he hopped off. He opened a set of wooden doors and directed Paul to drive through. Inside was a 30-foot-square paved courtyard flanked by two low cinder-block buildings -- the family home. Michael asked if we would like to wash up before dinner. He apologized in advance for the simple food; he hadn't known when we were coming and his family hadn't had a chance to prepare a special meal. I asked to use the bathroom and was told it was behind the kitchen building on the right. In the rear of the kitchen I found a small vegetable garden but no bathroom or outhouse. Thinking he hadn't understood what I wanted, I went back to ask again. "Toilet," I said clearly, repeating in Mandarin, "Ce suo." He nodded vigorously, led me behind the kitchen and waved toward the garden; I understood. Wedging myself deeply between two rows of corn, I dropped my pants and squatted. I hadn't wedged myself deeply enough, I discovered, when a rash of high-pitched giggles caused me to turn and look up into the faces of a flock of children watching me raptly from the main street over a low section of wall. I smiled, waved and called out hello -- "Ni hao!" -- to shrieks of delight.

We ate dinner in the living quarters, a single-roomed, 20-by-30-foot
building lit by two bare bulbs dangling from the rafters by wires.
We ate
atop a kang, an 8-foot-square, waist-high adobe cube that served as
couch and table. Michael, his father, uncle, Paul and I ate
around a special low table set directly atop the kang. Though Michael's
wasn't Muslim, the region was heavily influenced by the culture and
imported by the silk traders a thousand years before, and the women ate
in the
kitchen. After dinner, Michael's father, a gentle, taciturn man, smoked
cigarette wedged vertically into a tiny pipe while we played cards. At
suggestion, Michael offered to show us his family's fields.

The sun was setting behind the hills as we walked out of town. Often
we encountered farmers driving their flocks of sheep home through the
In the narrow, walled streets we were forced to move aside and clung to
walls like victims of a woolly flash flood.

Low hills broke the countryside into small plains. The villagers grew
wheat communally on the plains, but each family had its own private plot
at the
bottom of an arroyo cut into the earth by a small tributary of the Yellow
The region received little rain, so the plots were intensively irrigated.
In the
roseate glow of the sunset, Michael led us down a path to show us his
corn, soybeans, sunflowers and watermelons. Every watermelon patch was
overlooked by a tiny adobe structure.

"What are these for?" I asked Michael.

"Guardhouses," he said.

I pictured hordes of raiding Mongols sweeping down from the north,
hellbent on pillage, bloodshed and watermelon. "No," he said. "In the
summertime, at night, children creep in to steal watermelons to eat. I
used to
do that," he admitted with a shy smile. "It was exciting."

Night had fallen by the time we got back. A routine power failure had
left the streets pitch black except for the occasional oil lamp or
cigarette tip of a passing farmer. Michael seemed able to see in the
dark, but
Paul and I had to feel our way along the walls like cave crickets.

Unfortunately, the dogs shared Michael's skill; crouching in the dark
like ninjas, no doubt holding their chains in their mouths to prevent
clinks, they waited silently until we were in range, then exploded in our
like ravenous demons. In the end, though, their voracity saved us; in
haste for blood they always leaped a moment too soon, before we reached
chain length, and we managed to make it home unpunctured.

The next morning, stiff from having slept on what was, essentially, a
giant brick, we breakfasted on porridge and then went to watch the wheat
harvest. Wheat, rather than rice, is north China's primary grain. The
village square was a warehouse of 10-foot piles of harvested stalks.
villagers would rake each pile into a flat circle and a farmer would
drive furious
circles on a toylike tractor, towing a small millstone over the stalks.
villagers flailed the stalks with wooden flails to further shear off the
grains, and
then others with homemade pitchforks cast the material high into the air
separate out the stalks. Women using sheaves of wheat continuously swept
remaining material into tighter and tighter circles. After the stalks
had been
removed, the wheat was scooped onto flat baskets and thrown high into the
to winnow out the hulls. The remaining knee-high pile of grain was
and loaded aboard a cart destined for the mill. Everyone took part in
the work,
and the children, playing hide-and-seek in the piles, enjoyed it

That night another power failure again plunged us into darkness.
Michael suggested we visit his uncle to play cards by the light of an oil
As we crossed the now empty village square, the sound of pouring water
us on until Michael suddenly stopped and greeted someone. The pouring
stopped momentarily as a man replied, then resumed as Michael explained:
"This is my middle school teacher. He wants to know how I'm doing in

He introduced us; the pouring stopped again and a hand fumbled
toward mine in the dark, and the pouring resumed. A burst of light
from a camera revealed a
young man pouring water from a well into a basin at his feet. The flash
the man in mid-pour, the individual droplets twinkling like gems. In the
darkness we struggled awkwardly to assume some semblance of a proper
standing shoulder to shoulder, but again Michael's photo caught us by
surprise -- Paul's gaze wandering down at his feet as I squinted blindly at my
neighbor. After another attempt we managed to take a proper Chinese
the three of us touching each others' shoulders, offering stiff,
smiles to the camera. Michael spoke a few more words to the teacher, and
said goodbye. The man had chores to do, and the harvest wasn't over yet.
"He is proud of me," Michael said after we left. "He says I must be
doing very well at school for my teachers to visit."

The next morning, before we left on our long drive home, Michael took
us up into the neighboring hills for a view of the countryside. Though
appeared green and grassy from a distance, closer inspection revealed
them to
be covered with only a thin, clinging layer of roots and lichens. Below
us rows
of young trees acting as windbreaks outlined the fields. But outside the
irrigated areas the land was dry and dusty, given over to tough clumps of
native weeds and grasses. Less than 200 miles from the Gobi to
west, bordered by the Mongolian grasslands on the north, the region
only a few inches of rain a year, and because of its elevation -- over 3,000 feet -- it's cool even in summer; winters are bitterly cold.
himself looked curiously old. His weathered face and dry hair sprinkled
white belied his 19 years, as if growing up in the parched
had aged him prematurely.

The hills ended abruptly at the edge of town in a low wall of yellow
stone cliffs. The base of the cliffs was pierced by a long row of narrow
8 feet wide, 15 feet deep, cut into the solid rock. The caves
empty and open to the elements, their floors covered with a thick deposit
yellow sand. I asked Michael where these caves had come from. The
had cut them, he said. Thirty years before, when his parents had first
there had been nothing -- no trees, no animals, no food. The villagers had
the caves by hand into the mountains and lived there for three years as
scratched their farms out of the soil. Entering one of the caves I
that I could, in fact, stand upright in the center.

But life was much better now, Michael told me. Ever since Deng Xiao
Ping had embarked on a course of "Socialism with Chinese characteristics,"
opportunities had emerged. Once, you had to have powerful connections in
the Communist Party if you hoped to live well. Now, he said, if you work hard and
take a chance, perhaps anyone can lead a better life. Even people
connections. Even him.

I got a Christmas card from Michael last December. He sends me one
year from China. He is in Xi'an now, a busy provincial capital, working
as a
manager in a national insurance company. He tells me he is doing very
He says he hopes to come visit me in America some day, for business or
I have no doubt he will.

By Joshua Cohen

Joshua Cohen is a writer who lives in Pennsylvania.

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