Ayi and I

Striking friendship in the Daqing oil fields – by Sam Duncan


I arrived in Daqing, a city in far northeast China famous for its oil fields, at the beginning of September, and the nights were already approaching freezing point. Employed by an “educational consultancy” firm to work as a foreign teacher (basically a money-making scam) in a local combined primary and middle school, I was met by Mike, a Chinese guy who had lived in Ireland for almost a decade and now spoke English as fluently as a leprechaun.

On the cab ride from the bus station to the school, oil pumps sped past, while the sun set behind them in a sky full of billowing clouds. After three years in China I was excited to start a new job in a new city. “It’s absolutely fabulous,” Mike told me about my apartment in his thick accent. “Massive, two bedrooms, the TV is a little old but it’s a Sony and must have cost the owners more than 10,000 yuan. Grand it is.”

When we arrived at the aging six-storey walk-up, I discovered it was the worst place I would ever spend a night in, let alone live in for a year. The apartment looked like it had been decorated by a deranged North Korean interior designer, with peach-coloured plastic wall cladding, multi-coloured spotlights in the corners, dying plants and hundreds of children’s stickers. There was no hot water, although at least the toilet flushed. The TV may well have cost a lot of money new, but it was 15 years old and broken. The kitchen was covered in grease and dirt, the bathroom caked in mildew, mould, rust and dust. There was a single bed with a bare black-mould infested mattress that might have outdated the TV. The only decoration in the second bedroom was a candle stuck in an empty Tsingdao beer bottle. The balcony looked like it had been used for food preparation, or perhaps for chopping up murder victims – there was blood splatter on the walls, and random yellowed bones with some gristle remaining on them that made the whole apartment smell like a kennel.

I resolved to move out the next day, and slept on the sofa the first night to avoid death by mould. I was woken by a knock on the door far too early in the morning, and when I opened it a large jovial man yelled “HELLO! I – AM – YOUR – LANDLORD” as clearly as he could in Chinese. When I answered in the same language, he visibly relaxed and shook my hand. Behind him was a woman with a perm wearing a bright pink sweater that declared “I’M a Hip Hop STAR!! CUTES CAMPUS”. She introduced herself as the landlord’s mother, and they both invited themselves in, asking me if everything was okay. I told them the TV was broken and there was no hot water. My landlord, who was called Tiepeng (Iron Roc), told me he would install a new boiler for me later that day, and that the TV worked fine when the housing contract was signed.

They soon noticed my bedding on the sofa, and the landlord’s mother asked why I didn’t sleep in the bed. I decided to be tactful, and told her it was because I hadn’t had time to clean the bed yet. They both disappeared into the bedroom for a minute and came out looking a little embarrassed. No worries, I said, everything is fine, but I might buy a new double bed anyway. They nodded and said that a double bed would definitely suit me better.

A couple of hours later there was another knock on the door, and a group of men walked in carrying a boiler and two single beds, accompanied by a grinning Tiepeng. I told him I didn’t want the beds, that I would get my own, but he insisted. “My mother says she didn’t know we were renting to a foreigner, and we need to welcome foreigners to our country. You can put these beds together to make a double.” I didn’t have much choice. Many cigarettes and lots of noise later, the beds were set up and boiler tank installed, leaving the bathroom a mess of broken ceramic, burnt pipes and cigarette butts. Just when I started to clean up there was another rap at the door – five long slow knocks, like Morse Code. I looked through the peephole to see the landlord’s mother standing outside with a bowl of grapes.

She insisted I finish the grapes in front of her, and asked me if they were good after every bite. We had the same conversation I’ve had with a thousand Chinese people before, but she seemed like a nice lady with a good sense of humour, and she wasn’t patronising or full of assumptions. Even in the top tier Chinese cities it can be hard to find older people who see past your foreignness and treat you like a human being, so as we saw more of each other I felt grateful that she didn’t pepper our chats with empty praise of my Chinese, my chopstick skills, or my ability to eat spicy food. It was partly because of her that I decided to stay in the flat. She told me to call her Ayi, and although she later told me her real name, I never used it and promptly forgot it.


Daqing is a city built on oil, and many residents liked to compare it to Detroit. When the oil runs out, they say, the city will cease to exist. It was founded in 1959 and became a model industrial city, and a household name throughout China. Located on what is basically a sandy swamp, Daqing is extremely low density by Chinese standards, a deliberate measure to minimise losses in case of explosions. Oil pumps sit right next to bus stops and uninspiring apartment blocks. It is probably one of the ugliest cities in China, unless you like smokestacks and industrial parks.

Ayi and her husband had worked for one of the massive state-owned oil companies before her husband passed away and Ayi retired. They had two apartments, one which they lived in and one which was given to Tiepeng, both of which were provided by the company – a common situation in Daqing thanks to the success of the oil industry. Not only is housing provided (though that has been changing in recent years) but former oil workers receive generous pensions and medical insurance.

While she was far from rich, Ayi lived a comfortable life by local standards. She collected two pensions, and lived rent-free in one apartment while making money from mine. Although she is one of the most giving and generous people I’ve ever met, she is still a product of her upbringing in the 50s and 60s, and would happily spend a whole morning in a queue just to save a few cents on eggs.

I was her first tenant, and soon realised that she saw me more as a boarder living in her spare room than as a stranger renting her property. She had knocked on the door opposite hers whenever she felt like it for the last 16 years, and she wasn’t about to stop. I soon got used to her signature knock, at any time from 6am on. She woke up at 5am to go to a construction site nearby, where local farmers took their fresh produce on tractors and donkey carts to sell them at lower prices than in the supermarkets. She would come home laden with vegetables and knock on the door to see if I wanted any carrots, potatoes, aubergine, leek, or whatever else was in season.

At first I tried to pretend I wasn’t at home, but it never worked. She would yell, “I know you’re home, I can see the light on!” If I shouted back that I was busy she might move on, but most of the time she would just say “Open up, it’s important!”, and when I did she would smile and thrust a bag of sweet potatoes into my hands. Refusal wasn’t an option, because if I did she would be back minutes later with even more vegetables, and I didn’t want to argue in the doorway.

At other times she needed my help. Ayi had a huge new flatscreen TV, and often got lost in the onscreen menus or turned the cable box off by mistake, and would come knocking urgently so she wouldn’t miss the nightly news at seven, or the Korean dramas afterwards. She had similar problems with her phone, and also needed help carrying bags of rice and Russian flour up the stairs.

The help was reciprocated, and I don’t know what I would have done without her. Our complex had frequent water, power, heating and gas cuts, and Ayi always seemed to know exactly how long they would last, and who to call. If I went to the property management office with a complaint, they stalled and lied and refused to help – but if she went with me she nagged and yelled and browbeat them into submission, and before I knew it there would be a whole team of workers in blue overalls coming up to fix the problem.

One day I heard her knock as usual, and when I opened the door she rushed in with a stack of pink garbage pail buckets and told me to fill them up with water from the kitchen immediately. When I asked why she forced another pail into my hands and told me to fill that one from the bathroom tap. I kept asking why until finally she looked at me like I was a complete moron. “The water will be cut off any moment now,” she said, “for two days. You’ll need this water to flush the toilet, clean, shower and cook.” She was right, of course, and if I didn’t have that water it would have been a nasty couple of days.

As time went by we fell into a routine. Ayi learnt to leave me alone in the mornings, unless it was a grocery emergency, and in the evenings she would bring over fruit or a snack of some kind, and we would sit and chat for a while. I found out she was born in the port of Tianjin in the mid 1950s, but her extended family had moved to Harbin soon after she was born. On getting married she moved to Daqing to join her husband, and has been there ever since.

I was interested in her early life and asked a lot of questions. Eventually she told me stories about her family. Her father’s family were landowners and quite well off. She described her grandmother on her father’s side as well-educated and able to use an abacus with both hands simultaneously, a skill she passed on to her own sons and daughters. But her family on her mother’s side were poor peasants, and uncultured. Ayi barely talked about them, and when she did it was dismissively.

On the night Nelson Mandela died, Ayi invited me into her flat to watch the news. As the tributes rolled I got a little emotional and we started talking about politics. We had already had many such conversations, and sometimes argued about issues like Sino-Japanese relations. Her family, like so many all over China, were rabidly anti-Japanese, and would almost always refer to the country as “little Japan” and the Japanese as “Japanese devils”. Years ago I used to laugh along blithely when people made horrible and racist statements, but I’ve long since stopped doing that. Nowadays I try to present an alternative viewpoint. Ayi and her family knew my stance on the major issues, and we would agree to disagree. Sometimes I would get irritated and say I had work to do, sometimes she’d do the same and storm out, but the next day it was always forgotten.

Maybe it was seeing me tear up over Mandela, but that night Ayi started to talk about the Cultural Revolution, and from then on it became one of her favourite topics with me. Over the following weeks and months she told me dozens of stories. No one else was interested, she said – her sons never asked about it, her friends and relatives didn’t talk about it, and her husband was gone.


Ayi often lamented that she never went to university, and described herself as uneducated and uncultured. When the Cultural Revolution started in 1966, she was in the third year of middle school, and most of her teachers were sent away, some never to be heard from again. She said it was a great shame that so many cultured and educated people lost their jobs, and their replacements were useless. Soon afterwards the universities closed, and with that went any hope of becoming an educated woman. Her family was relatively wealthy – they owned land and were involved in commerce of some kind – but since most people in the Northeast at that time were relatively new arrivals and all from similar backgrounds, there wasn’t the same kind of animosity towards landlords as there was in other areas of the country.

Still, her family had all of its land and wealth confiscated. That included books, clothes, family heirlooms, memorial tablets, anything of value. Everything old was lost. They accepted it because they had no choice, and counted themselves lucky that they weren’t on the receiving end of any violence. Among the confiscated property was her family tree, which in her case was a cloth banner they hung on the wall during the Spring Festival. On it were written all the names of her ancestors going back generations. It also contained instructions on how to name future male descendants, whereas the women’s given names were unrecorded, simply listed under their husband’s surname. Her grandmother had tried to hide the precious hierloom in the attic, but the authorities had found it and taken it away. When Ayi was young, her grandmother had given her and the other girls the task of memorising it, but they were too busy playing, and now the names are lost forever.

Ayi also has fond memories of the Cultural Revolution. Her grandmother taught her how to recite 300 Tang dynasty poems. There was a strong community spirit, with communal dining halls and free buses. Even though everyone was dirt poor, they didn’t mind because they were all in the same situation and didn’t know anything else. Once things calmed down and it was safe to make money again, her father made trays of tofu and sold it on the street. From the profits he built a new business, and soon her family had money again. She told me this story a few times, and saw it as concrete evidence that her family was innately predisposed to education and wealth. The way she saw it, although the Cultural Revolution made everyone equal for a while, when the restrictions were removed the capable families reclaimed their rightful places at the top of the pile.

All the while, Ayi was in touch with an old high school classmate who had joined the military, and they wrote each other letters. He was posted in Daqing and asked her to come and see him. She knew what that meant, and just months later they were married. I asked if they had been in a relationship during high school, but she said that no one thought about that kind of thing – romances between secondary school students were unheard of back then. I pushed further, suggesting there must have been some kind of feeling between them, but she denied it, and simply said that it was a different time.

I learned a lot from Ayi in my year in Daqing, and not just about history. She would have made me breakfast, lunch and dinner, and cleaned my apartment daily, if I had let her. Sometimes it seemed she spent every waking hour either buying vegetables or turning them into food for her son’s family. She made me literally thousands of dumplings, that she would bag up and put in the freezer, and every time a relative slaughtered a pig and sent her the meat she would give me some. On holidays I was invited to eat and drink with the extended family, and at Spring Festival they made me couplets to hang on my door, and lucky red papercuttings for the windows. They never asked for anything in return. Ayi fretted over the fact that I was single and unmarried in my thirties, and constantly offered to arrange a marriage for me. She harassed me about having a child as soon as I could, “to make your mother happy.”

Tiepeng, meanwhile, was the perfect example of a filial son. He worked long hours in the oilfields for low pay – the first meal we had together he told me he was in charge of safety, but I later found out he was a security guard. This didn’t stop him from visiting his mother everyday, no matter how busy he was, while my parents were lucky to get an email once a week, or a monthly Skype call.

Ayi cried when I left Daqing in the autumn of 2014. I promised to write, but haven’t yet. Maybe writing this will motivate me to send her a long-overdue letter. Meanwhile, I’m sure she still bores her plaza dancing friends with stories about the stubborn foreigner who refused to wear thermal underwear, drank cold water all year round, said he didn’t believe in marriage, and overcooked his dumplings.

Sam Duncan lived and worked in Daqing for a year, and is hoping to visit again soon for some of Ayi’s dumplings