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…

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.

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.

“What Did You Talk About for an Hour with the Old Mother?”

Four Generations

I had some good friends in China but now I know that my best Chinese friend was the old woman in this photo holding the little girl in blue on her lap. She was my friend Zhu’s mother-in-law, simply called, “the old mother.” She was born on Hainan Island, did not speak Mandarin, Cantonese or English. She lived with Zhu and Fu in their one room apartment. Luckily, when their baby was born they got a bigger place to live.

I cannot fully explain our friendship. We just liked each other. One evening I went over to find Zhu. She wasn’t home. I didn’t go back to my apartment, I stayed some time with the old mother looking at movie magazines (in Chinese) and arguing about female beauty as we looked at one movie star after another. I know we were joking. I said I liked every Caucasian actress and she told me all of them were ugly, but especially Ingrid Bergman. We howled laughing. I don’t know why or how, but it was funny in exactly the same way to both of us. All of these women — Asian and Western — were millions of miles away from us.

I liked spending time with her and my friend Zhu always said, “What do you talk about? You have no common language?” I think the truth is that we simply liked each other. I don’t think that’s always a rational thing, that we like someone “because of this and that.” I think sometimes heart speaks to heart.

We were invited to the Old Mother’s village on Hainan for Chinese New Years. The government gave us permission to go. We went on a ship down the Pearl River to the South China Sea, then across the Gulf of Tonkin to Hainan Island. We were in the bottom of the ship with other Chinese passengers. My bunk was 6 inches away from a florescent light that was on all night. When someone asked the old mother why she was traveling with foreigners she said, “What foreigners? This is my son,” she pointed to Jim, “they’ve been studying in America for a long time.”

The saga of that journey is for another post, perhaps, along with other stories about our time on Hainan. But for now know that we made it to the village of All Beauty, Fu’s ancestral village. We even got a rides all the way there (amazing). When we got off the lorry that was our last ride, we had a quarter mile walk to the village. The Old Mother was quite bent from arthritis in her spine caused by the unbelievably hard and colorful life she’d lived, including a stint as a guerrilla fighter against the Japanese in WW II. A few yards from the village she stopped. She slowly forced her back to straighten. She took my hand in a gesture of affection, possession and support and forced herself to walk the rest of the way with her back nearly straight. She would not lose face in front of her relatives this way.

We stayed for a week, and the last night, after a delicious meal, the whole family sat in the main room. Everyone was tired from a week of festivities and conversation and showing the foreigners around. We sat in the dim light of a kerosene lamp that hung from the ceiling. The old mother held my hand. I noticed that people were dozing. The little kids were already asleep. “Sleepy,” I said gesturing around the room. “Sleepy.”

The Old Mother looked around and understood me. “Hoile,” she said. Hainanese for “sleepy.”

“Hoile,” I repeated.

“Sleepy,” she said.

One Child Policy

In Guangzhou, I was rich. I earned as much as Deng Xiao Ping, $100 US/month or 500 RMB. It was more than we could spend. We sent Jim’s income home every month to put in the bank against our return.

Our first journey to the bank in Guangzhou was a life-time disturbing adventure. Guangzhou was a few miles from our village of Shipai. When we’d lived in China for a couple of months, and the Heads of our university knew us, and the City gave permission, we went alone, just road our bikes, took the bus, or sometimes came home in a taxi. But in the first month or two of our arrival, until we got permission to buy bicycles (or if our visit were something official) the college arranged a car. It could be a “Mien Bao” (Loaf of Bread) meaning a Toyota van, or a big, black Hong Chi (Red Flag). China made cars back then, not many, and mostly “lorries,” the big Jei Fang (Liberation) trucks. Going to the bank was a big deal. We road in the back of a Hong Chi like diplomats. The car would drop us off near the bank, then take the university Official who was in the front seat to his meeting, and we were supposed to find our way home.

Hong Chi in a museum in Shanghai

The only bank that could send our money to America was on a former business street near Shamian Island. Shamian Island, an island in the Pearl River across a narrow channel from Guangzhou, was once the area to which foreigners were relegated. The main pre-war businesses and banks were along this strand, including this bank, the People’s Bank of China, a tired, smoke-stained, dilapidated Victorian edifice. It was our only journey there. Afterwards, it was simpler to send money home. I don’t know how, I don’t know why, but I never saw that bank again.

The car stopped. The “head” with whom we’d shared the ride said something to Xiao Huang, our “watcher” who became my adopted brother. Xiao Huang answered, “Good, good,” in Cantonese and we were off.

Guangzhou had a vibrant, crowded street life, but the streets around the bank were uncharacteristically empty. Today, in my mind’s eye, I think of a solitary dried leaf stopped by a curb on a deserted street. Xiao Huang led us through a hot tangle of paved roads and smoke-stained, Western-style buildings. We turned a corner to find two men, two bicycles and a baby on a largely empty street.

“Come on,” said Xiao Huang, hurrying us.

The older of the two men ran after us and grabbed my arm. He said, in English, “Come with me. I want to show you something.” I had only been in China a month or I would have found that strange, but English was still the most normal language for me to hear anywhere.

“Why?” I asked the old man.

“Come on,” said Xiao Huang.

But I turned and followed the man. A younger man — obviously his son — held a baby on the seat of the bicycle. “You buy?” he asked me.

I argued the ethics of this with him, absurdly, but I could not begin to wrap my head around it.

I still can’t.

“Come on,” said Xiao Huang.

The baby was “marketed” as a boy, but I am sure it was a little girl. The one-child policy was active at the time and strictly enforced, especially in cities.

We turned away and went to the bank. The front door, once elegant polished brass swinging over a mosaic tile floor, was tarnished and dented. The mosaic was broken and dirty. It was nearly impossible to discern the design. There were dim florescent lights hanging from wires above the tellers’ counter. We went to the window Xiao Huang identified as “Foreign Exchange” and, with an abacus, the old man behind the counter told us what our Yuan were worth in American dollars. One hundred Yuan went to my friend to deposit into the First National Bank in Denver. I could not transfer directly to a bank. There was not yet that level of diplomatic relations between the US and the PRC. It would happen while I lived there, but that day, it did not exist.

We were given little pieces of printed rice paper with numbers and Chinese characters. “Don’t throw that away. You will need it when you leave China to prove you earned this money,” said Xiao Huang. You NEVER threw out tiny pieces of printed rice paper. When we left China, we had a drawer filled with them.


The featured photo is a truck with loudspeakers that went through town telling people about the one-child policy, arguing for its importance, advertising where birth control was available, and warning about the consequences. The announcements were made in the favorite female voice in Canton, high-pitched and shrill to American ears.

Back in the USA, a few years later, still homesick for China, I saw a man at the post office in San Diego. I knew he was Chinese. I spoke to him. He was a World Health Organization doctor from Nanjing who was studying at UCSD. It turned out he lived near us, at the Marsten House on the north end of Balboa Park. He was attending school and caring for old Mr. Marsten. We got to be good friends. His mission — besides his course of study, which was oncology — was finding homes for abandoned Chinese girl babies. His hospital in Nanjing took them in and tried to place them with foreigners. He explained that those girls were the lucky ones. The practice of killing infant girl children was old in China. Only boys carried the clan name and girls were mouths to feed, members of some future family.

Female infanticide was one of the customs that progressive Chinese in the early 20th century had fought. Maoism was opposed to it, also, and regarded the female worker as the equal of the male worker. One of the “olds” Maoism sought to eradicate was the family system “old culture,” but the one-child policy brought it back. China paid a price for it — still is — when all the male children reached marriageable age and had no one to marry.

CNA Insider These are the ‘leftover men’ of China, who just want to get married

Read more at https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/cnainsider/leftover-men-china-get-married-gender-imbalance-one-child-policy-10485358

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.

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.

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, http://anotherglobaleater.wordpress.com  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.


Years ago my ex and I went to visit my mom in Billings, Montana. That year, Billings was experiencing extreme cold — -20 F/-40F at night. That’s actually pretty close to Celsius; not much conversion needed. We had rented Cross Country skis (living in San Diego at the time) and really, really, really, really wanted to ski.

Our standards for snow and trail grooming were very low. Mine still are. When you live in a place where there is little snow, and that 30 miles away, you go ski on what you have. Montana at Christmas was always a kind of paradise for us. That very cold winter, we skied anyway, usually on a trail through the woods along the Yellowstone River. If you’re decently dressed when you X-country ski you will get warm, even when it’s very, very cold.

It was other-worldly.

When it’s that cold, flowing water — even in the process of freezing — is warmer than the air. It makes steam. The river was a mixture of ice and mist. The conditions for skiing were not great, but the experience was beautiful.

A few days later, we took our skis up to Red Lodge only to discover that in Red Lodge — just a couple thousand feet higher in elevation than Billings — the temperature was “normal” meaning in the 20s (-6 C and above). It felt balmy to us at that point. The heavy cold air was trapped by the upper warm air and couldn’t move out of the lower elevations until the weather pattern changed.

The fancy golf course at Red Lodge had been groomed and we enjoyed skiing on well-manicured deep snow in less extreme temps, but there was nothing memorable about it. The next day we returned and took our skis on a trail beside the creek that runs down from the Beartooths into Red Lodge. On the trail we saw cougar tracks and decided to go home.

I hope tomorrow I get to take my waxless X-country skis out to the golf course. I hope I am still able to do this. The temperature is supposed to be pretty chilly, 14, but a positive number. I hope Bear isn’t too hurt when I don’t take her along.

Happy New Year, everyone.

That Time of Year

Today I took down my 2018 calendar and put up my 2019 calendar. I’m ready for a new year. Before I tossed the old calendar into my recycling bin, I looked through it to see the main events.

At the end of March, my sweet Australian Shepherd, Mindy T. Dog, suffered a severe stroke and I had to have her put down. It was difficult to feel sad because she was suffering incredibly. She was a miraculous creature who had the magical ability to make people feel better just by looking at her. She moved out here with me from California and loved every bit of the journey and her new home.

The main event of the year was my hip replacement surgery. Most of the year was made up of activities leading to and away from that moment — physical therapy, slow, painful dog walks and rides on the Bike-to-Nowhere.

I tracked distance and calories on my wall calendar most of the year. Not because I cared so much about either, but because I wanted to see that I was getting somewhere. On the calendar are the days after my surgery when I walked in the neighborhood with my walker and then with my cane.

Lois came down to get me and take me to Colorado Springs then spent 10 days making sure I was “viable” 😀

The dogs were kenneled because there was no way I could take them on walks with me. I missed them, but I knew they were being loved and I could visit them.

Bear and Dusty being loved on by Lori on my first visit to them after my surgery.

I’ve recently realized (duh!) that I don’t have to track all this on my calendar or do the math. I’ve used a couple of apps for years to track my walks, but a couple weeks ago, I realized I can use one for my bike rides, too, so now it all goes on Map My Walk. I still need to see that I’m getting somewhere, even when there isn’t anywhere to go, really, but it doesn’t matter. Just GOING without pain is absolutely wonderful. Walking without thinking about it is absolutely wonderful. Parking FAR from the front door of the store is absolutely wonderful. Regaining my balance without fear of falling, absolutely wonderful.

December, 2018

I’ve written often about the hip replacement because I know that a lot of people in my age group (I call that 50 to 80, since I had my first hip surgery when I was 54 and my neighbor had his two years ago at 83) might be looking at a similar procedure. I’m grateful for the help, care and moral support I received from my friends here in Colorado, in Italy and online. I’m exceedingly grateful for my doctor’s skill and sense of humor.

Bionic me. On the left, facing, my hip resurfacing prosthesis from 2006. On the right, facing, my hip replacement from 2018.

In October, my surgeon pronounced that I had no restrictions on anything I wanted to do. “Run up a mountain. Maybe I’ll see you on the slopes.” I do not remember ever being more unequivocally happy.

One of the high points, besides the surgery (actually, almost everything was related to the surgery) was my first mountain hike since I came back to Colorado nearly five years ago. My friend Elizabeth and I headed up to hike the Middle Frisco Creek Trail, but missed the trail head. It was no big deal. The three forks of this creek run parallel and we didn’t go far. We hiked on the fourth anniversary of my moving into my house in Monte Vista.

Wrong trail but really who cares…

At this point, I’m no longer rehabbing but just getting ready for whatever athletic adventures await me. I’ll be 67 a week from New Year’s Eve (tomorrow!) but somehow I don’t care. I’m waiting for more snow to see if I can still X-country ski. I’m hoping I’ll be able to downhill ski at least once if only on the bunny slopes of Wolf Creek with my friend Lois in March. These are things I’ve loved forever, missed during my life in California, and hope I can have again, even just a little bit.

Behind all of this physical rehab were two books — The Price and Fledging. The Price is for sale on Amazon, and Fledging is a private project.

I think 2018 was a pretty amazing year.