If you’re on the path to finding and visiting your villages in China, then hopefully you’ve read my tips on how to find your village in China. I suggest to read it before going any further for better context for this article.
A quick recap: I’ve always been curious about my ancestral origins in China — the villages. I’ve never been to them, my parents have never been, and we barely speak Chinese but our curiosity got the better of us. So, we did our research, booked our flights, and we got to see these places with our own eyes. The experience was rewarding beyond measure.
After we booked our travel arrangements to see the villages in China, we were left wondering what we would expect when we got there. While we may have been prepared for possible outcomes, we went with open minds aiming to be free of expectation. We figured the experience was either going to be amazing or lacklustre. It usually balanced out to be a bit of both. At the end of the day, we went in with a no-regrets attitude and came out with no regrets.
So to help you prepare for your trip, here are 8 things you can expect when you arrive at the village:
1. Lose that image of what you think the village looks like
If you’ve been curious about your village, it’s easy to let your mind create an image of what it looks like. Maybe the village is a picturesque farming community surrounded by lush rice paddies steeped with ancient history, or perhaps it’s so run-down you’ll want to bathe in hand sanitizer. These two scenarios can certainly be the case for your village, but the reality is China is a large country with vast diversity. Villages and communities come in all shapes and sizes; some are gorgeous and some may need a little care; some are modern, while some maintain their historical roots. Arrive at your destination free of any romanticized or nightmare-ish expectations.
2. Welcoming vs unwelcoming villagers
Visiting my two villages in Fatsaan (佛山 Fóshān) was like seeing two opposite sides of a coin. In one village, we arrived as strangers and left as family. The welcome, care, and attention we received was beyond what we expected. However, the same could not be said for the other village despite the fact that these two villages were a short drive away from each other. In the second village, we went for the sole purpose of taking pictures of a house a relative once lived in, when all of a sudden we were rudely greeted by an elderly neighbour we didn’t know. He said things like “That’s so long ago, forget about it.” I mean, c’mon Uncle, we just want to appreciate our history here. In spite of being upset with the impolite tone, we eventually came to realise many of the residents in this village were newly arrived or just visiting, leading us to believe there could be a fear of former residents trying to claim back a house. I encourage you to go into your village with an open mind and unwavering heart, because sometimes you cannot control context.
3. Lots of crowding around you
Welcome, you are now the centre of attention. Every time I visited the village, we were the focus. It was incredibly exciting for the villagers to meet new clan members from another part of the world. They wanted to show us around, tell us about the history of the village and our ancestors because as members of the village clan we were in essence all family. They were as curious about us as we were about them. Who are you? What is it like to live where you come from? What are the opportunities? The challenges? This flurry of activity can be exhausting and distracting, so remember to slow things down and pause. Take time to soak in the atmosphere and commit the details to memory because you never know when you’ll be back. Simply tell excited villagers you’ve come a long way and need a quiet moment to appreciate where you are.
4. Spending lots of time there, but maybe not
My family and I had never been to any of the villages before, so we made our journey to them blindly. We had no clue who we would meet, what we would see, and how long we might be there for. If your journey is uncertain like ours was, then I suggest for you to plan at least two full days visiting the village. The first day is to establish your connections and the second is to maximize your time exploring and finding answers to the many questions you may have. I’ll be upfront in saying this is the best case scenario, and it is possible you might not make any connections in the village or will be turned off by ones you do make. If you do make connections, the villagers will most certainly ask you to go back after the first day (and even after the second day), but use your judgement and determine for yourself if it is worthwhile.
5. Take gifts with you
Like a dinner party, housewarming, or wedding, it is customary to bring gifts to your relatives so be prepared with a few gifts. If you don’t have any relatives, still be prepared because you never know who you will meet. Even if you don’t meet any new relatives, the villagers might be happy to meet you and go out of their way to show you around. A token of appreciation can go a long way.
What should you bring? Ask! Speak to your family, friends, guides, or hotel staff. Some villages might have localized traditions around particular items that are seen as customary. In my case, we brought red apples for health and milk for long life. Giving a gift is a great way to get the relationship building off to a good start.
Pro tip: Surprisingly, it can be quite difficult to buy red envelopes (lai see 利是, hóngbāo 红包) in China as they’re usually only available during Spring Festival (Chinese New Year). If you plan to give red envelopes, purchase them at your local Chinatown to guarantee a supply.
6. Buying lunch/dinner
Chinese people celebrate all good things with food. If you are able to connect with relatives or make some new village friends, a large meal will most certainly be part of the experience. Use your discretion to determine if you are paying, but I encourage you to bring enough money to do so, just in case. Otherwise, you might make an unintended social faux pas by not showing face. Yes, the dreaded concept of maintaining your social dignity even if you don’t care. If you are expected to pay for the meal, then great, you brought cash to do so. If not, summon your inner Asian and make an effort to fight over the bill.
Pro tip: It’s important to make a meal budget and stick to it. Things can get out of hand if the people you meet are a little over zealous. I certainly encountered moments when it seemed the whole village came for a meal or the restaurant choice was too luxurious for the amount of money we brought.
7. Asking for money
While doing our research in finding one of our villages in Moiyan (梅州市 Méizhōushì), there was a recurring theme among the family and friends we spoke to: How much money are you giving to your relatives? We knew that we wanted to give red envelopes (lai see 利是, hóngbāo 红包) to specific individuals as a token of prosperity, but we also heard of what seemed to be wildly fantastical tales of visitors having to buy multiple washing machines and televisions. This seemed absurd. Why would family that we have never met before ask something so excessive of us? Boy, were we wrong.
When we met our relatives for the first time, we all celebrated in jubilation of establishing this new familial connection. There was a sense of promise and hope that the past had finally caught up to the present. Then within 30 minutes of meeting these relatives, they asked us for money. They needed 50,000 RMB (approximately 10,000 CAD or 8,000 USD) to build a tomb for a relative who passed away. We were taken aback. If this amount can buy a nice gravestone in Canada, it can probably buy a grand monument in rural China. We were able to deflect this request despite the filial piety tugging at our heart strings. Later on during lunch, our relatives made another request. To give offerings to honour our ancestors, we would need to purchase two chickens, three pieces of pork, and incense. They would prepare it for us and it would cost 1,000 RMB (approximately 200 CAD or 160 USD). There is no way we would pay this amount in Canada, let alone in rural China. It quickly became clear that our relatives were trying to scam us. These egregious requests put a major damper on our visit, but we kept calm and carried on because we still had amazing experiences with them. Ultimately, it was a difficult way to learn that their definition of family was completely out of sync with ours. I hope this never happens to you, but stay streetwise and trust your instincts.
Pro tip: Some villages have a long history of residents leaving to find their riches elsewhere in the world. Those that found wealth, returned to the village and showered their families with gifts. Those that didn’t find wealth may have never returned, filled with too much shame and embarrassment, or too poor to make the journey back. To this day, some villagers have an expectation that anyone returning to the village would be showering them with gifts and money. It’s an outdated expectation, but their experiences are skewed so they might not know any better.
8. Sharing contact info
I hope that you create strong relationships with villagers that last a lifetime. If you want to stay connected, WeChat is perhaps the most accessible way for people living in China. I recommend installing this app before you head on your trip, because sometimes foreign phones have difficulty installing it there. I have been told that email is not very reliable anymore as emails can be stopped by the Great Firewall. WeChat or a phone number is your best bet to stay in touch and organize a trip back to the village!
Bonus: Make a bigger trip out of it
China is an amazing place packed with futuristic urban landscapes and unsurpassed natural beauty. I love it. Make time on your trip to experience this wonderfully dynamic and diverse country. If you have never been to China, you may have stereotypical notions of it, most of which are probably negative. Go there, see it with your own eyes, and form your own opinion.
Pro tip: If you’re headed to Guangdong province (Guangdōng Shěng 广东省), Yangshuo (Yángshuò 阳朔) is a convenient 2 hour bullet train ride away from Guangzhou (Guangzhōu 广州市). Perfect for a side trip.
Have you visited your ancestral villages in China? Share your experiences on our Facebook page.
If you’re wanting to find your village check out my tips on how to find your village in China.
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