It was 800 days ago I landed in China. The decision to come here wasn’t planned. I didn’t study Chinese language, culture, or history at university, and I certainly wasn’t, as they say here, a zhongguo tong (“China expert”) pursuing a passion or a dream. I’d been backpacking once through Southwest China once. It was enjoyable, save a few missing luxuries like Western toilets and availability of napkins or tissues (or TP, as the case may be). And getting off the plane, ready to call Shanghai home, I was prepared to rough it for a year, maybe two, as I embarked on a journey of sorts, certainly in search of something, but at the time not knowing exactly what.
What I found was a home, in a beautiful country full of people I can only describe as more welcoming, friendly, and warmhearted than I ever could’ve imagined, and always expressive of their pride and happiness in having me as a guest in their land. As for roughing it, I came to find Shanghai as one of the world’s most lively, cosmopolitan cities, an exciting and comfortable place to call home, and perfectly located to feed my wanderlust for travel. I’ve seen more places, experienced more cultures, and made more meaningful friendships than I could’ve dreamt of, and for that I am thankful.
But now, for a number of reasons mostly personal in nature, my time in China is coming to an end. To leave China was a much more difficult decision to make than to come. To be sure, the “expat” life is a real trip, but as time goes on friendships and relationships come and go, the weight of the distance from friends and family back home grows heavy, and there’s a realization that despite what you might feel from time to time, you are still a guest, and a laowai (“foreigner”), in someone else’s home.
As my last train in China cruises along the Tibetan plateau 16,000 feet above sea level and the last few minutes of power are sucked out of my dying laptop battery, I’ve got the urge to jot down what might be the last China experience for awhile.
Earlier this week, I was traveling with my friends Mike and Ryan through Jiuzhaigou, a beautiful valley nestled deep inside of China’s central Sichuan province. After an intense day of hiking, we stumbled around a bit searching for a local Tibetan restaurant we’d read about online, and when we arrived, there were a few dozen adorable children that had just finished eating a meal and were beginning to run around cheerfully outside. We stepped into the restaurant, and a friendly woman introduced herself as Zhuo Ma. She explained to us that the children were local Tibetan minority orphans who she helped to take care of.
We had clearly stumbled upon something special, and after introductions, Zhuo Ma offered to put together some of her best dishes, and to share with us some of a last batch of her mother’s homemade wine. We invited her to sit and sip wine with us, learning our first Tibetan wine toast in which we as guests would flick three drops of wine in the air, to heaven, the earth, and the ancestors. As we did this, a funny thing happened… a Hummer pulled up outside the restaurant. I won’t lie, a few preconceptions of Hummer owners came to mind, and so I asked Zhuo Ma if she knew who it belonged to. Indeed she did, it belonged to a very close Tibetan friend of hers, who she calls a sister, and who had just arrived from Lhasa. And then, before we knew it, a whole bunch of orphans climbed into the Hummer, smiling and waving at us, and quite quickly challenging my preconceptions.
We spent the next half hour sitting, eating, and talking with Zhuo Ma. Her story was absolutely amazing and against all odds. Born in a small village and arranged to be married at an early age, she ran away to Beijing to learn about the world outside her village. She returned a few years later, and with minimal investment consisting of her family selling off a few yaks, opened her small restaurant. The restaurant did quite well, and she was able to support her family, and others in need in her community. The road to success wasn’t easy, including run-ins with local officials and the destruction of her first restaurant, but Zhuo Ma kept persisting, teaching herself English by conversing with foreign travelers, and building lasting friendships both locally and abroad.
After dinner, we paid what was a modest bill for the amount of food and wine, and Zhuo Ma invited us to join her in about 30 minutes to head out to a local Tibetan song and dance performance that was being put on for the orphans. We jumped at the opportunity, and in the time we had to kill, I started talking with Zhuo Ma’s brother, the chef who’d spent 7 years training in Lhasa, and who was now sitting frustrated in front of an ancient PC attempting to fix its Internet connection by deleting icons off the desktop. I felt the least I could do was to take a crack at it with him, and after some futzing around together with the Chinese router and Chinese Windows, the Internet was good to go and we were off to enjoy the show (pictures), as guests of the orphans. It was fantastic – not just the show, but the whole hospitable situation that we, as three foreign travelers, found ourselves in while passing through a tiny spec on the map in Northern Sichuan province.
If you’re ever traveling through China and itching to get out of the megatropolis and hit the outback, I’d highly recommend paying Jiuzhaigou a visit and stopping by Zhuo Ma’s. Here’s the TripAdvisor listing with her most recent address and phone number, and another short writeup by a Lonely Planet blogger.