First Passport

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.



11 thoughts on “First Passport

  1. I had those same eyeglasses 🙂 In my passport, too when I went to Israel. I’m surprised that so few of us actually took that jump to another world. I used to dream in Hebrew, but not so much now. I left there in late 1987 … so for me, too … thirty years.

  2. You said that well “My relentless yearning to leave the country and GO SOMEWHERE” which is the reason for my leaving england in 1966 and putting it in the words that I have been searching for since. I could never express why, I just knew it had to be done. Of couse leaving for China is something really to be admired and an exception. And that passport? looks really out of this side of the world. These are the experiences we can take with us and be glad we did it (although I did not really calculate becoming Swiss and living here forever 🙂

    • I know — and I didn’t calculate EVER going to Switzerland or what that would mean to me. In China, I was frequently mistaken for “Swiss” which I still think is odd because all white people look the same to most Chinese (truth) and how does Swiss look in comparison to any random American? Some people came up and spoke to me in French — quite often — and that was bizarre, too. And, stupidly, I answered in French to say, “I don’t speak French” which only made them continue their conversation. Oh China. ❤ And yeah, as for leaving I also knew "it had to be done." Exactly.

  3. For our first lunch in Guangzhou we were helped by a couple at the next table. It was their anniversary, and they’d taken the new fast train from Hong Kong (now an hour away) for lunch.

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