I was one third of the way through a run the other day when I heard a car honk behind me. I turned around to see a middle-aged man in a black Volkswagen sedan. He seemed just as startled as I was. He pulled up along side me with a broad but odd smile. It seemed forced, out of sync with his eyes. “What are you doing?” he asked. I explained to him what brings me here. He said he worked for the city government in the city of Wuhu. He was back to visit his parents for the weekend. “They live just down the road, there, in the white house on the edge of the village. Do you see it?” He introduced himself as Mr. Wan. “The same ‘Wan (万)’ as one hundred (百) ten thousands (万),” he said. He asked me for my contact information and invited me to dinner. Though his smile and enthusiasm to made me a little uneasy, he seemed sincere and merely curious. I gave him my phone number and told him I could join him and his family the following night.
The next morning, I saw that the forecast called for rare thunderstorms. I considered calling Mr. Wan to reschedule. As the day proceeded, the weather turned hot, humid, windy, and unsettled. It started to rain lightly in the minutes before I got on my bike to leave. Some of the rain immediately evaporated as it landed on the ground and leaves. As it rose back up to the sky, it carried some of the earth with it: the smell of dirt, metal and grass now mud, rust and mildew.
The brakes of my bike squeaked as I arrived at Mr. Wan’s house. He approached to open the gate with the same strained smile. He graciously took my bike and guided it through the courtyard and into the garage. A woman in her 60s took a half step out of the kitchen near the gate and looked at me blankly. “That’s my mother,” Mr. Wan said with a nervous laugh. “Ma, this is Mr. Du.” She nodded and went back to the kitchen. A puppy came out of the open door of the dining room and approached me cautiously. I kneeled and held out my left hand palm up. “What’s your dog’s name?” I asked. “He doesn’t really have one,” Mr. Wan said. “But he’s grey, so we call him Hui Hui. Right Hui Hui?” Hui Hui didn’t respond. After a minute he approached my hand and let me pet him. “He’ll remember you next time,” Mr. Wan said.
We sat down at the dining room table. Mr. Wan poured us both tea. The room was bright white and without decoration, save for the framed black and white photos of Mr. Wan’s deceased paternal grandparents above a table on the north wall. The linoleum floor was still wet from having been recently mopped. I told Mr. Wan that I am interested in the history of this area. He said this village is called Wan Village, named after his ancestral clan. They settled here 120 years ago, fleeing a famine in Hubei Province, his true ancestral home. Sixty years later they endured another famine, during the Great Leap Forward. “Many people died here in this township,” he said. “My father almost died, when he was just a boy. I think this is why you find that people here seldom have a strong feeling for this place, and for farming. They remember. They want their children to leave. Everyone will tell you that there is no better time in history than right now. And that is because they are not afraid of starving.”
Mr. Wan’s mother began bringing in dishes of food. His father joined us at the table. He was completely bald, tall, and very thin. Yet he moved brusquely, with purpose. He offered me rice wine but excused himself from drinking, drinking a bottle of blueberry flavored milk instead. Before he began eating, Mr. Wan paused to look down at the floor for a moment. His father asked me routine questions about my work and family, glancing at me warily as I answered. After about 15 minutes, he rose from the table and left. “Keep eating!” he said as he left. Mr. Wan’s mother came in not long thereafter, carrying a bowl of rice. I asked her if she still farmed. She said the family had rented the family’s land to a large-scale farmer, like almost everyone in the village. But she and her husband still labored. She sewed at a nearby textile factory. He did plastering work in the county seat. They could use the extra money, she explained. But really they worked out of habit. “We don’t miss farming,” she said. “But we miss having something to do. We have worked constantly since we were young. We have no hobbies. We don’t know of any other life. This is how peasants are.”
It began to rain heavily. I asked her how many children she had. She said she had three: two daughters in addition to Mr. Wan, who was the oldest. They each had one child of their own, all girls. She asked me why I have no wife and children. I said it was partly choice, and partly circumstance. “Yes,” she said. “If relationships don’t work, there is nothing you can do. You have to separate. And that’s okay. More and more people are doing that these days.” I asked if that was a good or bad thing. “People need structure,” she said. “But they also need to the chance to make mistakes. All parents can do is try to give children the right perspective. Once they leave, their lives are their own.” As she spoke, Mr. Wan clasped his hands and looked at the floor.
Mr. Wan’s mother rose from the table to clear away the dishes. I asked him how he spent his spring festival this year. Did his daughter join him here? No, he said. She was with her mother. As he spoke he seemed to force a broad smile, as he had the day before, but this time his mouth trembled. “You see,” he said. “I have had a difficult time. The pressure in my job is so great. I failed. I felt that I could not succeed. And I was punished. And then my wife.” He gasped for air, and started to gently rock backward and forward. “I had never prayed before, but I prayed that God would help me. And he did. I found the Catholic church.” He said that he lost most of his friends as a result of his faith, and he speaks to almost no one about it, including his parents. “Most people don’t understand,” he said. “My life is very different now. But I have peace. I know that God has a plan for me.”
His mother returned to the table. I told them that my life had not turned out as I expected. But that those disappointments were not necessarily a bad thing. His mother looked at me. “The world is so big and you came so far to be here now,” she said. “That is strange, when you think about it.”
I noticed that the sun had set and the rain had temporarily stopped. I excused myself to go home and let them rest. His mother went to look for a poncho for me, and apologized when she could not find one. Hui Hui ran over and bit my shoe. “He’ll remember you next time,” Mr. Wan said. I looked for Mr. Wan’s father. They told me he had left to go to a friend’s house, pointing to a lit window in the distance. Mr. Wan brought out my bike, and they both walked me to the gate. I thanked them for their kindness, and began riding back across the fields to town.