Back to Yingtan, Part 2: Connecting with Lia’s Past

[Read Part 1 here]

On our first full day in Yingtan, we drove to Mama Zhu’s house, located in one of the little villages on the outskirts of the city. The village is surrounded by rice paddies, and we had to park on the main road and walk the narrow alleyways to her house.

As soon as the van approached the village, we could see a small crowd gathered for our arrival, with Mama Zhu right at the front. She eagerly embraced each one of us as we got out, and rushed us up to her house where she had food waiting for us. Bountiful meals would be a recurring theme on each of our visits that week.

Since we had three lengthy visits with Mama Zhu, we were able to spend some excellent quality time with her. We had conversations about her family, her past, and her experiences fostering Lia and the other girls over the years. We shared with her about our life in Canada and now Malaysia. We got to meet lots of her family, including her children and grandchildren. Her son took us fishing at a local pond. We were even able to exchange email addresses with her grandson and nephew so we have an easier way to send updates and photos in future. It’s so amazing how technology can shrink our worlds, where we can now instantaneously connect by email or video to a 70 -year-old woman living in rural China.

Considering all the attention she received, Lia did pretty well with the visits. There were a few times where she clung hard to us or found a quiet place to play with Nico away from the crowd. She showed off her growing Mandarin vocabulary, and beamed like a peacock when Ali showed Mama Zhu and family her school workbooks.

If all we did was visit Mama Zhu and her family, this trip would be considered a success in our books. However, we were also able to enjoy the great spring weather that week and explore the area around the city. We spent one day in Longhushan (“Dragon Tiger Mountain”), a mountainous scenic area that is considered to be the birthplace of Taoism and a big draw for tourists from all over China.

The day began with a visit to a beautiful Taoist temple, where a monk we met reassured me that Alison and I are good for each other. Glad to hear that we didn’t waste these 16 years of marriage! 😉

We then took a raft trip along the river, where we enjoyed floating with the current and viewing the massive rock formations flanking both river banks. The men navigating the raft had a name for each of them and pointed out human and animal outlines in the rock face. A number of formations featured large horizontal caves, and the local people have been burying their dead for centuries in these openings in wooden caskets hoisted hundreds of feet in the air. At the end of the tour, we were able to catch the tail end of a demonstration where they showed us how they used pulleys anchored high up in the rocks to winch the caskets up the massive rock face.

We ended our visit with a stop in one of the ancient villages located along the river. For some reason, the large tour groups we had been encountering all day skipped this area, and we found ourselves alone in this tiny village with empty restaurants waiting for the tourists to arrive. We picked one, sat down and ordered a meal of chicken and mixed vegetables. About two minutes later, I was startled by a chicken running past the door, with an old man on its heels. One of the cooks quickly rushed out of the kitchen, hissing under her breath, only to appear a moment later clutching the chicken by its feet. We were laughing so hard I didn’t manage to take a picture in time, and she disappeared quickly into the kitchen, embarrassed by having us witness the bird’s escape. I’ve got to say that it was the freshest meat we’ve ever had!

On our last day we stopped at the local school in Mama Zhu’s village, where we were able to visit one of the classes. Since it was the end of the day, kids from all levels ended up jamming into the small classroom where we introduced ourselves and chatted with them for a while. They loved to show off their English, and we exchanged our versions of “Twinkle, Twinkle” in our respective languages. At one point, Lia and Nico were asked to write what Mandarin characters they knew on the board, and the kids yelled them out as they finished each one. A very reaffirming experience for the two of them! We handed out gifts of pencils and sweets, and they spontaneously gave Lia and Nico little gifts from what they had on hand: rulers, pens, pencils, erasers, etc. It was very sweet.

Afterward, we all gathered for a group photo, and before we left, many asked for hugs and autographs in their school notebooks. Even Lia and Nico were asked to sign the schoolbooks. When a few of them looked at Nico’s scrawly signature (often complete with a backwards “N”), they clucked their tongues and said that their teachers would never approve of such messy handwriting. Heh. Unfortunately, somewhere in all that our guides promised the kids that we would write them a letter, and now we have over sixty names (in Chinese characters, of course) of kids we have to write. I think we’ll be opting for a group letter.

During our last visit with Mama Zhu we got the chance to celebrate her and Lia’s upcoming birthdays. Our guide brought along a cake, and we had fun singing and wishing the two of them a happy birthday. While the cake was beautiful and delicious, this is the first time we’ve ever seen a tomato decorating a birthday cake! As when we arrived, firecrackers announced our departure from Mama Zhu’s house, with Mama Zhu, her family, and many of her neighbours walking us to our van to say goodbye.

Having taken the train back to Hangzhou by ourselves, we stayed in the Sheraton on our last night in China. It was a fun way to end the trip, as the hotel had great beds, an amazing pool, and a McDonalds a few feet from the door. We were able to make our way to the airport and onto our flight back to KL the next day without incident.

We are so glad we ended up going to China. While we weren’t sure if it would be worth the hassle and expense for a week-long trip, it ended up accomplishing so many things. For one, it further cemented our connection to our children’s homeland, and in particular Lia’s birthplace. It allowed us to get to know Mama Zhu and her family better, giving her an opportunity to see Lia again as she grows up. We were also excited to see how it reinforced for both kids why they are learning Mandarin. It has evolved from being a language that they are learning for the sake of learning, to one that they are learning in order to communicate with people they care about.

This week will be our last in Malaysia for a while. As we head to Europe and eventually back to Canada this summer, we don’t know yet how we will continue Lia and Nico’s Mandarin lessons, but we’re so pleased how both kids’ enthusiasm for their culture and language has only grown through the experiences they’ve had in Asia these past eight months. It is everything we could have hoped for.

A slideshow of our photos from the week

Boarding the plane in Kuala Lumpur
Visiting Mama Zhu
Tonight's dinner
Fooling around in the hotel lobby
The monster was thrown down this well and will remain here forever
Entrance to Longhushan
An ancient mummy from the Longhushan caves
Halfway through our journey we came on these women selling bundles of sticky rice
A delicious mid-journey snack
Bridge to heaven
Hoisting the casket to its lofty resting place
Bamboo raft maker
An amazing meal at one of Yingtan's finer restaurant
A fun poster on the classroom wall
We were a little surprised when we realized this little guy was real
Lia autographing school books

If you’re interested in learning more about travelling to Yingtan or the guides we used for the week, feel free to drop us a line through our Facebook page or by email at manylives<AT>gmail.com.

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