Ask Chinese where the country’s leader Hu Jintao comes from and you will be told “Anhui Province”. Simple. Except it isn’t. In Jiangsu province recently, I was told by several locals that Hu was raised and schooled in Taizhou, a small city in the northeastern corner of their province. Disinformation meant to confound a foreigner? Apparently not.
In this case, as well as in China more generally, both can be true simultaneously true, that a person is said to come from one place, although he was actually born and raised in another. The reason for this seeming conundrum is the central importance Chinese themselves place on the concept of 老家，(“laojia”), literally one’s “old home”. It is, after asking someone’s name, the most common as well as most pertinent question you hear people ask one another when first introduced, “where in your laojia?” .
Chinese ask because nothing else is meant to be as telling, as shorthand, in determining the character, interests, personal habits, even taste in food of a person you’ve just met. Your laojia is Henan? It’s a place of con artists and simple poor peasants. Hubei? The smartest Chinese come from here. Guangdong? Not keen on education but good at making money. Shandong? Strongly influenced by the values of the province’s native son, Confucius. And so on.
Laojia matters because Chinese are convinced it does. Living here, I’ve adopted the habit of asking a person’s laojia and have come to see it as providing some clues to a person’s character – if nothing else, it can often indicate a person’s tolerance for spicy food, preference for noodles or rice, yen for hard liquor.
In Hu Jintao’s case, he is considered a native of Anhui because his grandparents (and probably innumerable generations before them) came from this region of China. It is meant to inform his judgment, personality and provide the main reason Anhui Province is said to have experienced very high gdp growth during Hu’s tenure. He oversaw policies and spending decisions that gave a big boost to this once-poor area of China. In US politics, this is known as “bringing home the bacon”.
And yet, from what I was told, Hu has little personal connection to Anhui. He was born and spent all his formative years in Jiangsu. His grandparents emigrated there. Then and now Jiangsu was among the most developed, economically successful areas of China, with a strong tradition of higher education and high professional achievement.
Hu’s spoken Chinese bears no trace of an Anhui accent, or any regional accent for that matter. His working years before becoming China’s party secretary were spent in various corners of the country, including Tibet and Guizhou, but never in Anhui. But, from what I was told, his parents raised him on Anhui food, and with a strong sense of identity as “安徽人”, or a person whose laojia is Anhui. My guess is that is you asked him to name his laojia, he would say “Anhui”.
China’s likely next leader, Xi Jinping, is a born and bred Beijinger. He is about to embark on an important visit to the US, a kind of trial run ahead of his elevation to the top spot as Party Secretary later this year. He is son of a first generation leader of the Communist Party, and grew up, it is widely assumed, with all the perks available to a child of one of the country’s top officials. And yet, his laojia is considered to be Shaanxi, the ancestral home of his father, and a place he was sent to at 16 years old, during the Cultural Revolution.
Shaanxi is the cultural and historical heartland of Han China. Xi, it is widely assumed, will bring to the job of China’s leader not so much the values of a Beijing son of high privilege and power, known in Chinese as a 太子党, or “Communist Party Prince” but the practicality and diligence of Shaanxi folk.
When Chinese find out I’m American, they often follow up by asking “where do your ancestors come from?” In effect, I’m being asked to name my laojia. I offer the answer (in my case, Middle Europe) and also a quick discourse on why this idea of laojia hasn’t such resonant meaning outside China. Americans tend to be far more interested in where a person was raised and schooled, rather than the locus of the ancestral burial ground. Anyway, I often explain to Chinese that as a Jew, my ancestors were pretty much on the run for 1,900 years before disembarking from a ship on New York’s Ellis Island over a century ago. We have no ancestral burial ground. No home turf. I am, for all practical purposes, a person without a laojia.
That would never be possible – or acceptable – for a native Chinese. Laojia provides a middle layer of identity for all Chinese, between family and country. Yet, unlike those other two, laojia is often as much mystical as it is practical.
For many Chinese, not just the current and likely future leader of China, one’s laojia may be a place you’ve seldom, if ever, visited. And yet it’s also the root source of one’s values and preferences, shaping one’s choice of friends, profession, entertainment, food. In China, one can be of a place but not from it.