That's me (with scarf) in what's becoming my natural element, driving Chinese people around Shanghai and beyond for a series called "Streets of Shanghai." Usually, I offer free rides around the city so I can meet different kinds of people and get a sense of real life in China, where things move so fast a generation can be measured in five years.
In this, the second installment in the series, I decided to drive two men and one of their fiancees back home to Hubei province in central China for Chinese New Year, and to attend their weddings. Here we are at a rest stop along the Shanghai-Chongqing highway — a smooth, four-lane road that was finished just five years ago.
Chinese New Year is the world's largest annual mass migration, when hundreds of millions of people pour from the big cities on China's developed coast back to their rural roots. The journey has been notoriously grueling: I did the trip in 1998 with poor migrant workers, and it was 24 sleepless hours of train and bus rides.
Seventeen years later, the trip — like China's infrastructure — is much improved. Bullet trains have slashed travel times, highways have replaced potholed two-lane roads, and carpooling is now an option.
That's kind of what we did. After driving 14 hours and more than 500 miles I physically ran out of gas, so we had to stay at a hotel. The next morning I drove one of the couples, Rocky and Xiao Piao, to pick up their marriage license.
The Shanghai-Chongqing Expressway is part of China's massive network of modern, international-quality highways. I drove slowly and carefully because most Chinese people don't have a lot of driving experience and some like to blow past you along the shoulders doing 75.
Like everything else in this country, Chinese wedding traditions are changing. Many people now buy printed Chinese couplets to hang along the edges of the door frames of their homes, but Rocky wanted the real thing — so the village calligrapher, wearing a Reebok cap in this photo, uses a brush and ink to craft couplets outside Rocky's family home. Many young people are losing their character-writing skills, because they mostly write Chinese with their thumbs on smartphones.
After we arrived in the village, a dance troupe gave us a surprise performance. In preparation for Rocky's wedding, his mom, Guo (in the red jacket, below on the right), and his various aunties spent six months practicing their steps, which look a bit like country line dancing. Everyone agrees this new hobby is a big improvement over their old one: playing mah-jongg.
"When I was little, I used a bucket to get water here to water plants," says Rocky, 30, as he walks through his family's farm fields. "We also helped harvest peanuts."
Most of the village's young people moved to cities long ago to work in factories and offices, he says. "Now, nobody takes care of this place."
The concept of one's hometown is deeply rooted in Chinese culture.
"They are supposed to come back," says Guo of her two sons. "Even if you are at the ends of the earth, this is where your ancestors are from, this is your birthplace."
But Rocky, who plans to buy an apartment in Shanghai, isn't so sure. "We had thought about coming back to the village after we get old, but I think this may not come true."
Chinese villages have improved a lot in the past several decades as China's economy boomed and children sent money home from the cities. Houses have gone from one to two and three stories. Many people now own cars or motorcycles. Guo still cooks with wood and the house is unheated, but it also has running water and a giant, flat-screen TV.
The moment I arrive in the village, Guo is desperate to show me her tomb (the uncarved one to the right) — a point of pride.
According to custom, her sons — Rocky has an older brother named Ray — should have built it as an act of filial piety. But Guo, who is more pragmatic than sentimental, says they were too busy with their law jobs in Shanghai, so she did it herself.
The couple rides to Rocky's village past terraced rice fields, standing halfway out of the sunroof of Ray's black BMW. In customary Chinese modesty, Rocky says the BMW doesn't represent anything. In fact, it symbolizes Rocky's and Ray's improbable journeys from farm boys to Shanghai attorneys. A brass band of farmers dressed in old People's Liberation Army uniforms blasts a hero's welcome.
On the morning of the wedding, the couple prepare at a photo studio, which produces the highly stylized glamor shots that are de rigueur for many couples across China. Unlike in the U.S., there is no superstition about a groom seeing his bride before the ceremony.
The wedding party makes its way up a muddy hill to the two-story, ocher-colored farmhouse where Rocky grew up. Xiao Piao, who is ethnic Korean, is wearing a green and red hanbok, a traditional Korean dress.
They are met by an artillery barrage of fireworks. The Chinese invented fireworks, and many here feel there is no such thing as too many. Strings of firecrackers dance along the ground while fireworks explode overhead, sending bits of colored paper spiraling down from the sky. The explosions are overwhelming. Xiao Piao stops to protect a pair of cowering kids as her father captures it all on his phone.
The wedding is raucous and full of music and laughter. The families have known each other for years and are happy with the match. The wedding room, where the couple will spend the night, is decked out with balloons and red linens. As is customary, the bride and groom try to bite a dangling apple as guests cheer.
The dancing aunties return in full regalia. A guest who's had a lot of baijiu, a fiery Chinese liquor, drags his wife into the courtyard to dance. Chinese love celebrations are renao, which literally means "hot and noisy" in Mandarin.
I went to Rocky's wedding in part to try to understand how he'd made the leap from farmhouse to Shanghai law firm — quite a feat in China's hypercompetitive society.
Xiao Piao offered one theory: "The entire village thinks his family sits on good land, good feng shui," she said, referring to the house's location vis-a-vis the natural environment.
Rocky politely disagreed: "Everyone's fate, career and job are the result of one's struggle. If I didn't take the bar and sat around at home, what use would good feng shui have been?"
One of the biggest reasons for Rocky's success is standing just to the right of me in this photo with a peace sign partly obscuring her face: It's Guo, his mom. Without her smarts and resilience, Rocky never makes it to the big city.
After the guests leave, Guo sits on a plastic stool on the hillside and tells her story. She was forced out of elementary school during the Cultural Revolution, because her dad was branded a "rich peasant."
With so little education, she couldn't speak standard Chinese, which she only learned in her 50s. Her hopes for her boys were modest: vocational school and maybe jobs as local teachers.
"I always thought that my kids wouldn't be able to find wives," she said. "Look at this place! Why would anyone want to come and join our family?"
After Mao Zedong died and China's economy began to open, Guo raised money by selling fruit, vegetables and even funeral clothes for the dead, a genuine business in China. She borrowed money to pay for her sons' educations. That they became attorneys in mainland China's most cosmopolitan city is beyond any expectation and — though she won't say it directly — a vindication.
"My kids have made it," says Guo, joyful and amazed. "I never imagined a day like today."