A day in the life of a Cantonese village household

A couple of posts ago I received comments intimating that readers would still be happy to read about the most mundane of my experiences in China. With that in mind, you’d better brace yourselves for the following post!

A couple of weeks ago I was invited to have lunch at the house of the mother of one of the grade 6 English teachers at our school, Vivian. My defining memory of Vivian will surely be of her regular, tricky questions about the use of English. The questions are particularly difficult to answer because they derive from the awkwardly phrased exam papers that bear no resemblance to natural spoken English. One example was ‘Is a window in or on the wall’. The real answer is that you wouldn’t ever say either, but that didn’t satisfy the exam question that poor grade 6 students are expected to answer.

Vivian and her husband, like us, live in the school during the week. She goes to her mother’s house most weekends where she tutors local grade 6ers and helps out her mother, who spends most of her time looking after two of her very cute grandchildren – Vivian’s niece and nephew.  Vivian’s own son lives miles away with her in-laws (I can’t remember where) and she only gets to see him once a month, in what is apparently a fairly normal setup in this part of the world.

The invite came about when I asked what there was to do nearby over the weekend. She suggested a garden and a mountain (hill) not far from her mother’s house. As it turns out, I never made it to either. Her husband, on whom we were dependent for travelling, had to go off to do something. He was due back at about midday but didn’t return until about 5!

I was picked up at around 8:30 in the morning and we picked up some cheong fun for breakfast. Cheong fun, so named because of its resemblance to a pig’s intestine (mmmm!), is a filled roll of very thin rice noodle and doused in sweet soy sauce. It’s pretty good but notoriously difficult to eat with chopsticks!

When we got there I met Vivian’s mother, holding one grandchild with another wrapped around her back, and Vivian quickly got to work setting work for the four newly arrived primary school children there. I was left to my own devices, trying my best to tear away strips of stretchy rice noodle with a couple of splinters of wood! The house was dingy and basic to say the least. It seemed all homeliness had been compromised in favour of practicality. There was laundry everywhere – I wondered if the clothes all belonged to their family or if Vivian’s mother earned a little extra washing other people’s clothes. I spent the rest of the morning trying to help with the English teaching. I wasn’t much use as they were busy with practice exam papers.

As lunchtime approached, Vivian told me it was time to make some dumplings, and without further ado plates of dumpling dough circles and a big bowl of dumpling mix were brought onto the outside table. Vivian, the children and I proceeded to fold the mix into the dough ready to chuck into a soup. I think my first attempt at making dumplings turned out to be a success.

After lunch all but one of the school children left and I spent the afternoon keeping myself entertained with basketball, mahjong and cards. Next door they had a few ‘automatic’ mahjong tables. The tables were clearly specifically designed to facilitate rapid transition from game to game, allowing the four competitors, gambling their spare change, to play again and again almost obsessively. The tables each had two sets of tiles, which were shovelled into a hole in the middle of the table at the end of each game. And, with the touch of a button, the other set would magically arise from within the table fully set up in front of the four players ready for the next game. As the next game ensued the table is clattering away within setting up the next game. I was well impressed!


When Vivian’s husband and brother finally returned from their day’s duties, they immediately insisted that I join them for a game of basketball. Before, I was just ‘shooting hoops’ with the one remaining school child, but now I found myself involved in an intense three-a-side game in my crappy, old sandals! Unsurprisingly, Vivian’s P.E. teacher husband was very good and her brother was if anything better. I was way out of my depth!

I haven’t really mentioned in my blog that I have become quite taken with playing basketball since living in China, not ever having played it before (if you discount St. Mary’s junior school). We (Simon and I) rarely do more than shooting during our lunchtime break. But occasionally we have played games with the teachers. I’ve been meaning to show off for a while now that I have now hit 4 half-court shots. Unfortunately, Simon can only vouch for one of them, but a keen basketball-playing teacher witnessed my first! I’ve improved a lot in a year, but not quite enough to hold my own with the company on that afternoon in sandals.

We played until dinnertime. It was so nice to see the whole family converge on the table in the evening having spent the day out and about pursuing their own agendas. The family included Vivian, her mother, father, husband, two brothers and their wives, niece and nephew, and the schoolboy who had spent the whole day at his teacher’s mum’s house. We ate very traditional Cantonese food: peppers stuffed with fish, egg and tomatoes, green beans, soup and rice and I can’t remember what else. After dinner I was taken back to school by the mother of the boy I had played cards, mahjong and basketball. The day wasn’t what I thought it was going to be, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. I probably wouldn’t have said that if the day’s activities were normal day to day occurrences for me, but this was the first time I have been welcomed into a Cantonese family home and I’m glad to have experienced it however mundane.



8 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Catherine
    May 27, 2012 @ 19:56:20

    I really loved this blog. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the others – obviously. In this one though, you really get a flavour of the people, food and day to day life where you’re living. I would really like one of those automatic mahjong tables, I think I’d be much more up for playing without having to build the wall every ten minutes.


  2. Judith Ross
    May 29, 2012 @ 03:30:45

    It was really interesting to read about life with a Cantonese family. (You need to take your trainers on your next day out, just in case…!)


  3. Hannah
    May 31, 2012 @ 09:49:35

    Great blog Chris – there’s something fascinating about hearing about the day to day ordinariness of a different culture. Very readable!


  4. Zak Doyle
    Jun 01, 2012 @ 15:26:13

    Hey Chris, long time listener, first time caller here. Big fan! I spoke to Simon a while back as I’ll be heading to your school in August hopefully.

    Your blog inspired me to do the same so I’ve begun early in order to exercise my literary muscles before I depart. Not only would I like you to check it out but I was wondering if you’d mind if I stole some of your initial photos of the school? Of course you will be credited and can hopefully drag some more readers your way!

    Keep up the good work!
    (200 days and Canton! Cracks me up every time!)



    • chaileaves
      Jun 01, 2012 @ 18:20:50

      Hi Zak,
      Please help yourself! I have more on my computer too if you’d like. You could also check out the school’s website smsx.org, which often has some good photos on it. The only thing is it’s all in Chinese. Click on the posts that have ‘new’ next to some of them.
      I’d definitely recommend the blog-writing. It’s certainly worth the effort, and this job provides you with all the time you’d need!
      I think you’re really going to love it in this school. I’d say the biggest drawback about working here is the distance of the school from anything. If you can deal with that, you’ll have no trouble at all. From what I’ve heard about other schools, you couldn’t ask for a better work placement in China. Also, you’re welcome to fire any questions you might have my way.
      Are you flying to China from London by any chance? If so, I get back to London on 7th if you want to meet.
      Good luck with the blog. I’ll read it next year with pangs of nostalgic longing!
      (That you appreciate the Canton pun pleases me more than it should!)


  5. Zak Doyle
    Jun 05, 2012 @ 01:33:37

    Yeah you’ve given a really good insight into the school and surrounding areas. I actually asked specifically to be placed near Guangzhou after following your adventures. Unfortunately I’ll be flying from Birmingham so no chance of a meeting I imagine. But since you welcomed my questions (potentially the worst mistake of your life with the amount I have!) perhaps we could skype sometime or arrange a phone call maybe? Take it easy.


  6. Trackback: Gaoming « chaileaves

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