Every Thousand Years
An Excerpt from “Unsavory Elements: Stories of Foreigners on the Loose in China”
There are no guardrails on the road to Qixin. And there is only one other way to the top of the mountain—a four-hour hike. It was February, and the ice and snow from Guizhou’s winter storms had recently melted, leaving the famously treacherous cliff-side dirt road even more rutted and muddy than normal. But it was passable, by local standards at least, for the first time in weeks. And so we stood in the bed of the dump truck, gripping the rails tight, bracing our bodies as the vehicle lurched back and forth like a rowboat in rough water.
After more than an hour of winces and white knuckles, we could finally see over the top of the mountain. The road had nowhere else it could go. Terraces gave way to the severity of the land. Barren tree trunks jutted out of large bleached boulders. It was clear we were arriving at our destination. This was where Zhou Xunshu grew up.
For the past year, I had followed Zhou from province to province as he competed on the China Tour, the country’s fledgling (and now defunct) professional golf circuit. The goal was to tell Zhou’s remarkable story—he went from peasant farmer to security guard to self-taught golf pro in less than a decade—through a series of magazine articles and eventually a book. To tell the tale correctly, I needed to see where Zhou came from.
Zhou was fine with this, but it was clear he had no desire to join me on the trip. A word Zhou often uses to describe his childhood is ku, or bitter. “Some people have memories from their childhood…I don’t,” Zhou told me. “We’d get up and hike to school and come back and work in the fields. We did this every day. Who wants to remember that?”
And so I went to Zhou’s village—two days and four modes of transportation from my home in Shanghai—without Zhou.
* * *
Qixin, stuck on the side of a remote mountain, elevation 6,000 feet, is perhaps the poorest village in the poorest province in China. There is no way to prove this, of course, but there’s also no denying that life in this tiny collection of crude stone homes is harsh and antiquated. People here aren’t starving anymore, as was the case in years past, but a stay in the village easily conjures up centuries-old images of the American frontier. It’s a simple, gritty existence.
I was greeted by Zhou’s father, a slight and smiley old man who wanted nothing more than to make this stranger feel at home. He brought out some short wooden stools and arranged them in the courtyard near stacks of firewood and bundles of drying tobacco leaves, and then on two smaller plastic stools he placed a bowl of local walnuts (“from the tree just over there”) and a plate of fresh apples.
“I am just very excited,” he said with a thick local accent. “You went through so many hardships coming here. Thank you so much for coming. Thank you so much. Our only concern is that the living conditions here are not good enough for you.”
Zhou’s father moved slowly, his legs riddled with rheumatism and hyperostosis, but he was chatty and animated. His dialect was often hard to decipher, but he spoke just as much with his body and face as he did with words and phrases. In contrast, Zhou’s mother barely said a word. Her husband chatting away, she went about her business preparing the evening’s meal, picking the stems off of a clutch of wild mushrooms. Her silver hair was tucked inside a light gray stocking cap emblazoned with the word “PING,” an American brand of golf equipment.
Also joining us was Zhou’s eldest brother, known as First Brother among family members. There was something about him, perhaps his pompadour-esque poof of jet black hair, which reminded me of a 1950s greaser. He took long intense draws on his Huangguoshu cigarettes, named after Guizhou’s famous waterfall, the largest in China. And he was determined to drink alcohol with every meal.
“You know, Zhou was going to become a police office,” First Brother said.
This came up several times during my stay in the village. Zhou may be a professional golfer. He may be the most successful person to come out of Qixin. But to some, he’s still the family member who was supposed to become a police officer and failed. Police officer is a concept Zhou’s family, especially his parents, could understand. It’s a concept they knew their neighbors would understand. Golf was different. It was strange. It was foreign. It was completely new.
How can you impress your friends with your son’s job when even you don’t understand what he does?
* * *
There is no refrigeration in the village. And after the brutal winter of 2008, there was almost no fresh produce, either. When it snows heavily, as it did this winter, no vehicles can access Qixin and even the simplest items are a luxury. Villagers must lug heavy bags of rice up the mountain on foot and family cooks need to get creative with the same nonperishable, and very familiar, ingredients every day.
The colorful array of dishes laid out before us, however (I counted ten courses) belied the forced culinary uniformity of the season. The menu was explained to me: “This is fried potato slices. That is tofu. That is fried wheat gluten. That is rice noodles. Those are pig’s ears. That is larou. That is also larou. And that one, too.” Preserved pork, three ways.
I had to pace my consumption cannily, because each time I finished what was in my bowl, someone would immediately fill it up with something else. “Eat more,” they would say. “Eat more pig’s ear!”
Sometime between serving numbers six and seven, the faint warble of recorded music could be heard from somewhere in the darkness beyond the house.
“Ah, the power is back,” First Brother said. “Good.”
It wasn’t long ago that life without electricity was simply life. Qixin didn’t get wired until the mid-1990s. Bowls overflowing with food were also a relatively new phenomenon. Nearly everyone seated around the table remembered when there was barely enough to eat.
“Before, only when celebrating festivals or having friends visiting could we eat meat,” First Brother said. “Nowadays, we can eat meat any time, every day. Before, drinking beers—no way. Drinking rice wine—no way.”
That was certainly no longer the case. First Brother raised his glass of beer in my direction.
“Before, we did not know each other, and now we do,” he said. “So we are friends. Ganbei!”
This was the first of many toasts I would receive from First Brother. Often, we were the only two drinking. This was especially true at breakfast.
We never sipped. It was always chug, or ganbei, “dry the glass.” We started with beer, a rather unmemorable lager from Henan province they purchase at the market down at the bottom of the mountain, 180 500-milliliter bottles at a time. We then graduated to a dubious local moonshine made from corn, sold at the market for just three yuan per liquid pound.
Finally, during our last night together, First Brother brought out a bottle he received from his wife’s brother-in-law. It was filled with a pinkish-brown substance and hundreds of tiny flecks of…something. It was called yaojiu, or “medicine alcohol,” and First Brother claimed it contained twenty-five different medicinal herbs that could cure problems with your “lungs, liver, kidneys, spleen, and bones.”
“This is the first time we meet,” he would say. “We are so grateful.”
“From our grandparents’ generation until our next generation, it is impossible to have the chance to have a foreigner come to visit us.” Ganbei!
“In our hometown, this is probably a chance every thousand years that you come to our home. We are very happy. So drink more. This is our Guizhou people’s custom. You are our friend coming from far away.”
“Today, you came to visit our home and I am very excited. This is something not even money can buy.”
“You are my best friend, and it is not easy for you to come all the way here to be friends with us.”
“OK, my friend. Finish this corn wine and I promise I won’t give you any more.”
* * *
Qixin in the winter is absent of color. The ground is brown, the sky is grey, the trees are bare, the houses are covered in dust. The only splashes of color come from the villagers’ clothing, but even that is muted; it’s hard to keep anything clean here for long. When Zhou was a child, he used to bathe in a river near where he watched the oxen graze. That river has since run dry. Now, villagers wash themselves in large basins at home. First Brother said most people bathe about once every ten days.
On my second day, I walked through the village and arrived at a landing overlooking the valley, which was still partially obscured by fog. The terrain was dry and brittle: tall yellow grass, white rocks, naked trees. This is where, as a child, Zhou would take the family oxen to graze. This was where he, before he ever heard the word “golf,” played a golf-like game with a wad of paper and a long-handled sickle.
There were four village boys on the landing ranging in age from seven to eleven. Their cheeks were rosy, their clothes covered in dirt. They looked like a gang of Chinese Huckleberry Finns, “fluttering with rags,” long blades of grass held between their teeth. I asked the boys if they knew who Zhou Xunshu was. They all said yes. Have you heard of golf? They all said no. Soccer? No. Basketball? No. Yao Ming? No. The Olympics? No. Do you know what sports are? One of the boys brought up the morning calisthenics they performed at school and asked, “Is that a sport?”
We returned home to find First Brother preparing a chicken for slaughter. This was a special gesture in my honor. Normally, the family would only kill a chicken for Spring Festival, the biggest holiday of the year.
A cigarette heavy with ash dangling from his mouth, First Brother held open the beak of the chicken while his wife poured a clear liquid into its mouth from a white bowl.
“Rice wine,” he said. “That will make the chicken taste better.”
We crowded around the huolu (literally “fire oven”), a coal burning stove that also serves as dinner table. During my brief stay in Qixin, I had been asking so many questions—personal questions—and my hosts had answered every one. They had treated me like family. But the thought occurred to me: Did they even know what I was doing there? Zhou is not the best communicator.
“No, Zhou Xunshu did not tell us,” First Brother said, raising his glass of beer in my direction. “Ganbei!”
“It was my fifth uncle who called and said someone is coming to visit, but he did not say who,” First Brother’s son said. “And he called my uncle in Bijie and my uncle in Bijie called the village.”
“When you learned someone was coming, did you think it was strange? Did you wonder why?” I asked.
“When you got here, I was wondering why,” First Brother admitted. “But we are friends now. I do not care if my youngest brother called or not. As long as you are my friend I will treat you the same way.”
“Do you want to know why I am here?”
“I never thought about it. We welcome friends no matter from China or abroad.”
I told the family about my research, about the magazine articles, about the plans for a book.
“Good!” First Brother said. “Before I did not know, and now I know. I will not change my mind for three, five, eight, ten, even 100 years. I will always welcome you. Nothing else I can say. You come here, you are my brother!”
* * *
The roosters rise before the sun in Qixin. So do the people. It was 6 a.m., my final morning in the village, and I was greeted by the sounds of the birds and breakfast. As the cattle lowed beneath me, I opened my room’s back door and stared into the darkness. Silhouettes of leafless trees slowly took shape. The mountain was waking up.
Neighbors were joining us for the morning meal, and First Brother, not that he really needed one, took that as an excuse to break out the alcohol.
“Let me pour some corn alcohol for you,” First Brother said.
“What time is it?” I asked.
“I like alcohol,” he said. “Gan yi bei. Drink one glass. I wish you a nice trip.”
The neighbor, a man who looked to be about the same age as First Brother, had been staring at me since we sat around the huolu. He finally turned to First Brother and asked, “Where’s he from?”
“Meiguo,” First Brother replied. “America.”
The neighbor, still studying me, paused and cocked his head to one side. “They look like Russians, don’t they?” he said.
The neighbor’s wife presented me with a bag of hard-boiled eggs.
“One more glass of corn wine!” First Brother insisted. “For your journey. Ganbei!”
The mountain road was said to be slippery that morning, and so too the path leading to the road. But that didn’t stop a dozen or so people from seeing us to our ride: a dusty red dump truck with a bed full of dried corn stalks.
Zhou’s father slipped his bare feet into a pair of untied basketball sneakers. Zhou’s mother wore slippers. And they carefully shuffled along, navigating down the muddy, sloping trail.
“Is his leg O.K.?” I asked. “Should he be coming all the way down with us?”
“It’s no problem,” First Brother’s son assured me.
Zhou’s father took my hand, and we walked to the truck together.
“I am so happy you came to see us,” he said to me. “I will never forget you. Thank you so much.”
The old man hugged me, and tears came to my eyes.
“We feel bad you come all the way here and we did not treat you well,” Zhou’s mother said “You need to forgive us for not treating you well enough. We’re sorry.”
“Thank you,” Zhou’s father repeated.
“We’re sorry,” his wife said again.
They repeated this chorus as I climbed into the truck and took my place amongst the corn stalks.
The truck grunted to life. I gripped the handrails tightly and braced my body for the turbulent ride ahead. Zhou’s parents were smiling wide and waving.
“Wish you a nice trip!” Zhou’s father shouted.
I let go with one hand and attempted to wave back. The truck lurched forward, and I almost fell into the person beside me.
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