My teaching has taken me to Zhumadian in Henan China for several months out of every year. Zhumadian is by Chinese standards a small rural city that the rest of the nation has never heard of. It’s hard to get an exact figure on it but from what I’ve gathered the city centre is around one million, the urban area three million and the district it administers is nine and a half million. Henan is one of the most if not the most populated province in China.
Zhumadian, Henan, China,
Zhumadian was originally a stopping point on the Silk Road. It’s name translates to something along the lines of ‘stables and inn’. A few decades ago the city was tens of thousands of people, but with China’s rapid development it has exploded to the size it is today. I’m told that 20 years ago there were only a handful of cars on the road. Now almost everyone I meet has a car or electric bike. Having heard about the advancement of China for years it is incredible to experience and be a part of it.
Central China is radically different from the coast in so many ways. The coast was naturally the first area to develop and the rest of the country has followed. The cities of Henan are very modern, but the countryside is still underdeveloped. While travelling I often see farm equipment that could date from the Cultural Revolution and farmers drying crops on the asphalt of the freeway. I’m told that when trays at the university canteen are cleared the scraps are taken to pig farms that evening.
Abandoned farming equipment at Huanghuai University
Zhumadian is classified as a level five city and currently undergoing a series of reforms to achieve level four status. Basically it’s a red neck town. People are constantly asking me why I am working here and not in Beijing or Shanghai. I’m very happy that my first contract is here and not in diet China. It forces me to understand the culture and learn the language. Maybe eventually I will move on to a more glamorous city, but this is an invaluable experience for the moment.
The biggest difference from the coast is the people are insular and unfamiliar with other nationalities. I would not be surprised if in the history of Zhumadian, less than 50 foreigners have visited, and most of them were likely Soviet officials. The total foreign population is less than a dozen at any moment and we are almost entirely lecturers at Huanghuai University. As you would expect, a handful of people in the city speak varying levels of English.
This means I live a life somewhere between a local celebrity and an exotic foreign animal in a zoo. Reactions to seeing me might involve stares, people pointing and shouting ‘Laowai’, photos with or without permission, some very flattering comments and very funny moments. Overall reactions have been very friendly and innocent, but every now and again someone will cross the line. So far the only two times I lost it are when someone was taking a photo of me while I was eating hung-over and when a guy tried to take a photo of me at a urinal in a night club. They might not have understood English, but I think the tonality and volume translated perfectly.
Zhumadian by night with a view of the Huanghuai River
My experiences with people have been overwhelmingly positive and welcoming. Often times people are kind to the point of embarrassment and I have no idea of how I could repay them. An integral part of Chinese culture is to welcome foreigners and this means people are constantly offering to pay for me or be my guide even when they earn considerably less than I do. I try my best to not let them, but many are quite persistent.
Another aspect of Chinese culture that has surprised me is how willing people are to help each other. Part of this is rooted in the collective mentality; part of it is related to the concept of Mianzi, usually translated to Face. Mianzi is a formalised concept of social status that exists in China. Much of it is based on an I scratch your back, you scratch mine relationship. It is very common for me to get offers for free Mandarin tutoring, being shown where to eat or anything really. I was once eating in the canteen when a student approached me holding a spoon and said, ‘Hello teacher! You can use this!’ I never realised my chopstick skills were so obviously poor.
Chinese food is incredibly diverse and is defined by region. Henan cuisine is amazing. I have only had one or two meals I wasn’t impressed with. Hot Pot seems to be the most popular food to go out for. Generally meals begin with cold salads of pickled veg and tofu. The main course will be meat and vegetables cooked together in a large pot with a thick sauce creating almost a stew. After the contents of the pot are finished noodles are dumped in the pot and mixed with the remaining sauce. People will often eat stir fries similar to what we normally think of as Chinese food. Chilli is very popular in the region and how people deal the with cold humidity in autumn and winter.
Henan style Hot Pot
Food is cheap to the point where I never cook in Zhumadian. One pound is equal to eight yuan and one dollar is six and a half. Dinner at a mid range restaurant for three with drinks is usually ¥100-125 and a meal at the university canteen ¥8-10.
Standard tray at the university canteen
There are a couple western fast food chains in the city and the local interpretation of a coffee shop. Coffee is not a part of Chinese culture. It is seen as an exotic foreign treat. So it is very hard to find it in supermarkets, coffee shops don’t open until the afternoon and don’t understand the concept of take away. I believe staff also think I am very lonely for having a coffee by myself. Coffee shops often double as ‘Western’ restaurants. After experiencing their idea of a steak I no longer accept any criticisms of American Chinese food. It’s a two way street for sure.
Obligatory teddy bear at Mann Coffee
Drinking culture is also shockingly different. The hardest thing for me to accept has been that men drink and women generally don’t. Drinking is usually done in a restaurant with people you already know and there is no equivalent to a pub. Nightclubs are bizarrely male dominated. There are very few women present who don’t work there. Those that do are usually Go-Go dancers or can be auctioned to sit at tables and make rich men look important for the evening. Guys huddle around tables playing a dice drinking game and occasionally watching the variety shows on the stage. I have yet to see anyone who looks like they are genuinely having fun at a night club. It seems like people do it more for Mianzi than anything else.
Several of the foreign teachers I have met have really struggled with the experience. The culture is so radically different and you can very easily ostracise yourself. One thing I realised while there is just how big the world still is. I found the key is to make local friends and attempt to experience life the way they do. It can be easy to become a prisoner to the university or become overly critical of their way of living. I still have my limits and only a few times I have found I need to challenge something. The work I have put in to make my time enjoyable has definitely paid off. I have learned a huge amount and grown from it.
If you live in central China don't try to fight the trip it will fuck you up. Just roll with it and you won’t regret the experience.