Early on a rainy morning in September, 67-year-old Wang Guoyan sits on a bench inside a grocery store in Huaitang Village, smoking and chatting with his neighbors, and looking like he was born to be right here, doing exactly this.
Only two days earlier, he was in Ibiza, the small Spanish island in the Mediterranean where he lives nowadays. But for Wang, Huaitang will always be home, and he effortlessly slips back into the habits of the town: waking up before dawn and gossiping with his friends in the store right after breakfast. “People in Ibiza get up late,” Wang tells Sixth Tone. “Over there, I normally wake up around 10 a.m., but here in my hometown, I can easily readjust.”
On the surface, Huaitang Village in southern Anhui province seems like everywhere else in rural China: Old folks take care of their young grandchildren, and much of the middle generation is missing, having migrated to bigger cities for more opportunities. But they’ve ventured a little further afield than most.
Huaitang has gained a moniker within surrounding Shexian County as China’s “Euro Village” because more than half of the 2,000 registered villagers are now living in Europe, according to the county’s Overseas Chinese Affairs Office. The office’s director, Xiang Yulan, says the vast majority of Huaitang people abroad continue to hold Chinese citizenship.
The first wave of Huaitang emigrants headed to Europe in the 1980s, and Wang was among them. The mid-1990s saw an even greater exodus of villagers, primarily to Spain, Italy, and France. But even after decades in Europe, many of them maintain extensive and regular contact with the village, sending their children there for school, or returning there after retirement.
Wang Guoyan and his wife pose for a photo in front of their house in Huaitang Village, Anhui province, Sept. 6, 2016. Ni Dandan/Sixth Tone
For Wang, returning to Huaitang for holidays gives him a chance to reconnect with his old neighbors, play some mahjong, and voice his worries that his grandchildren — all born and raised in Ibiza — won’t know anything of their Chinese culture. He and his wife are determined to find ways to keep their descendants within the fold.
But Wang’s family is practiced at adapting to change, and at keeping their language and culture alive in a new environment. Like most of those who eventually made their way to Europe, Wang traces his ancestry back to Wenzhou, in Zhejiang province, a place known for bold and adventurous entrepreneurs.