Qiaojia 巧家 is a small, county-level city in northeast Yunnan on the border of Sichuan. It’s got one main market, at least two bars, a smattering of KTV (karaoke) parlors, and lots of late-night barbecue. Unlike most of Yunnan province, a treasure trove of minority cultures and beautiful landscapes that fill chapter after chapter of guidebooks in every language, Qiaojia is a dusty Han city that nobody visits without a good reason. Qiaojia has had three foreign visitors that I know of: one English teacher a few years back, one middle-aged white dude I spotted walking down the street (perhaps visiting his Chinese wife’s family for the New Year)…and me.

IMG_6381

I came to Qiaojia to visit a good friend who I had met in Lijiang. For the first time in my experience in China, I wouldn’t be holing up in my room alone on Chinese New Year, eating KFC because it was the only food available. This year, I would be spending the holiday in my friend’s hometown with her family.

The Zhu/Deng family lives in a traditional old courtyard house in the middle of the city, set back from the main road in a tangled neighborhood of old houses connected by crumbling dirt streets. We usually took shortcuts in between the houses, stepping carefully over rocks and scrambling across narrow packed-dirt ruts, touching the walls on both sides for balance. My friend’s mother managed it in heels.

The house is home to my friend and her parents, as well as her older brother, his wife, and their one-year-old son. This was not a modern house. The bathroom was a spider-filled outhouse with two holes in the ground (why two?). Water came from several spigots placed around the courtyard so that the water would run through the concrete channels along the edges, outside the main doorway, and into the muddy road that was rutted and eroded from decades of being used both as a road, and as a water system. At least they had hot water, and relatively comfortable showers could be taken in a curtained-off nook under the stairs leading to the rooftop.

IMG_6307

New Years preparations began with a trip to the big vegetable market in the center of town with the women of the family. The market was crammed with holiday shoppers to the point of suffocation. Stares and comments followed me wherever I went. Many of the locals assumed I was from Xinjiang, as if they simply could not fathom why someone from outside the PRC would ever appear in Qiaojia. I wonder if they perceived me as a threat; I heard that Qiaojia had literally kicked out all of its Uighur residents following the attacks in Kunming. I decided instead to take it as a compliment, since every Uighur person I’ve ever met has been exceedingly attractive.

IMG_6384

Back at the house, I felt more relaxed away from the judging eyes of the public. I helped my friend wash dishes, shuck peas, and clean up the main living room (although the bedroom we shared remained a complete disaster throughout my visit). We also picked the stamen (no pistils) out of these big, red, flowers called panzhihua 攀枝花. These would later be stir-fried, a local specialty.

IMG_6311

New Years Eve was much more low-key than I anticipated. Only the immediate family was there. Still, it definitely felt like a special occasion. While most of the family’s meals were eaten outside on little plastic stools around a low table, this time we ate inside the living room, sitting on couches. Red candles and incense burned in the doorway and at the end of the room. Dinner featured a much larger number of dishes than usual, as well as a large assortment of fried foods, since frying is representative of happiness and celebration. We drank coconut milk and sweet red wine out of paper cups. My friend’s father toasted each of us in turn and handed each of us a 100 RMB bill. I felt very awkward accepting this, but I suppose he would have felt even more awkward leaving me out.

IMG_6320

After dinner, my friend and I went out to buy fireworks. Since neither of us like the traditional firecrackers, and are downright terrified of the deafening bomb kind that teenage boys like to set off in unexpected places, we only bought some sparklers. Back at the house, we watched the CCTV Spring Festival Gala on TV, the annual collection of musical and theatrical performances that is the most-watched television program in the world. At midnight, we went outside, lit our sparklers, and watched fireworks explode around us in all directions.

The next morning, Day One of the New Year, we visited my friend’s maternal grandmother and extended family. We first convened at an aunt’s house for a breakfast of tangyuan 汤圆, sesame-filled sticky rice balls that are a traditional New Year food. I was surprised to see that the aunt and her family live in a massive, brand new, luxuriously decorated 8th-floor apartment. It had glittering tile floors, multiple modern bathrooms, and more rooms than they could possibly use. As far as I could tell, three different rooms were used purely for the storage of food, and this was not counting the large, sparkling kitchen with its full-sized refrigerator.

I am still unsure whether my friend grew up in such a run-down house because her family could not afford anything else, or because they truly prefer the traditional way of life to the amenities of a modern apartment complex. I actually suspect the latter.

After a rather rushed breakfast, we headed into the dusty mountains on motorcycles to visit the graves of deceased family members. This was more relaxing than I might have thought. While the older members of the family lit incense and left offerings in front of the graves, the younger people gathered on a sunny hill to eat pine nuts and take pictures (mostly of me, but whatever). As we left each gravesite, the boys set off a massive hail of firecracker explosions.

The days that followed were a slow, lazy, mix of hanging out and visiting with relatives. I don’t think I got any of their names, but by the end I could almost distinguish between the many middle-aged aunts with their identical perms and jewel-toned sweaters. I also spent many long, lethargic afternoons doodling on my hands with henna, doing Buzzfeed quizzes, and reading poorly written horror stories on Thought Catalog.

IMG_6338

By the end of my time in Qiaojia, to be perfectly honest, I was more than ready to leave. I’d had enough of the heat, the angry-sounding dialect, the random explosions, and the monotonously salty food. I was itching to go for a long, long walk without people taking pictures or almost crashing their motorcycles from staring so hard over their shoulders. I was ready to go back to Laohegou, where the air was cool and the dogs weren’t mean, and where everybody had long ago gotten over the novelty of my existence.

But I do not for a second regret my time in Qiaojia. It felt like my first glimpse behind the curtain of an ordinary China, unaware of foreign influence and untouched by tourism. It was neither a booming metropolis nor an isolated farming village—it was a small, unremarkable city, not unlike the cities and towns I grew up with. Qiaojia’s residents weren’t wealthy by American standards, but most of them didn’t seem truly impoverished either. They sang lots of karaoke, ate lots of barbecue, and spent lots of time with their families. Most of my friend’s friends were either college students in other provinces, or were running or managing their own businesses in Qiaojia. One of her best friends, who I felt became my friend too, owned her own coffee shop, and spent her free time performing in a local dance group. Her mother owned a clothing store just a few doors down.

I hope that in my short time in Qiaojia, I was able to help a few people overcome their reticence about foreigners, and to see that Western cultures do not necessarily match the stereotypes—after all, I’m not blonde, I’m not Christian, and I’m not an English teacher. I speak Chinese, I like China, and I am curious about Chinese culture. Once they got over their initial astonishment, I could tell that the people of Qiaojia were curious about me too, and eager to learn more about the big, wide world out there.

IMG_6372