I got my first passport in 1982 and the reason was China. My relentless yearning to leave the country and GO SOMEWHERE had landed me a job as a foreign expert in English. It was truly a dream come true for me.
China was a difficult country to get into back then. It was backward and impoverished and where it had “modern western conveniences” it was only on the surface. For instance, we had a bathtub in our apartment, but no hot water, a good metaphor for the whole country. They revealed themselves to a handful of people they trusted to teach English. It took me a little while to convince the Foreign Teachers Office of my college (and the Foreigners Office of my canton) that I wasn’t judging anybody. I just wanted to see things. Finally I was allowed to buy my own bicycle (which were registered and licensed just like cars are) and I was free to roam anywhere I wanted. I could speak enough Mandarin to manage pretty well.
Guangzhou was a city of 5 million then. It was surrounded by countryside, and I lived in a village to the north. Guangzhou was a five mile bike ride past farms and even smaller villages.
My passport was kept in the Wai Shi Ban (foreign teacher’s office). If I needed it, the office arranged visas and brought it to me. It was a combination of control and safety. I didn’t mind. Because I worked for the government, I carried the same ID card Chinese citizens carried, and it was a better deal than my passport would have been.
In 1982 Hong Kong was another country. Leaving and returning to the good ol’ People’s Republic of China required a visa even though Hong Kong was just down the river about 80 miles.
In those days the space of land between the two cities was mostly farm land and the journey — any way you took it — was through swaths of green farms and the sharp hills of South China. It was beautiful, an emerald, and from the comfy confines of any kind of conveyance, a person could fall in love with it. I had definitely fallen in love with it and remained in love with it even after I knew what it REALLY was. A miserable miasma of mosquitos, cockroaches and humidity, not to mention the occasionally heavy-handed thump of Communist totalitarianism, which, if you stayed on the right side of it and you were an “honored guest” was not a big deal.
I hated to leave and was “homesick” for years after I got back. I used to listen to this and cry. But I had no idea that China would “progress” so quickly or that, when my “dime dancing” was through, I’d want to be in Colorado. I had no idea what the 30 years between would bring.
There is no passport to the past.