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Recently a reader asked:

One question: if Vivian was married, why was she your roommate? This apparent desire to provide a good hostess for you seems to be taking Chinese hospitality to the extreme!

Good question!

The first two people I met when I arrived in China were Vivian and Dai. They picked us up at the airport. Dai (pronounced “die”) seems to be the big boss’ right-hand man and general chauffeur for the preschools. Dai and Vivian are both married but living separately from their spouses. Their hometown is Hohhot–that’s where the preschools started and several key people were moved to Yanjiao and Beijing to help start the new schools.

Dai’s wife and 5-year-old son still live in Hohhot. His wife is an accountant for a fancy hotel. About every other month, Dai will go back to Hohhot and spend a week with his family.

Vivian’s husband, I call him John, is from another city and they met on a train while they were still in college. John works for a company in Beijing and lives in the company dormitory which does not have space for spouses to live. Vivian and John were married in May of 2011. It worked well for Vivian to be sent to Yanjiao as director, it meant she would be closer to her husband–though still a couple hours apart.

After learning about Vivian and Dai’s family setup, I wondered if all Chinese families lived apart.

Diary Entry August 17, 2011:
Our escort, Dai is from Hohhot. He says all his family is in Hohhot, father, mother, wife, son. He doesn’t live with his wife in Beijing. That is sad to me. Vivian also says she is separated from her husband. He is in Beijing and she is in Yanjiao. She is glad she is not as far as Hohhot. Until recently she had been in Hohhot….Not living with your family must be common. I will have to find out more.

The teachers were all single, from Hohhot, and living in the school dormitory. My boss, however, lived with his wife and son in Beijing.

One day I asked him if it was common in China for families to be split apart. He said, “maybe not common for China but common for [our preschool].” When I mentioned this must be hard on families, he seemed to agree. He said that maybe it was time to move Dai’s wife to Beijing (for the record, she still lives in Hohhot) and find a job for her here. (I also occasionally read/hear stories about families where one spouse lives in a far-off city because of work, so it’s probably nothing anyone raises an eyebrow about. In fact, two of the children at the Yanjiao preschool were living with their grandparents while the parents worked and lived in Beijing. The two were cousins but called each other brother and sister.)

He also explained Vivian’s situation–with her husband housed by his company–but that they talked about getting their own apartment in a few months. Housing in Beijing is quite expensive, but much more reasonable in Yanjiao. I’ve been told a one-room studio in our area of Beijing is 2,000RMB per month, while an apartment in Yanjiao is only 700RMB.

Not long after Vivian and I got settled into our apartment, her husband John started staying with us for the weekends. It was a fun time because Vivian would cook and I would get to eat fresh, delicious Chinese food and learn about strange new fruits and vegetables, too.

October 30, 2011. Taro root.

October 30, 2011. Vivian preparing the taro root for steaming/boiling.

October 30, 2011. John cleaning some vegetables.

Taro root is apparently toxic when it’s raw. I had started to nibble on a piece to taste it before Vivian cooked it and her eyes got wide as she tried to explain that I could not eat it until it was cooked. It had a sweet, nutty flavor with a potato-like texture and we dipped it in white sugar to eat. It is common to find taro-flavored desserts here–McDonald’s even sells a Taro Pie.

Aside: I started to collect pictures of the new foods I encountered for a series on this blog. I’ll try to post them as I filter through my photo albums. For now, here’s a strange new fruit I tried: Longan, also called Dragon Eye:

Longan. Translates as “dragon eye.”

Ooooh! The eye of the dragon!

The outer shell is thin and cardboard-like. It’s very easy to peel or crack open. The fruit is super sweet and juicy, although the flavor is a bit mild. There is not much of the white part–which is the only part I ate although I just read that apparently you can eat the outer shell and the black seedy looking thing. It’s not on my bucket-list of things to try, but I’ll let you know if I get the chance.

After a couple months of weekend visits, John decided that he liked Vivian’s cooking so much he would come to Yanjiao every night. He’d arrive around 8 p.m. and leave early to catch the speedy bus to Beijing before 6 a.m. While Vivian enjoyed spending time with her husband, she would sometimes sigh about having to cook dinner for him every day after a long day at work (I don’t think I’ve seen a more dedicated worker than Vivian–always busy, always thinking and creating, and always at work until late). But, still, she would dutifully walk to the market to pick up fresh supplies and come home to prepare a hearty meal for him.

After I left Yanjiao, Vivian had to move out of our apartment and into the teacher dormitory. That meant no more overnight visits from John. They were close to getting an apartment in Yanjiao. But just last month, Vivian was moved to the Beijing preschool to work as director (yea for me!!). She now lives in the school, too, but in the room with the other teachers. And she still spends her weekends “playing (as they call any activity that is not work)” with her husband. Someday, they still hope to find a place of their own.

Update, June 15:  I learned that an apartment in my area actually costs 5,000RMB. Also, just after this post was published, the teachers and Vivian moved into an apartment together about 10 minutes away from the school because they had more teachers than could fit into the teachers’ dormitory. Vivian has her own room in this apartment that she shares with her husband (for which she reimburses the school).