Not Pets

I’ve had upwards of 20 dogs and they haven’t been pets. They’ve been friends, hiking pals, teachers, and, in the case of Polar Bear Yeti T. Bear, something to hug. I don’t have photos of all of them. There was Truffle, Molly, Maggie a Girl of the Streets, Paddy, Aschi, Xiao, Zorkie, Lupo, Ariel, Persephone Pitbull, Lily, Jasmine, Dusty, Cody, Big Puppy, Reina, Mindy, Polar Bear Yeti T. Dog and a handful of rescued and rehomed dogs.

Hainan Island, Part One, the Journey

Haikou City. Posters for sale, used for decorating the house for New Years

The most remote and exotic phrase of my growing up years was “The Gulf of Tonkin.” It was also a little scary. I grew up during the Cold War and during the Vietnam “Conflict.” The way Huntley and Brinkley said, “Gulf of Tonkin” was enough to send chills up anyone’s spine. But…

There I was. I’ve always studied geography on a “need to know basis,” when place names and boundaries had some kind of context for me, so there I was, looking at a map and seeing that very soon I’d be near the Gulf of Tonkin on my way to Hainan Island for Spring Festival aka Chinese New Year at my friend’s ancestral village, Fu Family Village, All Beauty.

To get there, we took a ship down the Pearl River, through the estuary at the mouth leading into the South China Sea.

Permission to visit Hainan was hard to get, but because we were going with close friends who’d invited us and I could speak Mandarin, the provincial government gave us the OK. Because we were traveling with Chinese and had Chinese ID cards, we were ipso facto Chinese. We bunked in the bottom of the boat with the other Chinese passengers. A foreign expert in French — from Switzerland — was traveling in one of the upper deck cabins as a foreigner. 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.

The Old Mother, with whom we traveled, was criticized by some other passengers for traveling with foreigners. She just replied that we weren’t foreigners. Jim was her son and we’d just been studying in America for a long time. It was her way of saying, “Shut up,” but it also made the point that we were her family. ❤ In China, you don’t mess with a person’s family.

From Guangzhou to Haikou

The ship crossed the South China Sea overnight and when the next afternoon came we were in Hainan’s major city of Haikou — Sea Mouth. It was a bustling, dirty, confused and confusing city with the most filthy toilet I’ve ever seen in my life. “What can you do with countryside people?” said my friend, Zhu.

Second leg of the journey, Haikou to Wengchang…

Travel in rural China in those days was nothing like it is now. It was a system of pre-arranged hitchhiking and luck. 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, I understood. Guangxi, payment/bribes.

The first night we were supposed to stay with friends of my friends, but they had consulted the I-Ching and it had told them that entertaining strangers at this time “would not further” so they turned us away, with ferocity, apologies and the banging of a drum. We’d hitched (paying for our rides with cigarettes) a few miles out of Haikou.

“Superstition. I’m sorry Jim and Martha,” said our friends. I was bewildered. It took some study once I had returned to the US to understand what had happened. My friend had another possible sleeping place in mind and we went to the house of her old high school teacher. “Sure,” she said. It happened the dormitories — faculty dormitories — were largely empty, too, so we bunked up in some unknown teacher’s room.

That’s when my difficulties began.

I was seasick.

Seasickness happens to some people when they’re in motion. Mine hit me when the ship had docked. I learned later — when we’d arrived at our destination, a village of fishermen — that my nausea and vertigo, constant “companions” when I was on Hainan — were common. They joked, “You need to get on another boat!” but…

I could write an entire post on toilets in China and seven-eighths of that would be toilets on Hainan. It’s enough to say that we went back in time from late 20th century Chinese toilets (Guangzhou). I know this for a fact. In between, in our first night in Hainan, at the high school outside of Haikou, we had the toilet equivalent of Roman times. From there we descended to early. human history. Just know, I was sick the whole week I was on Hainan but, thanks to my great doctor in Denver, I had anti-nausea suppositories. And now, I will do as my grandfather and “draw a veil of silence” over the subject.

The next day we were back on the road. We stood beside the “highway” with our stash of cigarettes and canned goods and waited for a van that was supposed to pick us up. The van came, we got in and had a ride to our first destination, the town of Wenchang. There we would (hopefully) get a ride to the village of All Beauty.

Today Wenchang is a city and it is also the location from which the Chinese have launched rockets carrying satellites. In 1983, my friends and I stood beside the main road with our luggage and our Guangxi, hoping for a ride to the next place.

Hainan was an American outpost during the Anti-Japanese war, but it was very rare for any Hainanese to see white people. Most of the foreigners in their experience had been Asian. There we were, my tall, bearded, blue-eyed husband and me, reddish brown hair and green eyes, with our two Chinese friends. We were an attraction.

Old women came up to us and looked us. Some tried to rub the freckles from my arms with spit and pressure. Others stared into my green eyes. Others touched Jim’s beard. My friends were embarrassed and angered by this, but it was OK with me. I was in China with all the curiosity these villagers were displaying. My friend Zhu 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.”

“Yeah but they’ll be less ignorant when they finish examining us,” I thought.

Then came one of the most profoundly beautiful moments of my time in China, of my life. A young man — maybe 18 — came up to us. His face was shaking in nervousness. He gently made his way through the crowd of black-clad grandmothers. He looked at Jim then looked at me.

“Are you Americans?” he asked in English.

Everyone in the crowd looked at him in total surprise.

“Yes,” I said.

He looked at me in joyful astonishment. His nervousness vanished. He smiled. His eyes sparkled.

“Where did you learn English?” I asked.

“I listen to Voice of America. Welcome to my country!” he took my hand and shook it, then Jim’s hand before he turned and walked away, a spring in his step. I am sure he had never tried out his English before and was thrilled to learn that it actually WORKED.

To be continued…

Skied Again

Some people don’t consider Cross Country skiing, also known as Nordic skiing, to be skiing. That’s OK with me. I’ve seen guys strap skins on their down hill skis, climb up a mountain, take off the skins and ski down, and I mean a big mountain. That was 30+ years ago and now the two sports have moved closer together. I know that from the skis I just bought. Like downhill skis, they are “cut in” on the sides and they are comparatively short. They are different, as I’m learning from taking them out, twice now. I can tell from the few little knolls I’ve skied down that they would really like more hills than my golf course offers, but I had to tell them, “Guys, listen. I don’t really remember how to turn.”

“Sure you do,” they said, “just keep at it.”

They’re probably right.

Maybe what I should worry about is having conversations with my skis.

I had the golf-course to myself. Someone was there this morning — the skater guy, I think, from the tracks. In the meantime — night before last — we had a sweet fluff of light snow. It was followed by a warm temps (40 F/4C) yesterday and a bitter wind, bitter enough to make slanted icicles as the day cooled and the melted snow on the roof-lines froze.

I knew this morning I wanted to get out there, but I waited to see what was going to happen with the temperature. If it got to freezing — or a little above, I would go. I knew there would be a crust of ice under drifts, and in shady spots, it was kind of icy, but, overall, I’ve skied on much worse.

I fell — that’s the best thing that happened. I found out that I can get up from a fall and how I would do it. There are a couple of positions I’m not supposed to get myself into, and one of them could be the result of getting up from a fall. It was wonderful to know I can get up.

It was a dazzling blue-sky day. Not many animal tracks and no sign of “my” deer, so I didn’t feel so guilty about having walked the dogs at the high school before going out to “our” place.

Cooking? Just say “meh”

I cooked my first meal for my family when I was seven. At 37 I realized I’d had that career for 30 years and I have been semi-retired since then. I honestly hate cooking at this point, but I do it well. Some people are interested in food and its preparation. I’m not.

When I was seven, my Aunt Martha gave me a cookbook for Christmas. Sometime later, my mom was doing her bit as the leader of my brother’s Cub Scout troop. I thought, “I can do this,” and I opened the cookbook, opened the fridge, saw we had hot dogs. I cooked hot dogs and fried potatoes.

My mom came up from the basement and saw dinner was ready. She knew a good thing when she saw it, so she began teaching me to cook.

The one good thing that came out of it (besides meals for 60 years) were consistent grades of “A” in home economics all through school. Definitely helped my GPA.

Prerogatives of Sole Survivors

I dreaded the slide scanning chore for years, and, like a lot of chores, it turned out not to be so bad. Looking at China was inspiring, great.


Yesterday I sat down with the famdamily slides and more or less cursed life as I stacked them into the (usually not functional) bulk scanner. Some of the slides are over 60 years old and the glue holding the sides of the slides together had stopped working. Retired, I guess.

Since so many of them were totally irrelevant to me (as the sole survivor, I get to be the arbiter of relevance for this family) I started holding them up to the light to see if it was worth scanning them. Lots of slides went into the trash, things like store-bought slides of the Air Force Academy or faded scenery photos of the Black Hills. It was a relief just to toss them.

I found some wonderful things in that huge collection of slides.

Like a lot of families in the 1950s, we took road trips, usually to Montana, but in 1957 we drove from Denver to Florida, then to California, Oregon, Montana and back to Colorado. I was five and my brother was three. Some of those photos survived and they are sweet artifacts of a very different world.

Somewhere on the road having lunch, 1957. The background hills look like California, but who knows?

Some of the photos are hilarious, though they were probably not meant to be. Others bring back good memories of the time when our family was functional and happy. Looking at them, I decided to forget that I know how it turned out. But my initial feeling as I dived into this was anger, an anger I never felt before. I was furious with them all for dying.

I’m not big on Facebook memes but a friend happened to post this last night when the “… l’horrible fardeau du temps” (…the horrible burden of time) (Baudelaire) was pushing me to the ground. The meme seemed to give good information, maybe it was the truth. It really was a huge pressure fitting my life around my mom’s expectations. I carried the hopeless weight of my brother’s addiction for years, but couldn’t fix him. My dad? He was doomed from the start and he always said that he, mom, and Kirk were not my job. ❤

It was wonderful to see some of those people again, people I loved and times I savored even as a little kid. The best photos are the ones no one set up or posed, the photos of a day in the life.

Neighbor kids, my brother with a broken arm and an airplane, my Aunt Martha and my grandmother, our house in Nebraska.

When I was done with that for the day, I put on my new skis for the first time. Out there on the snow, with the beautiful San Luis Valley sky and mountains all around me, the snow beneath my skis, the frost falling off the tips of the cottonwood trees, I thought in the vague direction of my mom and brother, both suicides, “Maybe I just loved this more than you did. Maybe it was always enough for me.” I glided forward, somewhat tentatively, hoping I’d still be able to do do this and I was, I am. ❤

Happy Day!!!

Monday I couldn’t stand it any more. I saw people X-country skiing on my golf course when Dusty, Bear and I went for Dr. Zhivagoesque walk on Sunday. So, I drove to Alamosa and went into the store I have avoided since I moved here, Kristi Mountain Sports. I knew the store would be wonderful (it is), but I have just felt like an old crippled up lady who had no business in a store like that.

I went in. The kid at the counter asked if he could help. I said, “I need cross country skis and boots. I just can’t stand it any more.”

“Ready for new equipment, huh?”

I heard that in a lot of different ways but I thought, “I got the important new equipment. Now I want to use it,” thinking of my hip joint.


“Let me find someone who knows more than I do.”


Another kid came out and damn, he spoke my language. I’ve lived a really long time without anyone speaking that vernacular of my language. He set me up with just what I wanted. I left it there for him to put on the bindings and tune the skis. They didn’t even ask for a down payment. I got a very good deal on the boots. ❤

The next morning, a frost in the air,, hoarfrost on the trees, beautiful blue sky low fog morning with occasional blusters of snow flurries, I returned and picked up my skis. They were almost the same price as my tax refund will be. “It was meant to be,” said the girl who helped me when I told her that.

But then I didn’t ski. For two days I’ve had the skis and didn’t ski. I tried to figure that out and it hit me this afternoon when I was walking Bear and Dusty. I was afraid I wouldn’t know how any more. I am no longer afraid of falling. I’ve fallen several times in the snow and gotten up. Those falls were a big clue that I should get the skis. Being able to fall and get up in snow is one of skiing’s most important skills.

This afternoon I skied for 3/4 of a mile. It was wonderful. At first I was afraid I wouldn’t figure out the bindings, but they were a cinch (ha ha), and they are great. My first few “steps” on the snow were awkward, and I nearly fell, but instincts that might have been dead after all this time kicked in, and said, “Go to the snow. Get off this beaten-down, icy shit. You’ll be fine.” That happened several times as I went around the groomed track.

It was spectacular. I loved it as much as ever. I have retained a lot of skill, and some things remain to be tested. And I live only ONE BLOCK from one of the most amazing places I’ve ever had the chance to ski. Once I get what the girl in the store called my “ski legs,” there are mountains.

The last time I cross-country skied was with my dog, Molly (Malamute/Aussie) in 2000. That’s almost 20 years ago. There was a huge dump of snow in the Laguna Mountains east of San Diego. I rented skis, ditched work, and Molly and I skied for a whole afternoon, all by ourselves, not another human in sight. It was really amazing. Today was amazing.

Subversive English Teacher?

Out of the thousands of slides my ex and I took while we were in China, only about 400 remain, and out of those, 300 were scannable. As I went through them, doing the tedious mechanical business of trying to get them centered in the frame, then uploaded, then (somewhat) refined with the photo software on my lap top, I expected to have a more intense emotional reaction. My year as a Foreign Expert in English was the experience of a lifetime. But I often thought, looking at a scene, “There are better photos of that on the Internet.”

In 1983, photos of the Forbidden City were unusual. Now?

In 1989 I was living in San Diego. When there were protests in Tiananmen Square in Beijing and people were killed, my Aunt Martha called me from Denver and said, “Are you happy with what you’ve done?” I laughed, but soon I realized she wasn’t kidding. I could imagine her all in a lather, her right forefinger raised in the air, prepared to deliver one of her incomparable stentorian remonstrances.

“I just taught English, Aunt Martha.”

“But look at what’s happening in Peking!!! You should have left China alone!”

I loved my aunt for thinking the little person that I am had that kind of power.

I thought of my little anthology of American literature and its possibilities as a subversive text. I thought of arguments I’d had with graduate students over the individualism (selfishness) expressed Emerson’s essay “Self-Reliance.” I thought of the city-wide lecture I’d given on the lost generation. “We’re a lost generation, teacher,” said one of my graduate students. “All of us.” When I asked them what they meant they explained that they were going to university only to have to return to their villages. Neither they nor I could know that by the time they were my age NOW (they were my age then) China would have launched stuff into space or that Guangzhou would have hosted the Asian Games. Their villages (most were in Guangdong) would be filled with skyscrapers. Electricity wouldn’t be “iffy” there would be consumer goods for everyone. None of them knew that some would come to America to live forever. Others would come to study and they would return to China. They couldn’t know that their one child would probably study abroad.

While my Aunt Martha overestimated the power of my classroom lectures, she was right in a way. During Mao’s “reign” China remained closed. When it opened to more foreigners, China changed and could never go back. That the young people took to the streets to protest China’s economic policies, only to learn that the iron fist remained clenched, was sad, but, to me, not surprising. Neither Rome nor Modern China could be built in a day.

Last night I woke up realizing that the slides are just a “shard” of a huge adventure that isn’t bound by time and that in a very small way, I became part of the history of China, far more than I am a part of the history of my own country.


* The featured photo is a shard of Anasazi pottery a friend of mine picked up near her home in Arizona. She left it for me, a small gift. I found it on my desk at San Diego State atop a stack of papers-to-grade. Once upon a time, this shard was a shallow bowl, I think, from the way the painted surface is concave and the top edge is finished. Someone took a lot of time to dig the clay, prepare the clay, mold the pot, grind the pigment and paint it onto the surface before firing it.

Thoughts on Totalitarianism (and Chairman Mao)

“Our Party enjoys the greatest prestige, unshakable prestige, among the people. Our Party represents the highest interests of the proletariat and the broad masses of the working people, and its relationship with the masses of the people is, as Chairman Mao says, like that between fish and Water.”

The Great Socialist Cultural Revolution

This little book came to me on Christmas Eve, 1982, slid under my door with a Christmas card and an assortment of Mao Buttons. It was not signed but I knew where it came from. It was a gift from Teacher Hu, a high school English teacher in the nearby village of Liede, a man from Hainan Island who was a good friend and former teacher of my best two Chinese friends. He was also the man to whom I had given my Bible. You can read that story here, and if you have enjoyed my stories of China, I think you would enjoy that post. I had invited him and his wife to our Christmas Eve party, but I did not expect him to come. What had happened between us was certainly not as secret as we imagined it had been.

Most Americans should be grateful that they have never lived under a totalitarian regime. I have, and while the iron fist of the Party never came down on me, I knew plenty of people who had suffered from it. Even during my year in China, there were students who were consistently being pulled out of class or denied privileges and sent to extra “political study.”

Every Thursday there was college-wide political study which meant Jim and I had the afternoon off. If anything came up during that meeting, we would learn about it one way or the other. There was the moment when a Chinese tennis player, Hu Na, defected to the US, and for a week our students and friends were forbidden to talk to us.

Mr. Hu had served with the US Army on Hainan Island during the war against the Japanese. He became an interpreter because of his linguistic abilities. He was one of the few people I met in China who spoke English with an American accent. His having contact with Americans led to him being imprisoned in a Tiger Pit for several years during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. His wife was similarly imprisoned and, at some point during this nightmare, she killed herself.

Many people killed themselves during the Cultural Revolution, so many that people I met who were older than I by at least ten years frequently spoke of someone who had “gotten the suicide” the way you might get a cold.

Generally speaking, the Cultural Revolution was, “… a sociopolitical movement in China from 1966 until 1976.” And it sounded great, but, in real life it was a trap for squelching any remaining dissent on the part of the Chinese people.

Mao was a true hero. During WW II his leadership did a great deal to defeat the Japanese, far more than did the leadership of President Chiang Kai Shek and the Republican army with whom the US had allied. Mao understood the people, was one of the people, and still embodied many of the “virtues” people expected in an dictator, oops, leader. For one thing, he could write poetry. IMO it’s not great, but it’s legit. “Snow” is his most famous poem.

North country scene: 
A hundred leagues locked in ice, 
A thousand leagues of whirling snow. 
Both sides of the Great Wall 
One single white immensity. 
The Yellow River’s swift current 
Is stilled from end to end. 
The mountains dance like silver snakes 
And the highlands* charge like wax-hued elephants, 
Vying with heaven in stature. 
On a fine day, the land, 
Clad in white, adorned in red, 
Grows more enchanting.

This land so rich in beauty 
Has made countless heroes bow in homage. 
But alas! Chin Shih-huang and Han Wu-ti 
Were lacking in literary grace, 
And Tang Tai-tsung and Sung Tai-tsu 
Had little poetry in their souls; 
And Genghis Khan, 
Proud Son of Heaven for a day, 
Knew only shooting eagles, bow outstretched 
All are past and gone! 
For truly great men 
Look to this age alone. 

If the subject of Mao, Chiang Kai Shek and the US in WW II interests you, Barbara Tuchman wrote a great book about that moment in Chinese history in Stillwell and the American Experience in China.

After the war — both the Anti-Japanese war and the civil war against the Nationalist forces, with Chiang Kai Shek gone to Taiwan, Mao had to consolidate his power. To my knowledge, he didn’t have any problem doing this, but then, how would I know? He started up various movements. At first he followed the Soviet idea of Five-year Plans. The first was successful, so he came up with his own. There was the movement to eradicate sparrows (they eat grain, you know) which led to famine (imagine!). In 1957 he came up with the Thousand Flowers Movement with its beautiful slogan, “Let a thousand flowers bloom, a hundred thoughts contend.” Some historians now think it was a ploy to trap dissidents. I tend to agree.

In 1958 he began “The Great Leap Forward,” (website with a good description and amazing posters) described to me by Chinese colleagues as, “When we all made steel in our backyard.” This was also the moment in which villages were converted to communes, and in cities, factories and neighborhoods were divided into “work units” which facilitated spying on your neighbor and reporting back to the cadres via China’s ubiquitous gossip system. Mao’s last desperate attempt to retain total power was The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution which lasted from 1966 to 1976.

I’m not an expert on the Cultural Revolution, but what I do know is that it fostered ignorance, led to the persecution of intellectuals, anyone who’d traveled abroad — especially to America, anyone who spoke English, and, of course, anyone who criticized the government. It was a youth movement that seems to have harnessed the zeitgeist, “youth is truth,” that was happening all over the world. It was taught that the only knowledge anyone needed was in the Little Red Book — the Thoughts of Chairman Mao.

It’s superficial objective was the elimination of the “Four Olds” — old ideas, old habits, old customs, old culture. Essentially, everything about China before that particular moment in Chinese history. In some ways it reminds me of the Protestant Reformation (and the Roman Catholic counter-reformation), down to the destruction of icons and the execution of dissenters.

Propaganda was disseminated in every possible way — big character posters, loudspeakers on trucks and the commercial media as well as in the classroom. When I first studied Chinese I learned to say to my students, “Ni hao tóngzhìmen” or “hello comrades.” Later I was told to say “tongxuemen” or students. I never said either. I spoke to my students in English. 😉

Many of China’s great writers and artists — patriotic Chinese — were imprisoned, forced to write confessions, hounded publicly, driven to suicide or killed outright. Among them was Lao She, a writer I happen to love. His love of China shines in every word he wrote (and I’ve read everything that’s been translated to English). One of his novels, Camel Xiangtse, was translated to English soon after it came out in the late 1930s. It became a bestseller. It’s known as Rickshaw Boy.

All translations published in China. “Teahouse” is a beautiful play that tells the story on an old-fashioned Chinese story-teller amid the rapid changes in Chinese society in the early/mid 20th century.

It’s true that Lao She criticized Communism in his satirical, science fiction novel, Cat Country (the word for cat in Chinese is “mao”) that gently points out the problems of “Everybody Shareskyism” and its intrinsic conflict with traditional Chinese Culture, and he never joined the Party, but, at the same time, he frequently expressed support for Mao and the actions of the Chinese Communist Party.

For a short time Lao She lived in America. His friend, Pearl S. Buck, brought him over for his own safety. He was never at home anywhere but Beijing, so he returned. Perhaps his having lived in America is part of the reason for his treatment during the height of the Cultural Revolution. A good article about what happened to Lao She is here in the South China Morning Post, “The Mystery of Lao She.”

For a while the Chinese were aware that things had gone awry with their revolution, but until Chairman Mao died, they couldn’t do anything about it. With such a heroic figure in power, who was going to do anything? Mao dies, the Gang of Four powerful party leaders, including Mao’s wife, were accused of crimes against the state (were they guilty? were they scapegoats? I don’t know) Deng Xiao Ping rose to power, Nixon came to call, and it was time for China to rebuild itself.

The most wonderful letter I have ever received. ❤

What I learned about totalitarianism in endless conversations with people during my year in China is that:

  • the people must support it;
  • it cannot co-exist with critical thought;
  • it requires a cult of personality, someone with the larger-than-life image of Chairman Mao;
  • the media must be controlled and free expression of ideas must be suppressed;
  • knowledge is the enemy of totalitarianism;
  • the language of totalitarianism relies on hyperbole and absolutes such as “the greatest” and “the only;”
  • repetition, repetition, repetition, slogans and proverbs serve the ends of totalitarianism;
  • totalitarianism is attractive to desperate people who are looking for a fast solution to their problems.

I also came to understand that communism is not totalitarianism; that is just the only model recent history has offered us.

Tiananmen Square in Beijing.
Chairman Mao on the Side of a Building in Haikou City on Hainan Island

Very little of Chairman Mao remained in “my” China. There was only one random Mao picture. It was on a remote and then very poor part of China, Hainan Island.

Hainan is now a developed luxurious place for tourists.

“Tell Us a Film, Teacher.”

In Guangzhou, on those long, dreary, cold, rainy evenings in the apartment I shared with my ex and Tex the indomitable cockroach, it was not unusual for a group of students to stop by for “coaching.”

I don’t think it was about “coaching.” I think it was about long, dreary, cold, rainy evenings in the dormitory (or as they said with their British accents, “dormitree”.) Our apartment had a couple of advantages, mostly space. But we had a television and it was amazing how stressed students could become about their studies when there was a soccer game televised or a Shao Lin movie. TVs were somewhat rare throughout China at the time and so were films, especially foreign films.

So, when the night was extremely long, dark, rainy and cold, my students would sometimes say, “Tell us a film, teacher.” I “told” them as many films as I could remember. They learned a lot about Monty Python. By the end of winter, my students could act out this scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail (and they knew why it was funny 🙂 )

Every time I “told” a film I remembered the Foreign Service Test (that I failed) where the first question was, “What film would you show in the People’s Republic of China?”

I actually learned that answer to that question IN the People’s Republic of China. One night we were invited to the American Consulate to watch an American movie. It was Heaven Can Wait starring Warren Beatty. We went. It was a stupid movie and, I thought, a stupid choice because Heaven, as it’s depicted in that film, is pretty alien to China, as is American football, never mind the LA Rams but OH WELL.

But…we never knew when a movie was going to pop up. One evening we were riding our bicycles home from Guangzhou. We had various routes, and one we liked was through a relatively unpopulated, tree filled agricultural area near what is now the Inner Ring Road. That evening we saw, in a clearing, dozens of People’s Liberation Army soldiers placing benches in rows. A couple of others were hanging a giant canvas on a rope between two trees. Afraid we’d strayed into another forbidden area, we stopped.

“Ni hao!!” said one of the soldiers coming to where we stood with our bikes. “We have Engrish movie! You join us?”

That NEVER happened. We leaned our bikes against a tree and sat down on the bench we were told to sit on. The projector was turned on and the film rolled on both sides of the hanging canvas. The music came up.

It was Roman Polanski’s 1979 film, Tess. A far better choice for China than Heaven Can Wait. The problem (for us) was that it had been dubbed into Guangzhouhua (Cantonese) A beautiful young female voice in Guangzhou is NOT the same as a beautiful young female voice in the English speaking world by a long shot. Tess spoke to us in a Guangzhou opera voice, shrill, high-pitched, and nasal, with exaggerated (even for Cantonese) inflection. We wanted to — but didn’t — laugh.

We sat through the whole film. Afterward there was much “Thank you for sharing our film,” and hand-shaking. As we turned our bikes toward home in the moonlight, China seemed to me a beautiful place filled with sweet and incomprehensible surprises.

The Great Wall of China

A few weeks ago I read one of those click-bait teasers “The Ten Top Over-Rated Tourist Traps in the World.” On top of the list was The Great Wall of China. Tourist “trap”? Not hardly, yet…

“Every year, more than 10 million people flock to the Great Wall of China, making it one of the world’s most popular tourist attractions. In 2013, 10,720,000 tourists visited the Badaling and Mutianyu areas of the wall.”

I looked through the slide show and saw tourists packed onto the top of the Great Wall at Badaling, and I thought, not for the first time, “I was lucky to be in China when I was.”

Not my Great Wall

To get to the Great Wall in 1983, you had to go to the Summer Palace to buy Tickets. My friend Zhou took us to buy the tickets and told us where to go to catch the tourist bus. Other than us, the tourists were all Chinese. It was an inclusive tour of the Great Wall and the Ming Tombs. The bus wandered up into the mountains around Beijing. We parked and followed the others up to the Wall. The tour was in Chinese but I had my (now ancient) Fodors and we had all read up.

The Great Wall of China is one of those things people put on their bucket lists. China taught me that my life’s wonderful experiences might not be famous monuments.

But later…

I returned “home” from China wondering where in the world I had been. I really didn’t know.

The building of the Great Wall under the evil first emperor, Qin Shi Huang — was an enormous hardship on the people of China. It was begun in 200 BCE and added to over the centuries, but, ultimately it didn’t work. Some dynasties — such as the Tang — did not add to the wall but attempted to use diplomacy and warfare to keep invaders at bay. Most of today’s Great Wall was built by the last Han Chinese dynasty, the Ming. The last dynasty — which lasted for nearly 300 years — was the Qing dynasty. The Qing were Manchurians, the very people the wall was built to keep out.

Two of China’s most renowned Tang Dynasty (618–907) poets — Li Bai and Tu Fu (8th century CE) — were sometimes exiled to the frontier. Li Bai wrote this poem about fighting at the Great Wall.

The Huns have no trade but battle and carnage; 
They have no fields or ploughlands, 
But only wastes where white bones lie among yellow sands. 
Where the House of Qin built the great wall that was to keep away the Tartars, 
There, in its turn, the House of Han lit beacons of war. 
The beacons are always alight, fighting and marching never stop. 

Men die in the field, slashing sword to sword; 
The horses of the conquered neigh piteously to Heaven. 
Crows and hawks peck for human guts, 
Carry them in their beaks and hang them on the branches of withered trees. 
Captains and soldiers are smeared on the bushes and grass; 
The General schemed in vain.

Tu Fu wrote this about fighting in the deserts of the far western frontier, on the Tibetan/Mongolian plateau:

My lord, have you never been to the ends of Qinghai, 
Where none come to gather bleached bones long dead, 
And the fresh spirits fret, and the old spirits weep, 
And the dark rain is full of their twittering cries?

When I stood on the Great Wall with a bunch of people taking pictures, I just felt numb. It wasn’t until I came home and began to learn where I had been that the Great Wall meant anything to me.