Three years after my last visit, I returned to my hometown in Tongcheng, in Anhui Province, China. I had a good time visiting family and friends, and I also felt reconnected to a vertically diverse area after living in Oklahoma where the world is mostly flat. I hiked to the mountains, feeling like Bill Bryson walking on the Appalachian Trail. As the road wound its way uphill, I started to think of the country roads from Huntington to Hillsboro, Logan, Beckley, and to Maysville in northern Kentucky. As I passed a mountaintop jade mine, I remembered debates about surface mining in West Virginia. There were times I mistook the pink blossoms beside the road to be dogwood in Ritter Park on a bright morning in May. It almost felt like I returned to one hometown and got another one for free.
I am a Chinese, but I felt at home in West Virginia—where I lived from 2005 To 2008—mostly due to the similarities in the landscape, the sense of the place, and the closeness of family and friends. There I read a collection of poems called Like the Mountains of China, by Edwina Pendarvis, that expressed feelings a lot like mine. Years ago, my advisor in graduate school, professor Liu Haiping from Nanjing University, came to Pearl Buck’s birthplace in Hillsboro for a visit, and he said the landscape in West Virginia reminded him of the paintings of ancient China where mountains and rivers are favorite subjects. An ancient saying in China summarizes intellectuals and artists’ fascination with the mountains and water bodies: “The kind love mountains, the wise love waters.” Ancient Chinese believed that the place you choose to live in shapes your character and the meaning you make of life.
During the years in West Virginia, I think I became an Appalachian. I heard from a colleague at Marshall that the place is like a “black hole,” which keeps drawing people back though they might choose to leave in their younger years to find job opportunities elsewhere. There is something about the mountains and rivers and railroad tracks and coalmines that are so etched in one’s heart that no other place has the ability to overwrite them. Once in Appalachia, always an Appalachian.
Years after leaving, I feel the pull of the “black hole” has not weakened one bit as time went by. It has actually grown. Or am I just getting old and nostalgic? That would not be a bad thing either, because lucky is the man who feels he belongs somewhere in this age of drifters and wanderers.
When I first moved to West Virginia, it did not seem to be a favorite place for a Chinese to live in. I could even count the Chinese families in Huntington as there were so few of them. To get the groceries for some Chinese cooking, we had to drive fifty miles, to Charleston, to find a store. Authentic Chinese food was about a three hours’ drive (a rather picturesque one though) in Kentucky. However, I found the place very warm towards us outsiders and passers-by who chose to live in this place at least for a while. It is said that only in New York does a foreigner feel that he or she is not treated differently. West Virginia defies this myth by treating you like family. In the three years while I was there, I felt I was as much a part of the place as if I had always lived there.
This was not superficial hospitality incapable of morphing into a real relationship. People were sincerely interested in learning more about us, contrary to the anticipation in many other places that we, as foreigners in the land, have no other business except to do our job and spend the rest of the time learning about the good things in America. While we were there, people reached out to include us into the community. Huntington Public Library invited my wife Fontaine and quite a number of other friends to have a “Chinese Day.” We were also frequently invited to speak to middle or elementary schools about China or Chinese traditions. The Norway Avenue Church of Christ even opened up itself to allow us to start a Chinese school, where we taught Chinese to Chinese kids, kids adopted from China, as well as local adults who were interested in Chinese culture. I am not exactly a poet by anyone’s standard, but I was invited to a poets’ club in the tri-state area, and I was asked to read poems from China. As an instructional design specialist, I occasionally helped Appalachian scholars trying to adapt their courses online for a wider audience, while they helped me to polish my translation of poems from rural China.
I sometimes felt curious as to why there was such an interest in China and the Chinese people, but later I realized they must treat others the same. It’s just a loving community that wants to extend its welcome to friends from faraway places, which happens to echo something said by Confucius: “What a joy it is to see friends coming from afar!” The black hole of Appalachia sucks us all into it and you barely notice it.
This interest is reciprocal. I started to learn more about the area. In spite of hillbilly stereotypes I sometimes heard of, I felt a strong sense of pride among local people, as shown in the annual Spring Festival, the Kenova Pumpkin House, and choruses in the Art Museum during Christmas, and theatrical productions in the Ritter Park on summer evenings. It is unbelievable to me that one town as small as Huntington (remember I am from a country where a medium city usually has millions of people) can come up with so much festivity, all unique and highly enjoyable. West Virginia has an identity of its own, and it does not want to be an imitation of some other place. Sensing such pride, I myself started to fight an uphill battle in calling for and end to the rapid urbanization of China’s countryside into characterless towns and cities. I’ve written much about this topic in recent years for Chinese media and I owe my awareness of its importance to the teachings from people in the West Virginia mountains.
As I experienced Appalachia in its daily goings on, I also read books about Appalachia and West Virginia. I read books like The Unquiet Earth, by Denise Giardina, and In the Heart of the Hills, by Dwight Harshbarger, with great interest. I wrote and published reviews about some of these books for my Chinese readers. Once, when I was reading one of these books, a colleague thought I was odd, a Chinese reading about Appalachia. “What for?” She laughed.
I don’t know the answer. Or, do I need one? Today, as I sat on the benches of a gym watching my kids skate in a skating rink in Edmond, Oklahoma, I found myself reading the article about sheep production in Watauga and Ashe counties North Carolina in a recent issue of the Appalachian Journal, and thinking about my family at the foot of Chinese hills, their farming practices, and choices. Across the big pond of the Pacific Ocean, similarities abound. In the cold air in the gym, I felt a two-fold homesickness, for my rural hometown in China, and for West Virginia, where eagles fly over the beautiful mountains, rivers and bridges. And I think of myself as a lucky man, having lived in two places that are almost heaven.
Fang, B. (2012) "Asia-Lachia." Now & Then: the Appalachian Magazine. 28(2): 6-7.
Photos are taken either in Tongcheng or West Virginia
此文写了很久了，但好像未曾在这里发出过。曾经刊载此文的Now & Then杂志今日告知，他们杂志的三十年精选散文集将收入此文。