Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Penetrating the Hutongs

For most of us, most of the time, the Beijing hutongs stand there as a kind of mystery to be admired and saddened about. Admired as a traditional alleyway style of living that has defined everyday life in both imperial China and the People's Republic of China. Saddened about because of the ongoing destruction of these courtyard homes in the quest for modernization.

This is not a post about the pros and cons of the disappearing hutongs. Rather, it is about an experience that took us into the hutong home (actually a one-room residence, two rooms if you are really generous in how you count) of an elderly woman who has called the hutongs her home for her entire life. This was a powerful experience for us, as we have meandered through the alleyways of the hutongs on countless occasions over the past several years. But walking through one of the doors that we are passing by, that has proven elusive. And I don't mean the doors of some courtyard that has been renovated into a vegetarian restaurant or coffee house (we have been in those kinds of tourisn-oriented places more than our fair share). I'm talking about an actual residence of a lao Beijingren (an "old Beijinger").

Julie will not like this part of the story, for reasons that will quickly become apparent.

Strolling through the hutongs, an older section that has not been rehabilitated, Julie had to go to the bathroom. Traditional hutongs do not have in-residence bathrooms, so the alleyways are lined with public facilities that people use for their everyday needs. These are public inside and out, with little-to-no privacy inside. No stalls separating squat toilets or anything like that.

So there was Julie, going into the public toilet, with Z and I waiting outside in the alleyway. The two of us started cracking up in a puzzled way when we heard voices coming out from inside. Julie was apparently involved in conversation as she was taking care of business.

And, sure enough, coming out of the toilet were Julie and an older woman. This woman, who had no hesitance in engaging Julie in conversation, looked pretty delighted. In just a few moments, she was going to invite us into her home.

It turns out that this woman started talking in simple terms with Julie, not deterred by the business that was going on. As she discovered Julie's strong command of Mandarin, the conversation turned from simple topics ("Where are you from?") to more matters ("What religion are you?"). Religion became the point that connected us. Our new friend became a convert to Catholicism late in life, just three years ago on June 4, 2009 (Julie's birthday).

"We are one family!" was what our friend (let's call her ayi, or "auntie") kept exclaiming about the situation. Wanting to continue the conversation, ayi told us to follow her, and there we were, turning right and then left and then right again, penetrating deep into the usually hidden, narrow residential alleyways of the hutongs. Finally, after all of these years!

Ayi's home is a simple room, with a bed that also serves as a place to sit. There are some stools. But ayi is not living in desperate poverty, as there was also a television and computer. And there was a little side room with a small kitchen, complete with a sink and refrigerator. So ayi has electricity and running water.

Ayi's granddaughter, it turns out, attends a university in Europe. So this simple woman is the matriarch of a global family. It was a family that we had the chance to spend time together with on a number of subsequent occasions.

Wanting Desi to meet ayi, we made a return trip once Desi had arrived in Beijing. (Z had drawn a map so we could retrace out steps through the maze.)

On that return trip, ayi called her daughter and granddaughter on the phone and summoned them. And so we had the chance to meet three generations of this Beijing family. Ayi's granddaughter was encouraged to speak English with Julie (after all, she attends school overseas), but she was pretty hesitant, and so the conversation rolled along in Mandarin.

The conversation at one point point took us back to Catholicism, where the connection between the families had started. It turns out that ayi's daughter and granddaughter live very near (within walking distance, actually) of the West Cathedral, which we recently had discovered and had been treating as our home church for Sunday Mass.

(If all of this "daughter and granddaughter" stuff sounds kind of weird, it is because most people in China do not start by calling one another by their given names. Ayi is a term a middle-age guy like me would use call a woman of my mother's generation. Ayi's daughter I would call jiejie [older sister] or meimei [younger sister], depending on whether she was younger or older than me. Of course, as I write, I can't remember which of the two she is! We did, pretty much immediately, ask one another our age's so we could figure out these honorifics. Punch line...Don't come to China if you don't want to tell people your age!)

Plans were made and the four of us met up that next Sunday with daughter and granddaughter at the West Cathedral, where we all sat together during evening Mass. One family, indeed!



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