Alice Huang, Laojia’s longtime Communications Manager, takes time to reflect with Eric about her time with our project. She has been a magical purveyor of warmth and witfulness to countless guests and hosts, tirelessly on-call, and perpetually up-beat. Alice’s time with Laojia has come to an end as she begins the next act of her life with her partner in London. She is already missed, dearly, and we wish her the very best.
Edited (and conducted) by Eric Weiland
Eric’s questions in bold.
Alice’s responses in light.
Alice, you’re in England as we do this interview. You’ve been there for a few months now. If you could have one dish from China magically appear in front of you to eat, what would it be?
Guilin Mifen (Guilin Rice Noodles) ah!
And from which dian (shop)?
There are several places in Guilin that are quite nice. They’re not like chain restaurants. They’re just really small and dirty in some way, and crowded—you know that kind of style—and basically, with that kind of style, their noodles must be quite tasteful. And you can see a lot of people queuing there, getting the noodles, sitting and standing [while] eating their noodles.
There’s one restaurant in my community. Ah, it’s really nice! And the price is still the same compared with 2 or 3 years ago. Other noodle restaurants, they change the price every year. But [this one] hasn’t because lots of old customers go there every morning.
I would go there each morning before I went to work. I’d wake up at six, or five, and [they’d be] open already. I was the only customer—the first customer of the day—and I was really happy!
And, yeah! They have homemade suan (pickled, fermented vegetables): cucumber or carrot and nage suan la (that sour and spicy) makes me crazy cuz they’re really so tasteful! For some people it’s stinky, and they’re like “Ah! What is that?” I think it’s really tasteful. I miss it.
I miss the food, but I also miss that experience of going to the dian (shop): that experience.
Yeah, me too.
Let’s talk about Laojia. Your friendship with Maarten and I goes back a long way. How did you decide it was a good idea to work with us, two weird and crazy guys?
So, I met you two at the end of 2013. I started hanging out with you two because, mostly, I wanted to know more foreigners to practice speaking English with. It was unexpected to find out that you were both doing something very interesting, rebuilding an old house.
Ah, [laughs] you know, I didn’t think that was very interesting for me because I grew up in the countryside. I was thinking “foreigners like the villages,” but I grew up in that kind of place so I didn’t really care. I just thought hanging out with foreigners was more interesting to me.
And then later on I started to hear things about…feedback from the guests, feedback from people around you two, and they started to talk about how amazing it was, how inspiring it was to protect this old house, doing historic restoration…and with those details of how you both had this idea, how you both performed this idea, to make this idea become real—it was really interesting.
And the activities you had done with villagers— the big wedding celebration you went to in Langshi. That was fascinating because it reminded me of my childhood in the village. When, if there was someone who passed away, or someone got married, there was a huge, grand celebration. I miss that! We don’t do that anymore. But you found this place and the people were still living in the traditional way.
That the idea at the beginning was to present rural village life to foreigners who want to truly experience something authentic—real, Chinese village life— I respected that, really. I still do.
Do you have any memories that stick out of being with villagers?
From Langshi, I remember hanging out with Jisheng and his goats. Once, me and my friend from high school stayed there for the weekend. We both felt really relaxed, like we were back to our own laojia (hometown).
We were hanging out with Jisheng. He took us to the mountains. He was clearing land to grow more trees—orange trees. And we were there to help him. It’s hard work. Really. He’s skinny. He’s really skinny, and a tiny man. But he has great energy to do all that work, to plant trees. We were both very exhausted by the end, but he still had energy, and he was like, “Come on, let’s carry on!”. And you know… he didn’t say much. He just was just doing what he thought he should do. That was really great.
And Xiaomo… And Haibo…he’s very loyal, in some way: (Alice, mimicking Haibo’s cute voice) “I love Eric, I love Maarten. Forever. I love Laojia. I love this job” (laughs). Loyalty: that’s what I saw from Haibo.
Do you have any memories with guests?
There was a family, a Dutch couple who had adopted…6 Chinese boys and girls from different provinces and cities. One or two of [their children] are from Guangxi province (where Alice and Laojia both have roots). And I was shocked! I went, “Wow, that’s interesting”! They told Maarten their story of how and when and where they adopted the different children. And the children have reached a certain age where they want to find their own parents—their father and mother. And that was really impressive because [the Dutch parents are] doing this not for themselves, but just for the children. I was very touched because this was very unselfish.
Do you have any wishes for the future of Laojia?
I do. I hope the relationship between Laojia, the villagers, and the travelers can be balanced: Travelers want to seek experiences in the Chinese countryside. Laojia wants healthy development of tourism for its business. The local community wants to have a quiet life, maybe. I hope these parties can all balance and help each other.
Also, Laojia has to discourage [villagers] from becoming too commercial. [If they do, they] will lose their own charm, becoming more and more common. I think [my wish is for Laojia] to help the local community to maintain their own cultures. And maybe if more and more travelers can understand [their culture], it will have this effect: To preserve. To protect.
What are your dreams for life in the UK?
Travel around the world. And also have a family. To see my children growing up and learning more than I have. And to travel around the world not for pleasure…but more to understand different cultures; why society is this way it is; how we have become consumerist; how we live in a culture like this; why some areas are very poor and some are very rich; why some area is like this and another like that. I want to understand. I want to see. I want to understand. So, that’s one of the dreams, I guess. Not, I guess: that’s it!
I love it. Me, too. I want that, too. Thank you, Alice.