The word “nostalgia” was invented by a Swiss psychologist to describe the situation of Swiss soldiers sent away from Switzerland. It didn’t mean originally what it means to us today. And today, from the prompt, I learn another word for this feeling of homesickness, “Hiraeth,” the opposite of wanderlust. It’s a yearning to go home.

As a young person I never felt “hiraeth.” I just wanted to get AWAY from Denver and OUT THERE into the world. Money was the big problem. When I succeeded in getting a teaching job in China, I very seldom felt “hiraeth.” I was learning something every single day, I had good friendships, and I was teaching. I seldom felt anything like homesickness

One day, though, the yearning for home hit me like a potato truck. I was grading papers in the penetrating cold of the tropics (that is NOT a joke). I was wearing a turtleneck, a wool sweater and my “landlord’s” jacket — a silk padded jacket of the old style. Very warm, very light, very beautiful. I was wearing long underwear, corduroy pants and wool socks, a little wool tam o’shanter on my head. No, it never got down to freezing, but it got within a few degrees. The apartment wasn’t heated. The windows didn’t seal shut. It rained every day for four months, and the concrete walls drank in the humidity. I had paper rolled around my pen because my fingers were too cold to hold the pen’s narrow shaft, and there was no way to grade papers with gloves on (you can read the metaphor there, too…). A hot shower would have been nice, but there was no hot water except that in our thermos bottles of drinking water or what we might heat in a bucket on our two-burner propane stove. Most of the winter, the Good-X and I just stayed in the kitchen because the stove was there. We could put a kettle on and have a little warmth.

My students thought we were crazy. In their minds — and their world — the kitchen was a nasty, evil, vermin-ridden place. They weren’t wrong, but ours was free of rats, anyway, though the fight against cockroaches continued throughout the year (hopeless).

In a word, it was miserable.

That chilly, rainy Sunday, a stack of papers in front of me, the boombox in the living blasting (well, playing) the Hong Kong radio station which was in English, I was immersed in reading essays from my fourth year students. They were in the middle of the poetry unit of our American literature survey, and had written papers on one of Stephen Crane’s poems. Some of them had chosen to illustrate the poem as well as write an analysis about it, so I had a small selection of amazing drawings to go with their beautiful written work. I was alone, peacefully writing comments when, from the radio in the living room…

I cried and cried and cried and cried.


The Importance of Historians

I recently watched a BBC special about Confucius. As I don’t have a bean named Confucius, it would be wrong to focus on that, but I do have a bean named Szu-ma Chien. Last night, as I watched this program, I wondered if the world would even know about Confucius, if there would have been anything known as Confucian culture, if Szu-ma Chien had not been such a good historian and found so many important ideas in Confucius’ writing some 500 years after Confucius had lived. That’s a friend.

I haven’t really kept up with developments in Chinese culture in the interval since I got over my broken heart from having come back to the US in 1983, so, from time to time, I like to peer through a video window into today’s China. Last night I saw that Confucianism has been rehabilitated and has gone mainstream. I never really thought it had gone away. First it seemed to me that Communism and Confucianism meshed pretty well in the daily life area and then because the customs of Confucianism were, are, always have been — since the Han Dynasty — deeply engrained in the culture. Still, when I was living in China, Confucianism was barely awakening from the Maoist designation of it being one of the “Four Olds,” and a crime to practice.

The program opened with an actor sitting and writing with a brush on bamboo slats. He was portraying Szu-ma Chien. ❤

Yesterday, in The Dihedral, Carrot wrote about ethics. It was a compelling post and inspired me to write rambling incoherence in response, but you know, I go with my strengths. 😛

With this in my mind as I watched the program on Confucius I realized the Szu-ma Chien, in memorializing him so passionately and beautifully, and accepting castration rather than death as a punishment from “his” emperor, was making a desperate plea for ethical government. Confucius system is an ethical system, and whatever its nuances, it’s pretty simple. “Don’t do to another what you wouldn’t want them to do to you.” Seems a dark spin on the Golden Rule but I think, given human nature, less obscure.

I believe every society needs a shared ethical system that does NOT come from the top (as totalitarian Communism attempted) but which (as Confucius understood) is part of daily life and the rituals of ancestors, etc. Tradition. This weekend many Americans are doing just that “celebrating” Memorial Day. A society needs an identity that includes ritual observances and a shared ethical system. That — and his version of the golden rule — are pretty much the point of Confucius’ system.

The program made the point that Confucius believed he was a failure because, in spite of traveling all over the warring kingdoms he’d been unable to persuade any sovereign to follow his precepts. After some 14 years, he and his disciples gave up their wandering lives. Confucius was resigned, telling his students, “…A gentleman can cultivate his way, draw up principles, recapitulate and reason, but may not be able to make his way accepted. [If] your aim is not to cultivate your way but to please others, your ambition is not high enough.” In my opinion, that’s the essence of integrity, but also something I need to remind myself all the time as a painter and writer.

Of the prose and poet beans, Szu-ma Chien is doing the best. Of those who endured the cold, only two survived which means I have three viable bean plants, there is Tu Fu and Pearl Buck. I planted more seeds that have not yet germinated in place of the others. I guess this will give me more opportunities to look into Records of the Historian.

Of this Confucius said (via Szu-ma Chien) “A good farmer may sow by may not always reach a harvest…”

The featured photo is a Columbine that is blooming for the first time this year…

Nothing Lasts Forever

Last night as I was learning about Confucius I saw a historian who reminded me of my thesis advisor and friend, Dr. Robert D. Richardson, Jr. I thought, “I haven’t heard from Bob since???” It was fall 20219. We’d lost contact with each other at some point in the 2000s and after I found a book he’d written — Nearer the Heart’s Desire — about Edward FitzGerald who had translated The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam into English. I wrote about it here.

I went online to find him, found contact information for an email, and wrote him, basically asking him if he were still alive as I’d found an obituary with his name but couldn’t be sure it wasn’t him. He wrote back — happily! — that he was still there. He asked for my address and sent me a copy of the book. I read it over a couple of evenings and loved it.

So…last night I again looked for Dr. Richardson online and, sadly, this time I found obituaries. The first was written by one of my former professors. I realized if I ever opened the alumni magazine that arrives from time to time in my mailbox, I would have known last year.

When I wrote the China book, he was in my thoughts the whole time. Although I was so burdened by wanderlust at that time in my life that I studied densely printed National Geographic maps for fun, Dr. Richardson was the one who put the China bug in my ear. He wasn’t serious, as it happens. He’d recently visited Shanghai and Beijing (1980) and had returned with the assessment that it was a grim, stultifying, ugly, evil place where no one should go. He referred to it as “Dickens’ China.”

“Why don’t you go to China?” he said to me one afternoon when I’d come into his office with a draft of my thesis and my wanderlust.

“How can I do that?”

“Just send a letter to a university with your CV.” (I didn’t know what a CV was)

When I actually DID that (after he’d recommended some universities) he became very worried. What if I actually WENT? He and his wife invited me for supper and the killed the fatted leg of lamb and asparagus for the event. After dinner, his wife and daughters left the dining room so Bob and I could talk. He was afraid I was having an existential crisis and recommended Erikson’s book, Identity, Youth, and Crisis. A week or so later, I saw him in the English Department office and he said, “Why do you want to go away so badly? You know what Milton said.”

Of course I didn’t. I had always found Milton unreadable. I shook my head.

“In Paradise Lost. He wrote, ‘The mind is its own place and can make hell a heaven and of heaven a hell’.” Milton’s actual words are a little different, but I think Dr. Richardson was a better writer.

When I was clearly determined to go, he introduced me to one of his students from China so I could learn Chinese. When I finally got a job and went, I wrote Dr. Richardson often. My letters were so enthusiastic that he searched for — and quickly found — a position at a university in Sichuan. He happened to be in Beijing when I was there but the government refused to allow us to meet.

I dedicated my China book to him, and while I want to sell it and for people to read it, the reader in my mind as I wrote was him. When I finished, and it was published, I sent him a copy. His response was one of the loveliest letters I’ve had in my life. Now I know that we completed our own circle in those exchanges.

Since then, I’ve remembered many of our contacts over the years. It’s normal that people pass in and out of our lives and even that we lose the thread of people we care about. I don’t really buy that “people come into our lives for a reason” thing, but it is impossible that all the people we care about can stay in the same place any more than we can stay in the same place. We don’t, not physically or psychically or philosophically or anything. It seems like human life is this constantly fluctuating mess of change. Once I thought it was like mountain climbing but now, if I were to give it a sports analogy it would be surfing. We are all trying to stand safely on our board and make it to shore. And shore? It might be a nice beach where we relax until we’re ready for the next set, sometimes it’s THE shore.

But I’m sad, a little washed out today, even with company coming. Dr. Richardson was a remarkable man, a very fine writer, an inspiring teacher and — in my little life — one of my staunchest allies. Here are a couple of lovely obituary/articles about him. He was a fine writer, a find scholar and an inspiring teacher.

Robert Richardson Jr., Biographer of Literary Giants, Dies at 86 (NYT)

Opinion: How America can shift to the right direction (WaPO)

The featured photo is from this article in USA Today about his biography of Thoreau

The email I wrote in 2018? looking for him when he was still there.

Dear Bob — I was looking for you online this evening and happened on a page that said you were dead. Someone left a note that was a tribute to your work on Emerson. I was stunned, wondering, “Is this true?” I kept looking and found nothing else that indicated you were no longer “here.” In doing that, I found out a lot about your recent projects and something about your current life. I hope you remember me. I think about you pretty often and how lucky I was that you were my thesis adviser, how right you were about who I am (though back at the University of Denver I didn’t have much of a clue).

I tihnk the last time we corresponded I had just finished writing a novel (with which I was in love) and I wrote asking what I should do next. You said, “Find an agent.” I followed your advice and went out in search of one — and that was the SASE days when one might be blessed with a rejection slip on actual paper. One of these said, “You need an editor,” and he was right. 

My writing life has been fruitful, minutely rewarding financially, entirely without an agent and very enlightening. It’s brought me many of the happiest moments of my life. Most of all, I’ve loved what I’ve written and the work that’s gone into the books. Turns out I’m a Swiss Medievalist Historian — i know this is true because I was labeled by two Swiss Medievalist historians. You can see what I’ve done if you want to here at marthakennedy.co

Of your work I really enjoyed the little book, “First We Read, Then We Write” — I wanted to assign it as a text in one of my writing classes, but at that point I was teaching mostly Basic Business Communication at San Diego State and Freshman Comp at a couple of community colleges who had sold their souls to the beast of Prentice/Hall, so that didn’t happen. I love the William James book. The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam was my father’s favorite book. He carried a little copy with him when he was in the Army and that book was his last Christmas present to me before he died in spring 1972. Having learned (tonight) of yours I will have to get one. 

Mostly I want to know that you are still here. I retired from teaching (what?) after 30+ years (double what) in 2014 and moved from the San Diego area to the San Luis Valley in Colorado. I love it. I’m surrounded by mountains; the Rio Grande traverses it, I’m 1 1/2 hour from Taos, I have real snow, the light is amazing, the people are warm and friendly. I’m in Monte Vista, a town of 4000 and the home of the first pro-rodeo in Colorado. 

I hope you get this and I hope to hear from you. 

Warm regards,


121 1st Ave

Monte Vista, CO 81144

Expeditionary Forces…

From the time I was seven I thought that going on an expedition was a great idea and an eventuality. Now I’m trying to figure what is NOT an expedition.

I viewed heading to China in 1982 to work as a Foreign Expert in English as an expedition. I remember standing at the counter at the San Francisco airport with my trans-Pacific fardles — a little trunk that held a year’s supply of tampons, a wide array of prescription drugs, books for school, electricity converters, and a toaster oven. I also had a large convertible backpack (because I was going on an expedition) that held my clothes. That wasn’t all, though. I had my skis. One of the really wonderful (should’ve) men in my life, who happened to have been the person who took us to the airport in the VW that I had sold him, asked, “Are you sure you want to take them? Why are you taking skis, anyway? I can take them back for you.”

I’m pretty sure I answered him, but the answer’s almost too embarrassing to write here… Oh, ok. I thought we were going to Tibet and we would ski. They were back-country skis, after all… And hey; this was an EXPEDITION.

Thinking about it now, that’s no more absurd than those elegant, expensive British expeditions with the silver tea service. Or maybe it is. Skis are a lot harder to pack.

I had the idea that the difference between an expedition and a simple trip was the degree of exoticism and the degree of difficulty. With that as my operative theory, the Great Chinese Expedition of 1982 really began when we were stuck at the tiny airport in Guangzhou with our fardels and no one to meet us. It was instant total immersion. I had to figure out what to do next.

Guangzhou’s long vanished Bai Yun Airport. The terminal waiting room had only wooden benches in 1982. I flew to/from there a few times. Once our arrival from Hong Kong when we got to China, then from Hai Nan Island when we flew back from Spring Festival, and then to Hangzhou when we took Frances and Ann with us for our summer travel and back again, then, finally, the saddest journey, to Shanghai when we were on our way out of China. China’s domestic airliners (CAAC) were Aeroflots. I think this is a photo from the late 80s.

I did and we ended up at the Bai Yun Hotel in a spartan, clean room with pale green walls and white linens. A sink hung on the wall and in a small closet was a squat toilet, beautifully tiled. We ate our first meal in the People’s Republic of China in the hotel restaurant. There wasn’t much left in the kitchen and all there was to eat was “Joak” which is a kind of rice porridge with chicken or fish, thousand year old eggs, scallions and a kind of fried bread on top. That qualified as an expedition, too, as did the rat my X saw scurrying along the floorboards.

I would like to have gone on more expeditions like this. Compared to other expeditions in life, the Great Chinese Expedition of 1982 was pretty simple and straight-forward. Find a job, pack your stuff, go to the country. The real Chinese expedition was a lot like other life expeditions — coping successfully with quotidian frustrations like a washer that agitates in one direction and didn’t spin the clothes, or an infinite number of giant cockroaches or nothing but cold showers or recurring GI blues all combined with the inability to understand most of what’s going on around you.

Thinking about it now, an expedition seems like a very easy way to simplify one’s life. For a while, a person just surrenders to the imperatives of the road. As Kerouac said, “99% of Americans attempt to solve their problems by going on the road.” I’m not sure that’s limited to Americans.

My expedition today involves a journey to the Big City of Alamosa to pick up groceries. This will be followed by painting more of the deck, a task that has to be done in pieces and at a certain time of day because I need to accommodate my friends, Bear and Teddy. Sometimes I get advertising from Globus for an “expedition” to one of the world’s nether regions (nether from here). I look, sometimes, and imagine the expedition.

“I think, the Pastoral…”

I recently watched the PBS Great Performances program, “Beethoven in Beijing.” I love seeing film from the early days of the US/China rapprochement, but this turned out to be something very special and, for me, very moving.

I was a Foreign Expert in English at South China Teachers University in Guangzhou from 1982-83. I would have stayed longer but I mistakenly thought my marriage was a higher priority and my then husband was very miserable, then sick, in China so when my contract expired we came back to the States. I remained homesick for China for many years afterwards.

My students had grown up in — and the older ones had likely participated in — the Great Proletariat Cultural Revolution which was an enormous and deadly debacle. During this time schools were closed; education was drastically devalued and any western thing was considered evil. Many scholars, writers and artists “got the suicide” (the words of a friend in China). In 1972 when Nixon went to China to meet with Mao, the door opened a crack and then, slowly, more and more. Early in the opening,1973, the Philadephia Orchestra went to China.

I didn’t know about that. Why would I? I was 21 and dealing with university and various other things. That I would EVER go to China was beyond even my wildest imagination. I didn’t — at that time — know where I was going, but as far as I could see I had to graduate from university first.

In 1982, I was among the earliest group of American teachers in Guangzhou. When I was there, the city housed about 100 foreigners including diplomats. I was an attraction.

In this program there are several of the members of the Philadelphia Philharmonic who had gone to China in 1973. That was wonderful to see, but what touched me most deeply was my realization that…

My students had no chance to fulfill their dreams. Not for the most part, anyway. When the Gang of Four fell and things began to “normalize” they were still in school and woefully behind in everything. Teachers were hard to find. Many didn’t trust Deng Xiao Ping to actually DO what he was doing. They’d been lied to before and drastically, tragically.

The government at that time had a plan for what it needed to do to modernize China and it controlled much of the peoples’ lives. My students were told by the government where they would go to school and what they would study. They would be English teachers. Middle school English teachers. A few would teach high school. A very very very few who showed unusual promise would teach college. It didn’t matter where their gifts or interests lay. Most were accepting and resigned. Some were elated even to have the chance to attend university (that year my school was upgraded from a teachers college to a university). Some were frustrated and angry. A very few came to America. It was difficult to do this. The US wasn’t accepting refugees from China and any Chinese who hoped to study in the US had to be accepted by a university before they could get a visa. They needed a sponsor, also, who could put up $20k/year for them.

Their lives were full of traps, though, because of what they’d been told to study. Still worried about Western influence on the minds of the young, the government did what it could to make sure these students never had a high opinion of themselves. Individualism was synonymous with selfishness anyway. The example of this that struck me as I watched this beautiful program was when my students put together a show for a music competition. They had to perform music in English and because they had two, new, American teachers they were told to perform American music. I wasn’t invited to the show, so I don’t know what they did, I only know that they lost the competition (of course) and one of my students tried killing herself by jumping out of a ground floor window which wasn’t (thank goodness) much of an attempt. She ended up with a sprained ankle.

Watching this program, which is filled with western music, I thought of my students who would now be, at the very least, in their late fifties. They would have taught English to thousands of Chinese children, some of whom would now be in their fifties and forties. Some of them might still be teaching. Some of my students would be grand-parents now. My students children and grandchildren would be the young people in this film. I even thought, briefly, “I helped,” and felt very good inside.

The film touches on some important points — important to me, anyway — specifically the deterioration of our educational system due in part to most school districts jettisoning art education because (in their tiny minds) it doesn’t lead to high test scores. One American elementary school in this film had applied for the Lang Lang grant. What is that? A grant from the Lang Lang Foundation begun by and named for the Chinese pianist who plays for the Philadelphia Philharmonic. Watching Lang Lang play in this program? Amazing. He LOVES it. He clearly loves the piano, loves performing, loves the music. Individuality sizzles from him, a character my students could barely even have dared to reveal to the world. His philosophy of music, its why and who, is beautiful, too. Lang Lang was born in 1982. My best friends in China’s son was born in early 1983.

One of the artists in this program makes the point. “Our parents grew up in the Cultural Revolution. They didn’t have a chance. They poured all their lost dreams into us.”

1982 with two of my students.

There’s a lot going on this program; at times, I thought, a little too much. It could have been twice as long and gone a little slower with more music. There are a LOT of stories in it that barely get the chance to breathe. My favorite is that of Tan Dun who won the Acadsemy Award for best motion picture score for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. His story is wonderful.

I like Chinese music and the places in this film where the two come together are beautiful.

Chinese New Year

This morning on Facebook the local thrift shop posted some photos. I saw something I needed. For a long time I’ve wanted to replace an open book shelf with one with doors. I texted the shop owner to find out the price. When she told me, I was there in minutes. I got them home, maneuvered them into the house, rearranged furniture, and loaded these two beautiful antique scholar cabinets with books. I should have put the Chinese novels and history books in them, but since I was emptying other shelves to do this, I didn’t. But I don’t think it matters, anyway.

As we were loading my car, about a hundred Sandhill cranes flew over us.


If You Need Inspiration…

From the joints where leaves broke or froze, new vines are emerging ALREADY. I love these beans.


Tu Fu

Rain road through, now the autumn night is clear
The water wears a patina of gold
and carries a bright jade star.
Heavenly River runs clear and pure,
as gently as before.

Sunset buries the mountains in shadow.
A mirror floats in the deep green void,
its light reflecting the cold, wet dusk,
dew glistening,
freezing on the flowers.

Li Bai

On Old River Mountain
A huge boulder swept clean
by the blue winds of Heaven

where they have written
in an alphabet of moss
an ancient song.

Bai Juyi

I was surprised my quilt and pillow were cold,
I see that now the window’s bright again.
Deep in the night, I know the snow is thick,
I sometimes hear the sound as bamboo snaps.

Li Ho

The autumn wilds bright,
Autumn wind white.
Pool-water deep and clear,
Insects whining,
Clouds rise from rocks,
On moss-grown mountains.
cold reds weeping dew,
Colour of graceful crying.

Wilderness fields in October — 
Forks of rice.
Torpid fireflies, flying low,
Start across dike-paths.
Water flows from veins of rocks,
Springs drip on sand.
Ghost-lanterns like lacquer lamps
Lighting up pine-flowers.

“That’s a lot of money, Martha Ann.”

Thanks to the miracle of the inter webs, I listen to a Chicago radio station. Through the winter they play REAL albums on Fridays which is great. They also introduced me to my second favorite song , “Home of the Brave” by the Nails.


“It’s 1983 on XRT Saturday morning flashbacks.”

The song comes up. Ouch. Sometimes Mohammed’s Radio hits a nerve.

In my list of worst years of my life, 1983 is right up there. I came back from a year teaching in China late that August — about now (yeah yeah I know it’s September. Split hairs will you…) and tried to negotiate a place for myself in the Great American West which I had left in the first place because I hadn’t found a place for myself in the aforementioned Great American West. Whether or not you can go home again remains an open question, but I know for sure you can absolutely return to alienation.

I loved China and didn’t want to come back, but my marriage seemed important. It wasn’t. It wasn’t working, remained not working for the ensuing decade, and staying in China would have been an easier way out than the one that happened ten years later. My brother’s life went rapidly south soon after we returned to Colorado (no cause and effect there). It was a real nightmare and even my little niece was in danger. I came back to that. The ONLY good thing about that winter was Denver got an absurd amount of snow. The next summer saw us moving to California. Serenity remained elusive. I continued yearning for China for a long long long long time, I think until a few years ago I googled my Chinese home town and saw that it was gone and there was no way to go back.

So here I am in Monte Vista, Colorado, YEARS later. A few of my heart and brain cells are still missing China, but a whole lifetime has filled the interval. I’m sitting at my table finishing my coffee. Bear’s chewing a rawhide pencil. I give Teddy my empty coffee cup to clean. I’m trying to write this blog post and feeling intimidated at the reality that I’ve paid $100 to write this blog every day. Tracy (Untidy Mind) suggested I think of it as $2/day and that’s a good idea, but seriously, I’m not saying much here. I have 1900 blog posts up. I’ve deleted hundreds. How am I NOT saying the same thing over and over????

The last two posts I wrote, I deleted. They didn’t seem worth $100/year.

I guess I’ll see how it goes until next year…


Making my Smoothie…

This morning as I put together my smoothie I wondered to myself how is it I have everything I need all the time, especially in THESE times?

I’ve lived in a time and place where having everything you need all the time was no certainty. The largest single feature of my Chinese kitchen was an immense cistern (featured photo) so that when there WAS water, whoever lived in the apartment could stock up for the future. Most people cooked with charcoal or wood. I had propane, and I had a refrigerator. Most people didn’t have those conveniences. Vegetables and fruit were 100% seasonal. Bread was available twice a week from the university bakery. Meat was so scarce that when it was available it was a big deal. Canned food was available in the Friendship Store only and we sometimes went to Hong Kong to get provisions — cheese, tuna, peanut butter, flour, cocoa, coffee, mayonnaise. Who would ever think that stuff would inspire a journey that involved government permission, visas, a three hour trip on the hovercraft, four hours on the train, or overnight on a riverboat? We were allowed because it was a well-known (Chinese fact) that white foreigners needed more protein to maintain their larger bodies than did lithe and slender Chinese. Chinese also hold the belief that food is medicine, and my school did not want their foreigners to become ill.

I didn’t even mind the comparative scarcity of things. It was liberating to have what I had and that was it. It was through this that I came to understand materialism.

So there I was this morning, breaking a banana into my blender connecting that moment to China somehow. There was no blender in China. There was a two burner stove (all I use now, as it happens), my toaster oven that I brought with me (and left behind for the next foreign expert), a wok hanging on the wall (like all good Chinese cooks). An aluminum tea pot I used to make coffee. Pretty much all I need now except for a coffee grinder and a blender.

I thought about the markets in Guangdong at the time. Very very very very few were state run markets. Most were independent vendors. If prices were controlled by any outside power (and I doubt they were) it wasn’t obvious. In the vegetable market vendors openly competed for customers, and it was part of the bargaining process. “What! You want fifty mao for a li of green beans? Old Ma over there only wants thirty mao!”

“Old Ma’s beans were picked yesterday! I picked my beans this morning! Old Ma cheat you!”

If a vendor KNEW the customer LOVED a particular thing (as I loved hot chilis) they’d raise their price and THEN fight over who got my money partly because they’d get a lot and partly because doing business with the foreigner was fun. It broke the monotony, it was a show, and they liked me. Most foreigners never ventured into these markets. At that time, when China was hesitantly opening to the United States, most foreigners were visitors, and their comings and goings closely controlled by China Travel Service. Shi Pai, my village, was rich in foreigners (7!) because there were three colleges and each had foreign experts.

The thing is that when my university realized that I did not have to shop in the Friendship Store or have fancy things, they started paying me mostly in Renminbi, people’s money instead of Wai Wei Jen, foreign exchange money. I was a bargain to them. I got 100 yuan in Wai Wei Jen to send home every month and the rest in Ren Min Bi so I could live in Guangzhou like a Chinese.

That was part of my life under Communism. Communism did not create China’s poverty. Poverty was part of China for thousands of years, the result of periodic famine (climate related), overpopulation, dishonest politicians, foreign imperialism and war. Communism was an attempt to equalize the distribution of wealth in that immense and immensely populated country. How well did it work? Well, Chairman Mao was a great leader in war and a lousy leader in peace, in my opinion, anyway. He constantly strove to keep things stirred up. Chaos is the enemy of prosperity, but a bad leader can benefit from it (for a while), and Mao did by painting himself as the savior of the Chinese people. Two generations into his dominion, there were people in China who had never known any other leadership, and it was easy for them to believe him. But, by the 1970s, even Maoist Chinese leadership had copped to the reality that major players in Mao’s government were corrupt. When Mao died, it wasn’t long before they were thrown out and China — still communist — began to go in a new direction.

We know how well that worked. 🙂

I’m not an expert on Chinese history by any means, and I’m not Chinese. These are just the wandering thoughts of me making breakfast which I’d probably better eat (drink?) before lunch.


“It’s Heaven, Aunt Martha Ann!”

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

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

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

The Jacket and the Friendship Store (youyi bing guan)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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