Totalitarianism, Part 1, Espionage

When I decided to go to the People’s Republic of China, my mom freaked out. An American student had recently been imprisoned in Beijing for (suspected? real?) espionage. “Couldn’t you just go to China Town?” she asked, somewhat distraught, as my ex and I packed up his pick-up truck for the drive to San Francisco. His children lived in the Bay Area and he wanted to see them before we left. 

I think he was afraid, too. I know he was. When we finally arrived in Guangzhou, at the airport, away (very obviously away) from any of the things he was used to, he just collapsed, laid down on a bench in the dim waiting room. He wasn’t prepared for the reality of China, for a Russian airplane, for being met on the ground by soldiers from the People’s Liberation Army, for being questioned over whether we had religious materials with us. He wasn’t prepared for there being no one to meet us and not having any idea what to do next.

I didn’t know him very well. We married after only knowing each other four months, and I would not call a year in the PRC in 1982 an ideal honeymoon. My ex was shut down, but I was also flummoxed. “What now?” An English speaking worker at the airport phoned our college (Hua Nan Shi Fan Xue Yuan as it was then). We’d arrived a day earlier than expected. They thought we’d spend two nights in Hong Kong. I learned they couldn’t pick us up until the next day. My job then was to get a taxi big enough to carry our footlockers (and skis). 

“Where do you want to go?” asked the man at the airport.

“Bai Yun Hotel,” I said with great certainty and in Chinese. What did I know? I did know the Bai Yun Bing Guan was the closest foreigner hotel to the airport. All I knew what was what I’d read in my Fodor’s. We stayed our first night in China with our fardles in a big room in this 33 story hotel. 

It was our first easily identifiable experience with totalitarianism. I am sure others had already occurred, but with such subtlety that we didn’t notice. 

The hotel took our passports and the letter from my college when we checked in. I’m sure that they phoned the Wai Shi Ban (foreigners office) at the school to confirm our legitimacy. On our floor was a “watcher” seated at a velvet covered table. She had the keys to our room. When we left the room, we gave her our keys. When we returned, we retrieved them, opened our door and took them back to her. I wondered why we even had keys. My feelings about this might have been different from those of my ex, I don’t know, but I felt that this was the price I had to pay for being where I wanted to be, for fulfilling my dream. 

Dinner was “joak,” a rice gruel often made with chicken or with fish and served with cut up fried bread and green onion on top. Our first joak also had “thousand year old eggs” which are  pretty shocking to the unwarned, uninitiated foreign eye. As we ate this strange meal, Jim noticed a large rat skulking along the wall. To me the rat was just a promise of more adventure. To Jim it was an added dimension to a nightmare.

When morning came, there also came a “mien bao” or Toyota van (mien bao means loaf of bread which the Toyota vans of the time really did resemble) from our college to take us “home.” I was excited and happy. I do not know how my ex felt. We rode in the mien bao — in silence? Talking? I don’t remember. At our college we were met by Xiao Huang, our watcher. This lithe, slender, skinny young man of 27 or so lifted each of our footlockers up onto his back and carried them up three flights of stairs to our “flat” and there we were. Home. 

I remember that first afternoon, standing on the balcony of our large furnished apartment and looking over the fields of the agricultural college that was behind us. Under an ingenious structure that was both his shelter and food storage, stood a water buffalo. All my childhood, girlhood and young womanhood dreams came true in that moment. Whatever they were to be, I accepted the terms of the alien world that contained this vision and had opened itself to me.


I was alone on an exalted plane of acceptance and curiosity. For the rest of the world in which I had so recently arrived this was no exotic place. It was not the realization of their dreams of adventure. For my husband it was a relentless nightmare. For my students, faculty colleagues and friends it harbored dark memories, fears and anxiety over the future.

21 thoughts on “Totalitarianism, Part 1, Espionage

  1. And I only “dared” to escape to Switzerland. Mum was sure I would return after a few weeks and not stay for more than 50 years. Of course not to be compared with a China adventure.

  2. When I went to Israel, it was without a husband. I was accompanied by 9-year-old son who had NO idea what to expect. We both hoped for the best and I think (mostly) we eventually found it. Amidst lumps and bumps and many oddities. I think a husband would have been a real challenge.

    • I don’t know. A husband I knew well would have been better. A husband who shared a dream like that would have been better. Jim is/was a nice person, but that wasn’t his dream and I was not the right woman for hi.

      • Oh gosh! I bet a lot has changed! Big changes too! Still.. maybe.. don’t know… and to think I am Asian! I would blend in easily…

      • It’s completely different — that’s what inspired me to write the posts about my time in China. A blogger I follow was doing business in my Chinese hometown and wondered what it was lie 30 years ago. I happened to know the answer to that! You should go see!

        For that matter, most of my time in China was fantastic. I was free to go wherever I wanted because I was teaching in China and could speak Mandarin. The government decided they liked me and it was the experience of a lifetime. I hated coming home and I missed it for years and years afterward. I can’t explain why. Of course I’m not Asian, but after that year, a little piece of me is Chinese. You should go if you can.

      • that’s what the government thought, too! I wasn’t fluent, but I did fine. Chinese food…I love it too. At least you live in CA where there is decent Chinese food. I miss it.

      • I could hear the tones but I’d say them differently. My friends always say you are not saying a prayer when I try to count!

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