If you need a bedtime story later…

Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge

Thank you all for coming and thank you, Louise, for giving me the chance to read about a couple of my holidays in China in 1982/83. Just a little background. I have always had terrible wanderlust and no money. In 1979, I finished my masters degree in English at the University of Denver and I was ready for adventure, but no money. I knew I would have to find a teaching job. I joined the Peace Corps. I took the Foreign Service Exam. Until my thesis advisor, Dr. Richardson, came back from China where he had been invited as an honored guest lecturing on Henry David Thoreau, I never thought of China. Most of my life China had been closed to Americans. I did what he told me and sent letters and my resume to Chinese universities. Nothing happened for two years then, one day in 1982, I got a letter from South China Teachers University offering me a job. The school is in Guangzhou and I didn’t even know where Guangzhou was.

My story today starts at the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge the day before Thanksgiving. My big white livestock guardian dog, Polar Bear Yeti T. Dog (Bear) and I went out to the Refuge. As I headed to the small pull-out where we usually park, I noticed a large bird perched a lonely tree. “Red Tailed Hawk,” I murmured to Bear who couldn’t care less. I drove slowly past the bird who didn’t ruffle a feather. I parked and let Bear out and we began our ramble. Bear trolled the edges of the road for smells while I looked at the ever changing light of this Valley I love. Snow showers fell over the Sangres.

Whenever I go out there, I see something. A rainbow in the Virga. Tracks of deer families meandering in the fresh snow, ascensions of cranes, paranoid geese telling me to go another way, elk in the distance, a great horned owl family in an old cottonwood, dreamlike cloud formations. But one thing I NEVER expected to see at the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge was a couple from Beijing. 

Their car passed us on our return. I looked at the license plate. It was a vanity plate from an east coast state, an Anglicized version of a common cat name in Chinese — Mao Mao. The driver waved and then bowed her head in a completely Chinese way. 

I was stunned — and curious. 

By the ponds on the way out, I saw their car parked where they could watch the birds. I thought they might have hoped to see cranes. Cranes are important in Chinese culture. They symbolize peace, fidelity and long life. I put my window down. The woman walked to my car, smiling.

“Are you from China?” I asked.

That wasn’t the question she expected and she looked surprised. “Some 30 years ago.”

“I was living there 30 years ago — no, wait — 40 years now.”

“Where?

“Guangzhou.”

“Ah Guangzhou,” she said. “We are from Beijing.”

She looked at me, clearly wondering why I was living in China 40 years ago. 

“I was teaching English at,” I decided to try my Chinese, “Hua Nan Shi Fan Da Xue.” I’d pronounced it right, but I knew the tones were wrong. The most difficult thing about speaking Chinese is getting the tones right. You can say very strange things to people if you get the tones wrong. “How are you?” can become “You good horse.”

She looked perplexed for a moment then, she repeated it pronouncing it right. “You remember how to speak Chinese.”

“A little. I haven’t had much chance in the past 40 years.”

Her husband came closer and bowed, a polite gesture from another place, another time. 

“She lived in Guangzhou,” his wife told him. “She taught at South China Teacher’s University.”

“When I saw your license plate, I knew you must be from China.” I smiled.

“It is our cat’s name.”

“I know.” 

The woman laughed. She said they were driving all the way to California then back by a different route. “It’s so good to be traveling again.”

“I haven’t been out of the San Luis Valley in a while,” I said.

“It’s beautiful here. Are you a long timer?”

“No. Seven years.”

“It’s amazing we meet here,” she said, looking around at miles of emptiness. It WAS absolutely amazing. She asked about my dog, and I introduced her to Bear. We said a few more things. Then, I said, “Zai jian, zai jian. Good-bye. In China you say it twice. “Have a safe and beautiful trip.”

Xie xie,” she said. Thank you.

Bu ke xie,” I answered. No thanks needed.

“Oh!” she said, putting her hands together, “You remember!”

Absolutely.

Because this is “HolidayS at the Museum,” I thought I’d first read from the chapters in my book about Chinese New Year which happens about the time of our Crane Festival!

Journey to Hainan Island for New Years

In China my ex-husband, Jim, and I had two especially good friends, Lia and her husband Ling. Like us, they had been married a short time and they were around our age. Both of them were graduate students in the Foreign Language Department in which we taught. They taught a couple of classes as “young teachers.” In time, Ling’s mother became one of my best Chinese friends. She was tiny, bent old Chinese woman simply called, “The Old Mother.” She was born on Hainan Island which is directly across the Gulf of Tonkin from Vietnam. She did not speak Mandarin, Cantonese, or English. Ling, his wife, Lia, and the old mother lived together in a one-room apartment in the graduate students’ dormitory. 

As a young woman, during WW II, the Old Mother had been a guerrilla fighter against the Japanese. 

Our friendship began one evening when I went to find Lia and ended up drinking tea with the Old Mother and looking at movie magazines (in Chinese). We joked around, laughing and arguing about female beauty as we looked at one movie star after another. I said I liked every Caucasian actress, and she told me all of them were ugly, but especially Ingrid Bergman. We howled. I don’t know why or how, but it was funny in exactly the same way to both of us. The movie stars and their lives were millions of miles away from us, and hilariously unreal.

Lia was shocked when she found the Old Mother and me laughing together. She had expected to find one of the Old Mother’s old mother friends. 

Lia often asked, “What do you talk about? You have no common language!” The Old Mother and I simply liked each other.

Spring Festival, the Lunar New Year, the biggest holiday in China, was coming and everyone was trying to get home to spend it with their family. The Old Mother invited us to go with her, Ling and Lia as their family to All Beauty, their ancestral village on Hainan Island.

Hainan Island was then a closed area, and permission to visit was difficult to get, but because we were going with close friends who’d invited us, the provincial government gave us permission. Our ship went down the Pearl River into the Pearl River Estuary and out into the South China Sea.

With our Chinese ID cards, traveling with our Chinese family, we were Chinese and bunked in the bottom of the boat with the other Chinese passengers. It was a hard night, with a neon light shining in my face on the upper bunk, but so what? It was a REAL adventure.

Some of the passengers down there in the hold criticized the Old Mother for traveling with foreigners. She told them that we weren’t foreigners, but that Jim was her son, and we’d been studying in America for a long time, so we looked different. It was her way of saying, “Shut up,” AND it also the point that we were her family. Fit into a Chinese family, we might have been freaks of nature, but we were no longer interesting. In China, you don’t mess with a person’s family.

The ship crossed the South China Sea overnight. The next afternoon we were in Hainan’s major city of Haikou — Sea Mouth. It was a bustling, dirty, confused, and confusing city, but we weren’t there long. 

I had not understood the numerous cartons of cigarettes and cans of pineapple that we traveled with, but as soon as we started our journey, it became clear. They were guanxi, or payment/bribes. Travel in Hainan in those days was a system of pre-arranged rides, hitchhiking, and luck.

The first night we were supposed to stay with friends of my friends. When we arrived at their house, we learned that they had consulted the I-Ching, and it had told them, in its cryptic and obscure language, that entertaining strangers “would not further,” meaning, “Not a good idea.” They turned us away fiercely but with apologies and the banging of a drum to scare away the evil spirits traveling in our wake.

“Old superstition. I’m sorry, Jim and Martha,” said Lia. 

We then went to the house of Lia’s former middle school teacher. As it happened, the faculty dormitories were largely empty. Most teachers had returned to their villages for the holidays. We bunked up in an unknown teacher’s room. 

That’s when my difficulties began.

I was suddenly naseated and dizzy. I was seasick.

Seasickness happens to some people when they’re in motion. To others — according to the fishermen I met on this journey — others are sick once they get back on land. Fortunately, I had brought good medicine, but not much of it. I was seasick for the ten days we were on Hainan Island.

The next day we were back on the road. We stood beside the “highway” with our stash of cigarettes and canned goods, waiting for a van that was supposed to pick us up. The van came, we got in, and went to our first destination, the town of Wenchang. There we hoped to get a ride to the village of All Beauty. But no one knew for sure.

Today Hainan — a beautiful south-sea island — is a major tourist draw, and Wenchang is a big city, the location from which the Chinese have launched rockets carrying satellites. But, in late February of 1983, my friends and I waited with our luggage, our cartons of cigarettes, and tins of pineapple, beside the main road that circles the island. 

After a while, I understood that the rides had been organized through what I called “the brother-in-law” system. A person gave us a ride and told a family member, classmate, or co-worker about our needing another ride. There were no phones, only word-of-mouth messages that must have been something like, “Foreign teachers with cigarettes and pineapple will be waiting beside the main road outside Wenchang. They need a ride to All Beauty. They have permission, so it’s all right.” 

During WW II, Hainan was a front where the Australian army fought the Japanese. But, in the intervening forty years or so, it was very rare for any Hainanese to see white people. On that busy intersection in Wenchang, waiting for a ride, my husband and I were a roadside attraction. 

Old women came up to us and stared. Some tried to rub the freckles from my arms with spit and pressure. Others gaped at my green eyes and reached for my then-red hair to feel the texture. Some touched Jim’s beard. Their exploration angered and embarrassed my friends, but it was OK with me. I was privileged to be in this strange and wondrous place. 

My friend Lia yelled at them to go away, but I said, “It’s OK. I don’t mind.”

“You should mind,” she said. “They’re ignorant, superstitious people.” 

“They’ll be less ignorant when they finish examining us,” I said. This was beyond curiosity. This was international relations.

A boy in his late teens made his way through the crowd. His face trembled from nervousness. Perspiration coated his forehead. He looked at Jim and then at me. 

“Are you Americans?” he asked me in tentative English.

The crowd turned to look at him. 

“Yes,” I said.

His nervousness changed to joy. His eyes sparkled. 

“Where did you learn English?” I asked.

“Voice of America. Welcome to my country!” He took my hand and shook it, passionately; then he shook Jim’s hand before walking away with a spring in his step. I am sure he had never tried out his English before. He must have been thrilled to learn that it actually WORKED on Americans! 

A van finally picked us up, but the driver could only take us part of the way to All Beauty. We got in, hoping for the best. Besides, we still had a lot of cigarettes and canned pineapple. 

China demanded patience.

We left our fans behind, waving good- bye. My heart was filled with the beauty of the boy using English for the first time. 

We soon reached the end of that ride, but a truck heading to All Beauty came by and stopped. It was a flatbed truck with slats on the sides to hold in the cargo — us. We climbed up, helped The Old Mother, and rode through the rice and sugar cane fields of the Hainan countryside.  

The Old Mother asked the driver to stop a little ways out of sight of All Beauty. She didn’t want her relatives to see how bent and arthritic she was AND she wanted to be my guide into the village. We got off the truck and the Old Mother straightened her crooked back as much as she could, handed her cane to her son, took my hand, and we walked together into the village where everyone was her cousin, sister, brother, niece, or nephew.

All Beauty was about fifteen houses arranged around a well. The houses were beautiful. Doorways to the outside all had a board barrier to step over at the bottom to keep out bad spirits and whatever else might have wanted to climb in. Because it was New Years, there were bright red and gold paper decorations with auspicious words written in black and posters of guardian deities pasted to the inside and outside of the houses. 

“Old superstition,” said Lia. 

Old style Chinese houses are compounds that shelter many generations of a single nuclear family. “Our” house had a walled courtyard in front with a kitchen to one side. Most houses in Hainan villages, and throughout South China, had exterior kitchens, which is smart when you cook with charcoal and rats are a problem. Even in the city of Guangzhou, many people cooked on the street. The main house contained a large, central sitting room with two bedrooms on each side. In the sitting room there were chairs arranged around the wall. There were two tables: a large one for adults and a low one for children, both for eating. Behind it was another courtyard and another sitting room flanked by bedrooms.

Our bed was a traditional Chinese bed, which is like a little elevated room. Outside the mosquito net, the bed was decorated with new hangings appropriate to newlyweds printed with double happiness symbols, dragons, and phoenixes. Jim and I had only been married six months so the hangings were extremely thoughtful and kind. Most of the people we knew in China hoped I would become pregnant while I was there, and the family at All Beauty especially hoped this would happen there. A Hainan baby in America, who would come back for Spring Festival.

The village was surrounded by fields. Little black goats, pot-bellied pigs, geese, and chickens roamed freely. If we wandered into the rice fields, walking on the levees between the ponds, the goats and pigs followed along. They were both pets and food. Water buffalo, the working engines of Hainan farming, were everywhere.

Jim’s beard fascinated the children. After the kids had examined and commented on it, Jim got the idea of learning to say, “What is this?” in Hainanese, then letting the kids take him around the village and teach him words.

Ho gai da mi?” 

Shu!” Beard.

This went on throughout our first full day on All Beauty. “Ho gai da mi? Ho gai da mi? Ho gai da mi?”

Jim learned the Hainanese words for chest, book, tree, beds, baby, and chicken. At dinner the little kids asked the grownups, “The American doesn’t know what a tree is or a book or anything. They don’t have these things in America?” 

When our friends told us about this later, we laughed. Then they taught Jim to say, “What do you call this?”

This is how I learned an idiom that is absolutely profound and beautiful to express the sensation of having no clue about anything. “Ah-kyak-a-looie” in Hainanese. It literally means, “As a baby duck listens to thunder.” That was me in China.

Our second night in All Beauty was the first night of Chinese New Year. 

If I’d KNOWN I wouldn’t have gone to bed. I’d have stayed up and watched, but instead I was awakened by what sounded like bombs going off and people screaming in agony.

I looked out the bedroom window. A lantern lit the courtyard. From a six-foot bamboo rod, Ling  held a long sheet of exploding, flashing, smoking firecrackers. A woman held a basin under the pig’s throat to catch the pig-blood we would eat the next day. The pig itself — I’d met him earlier that day — was hanging from a kind of scaffolding I’d barely noticed until that moment. 

No war. Just firecrackers. Just a hog slaughter. 

Tai Gii

A week into our ten-day visit, I was still seasick. I was exhausted and weak, though happy. I was also almost out of anti-nausea meds. I loved “my” Hainanese family and the healthy part of me didn’t want to go, EVER, but I had to get back to Guangzhou, and by the grace of  God, not by boat. A ride was organized to take us away in a couple of days, and I worried about the Guangxi. Where would we get cigarettes and canned pineapple? 

I didn’t need to worry. 

The day before we left Hainan, Ling went with The Old Mother to offer another sacrifice to the Ancestor. His prayer to the ancestor was simply, “Please hurry and eat this chicken so I can go with my friends to the seashore.” As dead ancestors are only symbolically hungry, we ate the chicken for lunch. Then, all the young adults in the village got on bicycles and rode to the beach. It was a pretty big crowd.

The beach was an hour by bike from All Beauty on sandy roads and through one village. When we got there, it was deserted, all blue sea and gently breaking waves edged by graceful coconut palms. 

Chinese didn’t really “go to the beach,” spread beach towels, catch rays or launch a boogie board. Our host crowd didn’t like the sun at all and stayed under the coconut palms with their hats on or jackets pulled over their heads while Jim and I walked on the beach enjoying the little waves lapping at our feet and the cool sea breeze. Once everyone was rested from the ride, the guys shimmied up the palms and dropped green coconuts to the ground.

They punched holes in a couple, and we drank fresh coconut water. Then they filled big string bags with about a dozen coconuts. That was why we needed so many bikes! 

Back in All Beauty, the coconuts went into the back courtyard. The young men of the family descended upon them with cleavers, cutting the flesh into useful strips and sharing the coconut water with the kids.

That night, we “sacrificed” another chicken, some bean-curd, cabbage, noodles sweetened with brown sugar and peanuts, salty fish, and, afterwards, sat around in the dark room in the circle of light thrown by a kerosene lamp hanging from the ceiling. I sat beside The Old Mother who held my hand. The adults were dozing, and the little kids slept on the laps of various grownups. I heard a soft voice beside me say, “Hoile.”

“Sleepy.” I said, gesturing around the room. “Sleepy.”

Shuizhoula?” asked The Old Mother, this time in Mandarin.

“Sleepy,” I responded.

Hoile,” she said. Hainanese for “sleepy.”

Hoile,” I repeated.

“Sleepy,” she said. 

No one believed me when I said The Old Mother had just spoken English.

***

The whole village came to see us off. The reliable flatbed truck with the panels returned to take us all the way to Haikou City where the airport was. String bags of coconut were going with us. Some was guanxi for the truck driver and the people in Haikou at whose home we would stay until our flight left. More bags would go home with us to Guangzhou, some for the University Heads, some for the many guests who would come to wish us Happy New Year. Fresh coconut was a rare treat. 

In China, it’s good manners to go as far as possible with the departing guest. How far you go with them indicates how highly you value them and how much you will miss them. Our friends jumped up on the bed of the truck with us and rode as far as they could and still be able to walk back for dinner. Fireworks were lit for good luck on our journey, scaring away all the evil spirits who might have attached themselves to us or to the truck. Cries of, “Don’t get sick Ma Sa!” (in Hainanese) were followed by laughter from the fishermen in the family. The Old Mother wiped her eyes. The little kids waved, and I cried. Good-bye in Hainanese is “Tai Gee.”

Now, Christmas… 

First I need to tell you something about the mail in China in 1982. 

Chinese stamps were beautiful and we collected a lot of them. But, neither stamps nor envelopes were pre-glued on the back. Everything was read at the post office by a censor so we usually took our letters there to be stamped and sealed. Every letter we sent arrived in the US and every letter our friends and family sent to us arrived. A few of my friends, including my Aunt Martha, copied the characters of our Chinese address when they wrote back. It was a little thing, but it warmed my heart. 

Gifts we sent home from China had to be sewn into their wrapping. Every package was hand-sewn into a white cloth bag with the address written on the front. The sewing of the last seam had to be done at the post office in front of the post office worker. 

If we got a letter, someone in the our university’s foreign language department office or Xiao Huang — our “watcher” — let us know and we hurried to Shipai, the village near our university, to pick it up. One afternoon, after class, when I went home for lunch, Xiao Huang told me that I had a package from America. 

A VERY big deal!

After my afternoon class, I went to get it. When I walked into the post office, the women behind the counter smiled ear to ear and one of them went to the back where mail was sorted. I thought she went to get my package, but no. 

A tall, slender old man I had never seen came to the counter holding, in both hands, a package wrapped in brown paper. It was from my Aunt Martha. I reached out with both hands (a Chinese custom to show something has value to you) to take it. As he handed it to me, he looked at me intently, his eyes filled with emotion and said, in perfect American English: “This season, in your country, you say, ‘Merry Christmas’.”

It didn’t matter then, and it doesn’t matter now, that he had unwrapped the package to examine it, had read the card and seen the Christmas paper. Not at all. In fact, even now, so many years later, when someone says, “Merry Christmas!” to me, I relive that moment.

Many of the older Chinese had served with American servicemen in WW II; some of the older ones had studied in America. I am sure this old man had done one, the other, or both. 

***

Jim and I had no idea WHAT Christmas would be. My first instinct was just to ignore the whole thing. We were in China, right? When in Rome, etc. 

Maybe you can imagine how surprised we were to come home from class on December 23 to find that our university had delivered a potted pine tree from the school nursery and set it up in our living room. 

At lunch — which we ate in a communal dining room — Ruth, our Irish colleague, who’d taught there for 3 years, said she always had a party on Christmas Eve. We decided to have one, too, and, since only a small landing separated our two apartments, we would just open the doors so our guests could go back and forth.

After lunch, we immediately got on our bikes and rode the six miles to the Friendship Store where Chinese export merchandise was for sale. If anyone would have Christmas ornaments in China, we thought it would be the Friendship Store. But, no. China was a long way from mass-producing stuff for Christmas. We got bags of candy wrapped in colored cellophane we could hang on the tree.

We found little birds made of pipe cleaners we could also use for decorations. At home. I cut snowflakes from paper and made streamers to go around the tree. Students showed up to help. One of my students came over with bright paper cuts of a little girl ice-skating and pasted them to our living room wall. I made paper cuts of evergreen trees and glued them to the wall, too, so it looked like the little girls were skating on a lake in the forest. 

Before the party, I made luminarias and lined them up along the rim of our balcony which faced the university. They were beautiful and evocative of home — for me, anyway. And it is really true that the Chinese love lanterns. 

My students were surprised to find out the lantern were only paper bags filled with sand, holding a lit candle. “They are so beautiful from a distance, teacher, but up close they are such poor things!”

I tried explaining about the culture from which they came, but my students’ vision of America was exclusively urban.

It turned out that my colleague Ruth’s party was mostly attended by colleagues, mine mostly students. Between our two apartments, there was something for everyone. 

My students brought cake, oranges, and chilis, which I loved and were hard to find in that season. They ate, talked, joked, danced and performed for us and for each other. We set up the boombox in the big room and we all danced. It was an unusual Christmas Eve and a very happy one. 

Nothing is ever perfect, and I had the flu. I was sick and feverish. After a while, I was living for the moment when everyone finally left so I could go to bed. By eleven, most of the guests were gone. But Xiao Huang, our watcher (now my Chinese brother), Ali, our Muslim friend and student from Xinjiang, and Kong, a friend of Jim’s, did not leave. Finally I said, “You guys don’t have to stay.”

“We’re waiting for Christmas to come,” they said. 

So, we all sat in the living room and chatted until midnight.

Christmas morning, we got up to find dozens of small presents and beautiful greeting cards had been slid under our front door. I spent Christmas day in bed dozing, reading student papers and listening to Guangdong radio — the local station. Usually I listened to an English language station that broadcast from Hong Kong, but Christmas morning, 1982, I listened to Guangdong radio. 

In 1982, there were about 100 foreigner teachers shared between the many universities and colleges in Guangzhou, Japanese, British, other European teachers, but very few of us — maybe 10? — were American. Jim and I were only the second American foreign experts our university had hired. It happens that the first foreign experts were from Durango! 

That Christmas morning the state radio put together a program just for the American teachers and any other random American who might be within range. Maybe you can imagine how homesick and yet happy hearing this made me.

18 thoughts on “If you need a bedtime story later…

  1. Wonderful stories! To mail a package in Colombia was similar – it had to be in an unsealed box with a list of contents. One had to have tape at the ready and seal it in the official’s sight after it was inspected. Perseverance furthers. No blame.

    • At the PO in Shipai there was a needle and thread waiting under the counter. The worker would give it to you. I guess in Colombia there would be substances they might not want mailed out? Back in the 80s I had a friend who was a doctor from Bogota. Very interesting man, very interesting stories. I also later had a very good friend from Colombia who married a Mexican diplomat — beautiful woman, funny, bright, irreverent. I enjoyed her so much.

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