Foreign Country People

In 1982/83 most traffic in China was bicycle traffic. I often found myself, in the center of the city, in four or six lanes of bicycles going one way. Separated by barriers were four or six lanes of bicycles going the other way. I was once in a pile up. The Chinese cyclist next to me cursed me, called me a foreign devil and blamed me for the pile up which had occurred 1/4 mile ahead of us. He kept yelling at me until I hit him.

Shamed and chagrined, I went home later and told my best Chinese friend about the incident. She looked at me, shocked. “You’ve been here eight months, and it’s the first time you hit someone? Don’t feel bad. It’s normal.”

Usually, though, my ex and I were treated very kindly by everyone we met. We were curiosities. There were fewer than 100 foreigners in Guangzhou and most of them were Asian. The handful of white people stood out and when our bikes broke down one afternoon, and some people came out of an apartment and fixed them for us, they got headlines in the Yang Cheng Wan Bao — the Goat City Evening Newspaper. It was propaganda, an opportunity for the government to reinforce the agenda of the moment (a good one, by the way) that helping strangers is good for society. I am not sure the idea ever caught on.

Even the Bible was brought in to enforce this idea. The tale of the Good Samaritan was known by many of the Chinese I met as “one good thing from Western superstition.”

There is a LOT going on here. A worker going home on her bike. A sidewalk maintenance person taking a break. A 19th century rich family house with the Communist Star, probably conscripted as a government office

China was poor, determined to advance, and struggling. My Chinese friends and students were ashamed of their poverty, imagining that we pitied them. But the truth is that when everyone is poor, no one is poor. I didn’t see anything wrong with anything except the roaches. Even rats seemed reasonable given the circumstances.

“Face” is everything. Learning that they would not lose face in front of us because we were (as they described us) “simple and humble” meant no one would lose face if we saw their house, met their old mother, or any other thing. One example, on a visit to Foshan to a student’s house for lunch, I saw that under the kitchen drain was a chicken in a cage. “Seems poor to you, teacher?”

“No. It seems smart.”

Unfortunately, they’d learned British English so “smart” didn’t mean intelligent, it meant stylish. Really, communication is a bitch.

Of course, they teased us. Cantonese eat anything, practically, and innards of chickens are prized. I had a hard time eating spinach with chicken intestines but it was 1) will the foreign teacher eat it? and 2) we sure wish we had those guts, but she’s an honored guest.

As time passed, and it became clear throughout the province that my ex and I were not materialistic or judgmental, that we liked China and I was proficient enough in Mandarin to take care of myself (and my ex), we were welcome everywhere. We had the freedom to go almost anywhere we wanted. We carried Chinese ID cards (our passports were the property of the provincial government while we were there) and the secret message network kept everyone in the city aware of where we were at any given time.

Only twice did we venture into forbidden lands. Once we took a bike ride to Huangpu (then Whampoa). We didn’t know its history, that it had been the military academy for the Nationalist Army. We wandered around, seeing things that were completely incomprehensible (and remain incomprehensible). I wished at that moment I’d paid attention in my world history class in high school when Mrs. Metcalf attempted to teach about China.

We rode somewhere we shouldn’t. A People’s Liberation Army officer came running after us, checked our IDs, took our bikes, asked us to follow him, made a phone call to our school. I could imagine them saying, “Yes, yes, those are our foreigners. Yes, we can’t keep them home. They are always straying, those crazy Americans. Send them back. The woman speaks some Putonghua (Mandarin). You can talk to her.” The officer came back and in a loud voice (so I could understand better) explained we had to go home. That’s exactly what we did.

Another time we rode up Bai Yun Mountain, and on our way home found ourselves riding through a People’s Liberation Army base. We were stopped again. The phone call was made. No one was angry this time, but we had to leave. We were escorted out by several young PLA soldiers on bicycles who were more happy to see us than upset at our being there.

Why were we treated so well? China hated the “paper Tiger” of America for decades. Capitalism was regarded with as much fear and animosity as some people in the US look at Socialism. America was considered an imperialist country, something that astonished me at first, but I left China not sure about that. I’m still not. Fear and hatred against America were aroused continually in Mao’s China. But here we were, just six years after Nixon’s visit, being treated very kindly by everyone — even if my green eyes and reddish hair literally stopped traffic and were the coloring of the Chinese version of the devil.

I believe three things acted in our favor. One, the propaganda of the moment was that Americans would be coming to China to help with the reconstruction of the country. None of these Americans were the evil ones. These Americans were good ones, sympathetic to the goals of the People’s Republic of China. Second, Jim and I were completely non-pretentious people and liked being there. If anyone on the street asked us if we would practice English with them we would. Third, we weren’t looking for racism. When it did emerge, it surprised us. In time we learned it was a constant undercurrent, but what can a people do when they KNOW they are a superior people, the oldest and most advanced civilization in history? Sure, they were going through a bad patch, but with the “inexhaustible creative power of the masses” a people who could “crush any enemy,” no one doubted that somehow China would recover its nation’s historic greatness. (Quotations from Chairman Mao’s English pamphlet, “The Great Socialist Cultural Revolution in China.”)

Frankly, I was happy to help. I believed then — and I believe now — that if all the nations in the world are prosperous, and all the people in the world have enough of life’s necessities, we can finally have peace. All around me I saw people working incredibly hard, but with a sense of humor and human curiosity. If we bought jiaotze (potstickers) from a roadside restaurant, everyone gathered around to see if we could eat them with our chopsticks. We could. That we could, made everyone very, very happy and sometimes they bought us more jiaotze so they could watch some more. Every normal everyday thing we did in a Chinese way broke down the cultural barrier a tiny bit. We were Wai Guo Ren (foreign country people) but there is only one planet.

Typical old-fashioned Guangzhou windows. Eyes from another era. Most of these apartments (from the 20s?) were long rectangles with these beautiful windows at one or both ends. Only fancy hotels had air-conditioning at this time
Under everything was always ancient China. Traffic, advertising and the 14th century Five Story Pagoda (Zhenhai Tower) now the Guangzhou Museum. A completely empty building when I was there.


These photos show early construction on the “Inner Ring Road” known as the “Round the City Road.”

Street scenes… (open the slide show to see everything)

The Pearl River…

6 thoughts on “Foreign Country People

  1. I don’t deal well with most intestinal things, including the ones in my own body. Garry will eat anything except peas, lima beans, and cut corn. He’s okay with corn on the cob which confuses me, but he says they are two different things and who am I to argue? He will also eat escargot which are slugs by any other name. He made me try them. Yuck.

    I had a boss who was from Minnesota and a whiter white guy you’ll never meet. His idea of a wild meal was a medium hamburger with cheese (as opposed to without). Then there was a potential contract with Sanyo (yes, we got it) and they had to go to Japan. And eat Sushi. Mitch and sushi. His partner (my boss) didn’t stop laughing for months. Apparently, he ate it, but you had to see his face.

  2. I love these photographs. I’ve seen very few photos of China in this period of early reconstruction. Even my friends and colleagues usually do not share them. I don’t think it is a “face” thing; more that they wouldn’t have wasted previous film taking photos of holes in roads. Lovely to see these here.

    • It was very difficult to get film processed in the PRC at that time. I think that is probably why there aren’t many photos.We usually had to take undeveloped film to Hong Kong — and that meant it was scanned with x-rays, but usually with no damage. And in my experience Chinese didn’t take photos of scenery but of people.

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