Diary from China – July 22, 2005 – Shanghai, China
The Nicest Family in All of China

Excerpts from the Diary: Hi everyone! I’m IN CHINA, and having a great time! I’m staying with Stephan in a little room where he lives in the top floor of an apartment building, across the hall from what he had told me is The Nicest Family in All of China. And he was not exaggerating, these people are a delight. One of them, Zhang Wei (Zhang is her family name, Wei her first), is about Stephan’s age and speaks fluent English, she is a student at the University of Maryland where Stephan met her. I communicate with the rest of the family through my interpreter, Stephan. They have prepared us lunch and dinner and I don’t think I’ve tasted better food anywhere. Every one of the family is a delight, so friendly and fun, and thoughtful.

Jiang Xiaoju (Zhang Wei’s grandmother) prepares one of her FABULOUS multi-course meals.

It's dinner time, and never have I had a better meal! We were each served a bowl of soup and a bowl of rice, and then used our chopsticks to pick up a bite of food from the incredible selection of community dishes and ate it with some rice from our bowl.

Left: Wei’s aunt Xu Jiangsheng and grandfather Zhang Ping.

Below: Wei’s cousins sit with her uncle Xu Huadi.

Wei (on left) sits with her cousin, her grandfather Zhang Ping is in back.

After dinner, the table is put against the wall and people enjoy the evening together.

Wei’s grandparents and her mother Xu Jiamei

[right] Zhang Wei and her cousin Huang Haixia browse the internet and check email.

More excerpts from the Diary:
After dinner at home we shared photo albums, and had a great talk. There are a lot of pictures of their Grandpa visiting in lots of places through the years, and when I asked if he liked to travel, he said yes but, because he has difficulty walking now, he can’t travel any more (he shuffles along at a very slow, painful-looking pace). I told him about my mom being unable to walk further than about 30 feet and going to Thailand, with us taking a folding chair so she could sit often, and I suggested a wheelchair for travel in long distances. They said but he can’t use a chair on the buses around here, so he can’t get far.

It is his granddaughter Zhang Wei who goes to the University of Maryland and her mother (his daughter) is planning to go visit for 3-6 months when she gets a visa (apparently it takes MONTHS for the Chinese to get a visa to visit the U.S.! It takes us about 5 days to get the visa to go there), and he’d love to go too. I told him how accessible the U.S. is, and how he can take buses and everything in a wheelchair. They asked about the airport and I told him about the wheelchair service that is available on request. He brightened up and seems to be seriously considering coming to America!

I had told them I wanted to ask questions about them, and started with where did they each grow up, what did they do for a living, and where did they meet their spouse (apparently that last question is very typical American concern, but not for the Chinese!) I wanted to finish the evening with everyone telling what was their dream.

So we started with Grandma and Grandpa (their daughter, Zhang Mama – my Tai Chi instructor, is 55, so I’d guess they are in their 70's). Grandpa had worked for the government (couldn’t tell us exactly what he did or he’d have to kill us – no, no, just kidding! He couldn’t explain what it was), and Grandma, I was shocked to learn, was a cook for a elementary school! I have to explain here that I have not had much food that is more delicious than hers, and she takes a LOT of pride in it! She joked that her dream was to cook for us and when I suggested we all go out to a restaurant tonight, she made a face and told us how badly the restaurants cook, putting unhealthy things in their food, hers is much more wholesome and I attributed her healthful way of cooking to the fact that I haven’t gotten sick yet, Stephan had prepared me to be sick for the entire first week, like he was!)

Then we went to the next generation – they have one son and 4 daughters, including Zhang Wei’s mother. They started telling me that they had grown up in the city (I can’t remember if it was Shanghai) but when they became of age they were sent into the country. This was at the time when Chairman Mao had decided everyone with education should learn how “real” people lived, working the land. They were each assessed as to their skills, and then given two choices for a career. You either accept one of those careers or you don’t eat.

I asked how they felt about leaving home to go live in another community, and they leaned forward and looked me in the eye and said with emphasis they had NO feelings about it. It was just the way it was done, they had no choice. Zhang Wei explained that Chinese don’t have a concept of freedom like we do. When she talks with us in America we tend to lament the human rights abuses but they are dealing with more basic needs.

Time was getting short so we interrupted to hear one of the granddaughters, Lin, play an instrument, I forget what it’s called, it’s stringed and looks ancient, I’ll try to find out more about it for you but suffice it to say, it was strikingly, hauntingly BEAUTIFUL, as was the player, Lin, putting her soul into the music! Stephan captured it on video, and the family too, so some of you may be able to enjoy it.

Anyway, we then started talking about our dreams. Three of the women – Grandma and two of her daughters – all had dreams that their daughter/granddaughter will be able to get a good education (hopefully in America) and do well. I should explain here that each of the 5 children in the generation of my age had one daughter, because of the one-child limit. Because these five granddaughters are all so close, even though they are technically cousins and live in separate households, they consider each other sisters. So they have a large, very close family of 5 couples and 5 grandchildren / sisters-cousins, and most evenings they get together at one home or another.

Anyway, it was for this sister/cousin generation that the older women had dreams. I told them about the book that my mom and dad wrote about what to do with your “misbehaving” teenagers, saying that my favorite chapter was the one that encouraged the parents (especially the mothers) to “let go” of their children, and follow their own dreams, live their own life. Zhang Mama ( Zhang Wei’s mother, the one who is teaching me Tai Chi) softly and with feeling said that she agreed, that is what she wanted to do. So Mom, you and Dad are having a lot of influence here, even though you couldn’t come! She talked several times during the evening about how she resonated to that message.

We only had time for a few more “dreams” (it was getting late and my interpreter, Stephan, was getting exhausted, as you can imagine!) – one was that of one of the husbands of the middle generation of daughters. His dream was for his job to be better – more satisfaction, enough money to take care of his family well, etc. They then explained that in China, when they get to the middle 30's, they are no longer desired in the workplace, younger people are wanted. That is the time, they say, that they need to support their families, and it was a fearful situation, causing anxiety.

It was a MOST enlightening evening, thanks again to Stephan who enabled me to access this delightful family as they shared their hopes and fears. I’ve never been able to see any country like I’m seeing this one, I’m SO glad I came when Stephan could be my guide!

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