Theo Carney '14: Last Day in Ailian Village

Theo Carney was one of the 2014-2016 Shansi Fellows at Shanxi Agricultural University. This is his first year narrative.

I wake up this morning to my friend Dongxiong (English name: Russell) popping his head through the door at around 8:45. I’m always the last one to wake up. A thought bubbles forth in broken, half-asleep Chinese.

“Today’s our last day here,” I say.

“Yeah, we should go on a motorcycle ride. Do you want to have breakfast?”

On some of the days where I’ve slept in, Russell and I have eaten late together, but generally I feel like a nuisance in this regard, especially to his mom who then has to reheat stuff for us. So I turn down the offer hoping to save myself some guilt. I’ll wait for lunch, I say, like he usually does.

The average meal during Spring Festival is a minor feast.

“Then we’ll go for a ride after lunch.”

We’re in a small village in Jiangxi Province, and Russell’s whole extended family is here. From what Russell tells me, the entire village is family. He jokes that here there’s no big difference between our house and theirhouse, so we can sort of just walk in wherever and eat, and we do so for lunch and dinner on several occasions. Conversations are usually in Hakka, so a lot of the time I have no idea what is going on, which can be a bit exhausting. Generally though, it’s exhilarating and fun, and different from any place I’ve ever been. 

He closes the door and I fall back asleep for 30 minutes. When I wake up it’s Russell helping me get a move on again, and I get up and walk to the TV room, then the corridor overlooking the village downhill. I open the window and a gust of fresh air fills my nose. I’ve been feeling the weight of too much incomprehensible Hakka, too much indebtedness at all the hospitality, too many toasts with turpentine-ish baijiu and ensuing drunkenness and lethargy in the afternoon, plus long rainy days recently. But outside right now it’s all pastoral green and sky blue, lazy clouds and pleasant, slow village life, and the weight vanishes and I feel light.

I’m still waking up though, so I sit down in the TV room where Russell’s little brother Feiyang is watching My Little Pony, Friendship is Magic (in Chinese). Feiyang hums along to theme song (English), reading the Chinese subtitles. Then he gets up, pries open a box of 六个核桃 (lit. “6 walnuts”) and hands me one, as if psychically linked with my stomach, or maybe just aware that I skipped breakfast, or just being awesome as usual (did I mention he’s a great kid?)

I bump into Russell as I’m finishing my morning routine, looking for hot water for my awful coal black Nescafe, a reluctant necessity.

“People are playing cards down below.”

“In the same place as yesterday?”

“Yeah, you wanna go?”


“You can bring your coffee.”

I do.

Downhill from us, on the second floor of an unfinished house (raw cement walls and floor), there are about 10 guys gathered around a table on benches and a few chairs playing cards. We sit down and Russell starts explaining to me the rules in Chinese, which is exactly what I want, except that I don’t know certain important words like suit, which Russell assumes I do in his explanation (it turns out that the Chinese word for color also means suit, which doesn’t help my confusion). So then he switches to English, which doesn’t help much either. I get frustrated, then annoyed at myself for being frustrated with my friend, so I just shut up and remind myself to be patient. I ask clarifying questions to the guy on my left and to Russell on my right. After a minute, I realize with a chuckle that this is just poker with 3 cards. I breathe a sigh of relief.

The main street just downhill from Russell’s house

Guys are chatting, talking trash, yelling, laughing, but as usual it’s in Hakka so I pay attention to body language and people’s tone of voice instead. There’s not much content to grasp anyway, and I think about how a group of guys playing cards anywhere has a similar feeling. A man with an impressive cash stack get’s up soon after we arrive and leaves, and people crush in a little to fill the void. One guy across from us looks down on his luck and is eyeing the ante pile anxiously. Each round is a ¥10 ante.

In some rounds the betting collects momentum, as if the table’s center were a swirling black hole for cash: modest ¥10 and ¥15 raises fly in quickly, in an ever-shrinking circle as some hands fold and the brave and foolhardy stay in. It goes fast and in one round there’s already ¥150 in the pot after less than a minute, and just Russell and one other guy left. Russell ever so slowly uncovers a Jack of clubs, a Jack of hearts. The other guy casually throws down a straight: 5, 6, 7. Russell peels back the third card: Jack of diamonds. We all go a little wild; Russell wipes the table clean.

In a round soon after, one of the two final betters is this funny guy in a red jacket who shouts and has tea-stained teeth, and the same guy who’s motorcycle Russell and I will borrow later. He throws down his hand–all red: J, 10, 7, hearts. The other guy has: J, 10, 7, all clubs. A collective gasp and moment of confusion, and then, somehow, the guy with clubs is declared the winner. First Russell says this is because clubs is higher than hearts. Then someone says it’s because the red dude showed his cards first. Either way, red dude is pissed.

In other rounds, some people bluff their way to victory and there’s some head shaking after, some laughing, some not. My favorite hand occurs when successive raises of ¥5 pushes everyone out except for the red jacket dude and Russell. They alternate showing their hands, one card at a time.

Red: King of clubs. Russell: King of hearts. Red: Three of spades. Russell: Three of hearts. Red: Four of hearts. Russell: Six of clubs.

The table erupts in laughter. Red dude shakes his head in disbelief.

I check my clock eventually and find that it’s already 12:40. I mention lunch to Russell, and he says I should go up and eat, but he can’t leave while he’s winning.

I use the toilet on the way out. The bathroom is unfinished raw cement like the rest of the second floor, and there’s no toilet, just a hole in the floor looking down to the 1st floor. There’s a menacing big red bucket filled with a mostly opaque liquid. As if there could be any other explanation, I still feel the need to ask first, and everyone assures me, yes, use the red bucket. I do, and it reeks when my urine aerates the bucket urine–it wafts up like something volatile, like something a chemist would put under a hood.

With that, the gambling experience closes appropriately, and I walk back up to Russell’s house and eat some delicious tofu, fish, shiitake mushrooms–all leftovers from the Spring Festival feast yesterday. I relay to Russell’s mom that he can’t leave because he’s winning, and she smiles, nodding, and I detect the faintest eye-roll. His dad arrives later when I am the only one still at the table eating, and asks where Russell is; I tell him the same thing.

“He plays pretty well,” I add. When I left he was up about ¥250.

“Hmmm,” his dad replies, nodding sagely.


When Russell comes back he eats lunch while I get my things ready for the ride. As we head down the hill to find a motorcycle, I ask how much he made. He chuckles.

“About ¥500,” which is about 80 USD.

We head down to the main street where Russell looks for the red jacket dude while I buy water.

“He lost ¥200,” Russell says with a grin.

Some old folks look up from mahjong as I stroll into the store and grab a bottle from the back. I pay and walk to the far end of the block, passing beautiful old wrinkled grandma faces, hyper-bundled babies, blue sky, clouds, dusty but colorful houses, and Feiyang running around with some new toy he’s bought with his red envelope money.

“Wait a few minutes. We’ve got to go get gas.”

Russell in front of the quarry we passed.

The guy with the red jacket appears eventually with a yellow motorcycle in tow and we three hop on and drive to the nearest gas station, about 25 minutes. In town, red also buys diapers, so Russell drives us back while I am the sandwich meat between him and red jacket, who’s holding the diapers. There’s a lot of smushing of butts and crotches, but somehow I’m used to it by now; the breeze is great anyway, I focus on that.

Man looking from a window

On the edge of town, we have to pass a line of construction sites. Here the road is seriously screwed up, sandy, and pockmarked, plus dirt from the construction site has collected into dirt moguls. Seeing a challenge, Russell is generous with the throttle. We go so fast that I find my forearms up beside my head, as if in the event of a tire slipping out, this will protect my skull from cracking like a jawbreaker. Behind me, the red jacket dude yells out a string of curses. Russell chuckles. We do not fall though, which is good because none of us are wearing helmets.

Terraced Fields 梯田 (lit. “ladder fields”)

As we get close to Ailian Village, the sky is an ominous gray, and red jacket dude suggests that maybe we not go. Russell and I agree, but then 20 minutes later when we arrive (in one piece) at the village, there’s still no rain, so we decide to head out. We grab a couple things at the house, then hit the road, minus red jacket. I sit on the back snapping pictures; we head up rolling hills, around bends, through mining/quarry areas, into valleys, up onto a mountain peak. It’s beautiful, and the weather holds out brilliantly. I take lots of pictures.

Random guy with a good sense of humor.

I drive on the way back and Russell takes more photos. When we get back, Russell drops me off at the school downhill to play basketball, then heads a minute uphill to his house. Later, Feiyang and I head back home and then ride over to the house of some other relatives; later there will be a dragon dance. They’re friendly and we have a nice dinner, with Russell spending a lot of time with their younger daughter who’s precocious and a bit of a 女汉子 (“tough girl” / tomboy), which reminds me a little of some friends from back home. She has some English questions which is not unusual, but she’s the first person to bring out a book and ask specific questions, which is refreshing.

Eventually we head to another person’s house to see the dragon dance. A guy who Russell and I sang karaoke with in Nankang 南康 is there. He asks me if I recognize him, and it takes me a second to understand, before I say, “Of course!” During an otherwise wholesome holiday, we got in one solid hooligan night: at the end of it, the KTV floor was covered in beer cans, sunflower seed shells, and cigarette butts, and my voice was wrecked. Afterward, we got delicious seafood and porridge on the street at around 1am.

He offers me a cigarette so smoothly that I’m holding it before I realize this is the one thing I’ve successfully refused all week. It being the last night though, and this guy with his jacket, oily hair, and charm reminding me a bit of the Fonz, I just put it behind my ear and smile. The dance hasn’t started yet and outside the clanging of gongs and symbols and the suona’s squeal is a bit much; he invites us inside. We drink a few cups of beer, say cheers, take selfies, and then Russell takes real pictures with the camera. Then an old woman offers me her baby for a picture. The baby is calm and doesn’t take this personally, as I am learning to do as well.

Successful diplomatic handshake with the Fonz while holding an uncertain baby uncertainly

Then another granny comes over following suit, and the baby, after taking the shortest glance at me, crinkles up his little face and sets to screaming, showing off some delightfully wide-set teeth. This is immensely entertaining to everyone. Granny calms him down and tries again, with the same result, and the same entertained response from the crowd of about 30. Then Russell’s uncle comes in and rescues us for some tea. We talk to Russell’s uncle’s friend, who asks about America.

“Do you have dragon dances?”

“Some Chinese Americans and immigrants will.”

“China is not as developed as America. America has a lot of economic and cultural power.”

“America is a strong country.”

“How is Christmas compared to Spring Festival?”

“They’re different, but Christmas definitely isn’t this lively,” I say. People seem pleasantly satisfied with this response, so we pause here. He has more complicated questions as well, but I can’t understand them, so we smile for a while and then Russell and I step outside, where some children get their turn.

“What’s your name?”


“Can you say something in English?”

            “What do you want me to say?”

“Ohhhhh…” They bounce away.

Then one boy says, “you are a…”

I ask Russell, “What did he say?”

The boy begins again, “You are a…” and Russell covers the boy’s mouth, laughing.

Fireworks after the Dragon Dance

Then the dragon dance, which is awesome. The dragon has its own head, but the body is all green and red lantern fish. There are moments where the guys inside screw up and one of the more experienced performers grabs him and sets him straight, but even when it gets disorderly it’s still hypnotizing: it’s dark and you just see these neon green and red lanterns floating around, chasing each other in a chaotic figure eight and wrapping into other shapes; the whole time the suona whines its excited sorrow, symbols clatter, drums beat, fireworks and firecrackers explode, the rhythm wavers and regains form, in and out seemingly endlessly. After the dragon dance there’s more fireworks, more baby pictures, and showing pictures of Thailand to some kids. Then we go home.

Back home, Feiyang is having a melt down; I hear him screaming and crying from the TV room on the second floor. I ask Russell’s dad what’s wrong with Feiyang.

“I told him to do his homework and he started crying.” We both laugh.

“You know, he’s been playing every day, and he has homework for vacation,” his dad says.

Meanwhile Russell is with his cousin, who seems to be having his own, more serious meltdown. Out in the courtyard, I see him kick at the ground a few times, while people around him seem to be trying to talk to him. Then, he turns away from everyone, facing the wall, sobbing. A girl is touching his pants, saying to switch something. Russell starts to explain to me in English what happened, but I don’t understand. I say, I’m going upstairs. I don’t want to stand and stare at the poor kid while he explains.

I also already know a bit because Russell explained to me a few days ago: the boy’s parents separated. His mom remarried somewhere else, and his dad is also away. He’s living here with his paternal grandparents, indefinitely it seems. The opportunities for education here in a small village are not good. The situation seems to be a cause of disappointment and unhappiness in the family. Russell’s uncle, the boy’s father, does not return home for the new year, and Russell said that his mother probably celebrates with her new husband’s family.

It puts a bit of perspective on the revelry and excitement of the last few days: the great feast of food, the reunion of family, the men talking and drinking, the women chatting, cooking, cleaning; the kids playing continuously, the constant explosion of firecrackers. I consider my bittersweet feelings at departing–never having felt quite at ease, but having enjoyed myself immensely, and having felt welcomed above all–practically a tourist, but welcomed. I think about how it’s a little sad to be leaving, but also how I’m excited for the rest of my journey before classes resume in March: returning to Shenzhen with a standing ticket on a Spring Festival train (“now that’s really experiencing Spring Festival”), enjoying city life for a few days with Russell, and then flying to Taiwan within the week. I think about how Spring Festival ending for me isn’t really that sad, but it must be for that kid, and maybe the grandparents, and maybe other people too, when everyone goes back “home.” I wonder what that boy’s life must be like, and what one can reasonably hope for in such a difficult situation. I wander on to how the tradition of setting off firecrackers originates in Daoist mythology, how the great pops and bangs are meant to scare away demons and evil spirits to start off the new year with good luck, and then I muse on the sociocultural calculus government officials must engage in when trying to weigh fireworks’ cultural significance, environmental effects, and safety hazards, and what kind of fun the dogs must be having right now, barking at 2am. And then I remember, as usual, that it’s late, and I should try to wake up early in the morning; there’s a train to catch.

Russell and the relatives we had dinner with