The year of the tiger has officially started a few days ago, on the 14th of february 2010. I am currently staying with a friend in Qingzhen, a little town in the province of Guizhou, South-Western China (You can see the town in the photo). I have celebrated the Chinese new year with his family. As expected, the celebrations involved a lot of fireworks, good food, playing majiang and lots of children running around excitedly with the new year gala on television in the background.
The town I am staying in is a relatively small one, quite close to the provincial capital, Guiyang. Guizhou is one of the more remote provinces of China, and it has a reputation as a bit of a backwater. It is usually eschewed by tourists in favour of neighbouring Yunnan. Even so, I find the mountainous landscape to be very beautiful. Although it is meant to be one of the least economically developed provinces of China, I find the conditions in this town to be relatively similar to the ones I have found in other small towns across China.
Guizhou is one of the provinces with the highest proportion of non-Han ethnic minorities, about 37% according to statistics. Being in the remote South-West of China, it is not situated in the heartland of the Han (the major ethnic group of China), which is in the Eastern half of the country. Although the province was already under Chinese control over two thousand years ago, it was only during the Ming dynasty (which started in the thirteenth century) that the Han Chinese started migrating to Guizhou en masse, and the area really came under Chinese domination. My friend's family is Han, and he tells me that they descend from a general who was sent to the area around 500 years ago by the emperor.
As a result of the Han only migrating to the area relatively recently, the local dialect of Chinese is not too distant from Putonghua, the official standard Chinese. However there are still some big differences, both in vocabulary and pronunciation. Although I can usually catch some of what people are saying to each other in Beijing, I find I can't usually catch anything which is said in the pure Guizhou dialect. Most people here can also speak standard Chinese and attempt to speak it to me, however they usually retain a strong local pronunciation. What confuses me most is that, just like in other parts of Southern China, the "l" and the "n" are not distinguished in people's minds, and so they are constantly mixed up.
The weather is warmer here than in Beijing, however some days it can still be around freezing, and just like everywhere in Southern China there is no heating to speak of in the houses. This is perhaps the most uncomfortable side of staying here for me, since I am not used to spending every waking hour in uncomfortably cold temperatures. When I arrived, it was so cold that I could see my own breath inside the room where I was sleeping. The worst thing of all is having a shower. Luckily, every home is equiped with a table with a kind of stove incorporated, and families always eat on it and gather round it in the evenings to keep warm.
Since this is a small town, the main entertainment for the local people seems to be playing majiang. Since I have arrived, I have learnt to play the famous game with the local rules, which are particularly complicated. Local men often gamble large sums of money with the game, but when I am playing the sums are always kept smaller, so that I don't lose too much money (since I obviously can't compete with people who seem to play the game every other day of their lives). Many families here also posses a special majiang table, which automatically shuffles the chips for you and provides you with a new set. I have never seen this anywhere else in China.
I have determined that there are currently two resident foreigners in this town, a New Zealender who has opened an English school, and an American who teaches there (I happened to bump into the Kiwi at the only decent local bar). Otherwise no foreigners ever cross these parts. As always, this means that I am the object of much curiosity and stares. On my first day here, I was taken to the fanciest hairdresser in town to get a haircut. Of course, all the people working there were curious about me and keen to speak to me. My hair colour was the object of much admiration, since the Chinese always have black hair. After I left, the person who accompanied me told me that one of the boys working in the hairdresser asked her a question about me before we left. Apparently, the question was "why is his skin so white?" (In the photos , a view of the street outside my friend's home).