In our daily rounds of Shunyi, we encounter lots of people who help and do things for us. Some we recognize, others we may even know by name. Wouldn’t it be nice to get to know a little more about the people in our neighborhood?
Imagine you graduated with a mathematics degree and a masters in management, but you have an artistic side that is eager to be expressed. So, when you go to visit a pottery workshop with friends, you are inexplicably drawn to a creative and alternative way of living. You listen to that little voice inside you that tells you this is your calling.
You decide to pack your bags, say goodbye to city life and move into a workshop in a small village in the suburbs. You spend your days living in a commune with other potters, creating ceramics, growing your own vegetables, making your own bread and noodles, and aiming for a self-sustained lifestyle.
It may sound like a storyline out of a book. And it would not be an entirely surprising tale if it had happened to a middle-aged city dweller looking for something different. But this is the real-life story 23-year-old Zhang Qi Hui from Hebei.
Zhang is a soft-spoken and big-spirited girl. Her quiet and shy demeanor belies the fact that she is a great conversationalist and competent organizer. She is JOP Pottery’s first point of contact to the expat community because among the six people in the commune she is the only one who speaks English.
When students from the nearby international schools in Shunyi come for classes or workshops, it is Zhang who gives the introductory lesson on the history of pottery in China, teaching them about the various materials, glazes, kilns and processes that transform lumps of white clay into usable pieces of pottery. She talks about her craft without flamboyance. She recounts what she is meant to, yet in her eyes and the tone of her voice, she is still every bit the child fascinated with something new. One cannot help but be carried away by her account. It almost seems as if she is just discovering everything for the first time.
And in many ways, she is.
Zhang has only been with the commune for four months and is one of the younger ones. But she is regarded with respect, even by the owner and master potter. He himself trained in a different profession and decided to leave city life to set up the workshop. He knows and understands her decision to move to a small village to follow her dream. Zhang enjoys apprenticing with the older potter and learning more about living in a commune.
Each morning is dedicated to tending the garden and preparing the workshop for the day ahead. Students, if they have been booked, will arrive by 10.30am. Several of the potters take turns preparing lunch. It is usually a simple affair – vegetable dishes (some spiked with a few pieces of meat), plenty of steaming hot white rice, and a variety of chilies and pickles to suit the taste of each potter. The afternoon is dedicated to more workshops and then finally it is time to retire and recharge for the next day.
It is interesting to see the camaraderie between these people who live, eat and work together. They explain, in between bites, that they purposely make the food plain and simple, and leave it to each of the people to season it as they see fit. One likes her food extremely spicy, one cannot tolerate chilies. One likes salty food, one must limit his salt intake. The whole exercise of taking everyone’s needs and preferences into consideration makes them very tolerant people. It is somewhat befitting of potters. They who need to mold the earth to yield to their design, know about the importance of patience and perseverance, of balancing a light touch with firm pressure until you get the desired result.
Zhang enjoys this interaction with people who are not related to her, but whom she has chosen to be her family. She learns a lot, not only about them but about herself as well. She has the luxury of taking some quiet time to sit down and nurse a pot of tea. If there are visitors, she shares stories over cup. On her own, she may pick up a book as she sits, or indulge in her reveries. Young Zhang marvels at her stroke of good luck and at all the rich experiences she is sure she will benefit from in this new life she has chosen for herself.
Photo by Dana Cosio-Mercado
Dana is the beijingkids Shunyi Correspondent. Originally from the Philippines, she moved to Beijing in 2011 (via Europe) with her husband, two sons and Rusty the dog. She enjoys writing, photography, theater, visual arts, and trying new food. In her free time, she can be found exploring the city and driving along the mountain roads of Huairou, Miyun and Pinggu.