Yellow shirt guy, seated up front, was a pretty good driver. In many instances, he timed the precise moment another car would’ve caused a head-on collision and swerved, despite his hangover. While Carol and I talked to each other about how “fluffy” the bamboo trees looked compared to those in Zhejiang province, we overheard the guys discussing how Carol said she had no boyfriend over breakfast. Abruptly, they asked us how old we were and if we had kids.
Wanting to shift focus back on them, I asked if they had any children because we knew from earlier that they were all married. We found out that Yellow-shirt had a two-year-old, Skinny Guy had a child in school still, and Balding Man had a son who was twenty years old – about Carol’s age. To keep the conversation going off of us, we continued to ask how they had all met, and the three of them told us about meeting in college in Xian and had stayed good friends ever since. Apparently, they were involved in some kind of business back in Dongbei, Heilongjiang and were having a vacay. Carol then taught them to say “Bros,” to my amusement.
At this point in our ride, it had started drizzling. Light mist had descended over the trees making for a picturesque backdrop. As the temperature fell, I was a little sad since all I brought were dresses, expecting Fujian to be consistently warm and tropical.
We stopped at a remote ticket office. Carol and I attempted to follow the chunky yellow-shirt guy and exit the suv to go buy our tickets. The other two men told us to close our doors and stay inside because it was raining and cold. I really didn’t want them to buy our tickets, though. When Yellow-shirt returned, Carol and I offered to wechat him money for our tickets. We told them that they were too nice, it was too much money, and that we’d buy them lunch for the trouble, but all three of them laughed us off.
At the end of our drive, we disembarked at a wooden gate leading up to a viewing platform for the Tianluokeng cluster (田螺坑土楼群), also known as the four dishes and one soup (四菜一汤). I felt all the air leave my body as we crested the top of the hill. Beautiful and awe-inspiring, not even the rain could damper their magnificence. If anything, the mist gave the five Tulous a slightly mysterious air. “Life-affirming” is how my guidebook described them, and in that moment, I felt at peace that we’d made it.
The spell of the moment was broken as an old man approached me, hollering and gesturing for my camera and for us to follow the guys down nearby wooden steps for a picture. While Carol and I were busy staring at the Tulous, the guys had apparently just hired one of the many locals hanging around the gate to be our guide. The old man was insistent that we get a group picture with my camera. Reluctantly, I handed it over and we headed down.
To my amusement, our guide started yelling at all the other tourists to move so we could get a decent pic. Back up on the platform, our guide began telling us the story of the Tulous and their “discovery” by US satellites, before having us return to our SUV to follow him as he drove his motorbike down the path to the cluster.
The gigantic Tulous loomed over us as we made our way up and down slippery cobblestone steps. Running a hand along the rough, weather-beaten walls of the first round Tulou, I shook my head admiringly. It’s hard to contemplate how many generations of a clan must have come and gone within its walls that are so well-hidden and far from everything. Our guide talked about their history and how they were built, explaining that the first two floors of a Tulou lacked windows except for little look out points allowing arrows (and later bullets) to pass through. I had read that keeping the first two floors enclosed was to protect its inhabitants from thieves and invaders.
Our guide called us over for another group picture around a carved stone with the name of this cluster of Tulous. As I moved around the sign, balding guy followed me and put his arm around me. “Yi Er San!” Our guide counted to three before snapping the picture.
Balding guy gave my shoulder a squeeze. As I moved away, I felt his hand move down to my waist and give it another squeeze. YIKES. Appalled, I hurriedly moved away from him followed everyone into the first Tulou.
We wove our way in and out of the individual buildings comprising the “Four Dishes and a Soup.” The elderly mainly sat and fanned themselves while children ran around or played on their parents’ cellphones.
Here and there would be women working along a drainage ditch to de-feather chicken carcasses, chop meat, or wash vegetables. Mustard greens, bamboo shoots, and other vegetables were laid out on various surfaces to dry. Carol wondered if tourism was actually doing them much good, or if they would have been better off if they hadn’t been “discovered.” As I mulled that over, my eyes traced antennas and electric cables strung in between buildings. While it was fascinating just watching people living their everyday lives, one couldn’t help to imagine how life must have been like for these people prior to 1970.
Our guide led us upstairs in one of the buildings. He showed us some of the rooms that the public was allowed to stay in for a home visit, sharing that many of the rooms in the Tulous are locked because a lot of the young people had left to work in larger cities.
Creepy balding guy tried to talk more to me as we walked up, offering me his arm. I waved him away, saying I didn’t understand and that my Chinese was bad. He then moved over to talk more to Carol. The other guys in the party approached us and said they wanted me to send them the group pictures on my camera, so we all exchanged wechats. Our guide then treated us to some local tea in his clan’s Tulou before we headed out again.
I hung back with Carol and tell her about how uncomfortable Creepy balding guy was making me. She shared that he’d also been getting handsy with her, to the point where she’d been physically jumping away from him. We agreed to try to get through as there’s only two Tulous left at this point.
In the next Tulou, I was too distracted from looking around and accidentally tripped on some stone steps. Both Carol and Creepy were at my side in an instant. Unexpectedly, Creepy’s hand moved up my arm and jiggled my upper arm back and forth with his fingers.
WHAT IN THE HELL?? Who does that?! “He just jiggled my arm fat!!” I hissed at Carol, mortified. She locked arms with mine and pulled me away. “Let’s just hold onto each other, okay?” I hurriedly nod at this, and we make our way to watch a local artist as Creepy followed close behind us.
Leaving the cluster, Carol and I agreed to take turns sitting in the middle of the backseat, hearts sinking as we saw that Creepy had decided to switch with the Skinny guy and sit next to us. We had hoped to go back soon, but apparently there was another individual Tulou to visit on this route along with a different ancient water town from the one we were staying in.
After an awkward drive, in which Carol mentioned repeatedly that I’m married to a very handsome man (I even passed around a picture of Mark), we made it to the “leaning” Yuchang House, a Tulou in Xiaban Village. It’s surprisingly much bigger than the last five we had seen and appeared more tourist-y.
A lady with a camera started to follow us, snapping pictures as Creepy repeatedly asked Carol and I to pose. The lady rushed away, and then returned to show us a printout of Carol and me (like the kind you’d get at a theme park ride). I take out my wallet, as I find it to be rather cute, but Creepy beats me to the punch and pays the woman, despite my loud protests. While the dudes get their own picture taken and printed, Carol and I wandered a bit then sat down to a local tea-tasting.
Carol voluntarily slid herself into the middle seat, again, as we head towards the Taxia Village, another ancient water town. I messaged my husband, Mark, about how awkward things were, and he advised us straight away to bail. I sighed into Carol’s shoulder, envisioning us having to sneak away and hike through the jungle.
Yellow-shirt, driving, chose that moment to ask us what our plans were for the weekend. We stated that we were headed to Xiamen to meet our friend. Looking back at us, he said that they are also headed to Xiamen directly after the Tulous and to go with them this afternoon as it was only a two-hour. Carol and I looked wide-eyed at each other. I grasped her arm, tight, whispering sharply “We are NOT going with them.” I could see Creepy was smiling and nodding out of the corner of my eye.
Biggg Nooo, I didn’t want to see them anymore, especially with Creepy constantly hovering and touching us like we were pieces of meat he wanted to cook. Carol and Yellow-shirt proceeded to go back and forth a bit about us not going with them to Xiamen. I’m always in awe at Carol’s language capabilities. She told me, after, she argued that our friend Alexis, another American English teacher, who we were meeting, probably had plans, but we’d suggest it. Also, we couldn’t go over that afternoon, as all of our stuff was still at the homestay -we had already paid for another night and had train tickets. He tried to push us a bit more to change our mind, but he eventually settled for us agreeing to message them tomorrow in Xiamen.
Taxia Village was really pretty, despite our awkward company, Carol and I had fun looking at the local shops advertising Chinese medicines and souvenirs. One shop had snakes in a tank. Carol found this fascinating and stooped to watch them, while the guys stood around her, egging Creepy on. I caught Creepy sniffing her a few times, which made my blood boil.
We made our way through the town, still following our old guide at this point, coming back full circle to where we began. The guys told us we were to have lunch, and all of us, including our guide, proceeded to sit down at an outdoor table with plastic stools. After settling in to look at the menu, we were all made to get up again as the guys insisted we all move to a private room. Following them, I stayed back, making sure neither of us sat next to Creepy.
There were a few awkward silences. I mainly talked in English to Carol about our day while the guys talked about whatever. They asked us about our families. Carol being better with Chinese answered most of the questions while I nodded and shoved food in my mouth. Suddenly, Creepy and the others started grilling Carol about her lack of a boyfriend, and if she preferred foreigners or a Chinese man. I cringed into my soup. She adamantly said foreigners as she didn’t see herself in China long-term (plus, Creepy had a son around her age!). Wanting to change the subject, I turned to Yellow-shirt on my left and asked to see pictures of his two-year-old.
Throughout lunch, the men kept encouraging us to eat as each dish was brought out from the house of the woman who owned the little restaurant. Once lunch was over, our guys generously tipped our guide and bade him farewell. We tried to force our way over to pay for lunch, but, yet again, Creepy got there first and wouldn’t let us pay him back.
Our return trip, I found myself in the middle seat. Carol asked if I was alright, and I said I could bear it as we were on our way home. Wanting to appear busy, I began flipping through photos on my camera and deleting the blurry ones. Creepy leaned over to watch, rubbing his face into my shoulder and putting his hand on my thigh, which I immediately brushed off only to feel his heavy head lean against me. I turned to look at him and saw that he closed his eyes. What in the world, I thought to myself, please let us just get back.
As the guys pulled over to get gas, they told us again to hit them up in Xiamen. Carol and I bust out and made a beeline for our homestay once we realize that we’re in town. We hurriedly ran to our room and lock the door.
Grossed out and amazed at how the day turned out, we decided take some time to wind down. I was so relieved to be away from those dudes from Dongbei. Carol tells me that Anwei, another friend from AYC who grew up in China, messaged us that “guys from Dongbei were known to be womanizers.” “Great,” I said. “Yaaaah, we could’ve been mistresses!” added Carol, “buut we probably saved a few hundred bucks!!”
But the weirdness of the day continued. I turned on the tv to some outdoor variety show and mindlessly scroll through my wechat memories (kind of like our facebook feed). I see some familiar pictures…wait. That looks familiar…Aren’t those are my pictures?! I notice there are also pictures of Carol. “Hold up,” I say scrolling back up, “Carol? Do you see this??” I show her my phone which contains two posts from Helen: the first of our selfie with her from the day before, and another post. Sure enough, Helen had reposted pictures from our accounts: one of my husband and me in Germany and two of Carol with other Americans. Helen captioned it with a brag that she had two new American friends. Incredulously, we wondered who does that? Is this weird or a Chinese thing? We don’t go around reposting someone’s personal pictures onto Fb. “Is she trying to prove we’re actually American??” I asked incredulously. “Who does that?!” “I guess that’s why she picked the pics of us with white people” Carol replied. “Is this something Chinese people do? Should I be angry?” We later learned that it was something that people tend to do – take others’ Wechat photos and repost them. In the moment, and after the day we’d had, it felt like the icing on the cake. “Let’s just go walk around,” Carol suggested, “we can explore more of the area and then get dinner.”
The next morning, we thankfully made it on time to catch our early train to Xiamen. We had an interesting time getting there – our DiDi driver was late to pick us up, but he sped to make up for lost time. He grilled us (mainly Carol) on topics ranging from the China vs. US trade war, to healthcare and internet security in the U.S. It turned out, we were his first ever foreigners! He told us under no circumstances would he have given us a ride if we were Japanese, and sure enough, there was a sign outside his car that said “No Dogs and No Japanese” in English, Japanese, and Chinese. Gotta love small towns, eh?
C’est la vie~~