Small town China is strange. What they consider small here is less than 3 million people, but still with towering apartment and office buildings identical to the new parts of Lanzhou and Chengdu. The streets are much wider, and the sidewalks are as big as the streets. I guess with less land to cover they were able to go back to square one and rebuild the roads completely.
In Shangqiu 商丘 there was still a small town feel to it, despite the massive buildings. A few blocks from the hotel there was a carnival, like something Belmont Park in California. A few small rollercoasters, endless stalls of food and games, cotton candy, rides, and a small park to relax in. Elsewhere the was a manmade lake with old carnival style boats, like giant plastic animals or military boats. It had a certain beauty to it, but there was always something unrealistic about it. The carnivals of my youth aren’t as fascinating as they once were.
Most of the time there was spent with my friend’s family, eating and listening. Every new place I go I have trouble with the accent. In Guilin I spent two weeks discussing Chinese history during the time of the Opium Wars, but in Henan I couldn’t understand more than a word here and there. I still always seem to understand “ting bu dong,” though. It translates as “don’t understand.”
Some of the food was really good, simple home cooked meals, but it’s odd having everyone in the family checking to be sure you have enough to eat, and pushing you to eat long after you are full. They did give up on trying to serve me alcohol pretty quickly compared to Chengdu. I could still toast with tea and everyone seemed happy.
In Shangcai 上蔡 there were a lot of meals in restaurants, which were decent enough. There is something about home cooked food that is almost always better than eating out, as long as it’s someone else cooking. Shangcai上蔡 only has about one and a half million people in about a city that only seems to have a four-block radius. The county is mostly farmland centered around another series of the same apartment buildings as every city in China.
I was told there were no coffee shops in the city, but in the end we happened to find one. It was near the only big park, built around the thousand-year gate, a massive monument standing alone. The city was the center of part of the Eastern Henan Front after World War II, but it is hard to find much information on it beyond Wikipedia.
We sat with the family and I spent most of a meal talking to a Doctor from Beijing, discussing differences in medicine and workloads here. Apparently, they have a similar lack of professionals here, sometimes leaving the doctors to work sixteen-hour days.
I was still able to spend time wandering, but it is much stranger in a small town. Outright shock hits many people, and they are constantly staring and taking pictures, sometimes subtly, sometimes talking to you with the only English phrases they know while videoing you. I had gotten used to the few looks and pictures in Lanzhou, but this was a whole other creature.
It felt like being at the eye of a storm, and that paranoia I have from living in Mexico never really let go. Back then if people stare at you, there is a problem, possibly danger. In China, it’s just fascination that a foreigner would be in small town China. Many people had never seen a foreigner before, and others just didn’t expect one outside of the major cities. It was never bad, but I am not an extrovert, and eventually the feeling wears on me.
It was fascinating to see the difference between Lanzhou and Henan, to go from major cities and tourist towns to the middle of farmland. The pigeon petting zoo and the strange rides and dances. There is something here, between the old and the new. There are still the city block wide construction zones and half destroyed buildings waiting for the holiday to end and construction to begin again, but the change still has so much of the old world to it. Something that may survive the renovations and modernization, but I don’t know for sure. I wonder what it will look like next year.