“It’s Heaven, Aunt Martha Ann!”

It’s worn and tired. The fringe was chewed away long ago by dogs and vacuum cleaners, but when it was new? My 3 year old niece came into my apartment, saw it, immediately sat in the middle medallion where the two blue dragons fight and said, “This is HEAVEN!” as if she knew Chinese mythology. She’s 41 this year.

I bought it at the Friendship Store — the store where export goods were sold — in Guangzhou a few months after I arrived in China.

There were two things I wanted to buy in China; one was this carpet the other a down jacket. That sounds a little weird considering I was on the Tropic of Cancer, but Chinese down IS the best and such a jacket was very expensive and hard to find in the US at the time. I came home with a down jacket and a full-length down coat. I was glad, too, because that first winter after I returned to Colorado was one of the snowiest and coldest in Colorado history.

The Jacket and the Friendship Store (youyi bing guan)

The carpet was picked up by the college’ van at some point and brought to our apartment. I didn’t open it. I could see it would be easier to bring home if it were still rolled and wrapped. It waited in room in our apartment that housed the fridge for the whole year and I feared mold, moths or worse, that I’d bring home a cockroach.

When the time came to return to America, I had to haul the carpet to Shanghai along with many other fardles. All went well until one of the last legs of the journey — San Francisco to Billings, where my mother lived. We got on the plane. I was sitting in a seat where it happened that I could watch the bags being loaded. My carpet was on top of the baggage cart as it began to drive away.

I went ape-shit. Yes the carpet was an Albatross but it was MY albatross.

“Ma’am, it will arrive in Billings later. Don’t worry.”

“I don’t WANT it to arrive later. I want it to arrive WITH ME.”

The other passengers were thinking, “That screaming bitch is going to make our flight late!”

I cried. In frustration, exhaustion and more. I already didn’t want to be back in the US. I wanted to be in China. The stewardess called back the baggage handlers, and they loaded my carpet.

I showed the carpet to my family in Montana, then rolled it up again. It flew with us to Denver and remained rolled until we finally got our own place. It was there that my niece recognized it for what it is.

Not too many years after returning from China, the Good X and I traveled to Delaware to visit his mom. I wanted to visit Pearl S. Buck’s house in Pennsylvania. I was writing about her at the time. We drove from Wilmington up to Bucks County, PA, over these nauseating rolling hills, surrounded by obnoxious, tall, shady trees that blocked the view of the horizon (I know, I know).

Her house is a pretty two story stone structure filled with her things, but what touched me most was her office. Outside her window she had built a Chinese garden, and it looks like China. On her floor was a beautiful Chinese carpet, worn and a little tattered. I was in the depths of my yearning for China at that time, and I saw Pearl S. Buck’s own yearning in that garden and that old carpet.


25 thoughts on ““It’s Heaven, Aunt Martha Ann!”

  1. What year was this? I remember the Friendship Stores. They wouldn’t let any Chinese inside them. I later heard it was because they were filled with all of the art treasures confiscated during the cultural revolution and they didn’t want people to discover their own confiscated art. I still have some of the pieces I purchased there, unknowingly.

    • At the time there were two kinds of currency in China — Wai Wei gen which was foreign exchange — and Renminbi — People’s Currency. China was desperately trying to buy things from foreign nations — like airplanes and engineers — but its own money was worthless on the foreign exchange.

      Chinese could go into Friendship Stores, but the purpose of the Friendship Stores was to sell export goods to foreigners. There were no antiques in any Friendship Store I visited in Guangzhou, Shanghai, Hangzhou or Beijing. Antiques were sold in special stores — I visited one in Anhui. They could be bought with Renminbi or Wai Wei Gen.

      Foreigners had foreign exchange currency (Wai Wei Gen) because they’d traded their national currency for that kind of Chinese money. There was a lot of stuff foreigners couldn’t buy with Wai Wei Gen like anything in an open market or street vendors or most restaurants not in hotels which meant there was a little black market selling Renminbi for Wai Wei Gen. Chinese desperately wanted Wai Wei Gen because they could use it to pay for their kids to get out of China.I was paid in Wai Wei Gen — another expense for the Chinese government. I sold a lot of Wai Wei Gen to the woman who cooked for us so her nephew could go to the US for school.

      I don’t think it was a conspiracy to keep people from knowing their own confiscated art since there were factories of people reproducing it all over China.

      • Not at the time I was there. They had opened up the cultural centers and brought in masters who had been shipped out to the countryside to teach the young artists how to duplicate the old arts. The churches were still all converted into factories. They had huge signs “Forging ahead to the year 2,000” but relations with the U.S. had still not been normalized. There was an upper floor in the Friendship stores that our “Guides” were not allowed to go into, but I purchased a set of antique stone unguent jars that I have to this day, with the government sealing wax stamp of authenticiy still on them. I was with a group of teachers, lawyers and doctors invited to come witness the U.S. normalization process. We were not allowed to go anywhere without our official “guides” and the government supervised all of our meetings with “normal” Chinese, but, there were a number of knowledgeable China experts with us who were telling us the real story–including the story of our purchase of the antiques. There were no cars except for military and government cars and perhaps taxis. Millions of bikes. And when we did sneak away one afternoon, within minutes there were hundreds of people following us–we were such an oddity. Very different from the China of today. We went to Shanghai, Beijing, The Great Wall and Wushi. I can’t remember where I purchased the unguent jars. I believe Beijing. I also purchased other replicas of old pieces at the museum in Beijing where they were displaying the first huge terracotta warriors that they had dug up, but those pieces purchased did not have the government seals affixed and I was told they were duplicates.

  2. Very interesting – the post and especially the comments! I love that you still have the rug after all these years. A quality rug will last a lifetime – even if the fringe is gone!

  3. What a story – the flying carpet perhaps? I would have gone nuts if I’d seen the baggage handlers drive off with it too. I’ll bet now they wouldn’t go back for it. What a treasure – heaven it is :). (did the down jacket survive as well?)

  4. The old photo in China is cool! And I think it is a nice carpet, even if it has been decades. In fact, I think its age now is a part of its charm. Sorry to hear about the crying in the airport. I understand it must have been really stressful then.

  5. My late friend Curtis came back from visiting relatives in China with two gifts for me – a down jacket (tightly woven cotton, not nylon) and a cashmere turtleneck sweater – the sweater is still my favorite cross-country ski wear.

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