Visiting gugu in Northeast China’s countryside

One day in late June 2013 my husband and I visit gugu. Gugu is my father-in-law’s older sister and I like her immediately. She is an elderly woman in her late 70s who lives with her husband, son, daughter-in-law, her grandson and a few chicken and geese in the countryside of Northeast China’s Jilin province.

Although their house has been newly built only recently, it lacks the modern facilities of running water. The toilet, an outhouse, is in the garden, about 50 m from the house. In the evening, gugu puts a bucket on the terrace just outside the kitchen, former will be our toilet for the night.

My husband and I share the kang, the heated bed and center of family activities in Northeast China’s cold winters, with gugu. We go to bed right after dawn at around 8 in the evening. Gugu gets up with the sun at 4 in the morning. I sleep two more hours until it’s time to eat breakfast.

Later, I take photos in the kitchen while gugu prepares lunch. We’ll be eating a chicken that has just been plucked by gufu, gugu’s husband. Gugu asks me:

“Do you have chicken eggs in Austria?”
I: “We do.”
I watch the geese waddle through the garden. When gugu sees this, she asks: “And geese? Do you have geese?”
I: “We do.”

A little later when she’s preparing rice, she asks me: “How about rice? Do you have rice back at home?”
I: “We do, but only imported one. We don’t grow rice in Austria, so we import it from Italy or somewhere else.”
She: “And do you eat rice in Austria?”
I: “We do, but it’s not our staple food. Our staple foods are things made from wheat and potatoes.”
She: “I see. Rice is our staple food here in the north. People in the south* also eat things made from wheat as their staple food.”

*With south she means places such as Beijing and Xian, which for people from Northeastern China are in the south but would count as North China on a map.

Have you ever stayed in China’s countryside? What was it like? I’d love to read your stories.

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8 thoughts on “Visiting gugu in Northeast China’s countryside

  1. great story 🙂 I wanted to visit a countryside in Cantonese part of China with some relatives of my husband, but he never wanted to take me – said 99% of them haven’t seen white person in real life so I might bring too much attention not to mention I’m not suitable for village a.k.a. no toilet but we give you bunch of cockroaches and other things you hate instead 🙂 any more stories from gugu? 🙂 in Cantonese it should be guma (which in my language means ‘gum’ haha), at least father’s older sister is 姑媽 guma I have no idea how to title father-in-law’s sister 🙂

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    • You can actually use both 姑姑 and 姑妈, it has the same meaning. Since in China you call your husband’s relatives by the same names he would call them, there’s no differentiation between father’s older sister and father-in-law’s older sister. Literally, 姑姑 still means father’s older sister. I’m glad my husband took me there. The place his parents currently live at has no running water either, so it wasn’t that different from staying at my in-laws. The village was really small, and my husband’s relatives didn’t make a big fuss about a “foreigner” visiting them, except for the fact that they prepared a lot to eat for us (which they’ll probably do for any visitor). I don’t have any other story about Gugu, but I have more stories yet to be published about my stay at my in-laws and traveling in Northeast China.

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  2. When I read it, I saw all the pictures of the hometown of my husband from Yunnan coming up into my mind : ) I do know what you experienced and what a kang is. But I never slept on one of them, because only nainai (grandma) has one, his parents have western beds. They also do have a western toilet (but all the relatives don’t and I was used to that since I lived in China for half a year before.) So the hardest things for me to deal with were not the kind of sleeping and toilets, but instead the very hot food, the dialect which is hard to understand and that his mom – being very polite in Chinese traditional way – always giving me the “best” things to eat. Whereas I was used to serve myself with the things I really liked to eat. Did you encounter any problems like that?

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    • Fortunately Northeasterners don’t really eat spicy. So I didn’t have any problems with that when staying at my in-laws. To the contrary, I could even eat salad and carrots and many other vegetables raw, similar to how we eat salad, just with a soy bean dip instead of oil/vinegar (Northeasterners do eat raw veggies). But I know what you talk about when you talk about spicy food in Yunnan. I have told all my friends there that I can’t eat spicy (unfortunately I don’t handle it well at all), so if they do care about me they’ll see to it that there are always non-spicy foods. I have found that people want to be good hosts and they will try everything to make your stay as pleasant as possible for you (at least in their eyes). So if they know that you don’t handle spicy foods well, I’m pretty sure that they’ll prepare foods for you that aren’t too spicy. It might take some explaining, because more often than not people from Yunnan are used to very spicy food and if you tell them “not spicy” they will still make it quite spicy, because it already doesn’t taste spicy to them anymore. Maybe your husband can help explain which things to avoid or how much is enough for you. The most important thing is letting them know, they won’t be offended.

      I know the problem with the dialect. I’ve stayed in Yunnan long enough to pick up a bit on the dialect there, but it can still be hard! I once stayed with Chinese friends in Shangri-la and there were many people I talked to who couldn’t speak Mandarin Chinese. It took a lot of repetition and patience on their part, but somehow we managed to communicate, and if not, there was always someone who would translate into Mandarin Chinese. Also, I do have problems understanding Northeast Chinese dialects. I have an article I’m going to publish on that topic because many people say Northeasterners don’t have a dialect. I often did not understand what my in-laws said to me. This takes time. The more often they talk to you in their dialect, the quicker you’ll get used to it. Especially since Yunnanhua is a “Northern dialect” and not completely different from Mandarin Chinese such as Cantonese.

      Luckily, my in-laws are very down-to-earth people and they don’t care about these things that much. It’s rather like, you’re family, there’s no need to be overly polite. They always told me to just eat what I like. I even went to the fridge to get veggies on my own and without asking, so that really wasn’t a problem. Sometimes they would say try this or try that, but I was never forced to eat stuff I didn’t want to eat. In Shangri-la when we visited friends’ friends or their parents this could easily happen though, because in those cases people wanted to be good hosts and for some I was the first foreigner they had talked to in their whole lives so they would also give me the best pieces.

      Is your husband aware that these things bother you? Maybe you can talk with him about it and he can explain to his parents.

      This has become a really long comment.

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      • Thanks for your explanations. I didn’t know they eat raw vegetables in the North. In Yunnan I never saw it – but of course I only know a few places.
        I actually did what you suggested: I talked to my husband about it and they reacted the way you told – cooking less and less spicy. When we went to the local market they always asked which vegetables I liked. So the food would become more and more delicious and especially his mom would be very delighted that I loved her food more and more. Of course I also started to get used to eat more spicy and enjoy to eat a bit of their favourite food : ) And I learnt that it would be polite to give the best pieces to his mom too. So I’d sometimes do that and she’d be very happy about that : )
        As for the dialect they would teach me some sentences and every time I used dialect, there would be happy laughter about it : )

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  3. Pingback: The Cafés of Tonghua | China elevator stories

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