Classroom Life at South China Teachers University, 1982/83

Being a Foreign Expert in English at South China Teachers University was my first teaching job. I was thirty. I’d gotten my MA three years earlier and, after five years in the clerical jungle, I wanted badly to be in the classroom. However, I wasn’t going after a PhD and I was not the greatest student in my masters program (I was essentially thrown out) so what was I to do? Someone said, “Become a Foreign Expert in English in a Chinese University.”

To get this coveted position, all I had to do was send letters to Chinese universities. I started with the major ones — Beijing University on the top of my list. I got no response and essentially forgot about it, moving on with my life, then, two or so years later, I got a letter from South China Teachers University inviting me to come. One of my letters to some Chinese university had found its way to Guangzhou.

Welcome Dinner at the historic Panxi Restaurant in Guangzhou. Me, University President Pan; Dean of Foreign Language Department, Kewey Tseng. Back, Party Member whose name I have forgotten, Jim Richardson, Li Ji Ming, co-chair of the English Department. I guess Li Han Cai, the head of the English Department is Taking the picture.

There is a lot to say on this subject, but most of it is teacherly stuff, and all of it would make a book. I don’t want to write a book here and now, so…

Classrooms were large and comfortable with windows on both sides. Guangzhou is on the Tropic of Cancer and air circulation is an issue much of the year. The teacher stood on a podium and most teachers lectured. I am not a lecturer and that was the biggest change for my students. For months they couldn’t figure me out, but as all of them were training to become English teachers themselves, they got a lesson in one of their training classes describing the “direct method.” They were very excited to come to class and explain to me that they understood now.

My biggest challenges were the radically different learning tradition they had grown up with, the indoctrination my students had experienced all their lives, and my own inexperience. I taught three classes of seniors American literature. Three classes of juniors, composition. I taught a graduate seminar in American literature and I coached anyone who came to me needing help.

My students had been in the same class with the same classmates for their entire time in college. Each class had a “head” and the nature of each class reflected that student’s personality. One of my classes was almost always silent because the “head” was a passionate Young Pioneer and a Party Member. The other two were more liberal.

A day came when I couldn’t stand the silence of the silent class any more and I yelled at them. “I’m just talking at you like you’re a bunch of empty jars I’m supposed to fill up!”

That comment made it all around the campus. The next day the “head” stood up and apologized, saying, “They’ve been silent for four years now. You can’t expect them to start talking all at once.”

“You could all try,” I said. From then on, having been criticized, they began to venture their ideas, but they were still a very reticent group.

From then on, though, it was kind of a rueful joke throughout my department; my students were empty jars. But I didn’t know — and they didn’t know — how quickly China would change and their being empty jars would be a problem for them when (and they couldn’t have expected it) they went overseas to study. At that time, almost NO ONE left China; few people ever left their village.

After reading my students’ first essay assignment, I discovered that the Soviets had written Communist literary commentary on most works in the USIA textbook I was using. An example of this kind of commentary is, “Rip Van Winkle is the story of how the bourgeois revolution did nothing to help poor peasants like Rip.” “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening shows the hard life of the peasant while the rich man is warm in his house.”

In combination with Communism, Confucian philosophy isn’t conducive to original thought A good scholar is humble and repeats what the experts have said. You see how it was… When I read their first essay, 2/3 of them said the same thing. Half of the remaining third said some of that. Five out of the 75 essays offered me unique student readings.

I decided that I would write my own textbook for my literature classes. I typed it on ditto masters, sitting in the office of the Foreign Language Department secretarial pool. It was a small anthology compiled of work that wasn’t in any of the American literature books in the college library or the USIA textbook.

Chinese generally love poetry, and it’s a big part of their tradition. I love it too, so that made classes fun for all of us. I’d read a bit of Chinese poetry and sometimes dared to bring it into the discussion, not very successfully because the Chinese truly believe (believed?) that other nationalities and cultures are inferior and cannot truly understand anything Chinese.

Maybe they’re right, but American literature did not prove to be so inscrutable. 😉

One of the most beautiful and memorable teaching moments of my 35+ year career was teaching Longfellow’s poem, “A Psalm of Life.” Maoist propaganda was all about inspirational BS, but none of it looked at the struggles of an individual against personal despair (all despair would end when they reached Communism). That doesn’t mean that personal despair wasn’t part of being Chinese. Non-Maoist Chinese literature is full of it. It was that in the collectivist world view, personal anything is at odds with “serve the people.” I believe that serving the people is a good mission. But you need to be healthy yourself, and life demands the individual courage Longfellow writes about. Plus, I knew the poem by heart.

So I taught it, all over the chalkboard, pictures to illustrate the journey of the poet. I used a piece of marble as a metaphor for a person’s life, something we, ourselves make. One of my students suddenly said, “Teacher, you mean Rongferrow says we must carve our stone, even when it is very hard, to make our life as beautiful as possible so others will be inspired.”

Their first, non-Soviet mediated moment with American thought, American literature. My “empty jars” were learning to engage directly with ideas on a page. I have tears in my eyes thinking of that moment, the moment my class — for those students — became an adventure.

And “Rongferrow” became forever my secret name for a poet I love very much. In Cantonese, R and L are difficult sounds. More than once, on a picnic, a student asked to borrow my “life” meaning my Swiss Army Life. ❤

My Classroom

I was always happy in my classrooms. Life in a place like China (as if there were another place like China) was a dream come true for me. I loved teaching. You can imagine that I was deeply, deeply happy. I went to class every day smiling.

Then came a time when I learned the difference between a smile of happiness in Colorado and in my Chinese classroom.

“Teacher, why are you always smiling? Do you think we are funny? Our English is funny?”

“You’re English is good. And no, you’re not funny. I’m smiling because I’m happy.”

“Why are you happy?”

“I’m in China. I’m teaching. I love both those things.”

My students were amazed. They were all going to be teachers, but they hadn’t chosen it. The government had compelled them to become teachers. One boy asked, “You love China?”

“Yes. I love China very much.”

“Do you love America?”

“Yes. I love America.”

“How can you love both countries? Don’t you miss your family?”

“Yes, I miss my family.” I didn’t but I thought of the Rocky Mountains as my family. “I miss the mountains. I miss a lot of things, but in China I get to be a teacher and I love teaching. And, I love you all. I love everything I learn every day here. It’s beautiful.”

My students were stunned. That was the end of that class. There was no where to go from there. They’d asked a question, expecting to be humiliated and got that instead. The “head” got up and addressed his classmates in Cantonese (they’d figured out I might understand if they spoke Mandarin). When he finished, my students collected their things, and he said, “Come on, teacher. We’re going to show you something.”

They took me to see some of the future of my village, Shipai. A new park was being made out of a blasted out slum. The grounds of a large garden had been laid out. Some had been built and planted. There was a brand new moon gate through which the little mountain behind the college was framed. Above the arch of the moon gate were four characters. “Sky, wind, clouds, mountain.”

“Can you read it, teacher?”

“Yes but what does it mean?”

“It’s a famous poem.” Some Chinese poetry is like that. Very, very spare, part of its beauty comes from the characters and the scene. I looked through the arch. All that was missing was “wind.”

I live in that poem now.


A Psalm of Life
What The Heart Of The Young Man Said To The Psalmist.

Tell me not, in mournful numbers, 
Life is but an empty dream! 
For the soul is dead that slumbers, 
And things are not what they seem.

Life is real! Life is earnest! 
And the grave is not its goal; 
Dust thou art, to dust returnest, 
Was not spoken of the soul. 

Not enjoyment, and not sorrow, 
Is our destined end or way; 
But to act, that each to-morrow 
Find us farther than to-day. 

Art is long, and Time is fleeting, 
And our hearts, though stout and brave, 
Still, like muffled drums, are beating 
Funeral marches to the grave. 

In the world’s broad field of battle, 
In the bivouac of Life, 
Be not like dumb, driven cattle! 
Be a hero in the strife!

Trust no Future, howe’er pleasant! 
Let the dead Past bury its dead! 
Act,— act in the living Present! 
Heart within, and God o’erhead! 

Lives of great men all remind us 
We can make our lives sublime, 
And, departing, leave behind us 
Footprints on the sands of time; 

Footprints, that perhaps another, 
Sailing o’er life’s solemn main, 
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother, 
Seeing, shall take heart again. 

Let us, then, be up and doing, 
With a heart for any fate; 
Still achieving, still pursuing, 
Learn to labor and to wait.

P.S. The sign in the featured image is funny. It should say, ‘Hua Nan Shi Fan Xue Yuan” but “h” and “n” do kind of look alike. Chinglish was one of the best thing about daily life in China. But I made mistakes, too, all the time. Communication was a huge source of laughter for all of us.

P.P.S. South China Normal University now has three campuses and is a prestigious university with more than a thousand international students. It looks NOTHING like it did when I was there.

Rio Bravo

My river is going to be a lot healthier this year because we’ve gotten snow. The high country is at normal snow pack and that’s good news for the river, for farmers, for everyone. There’s a dam upstream, so it’s not a completely free river, and it’s diverted hundreds of times into irrigation canals, but it’s still a river, and it has dug for itself, with the help of uplifting tectonic plates, a dramatic canyon outside Taos.

Photo by Daniel Schwen

“My” river is El Rio Grande, Rio Bravo, this lovely legendary thread of blue that wanders from the San Juan Mountains of Colorado to the Gulf of Mexico. One of the perqs, for me, of moving here was that river.

I didn’t know much about river reality but I’ve been learning steadily by walking with my dogs in a river fueled wetlands, The sloughs and backwaters of the Rio Grande have been my wandering place since I moved here.

When the dogs and I take a ramble out to the (now closed) Rio Grande Wildlife Refuge, the river is one of our destinations. Last month it looked like this:

Rio Grande at Rio Grande Wildlife Area, Monte Vista, CO

In other news, I shoveled snow for two hours yesterday and today it looks like I have a similar job ahead of me cleaning my neighbor’s walk. They’re out of town. I am not complaining. I am happy I’m able.

We got upwards of 10 inches in our recent snowstorm, and it was heavy, wet snow, the best for rivers. The dogs and I took a walk in this — to the golf course — where some of the drifts were over my boots and up to Dusty’s chest. Even Bear wasn’t having the best time she’s ever had in the snow.

Once Upon a Time in the Tianhe District of Guangzhou there Were Farms

During the time I lived in China, the area around my university — South China Teachers University in the village of Shipai — was largely farms and small villages. Behind my apartment building were experimental farms of the agricultural college. Beyond the college was a small mountain where my ex and I sometimes ran — he ran, I bitched. I hadn’t become a great runner yet. Sometimes we encountered a guy doing Monkey King Tai Chi as he ran up the mountain. He had to have been in a very unique zone to have managed those moves while running.

In I. J. Khanewala’s recent blog post about Guangzhou’s New Town, I saw what “my” neighborhood is like now.

I wouldn’t know it. As I read his description, I Googled a map of Guangzhou and looked specifically for the “Tianhe District.” I had never heard this term. I lived in the village of Shi Pai. White Stone.

I studied the map, orienting myself (ha ha see what I did?) partly to get a sense of the images and discussion in the blog post, and partly to imagine “my” China so radically changed.

In looking at my slides, I see things as they were beginning, including the major freeway that runs around the city. People sat on the road breaking rocks and concrete by hand, waving at us as we went by on our bikes on a road that, on this map is a highway, one of the wide yellow roads. The subway runs on the bus line, bus 22. If we missed it, we took bus 11 — our two legs.

So, here is what the urban world of Tianhe District looked like in 1982/83

There are a couple photos of Shenzhen which was a “special economic zone,” designed to attract foreign investment, between Guangzhou and Hong Kong. It’s now a city. But the agriculture there was typical of Guangdong at the time.

People sometimes ask me whether I want to return to China. I don’t. I can’t. It’s not just a place on the map, it’s also a time and a way of living that is long gone. It’s paradoxical. While I don’t want to go to new China, (Xin Hua) I would not want China to remain where it was when I lived there. It was a very hard life. For most people — including my ex and I — life centered on finding food. The REAL Chinese greeting is not “Ni hao?” (“You OK?”) it’s “Chi baole ma?” or “Have you eaten?”

For me, foraging came up against a time crunch. My colleagues taught two classes a day, Jim taught three, I taught six and I was expected to do coaching after school and teach graduate students. Lucky us, though. We had a fridge!

The daily necessity of finding and preparing food was complicated, but it needn’t have been complicated. The college had two women who cooked three meals a day for us. They were good cooks, and I really liked them, but food from home is important when you are so far away. We ate lunch in our dining room and breakfast and supper in our apartment, usually. I’m glad we did that. I wanted a Chinese life, and that problem was part of a Chinese life.

Peasants were up at 3 in the morning picking vegetables, loading them in bamboo baskets, hoisting them on their shoulder poles and getting on a freight train to the nearest village market which opened at 7 am. The vegetables were better than any I’ve eaten in the United States ever. Fish was easy to find, but meat and chicken were not, although nearly every day the sounds of a pig being slaughtered blasted the walls of the college. Sometimes this was followed by one of the cooks yelling up to my apartment, “Ma Sa! Ma Sa! Jiu ro! Jiu ro!” Martha, Martha, pork, pork. I’d meet them in their kitchen and we’d part out the hunk of pork and laugh. They respected me for cooking, for being human.

My love for chile peppers was famous in my village. And when they went out of season, and I couldn’t have them any more, and I asked, I learned for the first time in my life about nature’s imperatives. Months went by without chiles and then, one day, a peasant woman in the market grinned at me and said, in Mandarin which most of them did not speak (there are countless village dialects) “Lao she! Yo la jiao!” “Teacher. I have chiles.” She held out a handful of red peppers. Everyone around her laughed. The price was exorbitant but my god, she remembered (I was kind of a sore thumb) and prepared a sentence in Mandarin. I felt like a million dollars and paid her five mao. We carried our money — everyone did — in crumpled piles in the front pockets of our pants.

I’ll end this agriculture post with a story. By June, the rain had stopped and the weather warmed up, slamming us with tropical heat, less painful than it had been when we’d first arrived from Colorado. We headed into town on our bicycles (the road is on the map, but I don’t see a name). As we passed the edge of our village where some new buildings had been put up (since torn down) we saw men from Sinkiang selling small watermelons. We stopped our bikes — me, my Chinese brother and my ex — and bought three. One of the men cut them open. We took them to the shade of some trees across the road and sat beside a field, enjoying the sweetness of a fruit from Sinkiang (western China, Moslem and Turkic), spitting seeds into the canals between the green vegetables and laughing.

The best watermelon I ever expect to eat.


To learn about my village of Shipai today, look here.

Exploring Guangzhou’s Urban Villages: Shipai, Xiancun By Tristin Zhang and Jocelyn Richards,  May 30, 2017

And here The Fall of Guangdong’s Urban Villages, Migrants’ Last Refuge By Bailey Hu,  May 29, 2017

My Happiest Day in China

Before I went to China, I studied Chinese. My teacher was a professor at Beijing Technical University. His name was Zhou Guang Yuan. He was one of the first international students from China to come to America, and he was a student of Dr. Richardson, my thesis adviser. When Dr. Richardson realized I was serious about going to “Dicken’s China” (as he characterized it) he introduced me to Zhou. I loved learning Chinese and I liked Zhou very much.

Ultimately, Zhou returned to Beijing. My ex and I met him in Hong Kong on his way to Beijing. That’s another story. It was our great fortune that the government gave Zhou permission to see us when we went to Beijing on our summer travel before we came “home.”

One of the places we went with Zhou was The Fragrant Hills. These are mountains near the Summer Palace that were used as a Buddhist convent, sanctuary and meditation garden by the emperors. The monuments and buildings throughout these hills are beautiful, mostly covered in colored tiles. When I was there, all the holy figures on the lower parts of these buildings had been cut off during the Cultural Revolution as part of Mao’s crusade to eradicate superstition.

We ate lunch at a beautiful hotel that had been designed by I. M. Pei.

Hotel designed by I. M. Pei

After lunch, we went wandering through the wooded hills to an art shop. There I met Ma Yue, an artist, calligrapher and seal carver, and his friend and colleague, also an artist whose name I don’t remember. He was an artist in the Classical Chinese tradition and did amazing paintings. These two men owned this little art shop deep in the maples of the Fragrant Hills.

They were Zhou’s friends.

I loved the shop, I enjoyed the men — they had both been with Chairman Mao on the Long March and so, when they retired, they pretty much had their pick of places to work and live. This shop had been their dream on the Long March and all the bitter years following. They were two of the happiest people I’ve met in my whole life.

Ma Yue and I have the same surname. In Chinese, my surname is Ma and my name is Ma Sa which really doesn’t mean anything special; it’s the sound, Martha. But the character for my Ma and his Ma is the same and that’s important. He spoke to me (through Zhou) as if I were his long lost sister. We talked about art, he told me about the Chinese zodiac, the history of Chinese characters — which he could write in the most archaic style.

Chinese zodiac painted by Ma Yue, characters by his colleague who had beautiful writing.
Chops carved by Ma Yue of ancient Chinese characters, explanatory calligraphy by his partner.

I didn’t know, but Zhou had arranged ahead of time for Ma Yue to carve chops for Jim and me. We had to pick them out. Zhou had already chosen for me a lion head like the Emperor’s seal. Jim chose a little Buddha (no, not Keanu Reeves). Before we left Beijing, Zhou gave them to us.

Chop carved by Ma Yue, my name in ancient Chinese characters

Ma Yue and I corresponded by mail and pictures for several years, then the correspondence died away. I had to have his letters translated and he had to have mine translated, but we answered each other. It was very special, a treasure.

Looking back on half a lifetime of experiences, I think this day is right up there in my top three happiest days ever.

Daily Life in Guangzhou, 1982/83

My apartment in China was luxurious compared to where most other people lived. My young married Chinese colleagues (equivalent in place in life with me and Jim) who didn’t have a family, lived in one room — usually a married couple and an old mother. When a baby came, they would apply for a larger place, but it would take time for that to happen. And, if they had any bad marks against them politically, it might never happen.

We lived on the third flour of a four story building. Downstairs was the university president, a really lovely man. The featured photo shows his rose garden. His passion was fish-farming, and he gave us three beautiful carp to eat. They lived in a bucket hanging from the bathtub faucet for a few days until our cook could steam them with green onions and garlic. I got fond of my carp but I think, considering how good the steamed fish was, they died a good death.

In the gallery below, are photos of my apartment. Many things in it “looked” right but weren’t. There was a bathtub but no hot water and no plug for the drain. The toilet — a Western sit down toilet (very very rare, but stand up ones are more hygienic) — was cemented to the floor. God forbid any plumbing problem ensued. There was a washing machine in the bathroom we could hook up to the sink. The thing is, it only agitated in one direction meaning it tied the clothes in knots. After each cycle, a human had to take out the clothes, wring them, and put them back in for the next cycle. Still, I think it was easier than washing everything completely by hand. Everything was dried on hangars, outside (god-willing it wasn’t raining). We had a really cool bamboo pole with a bent nail on the end to lift the hangar to the highest clothes lines on our balcony.

The kitchen was built of concrete — kind of trendy today. We had propane to cook on, but most Chinese used charcoal. The drains were open which meant the roaches had free access to everything. My mother-in-law who visited said she thought the Chinese got used to them, but I saw my Chinese brother (I was adopted by HIS mom) freak out more than once and I killed several roaches for him.

You can see a toaster over in my kitchen. I brought it from the US. At that time in China no one had a personal oven. There was bread — really excellent bread — every other evening I went to the campus bakery with coupons and got a ration of delicious, fresh-baked buns.

If you look on our stove, you’ll see an interesting terra-cotta unglazed pot. This was for boiling hepatitis tea. Jim had a damaged liver from eating something in Acapulco (poor guy) and it flared up in the spring (for lots of people) while we were in Guangzhou. Another white guy we knew also got hep. There was a crystalized tea that the doctors prescribed Jim along with gamma globulin shots.

Lots of people were sick that spring from bad water. Human waste was used to fertilize crops and the wet winter meant lots of flooding where there should not have been. When we stood at stops waiting for busses or trams, we saw lots of people waiting, carrying identical bags of hepatitis tea crystals.

I had no symptoms and by then I’d “gone native” in many respects anyway. I went every morning to the Chinese Medicine Doctor on our campus for a sack of herbs which I came home and prepared in that pot — which was part of the prescription — as I had been taught. I never got sick.

Chinese health care — even in those days — was excellent. Free to all. Clinics were everywhere, both traditional medicine and Western medicine.

The black stuff on the walls in the kitchen is mold and mildew. The walls were concrete, the climate is humid and that year was beyond humid. The walls had been whitewashed with lime white wash. Now when I hear people freak out about mold I just think, “You have NO idea.” But, yeah, it’s not something you WANT in your house.

I made curtains for our bedroom window. It faced the apartment of our boss. When he saw the curtains go up, he summoned the other “heads” and they hurried over and asked why. I explained it was for privacy.

That’s when I learned that “privacy” translates to “selfishness.” Pretty un-communist of me, I know.

“Why are they red?” asked my boss.

“It’s my favorite color,” I answered. Red is very significant in China and when I knew more about it, I realized it’s the perfect color for bedroom curtains. OH well…

You’ll notice the knotted mosquito nets over our beds. The knots are to keep mosquitoes out during the day. The worst was getting a mosquito inside the net at night.

There’s nothing romantic about mosquito nets if you need them. The perfect scenario is you open the net, check for mosquitoes, tuck the ends into your mattress, then climb in without bringing mosquitoes with you. I got good at it.

But once in a while it was funny. One night Jim kept slapping his face in his sleep, but there was no mosquito. A steam train was blowing its whistle in the distance and, to him, it sounded like a mosquito.

Most married Chinese sleep in one bed, but we had twin beds because they had seen in American movies (Rock Hudson and Doris Day) that couples in America sleep in twin beds. These were made for us.

The floor tile was pretty but not grouted, so monthly everyone (a day announced on the campus loudspeaker) got buckets of water and cleaned their floors. I couldn’t understand the loudspeaker so I didn’t know. I cleaned my floors once on an “off day” and caused a great inconvenience to my apartment building. Water was swept out the front door, went down the stairs and sometimes into other peoples’ apartments. From then on, our “watcher” (who became my brother) let me know when I was supposed to do this chore.

In some of the photos you see a kind of mural on my wall. It is a tissue paper sun. We had rain for four months and it was the only sun we saw. I glued it to our wall. Paper cuts are a true art in China — something I didn’t know — and at Christmas, when we had a party, one of my students made beautiful paper cuts to put on my wall. I’ll find them, probably…

Here goes…

Epistolary Wonderment

Letters are marvelous things. I used to wait for them and wait for them and wait for them. I LOVED writing them (before I had a story or anything) so I wrote a lot, but yeah, answers were seldom forthcoming. Now we text and Facebook etc. and no one ever shuts up.

It took a lot of effort for people to write a letter, I guess (it didn’t for me).

In the process of cleaning out my parents’ stuff, I found some wonderful letters, a few that were even helpful to me now. Among my treasures are some letters from my aunts. In the garage are letters from one of the great loves of my life (it didn’t happen because I was an idiot). Once in a while I read, “We need to get back to writing letters” and I know that person has stumbled upon some letters that mean something to them.

I wrote lots of letters from China to my mom, my Aunt Martha, my friend Gale. My Aunt Martha loved my adventure so much that when she wrote, she tried to copy the Chinese address on my letters. That was so cool, and she wrote often. Her letters meant the world to me. Besides missing me, and believing I was lonely for home and writing was the right thing to do, she typed. In my mad letter-writing days I realized why I wrote more letters than those to whom I wrote. I typed 90 wpm. It was (and is) almost as fast as thought.

The other day on a dog walk I noticed some letters written in the snow beside the irrigation canal. I hoped they said something great, but they just said, “My name is Jeff.” I don’t think I would have gone to all that work (essentially signaling an aircraft) just to say that.

P.S. The 1892 stamp above commemorates the 400th anniversary of Columbus landing in the Americas. A friend and her mom found it in a tin box of buttons they bought at a thrift store over the holidays — this and many other treasures.

Not Too Difficult… Scanning China

The slide scanner arrived and I set it up within a few minutes. I bought a cheap one because I’ve never been very motivated to do this little task and would rather buy something fun. I spent an hour or so working on scanning slides this afternoon. I started with my most precious slides, then went to the box that became my “traveling this is China” show. The machine is primitive and effective and easy to use. I recommend it. The photo fixing software on my Mac does what the little machine can’t. All is well.

I did not take most of the slides I have of China. My Ex did. He is a good photographer with a sensitive eye. He also used the camera as a way to distance himself from China which was dirty, inconvenient, uncomfortable and ugly in ways that bothered him. His health suffered while we were there. He was teaching, which is not the best job for a very very very shy guy to do, especially one who is not a teacher. It’s a really stupid idea to get married to someone you’ve only know four months (stupid in any case) and then take them to the third world to fulfill YOUR dream when they hardly know you and don’t share it.

Years later, he said China was the greatest experience of his life, but during the reality of it, it wasn’t. I can’t say I liked it all the time, either. The roaches were as big as Bear. I was sick with vertigo the first few weeks. It was challenging teaching students from such a different learning tradition — Confucianism and Communism formed a good partnership. We also happened to be there during an intense El Niño year — my hometown of Denver had record snows (I learned later) and we had four solid months of rain with TWO days of sunshine that winter. Still, once I was physically accustomed and made friends, I loved China.

Communism is not easy to live with. While there I learned it is NOT a political system but more like a religion. People spoke of it in the way Christians speak of Heaven, “When we reach Communism one day.” They spoke of that moment as “Ming Tien” or bright future.

Students at the time in China, I don’t know about now, were TOLD what they would study. They had no choice. I’m sure there was an exam that indicated what they might be good at. My students had all been compelled to study English. Until Nixon’s visit, the required language was Russian. My students would all become English teachers and their great fear was that they would be sent to the countryside to teach English to peasants, though, of course, most of them had “good backgrounds” and were peasants themselves. My students were constantly being sent to “political study” to “struggle” with the corruption of anything they might learn from their American teachers (we were the second ones the college had ever had) and from American literature (which I taught).

Anyway, here are some of the first photos I’ve scanned of Guangzhou and Hainan Island in 1982/1983.

The featured image is Guang Xiao Temple — Bright Smile Temple. It was the home of the Buddhist Saint, Hui-Neng. His famous poem (sutra) is inscribed on a slate tablet on a wall of this temple. Looking at these photos really brings it home to me. As I remember it from the wall:

Bo tree is not a tree
Gleaming mirror is not mirror, either.
Stained with dust
How could they be?

There are 10,000 commentaries on this poem that you can read. It is a poem about the non-being of things, the transience of life and phenomena. It almost can’t be put into words. In a sense, it’s a kind of Buddhist Platonism.

Lamont and Dude Further Discuss Relocation

“So did you decide, Dude? Are you moving to the mountains?”

“No. I don’t think I’m the same being I was whenever that was and I lived in the mountains.”

“No more enlightenment on the species identification, then. Oh well. We can’t be expected to remember everything.”

“I think you were right. I was some kind of deer. I did a little research on those creatures and it’s not a bad life unless winter is hard and long.”

“Yeah, vegetarians have a greater dependency on climate than carnivores. If anything, bad seasons are good for carnivores.”

“I hadn’t thought of that.”

“Oh well. That’s why I always say, if you can’t come back as an ancient oak tree, come back as a carnivore.”

“Like there’s a lot of choice.”

“True enough, Dude. So you heading out? Looks like some pretty nice sets.”

“Yep. You coming, pardner?”

“Not today. You just git along little doggy. I’ll catch you later.”

Lamont and Dude are characters I came up with a few years ago. They have the uncanny ability to remember many of their past incarnations which gives them an unusual perspective on life, the universe and everything.

Souvenir of China

We’re doing our normal evening things which is very close to nothing. Suddenly, Bear really wants out. I know she doesn’t need out, but she WANTS out.

“What is it, Bear?”


“OK.” I open the back door for her and find the ground is now covered in white. Bear has smelled it, or heard the change that snow makes.

NOTHING makes us happier. Other things make each of us happy, but nothing else makes us ebullient.

It took living in California to teach me that while skiing is GREAT the best part for me is winter itself, snow. I like the cold. I love snow. In the recent “I can’t afford skis” break down, I remembered, again, that running through drifts with your dog is as good as it gets.

In other news (not that any other news matters around here) one of the writers of a blog I follow,  has been staying for a while in my Chinese “home town” of Guangzhou. In one of his posts, he said he wondered how it there was 30 or 40 years ago. As I was there 37 years ago, I shared a description of the place he was writing about. His pictures, commentary and our conversation inspired me to finally spent $70 on a slide digitizer.

I have many, many slides of my year in China and I made a film. The machine will help me digitize all of it. My blogging friend also said, “Maybe a book.” I’ve been thinking about that in the back of my mind, too, and listening to an album that came out the year before I went to China, Jean Michel Jarre’s Concerts in China. I bought this music on a trip to Hong Kong in 1982.

China was a different world in so many ways in the early 80s, but it had also been warped by Maoism into abandoning some of the things which had made China China for thousands of years. It seems that China had lain in wait, a sleeping dragon, beneath all of the Maoist strangeness (strangeness like killing all the sparrows, making steel in the backyard, destroying iconographic images, etc. We won’t talk about killing people right now. Oops. Blew that.)

I’m excited to start the project. I remember only a few of the images. There are a few I separated from the ‘mother ship’ (we’re talking about a Vogon Cargo Vessel of slides) and they became my slide show (who wants to sit through hours of that shit, right?) I have two MacBooks and I’m thinking of dedicated one to the slides. They will need a lot of memory.

If I were to write about it, there would be a few things that would only enchant a person who’d lived through the Cold War, such as flying on Aeroflots, but if I’m any kind of writer, perhaps I can share the enchantment of flying in a plane that does not just go forward, but shakes from side-to-side in flight. Scary, but meanwhile, I remember thinking, “I’m on an Aeroflot! An Aeroflot! Wow!”

In the last few years of teaching, I taught many Chinese students at San Diego State and came very close to running a program for them. The program never took off (unlike the Aeroflots) but it would have been amazing because it would have involved trips to China. The students? Well… Often it was great because I let them know about my own background and they felt more comfortable knowing they were with a professor who had lived in their culture. A couple of times students attempted to use the “Guang Xi” method of earning grades (bribery) but it couldn’t work with me. I had one student from my Chinese Home Town and our interaction was one of the best parts of my last years teaching.

I loved China more than I’ve ever loved anything except maybe the San Luis Valley. It took five years — or more — after I returned to heal that broken heart. I wish I’d stayed, but I had the idea that my marriage mattered (it didn’t) and my ex had hepatitis and couldn’t recover in China, so, at the end of our contract, we came “home.”

To my surprise, home wasn’t home. In China I’d missed the Rocky mountains, but as soon as I saw them, and saw they hadn’t changed while I was in China yearning for them, I regretted my return. It would never matter to the mountains how long I was away. Whenever I came back they would be here.

One of the things I brought back with me was a carpet, 2 m x 3 m. I bought it at the one export store in Guangzhou, a store next to the Bai Yun Hotel, one of three foreigner’s hotels in Guangzhou when I left. I spent my first night in China in this hotel, my first meal was there (joak, a kind of rice gruel), my first night’s sleep. The rug was wrapped and delivered to our apartment where it stayed wrapped for months, until it was time for us to return to America. I carried it on my shoulder through the airports in Guangzhou and Shanghai. It was nearly left on top of a baggage cart at the Las Vegas Airport when we changed planes from San Francisco to Billing, MT where my mom lived. I saw the car begin to pull away from the plane and I went apeshit.

It was like a movie. The stewardess came running to appease the crazy lady.

“It’s all right. We’ll send it on the next plane.”

“No you won’t,” I said. “Either it goes with me or I get off.”

My getting off would be a worse hassle for them than getting my carpet. They called the baggage guy and he came back the 15 or so feet and loaded the carpet.

Now that I think of it, the first night I spent in my Chinese apartment, looking out over the fields of the agricultural college that was behind my college, at the water buffalo in his shelter, at the mountain beyond, in the soft light of the tropical sunset, knowing I was finally there, on the brink of a great adventure — that was every bit as good as snow.