In Guangzhou, I was rich. I earned as much as Deng Xiao Ping, $100 US/month or 500 RMB. It was more than we could spend. We sent Jim’s income home every month to put in the bank against our return.
Our first journey to the bank in Guangzhou was a life-time disturbing adventure. Guangzhou was a few miles from our village of Shipai. When we’d lived in China for a couple of months, and the Heads of our university knew us, and the City gave permission, we went alone, just road our bikes, took the bus, or sometimes came home in a taxi. But in the first month or two of our arrival, until we got permission to buy bicycles (or if our visit were something official) the college arranged a car. It could be a “Mien Bao” (Loaf of Bread) meaning a Toyota van, or a big, black Hong Chi (Red Flag). China made cars back then, not many, and mostly “lorries,” the big Jei Fang (Liberation) trucks. Going to the bank was a big deal. We road in the back of a Hong Chi like diplomats. The car would drop us off near the bank, then take the university Official who was in the front seat to his meeting, and we were supposed to find our way home.
The only bank that could send our money to America was on a former business street near Shamian Island. Shamian Island, an island in the Pearl River across a narrow channel from Guangzhou, was once the area to which foreigners were relegated. The main pre-war businesses and banks were along this strand, including this bank, the People’s Bank of China, a tired, smoke-stained, dilapidated Victorian edifice. It was our only journey there. Afterwards, it was simpler to send money home. I don’t know how, I don’t know why, but I never saw that bank again.
The car stopped. The “head” with whom we’d shared the ride said something to Xiao Huang, our “watcher” who became my adopted brother. Xiao Huang answered, “Good, good,” in Cantonese and we were off.
Guangzhou had a vibrant, crowded street life, but the streets around the bank were uncharacteristically empty. Today, in my mind’s eye, I think of a solitary dried leaf stopped by a curb on a deserted street. Xiao Huang led us through a hot tangle of paved roads and smoke-stained, Western-style buildings. We turned a corner to find two men, two bicycles and a baby on a largely empty street.
“Come on,” said Xiao Huang, hurrying us.
The older of the two men ran after us and grabbed my arm. He said, in English, “Come with me. I want to show you something.” I had only been in China a month or I would have found that strange, but English was still the most normal language for me to hear anywhere.
“Why?” I asked the old man.
“Come on,” said Xiao Huang.
But I turned and followed the man. A younger man — obviously his son — held a baby on the seat of the bicycle. “You buy?” he asked me.
I argued the ethics of this with him, absurdly, but I could not begin to wrap my head around it.
I still can’t.
“Come on,” said Xiao Huang.
The baby was “marketed” as a boy, but I am sure it was a little girl. The one-child policy was active at the time and strictly enforced, especially in cities.
We turned away and went to the bank. The front door, once elegant polished brass swinging over a mosaic tile floor, was tarnished and dented. The mosaic was broken and dirty. It was nearly impossible to discern the design. There were dim florescent lights hanging from wires above the tellers’ counter. We went to the window Xiao Huang identified as “Foreign Exchange” and, with an abacus, the old man behind the counter told us what our Yuan were worth in American dollars. One hundred Yuan went to my friend to deposit into the First National Bank in Denver. I could not transfer directly to a bank. There was not yet that level of diplomatic relations between the US and the PRC. It would happen while I lived there, but that day, it did not exist.
We were given little pieces of printed rice paper with numbers and Chinese characters. “Don’t throw that away. You will need it when you leave China to prove you earned this money,” said Xiao Huang. You NEVER threw out tiny pieces of printed rice paper. When we left China, we had a drawer filled with them.
The featured photo is a truck with loudspeakers that went through town telling people about the one-child policy, arguing for its importance, advertising where birth control was available, and warning about the consequences. The announcements were made in the favorite female voice in Canton, high-pitched and shrill to American ears.
Back in the USA, a few years later, still homesick for China, I saw a man at the post office in San Diego. I knew he was Chinese. I spoke to him. He was a World Health Organization doctor from Nanjing who was studying at UCSD. It turned out he lived near us, at the Marsten House on the north end of Balboa Park. He was attending school and caring for old Mr. Marsten. We got to be good friends. His mission — besides his course of study, which was oncology — was finding homes for abandoned Chinese girl babies. His hospital in Nanjing took them in and tried to place them with foreigners. He explained that those girls were the lucky ones. The practice of killing infant girl children was old in China. Only boys carried the clan name and girls were mouths to feed, members of some future family.
Female infanticide was one of the customs that progressive Chinese in the early 20th century had fought. Maoism was opposed to it, also, and regarded the female worker as the equal of the male worker. One of the “olds” Maoism sought to eradicate was the family system “old culture,” but the one-child policy brought it back. China paid a price for it — still is — when all the male children reached marriageable age and had no one to marry.
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