Ma Yuyang — the young guy in the picture below — was my earliest friend in China. A fortunate computer algorithm tossed us together as first-time roommates in New York City, but today we both happen to live in Shanghai, the city where he grew up. I’ve relied on Ma to educate me on the local culture and generally keep me in line, which means I’ve had several opportunities to get to know his family over home-cooked meals.
The heavy-hitter in that house is his great grandmother, who at 100 years old, is still full of energy. Born and raised on the Pudong side of Shanghai back when it was just farmland, Zou Xuezhen has seen it all. She’s experienced a Shanghai before the skyscrapers, before Mao Zedong, even before the short-lived Shanghai jazz era of the 1920s. She was born five years after the abdication of the Qing emperor and the close of China’s last dynasty. Today, she lives in a high-rise apartment in the new Pudong, where she spends her time cooking, relaxing, and watching NBA games.
Ma and I were both fascinated to hear more about her life, and to record her story in English for the first time. She was into the idea too, so we rode the subway under the river to Pudong for dinner and a chat. Zou only speaks the sub-dialect of Pudonghua, an even more specific version of the regional Shanghainese dialect. She taught us how to fold dumplings while we talked about her life, the changing face of the world’s most populous city, and the lessons she has for today’s generation. Here’s what we learned.
Love your family
We lived in row houses with lots of different rooms and compartments, plus front and back courtyards. I was the eldest of eleven children, and we all lived in the same house together with my parents. My father worked as a doctor of traditional Chinese medicine, and his office was built into the same complex. My oldest brother went on to become a doctor, too. My mother was a farmer — she passed away suddenly at 39, when I was 21. She fell ill one night, and it turned out to be malaria. There was no treatment for something like that back then, and she died eleven hours later.
You have enough fun
Fun? I didn’t really have any fun as a girl. I had a lot of work to do — farming, cooking, studying, taking care of all my siblings, helping my dad, making shoes for everyone…it was all work and no play. I started making shoes when I was eleven, but especially after my mother’s sudden passing, all the responsibilities to take care of the family fell on me. It was a hard life back then, but now I’m just enjoying myself!
Girls usually weren’t allowed in school back then. But I got to spend three years at school, so I learned how to read, do math, etc. I really wanted to stay longer in school, but I had to give it up to look after things at home. I even used to bring my baby siblings to class with me and take care of them there so I could study.
Your job isn’t hard
There were no cars back then. I had to carry 35 kilograms of charcoal by myself for three miles to get to the ferry station, so I could cross the river and sell it in Puxi. It would take about an hour. These days life is much better.
I also had to carry manure to fertilize the farm. I was elected team leader of my farming unit, so I had to wake up at 3:00 AM every day to get my unit together and carry the manure to the farm. For each hour of carrying manure, I’d make about 12 cents. So after working for a whole year, you’d make around 40 RMB (about $6 USD).
Radii: Do you think Ma Yuyang could do that?
Zou: He could try, but he might collapse.
There’s nothing stopping you from seeing the world
I’ve been to a lot of places. Hong Kong, Beijing, Nanjing, Suzhou, Wuxi, Hangzhou, Jiangsu…all of them! I went to Hong Kong in 2004. I’d never flown before, so we went to Hong Kong and I got to try it. That was my first time flying, and my first time seeing Hong Kong. The streets there are so narrow! I really like Cantonese food, too. I still remember this big pot of food we had for dinner one night. When we went to Beijing, I couldn’t climb the wall, so my grandson-in-law had two strong friends carry me up!
Zou and family members in Shaoxing, Zhejiang province
The changes have been enormous. Pudong is gone now — all the buildings were demolished, and new apartment high-rises were built. When I go back to my old neighborhood, I can’t even recognize the place. Downtown Shanghai was definitely the better side back when Pudong was farmland. But now Pudong is great too, as good as downtown.
WeChat is everything
Zou flicks through WeChat conversations.
With WeChat I can talk to all my family whenever I want. See here, he’s saying I’ll be famous after this interview. Here’s a video of my sister-in-law in bed right now trying to do a video chat. Look at my daughter-in-law — she wants to send voice messages, but she doesn’t know how. Listen to these messages, they’re all empty! [laughs]
Zou uses WeChat to stay in touch with family, stickers and all. The text reads “We’re a loving and caring family,” “Good night,” and “Sending you happiness”
Two out of three’s not bad
Radii: What’s your favorite food?
Radii: Any specific dish?
Zou: Just vegetables. They’re the best!
Radii: How about Western food?
Zou: Hm. I don’t like it.
Radii: How about pizza?
Zou: I like pizza!
Zou: Ah yes, I like KFC.
Zou: Mm, no. I don’t like hamburgers.
US news is scary for everyone
I like the United States. It’s just too chaotic these days. Every time I see the news, everything seems to be falling apart. Kids are carrying guns around. Donald Trump? He’s awful. Everything’s burning, but it’s difficult to remember the details afterward.
Sports are exciting
I like to watch a lot of sports on TV. Mostly basketball, volleyball, badminton, ping pong, and snooker. I’ve watched snooker for years now — Ding Junhui, O’Sullivan, Higgins…I used to watch a lot of classical Shanghai opera too, but not so much these days. With basketball, I’ll watch whichever team happens to be playing.
You’re doing alright, kid
Kids today are very smart. They know all about everything, just not about the past. Old people know a lot about the past, but not much about today. That’s why communication is important. Young people these days are so smart — if a kid today is bad, it’s because his family didn’t raise him right. But in general, the younger generation is doing great.