Monday, December 29, 2008

The China Diaries (Mine, Gretchen's)

The following is an abridged transcript of two days' entries in the diary I kept on the first trip I made to the Peoples Republic of China in late summer-early fall of 1980. I accompanied my (now former) husband who made an extended lecture tour at several universities. Besides providing services to our Chinese hosts, we made many wonderful sight-seeing excursions. I encourage my readers to check out the footnotes, which should improve the clarity of the story, and to follow the links.
September 13, 1980
The Cargos’ (1) guest at dinner was a young American English teacher from Wuhan Teacher’s College, Gretchen Dykstra (2). She has been there one year and will probably stay at least one more. After dinner we joined Allan, Elizabeth, and Gretchen for coffee. As it happens, Gretchen is a freelance writer. So she, too, is an acute and experienced China observer. We had a good laugh about some of our shared experiences in China, such as trying to find the polite term for toilet. Bob (3) related his experience at Beijing Normal, where he asked for the bathroom. But his guide couldn’t understand why he would suddenly want to take a bath; Bob changed his tack, and asked for the washroom, whereupon his colleague offered to bring a basin of water and a towel to Bob. At last he indicated that he wanted to use the toilet, and that got him what he wanted.
We also talked about some more serious problems they have observed. It made us realize that our experience here has been somewhere between the Cloud Nine of the pure tourist and the sober, hard, but also humorous relationship the long-term visiting foreigner has with the country, the college, and the people.
September 14, 1980
At last we’ve made a visit to a commune…we had three good translators, Shiao Song, Shiao Zhang (a young man who lives in our residence so there is an ever-available translator) and another English-speaking woman. The Cargos, Don George (4), and Gretchen Dykstra made up the balance. This commune was about 40 miles northeast of Wuhan, and was called Huangti...
After a short stroll along an arrow-straight, pine tree-lined entrance road between two healthy lush green rice fields, we were taken by bus to the village’s reception hall, to sit and sip tea, enjoy Chinese cigarettes (none of us partook, though each had their own ashtray beside their teacup), and ask questions of our local hosts. On our left were Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin (in that order), and on our right were Mao and Hua.

Our hosts eventually invited us to look around the settlement a bit. The first stop was the clinic. This four room operation was one of the cleanest we’ve seen in China. There were no patients being attended. On a treatment table were the usual assortment of ointments and potions, and on the walls were some unique (as far as our limited experience goes) anti-rodent and anti-fly information posters. And one room contained the classic Chinese medicine chest, a very tall redwood bank of square drawers. We peeped in a few. Inside were dried roots, fragrant sassafras, and chopped black leaves of a pungent odor which instantly made me sneeze and quit my inquiries.
We then walked through several rows of dwellings. The row houses were neat and clean, and contained the same evidence of busy life as city streets do, with laundry strung up to dry, people squatting outside to do sewing or tool repair, or doing wash in a barrel-like wooden tub. Here and there, as on the Teacher’s College campus, chickens wandered about and a rare porker could be seen snooting a mud pile looking for a cool spot to wallow.
We were invited into two homes, and the mistress of each answered our questions. The two houses were identical in layout. The workers communally planned the houses and organized their construction. But each family had to provide its own building materials. The cost of each house is about ¥ 2,000. The main room in each home was small, but cool, with a front door open through to the kitchen and high ceilings. In each room was a portrait of Mao and Hua, and several 1980 calendars with bright drawings or photographs. There was in this main room a large chest and a table, and enough low stools for all visitors, and no other furniture.
Our pregnant hostess looked to be between 25 and 30. She had been married two years and had just this year been given permission to have a baby. For now, she may have only one. Sometime in the future, it is possible she may be given permission to have a second, depending on the population of the commune. She will bear the baby at the clinic we saw. I dared not make inquiries about what might happen if all did not go well, and she needed a caesarian. I wondered if she will be given any anesthesia. While we talked, a brave chicken or two wandered in to take a look at the foreigners.
We re-boarded our minibus and were driven a couple of kilometers to Huangti, the capital “city” of the commune. The little town was bustling, with the sidewalks in front of the stores filled with peasants selling baskets full of persimmons, chestnuts, cabbages, garlic, chili peppers, and offering all kinds of services, key-making, shoe repair, fabric-cutting, and barbering. Behind the street stands were stores of every specialty. We went into one which, behind only one counter and with only a few square feet of floor space, sold shoes, tablecloths and bed covers, doilies and antimacassars, ball bearings, tea mugs and rice bowls, an armamentarium of chopping and carving knives, jewelry, plastic water canteens, combs, yardgoods, baskets, plastic artificial fruit, a few toys, bamboo and cane chairs, and bed frames of the kind we are sleeping on—a heavy wood frame with a net of closely woven jute for support. Our presence accrued a huge, curious, closely pressing crowd. I decided to contribute to the local economy and bought a feather duster (6), typical of the kind the chauffeurs keep behind the back seat for dusting off their cars all over China. When I unzipped my bag to take out my money, the crowd began to collapse inward from its own weight. They were thrilled and repeated smilingly, “she-she” (7) when I thanked the store clerks in Chinese.
Before lunch we went to the Huangti Guest House for tea, questions, and a hand wash in a basin of warm water with a clean towel immersed in it. The lunch we were served was among the best we have had in China. As always, it consisted of too many courses, with fish, tofu, eggs, pork (with chestnuts!), chicken soup, sweet-syrup bread balls, squid with bamboo shoots, wonderful meat-filled fried turnovers, the best Chinese beer from Tsing-Tao, and so on.
We took the opportunity to go down the main street on foot. These country folk were completely unabashed in their curiosity and a large group of young and old followed us everywhere down the street and into and out of shops. It was actually difficult to take a photograph. Though in some cases people willingly posed for us, some people disappeared when I pointed the camera in their direction. But so many enthralled on-lookers closed in that when I tried to take a picture of the produce-laden baskets, the scene was framed by staring locals.

Sometimes when we are surrounded by such a crowd, or when we visit the sick in a hospital and walk around followed, not lead, by white-coated attendants, I feel like Queen Elizabeth, the Pope, or at least, Lord Mountbatten’s wife, spreading grace, good wishes, and joy everywhere, healing just by our touch. What is hard to know is how the Chinese feel about us really. Over the years foreigners have generally been regarded as the “foreign devils.” No matter what the official line, we are great oddities, especially in a rural community.
On the long bus ride home over the appallingly paved roads I talked with Gretchen. She and the Cargos and the Georges are our only source of information about the less pleasant aspects of life in China. I had complained about the poor treatment of non-essential animals, but said, “at least they don’t beat their children.” The other westerners said that some of their students told them of incidents or even situations of continued abuse in their own families. Gretchen has been exposed to several tragic situations among her students and has become a confidant of one woman. This woman is married (possibly by arrangement of the parents), has a child, and is in love with another student. Yet she has no options, no hope. The Chinese are extremely critical of one another and keep strict eyes on the activities of their comrades and routinely report to their leaders on each other. Nonetheless, there is some activity which is successfully kept secret. I asked Gretchen if she had any idea about whether her students were involved in premarital sexual relations. The Cargos, when asked this question, stated that they believed there was none. But Gretchen says that an early-morning walk along the wooded shores of a small lake behind her dormitory reveals the night’s business by the condoms floating near the shore. On discussing this, I learned that birth control is not available to the unmarried. So there are two possible interpretations. One is that unmarried couples can get the needed condoms from married friends or siblings, and the other is that since privacy is totally lacking in most Chinese homes, the condoms are actually those of married couples. (8)
It’s hard to admit, with all the stars in our eyes, that life in China for the Chinese is not as lovely as life in China for the foreign expert just passing through.
(1) New Zealanders Allan and Elizabeth Cargo spent two years teaching English at Wuhan Teacher’s College. They had an apartment in the same small residence for foreigners as we, and we ate our meals together in a small dining room there with a dedicated kitchen and staff. We stayed in touch with the Cargos for many years following our time in China.
(2) Gretchen Dykstra went on to hold prominent positions in New York City, including the first president of the Times Square Business Improvement District, from 1992 to 1998, Commissioner, Department of Consumer Affairs.(New York City), and, briefly, the politics-torn position of president and CEO of the World Trade Center Memorial Foundation.
(3) My husband at the time, Bob Wald, who was teaching a short course in relativistic astrophysics/cosmology at Wuhan Teacher’s College.
(4) Another visiting American teacher.
(5) Politically correct designation at the time.
(6) Essentially a bunch of rooster tail feathers attached to a stick; I actually brought it back to the U.S. . When I opened my suitcase, a plethora of gnats flew out of the duster, and the duster was summarily sent to the dumpster.
(7) Thank you; an expression, not used obsessively in China as it is in America, pronounced something like shyeh-shyeh.
(8) A third possibility I didn’t consider at the time is that one or both of the condom users were married, just not to each other.
And now, and most importantly, read Gretchen Dykstra's retrospective essay on what she was experiencing at this very time.

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