A caravan of government cars led our bus from the hotel and down the highway, turning off onto narrow and bumpy country roads. The government cars’ hazard lights are all blinking to show off the caravan, and our bus driver honks at least twice a minute to alert pedestrians and people on motor bikes of the presence of this huge bus sneaking up on them.
We finally stop at the gate to a village, where everyone is wearing their best clothing. In one village everyone had crisp white button shirts and black pants. The village leader would talk about how lives have improved and incomes have increased, every day is better than the last since the reforms. (No matter how little they enunciated, I could always pick out “改革开放以后” or “since the Reform and Opening Up”, a term we learned early on in Chinese class.) We would unabashedly take pictures of the villagers, while their camera flashes were returned equally strong; everyone was curious about the other. We would wander in and out of their cave houses, tracking mud onto the shiny tiled floor of each room.
Breaking apart into interview groups was never simple, but they generally consisted of a mentor and or an American post-programmer, along with three or four students and another three or four Chinese grad students. We’d trail off in different directions, following the chosen villagers to their homes. They’d invite us warmly into the gated, four-sided complexes with a courtyard between each dugout room, chickens, a dog, children, etc and then into one cave room. Each cave is a different section of the house, but all are dry walled and not like you’d picture a modern cave home.
Relatives would be waiting inside with steaming bowls of hot water to drink and freshly washed fruit. We’d all sit awkwardly on the little couches while the villagers easily fold into the proper position for the tiny stools they’ve set out for when company comes over, probably so everyone can play mah jiang around the coffee table (do they call them that in China?). I am probably too big for the miniature stools and they look as though they would collapse under my weight anyway, but I felt guilty when the proud owners of the homes would give up the comfortable seats for the American twenty-somethings who have barely worked a day in their lives. Someone would offer everyone a cigarette, and generally only one of the mentors would accept, and they would keep pace chain-smoking with the Chinese interviewee the entire time we were in their homes.
One of the best Chinese speakers would generally begin the interview, and we’d ask their ages, how much land they work, and how long they’ve lived here. The interview generally would wind around the reform era and the differences in land use and output both before and after collectivization and subsequent reforms. At some point, sometimes before and sometimes mid-questioning everyone will insist that we each eat another peach, apple, or slice of watermelon. It’s difficult to resist Chinese hospitality, so if one of us gets sick from the fruit at least we’re all in it together.
My group rarely would leave a house feeling as though the information we were given was complete. But that said, it was incredible to be so warmly welcomed into their homes. In part this trip has made me even more intrigued by China, but I’m ready for it to come to a close. I need more freedom in terms of the programming, because whereas some of my colleagues enjoy getting on the bus and waking up in another pre-planned, spontaneous tourist spot, I want to be more in charge of my experience. This is how I know I’d like to live in China again in the future. In the meantime, the surveys that we got from locals will be helpful in compiling our research paper once we return to Pittsburgh – and hopefully in the next year my name will be on a published scientific paper!