Salaam Aleikum

Among our friends in China were Muslims. Some were Hui Mulims — Han Chinese Mulims — and some were Turkic Muslims from the province of Sinkiang. We spent a lot of time with these people, and it opened a world to us we would not have otherwise seen. I wish I had more photos of that REAL world, but I have what I have.

In the center of the city there was even a Muslim restaurant, the only place in the city where you could be sure to get food that had no pork. The food was delicious — lamb, mostly, but also goat and beef. It also meant the pastries were made with butter not lard. Since baked goods in China were very, very rare, and it was a little hard to swallow (ha, ha, I’m so funny) when they tasted like your mom’s Sunday pork roast, pastries from the stand outside the Muslim restaurant were a treat.

The restaurant had two floors. The top floor was an old bath house and the tables were set up in the shallow green and white tiled tubs that had once been a place for people to soak off the day’s worry. We ate there often. It was always fun.

It was in this restaurant I learned my first words of Arabic which were useful later when I taught students from Saudi Arabia. It was the gathering place for migrant workers and traders from the remote Muslim provinces of China, way out there on the Old Silk Road. One afternoon, after I’d been in China ten months or so, and was used to seeing only Chinese faces, Chinese coloring, I was stunned by the bright green eyes of a Uigur man sitting on the steps of the restaurant. I did what so many Chinese had done to me. I stopped and stared. He grinned, laughed, and pointed at my eyes. I’m sure I blushed, and we both laughed.

One of our students, Ali, was from Sinkiang and he really liked Jim. Ali felt he had more in common with us than with the Han Chinese all around him. From a Muslim perspective the Chinese were dirty. One of the things Ali objected to most strenuously was the way the Chinese would set the well bucket on the ground. “Never do that. The ground is unclean, unclean.” You have to understand that we all were living in a world with wells. Not so much in the city, but definitely in the countryside. He objected to the way the Chinese would spit anywhere. He passionately objected to pork which was kind of a problem with some pig dying publicly every day and all number of pigs wandering the streets of our village.

Ali took us to see the mosque in Guangzhou. It is very old place, though the mosque has been rebuilt several times because of fires. It is famous for the “smooth pagoda” — the single minaret that rises above the Chinese style building and served as a lighthouse when the Pearl River Delta was not as built up with silt as it has been for a long time. It has been rebuilt twice, again because of fire.

At that time, religion was regarded as superstition and the mosque was a tourist attraction as much as a religious place, so there was someone selling tickets to get in, a young Hui Muslim girl. At first she did not want to let Jim and me in, but Ali explained that we were Christians and Christians are followers of Moses and are, therefore, Muslim.

The mosque was a beautiful mixture of Chinese and Arabic aesthetics. It was serene and lovely, a quiet, clean and beautiful island in a crazy, noisy city of bicycle bells, truck horns blaring, people yelling, and endless construction. From that day, a little part of me has been Muslim.

There are legends that one of the earliest Mulim evangelists came to Guangzhou in the 7th century.

“Old Chinese Muslim  manuscripts say the mosque was built in ad 627 by Sa`d ibn Abi Waqqas who supposedly came on his first Muslim mission to China in the 620s…” (Wikipedia) 

Personally, I believe the legend. An old Chinese Muslim manuscript has a lot of credibility to me. One of the most beautiful places in Guangzhou was the tomb of Said Waqqas. I read just now that the tomb now welcomes “hordes of visitors” but when I was there, it was little known except among local Muslims. There were two people taking care of it on the day of our visit. They showed us everything — far more than we could understand.

It was there that I first saw and smelled plumeria blossoms, Ji Dan Hua — Chicken Egg Flowers — they were called, white with yellow centers like chicken eggs. For more than a decade I did not know what they were called in English, but in San Diego I searched everywhere for them. There were many things I encountered in China and knew only in Chinese.

Below is the most beautiful photo I took during my entire year in the People’s Republic of China. Unfortunately, it was taken with Ektachrome which I have learned in this process of scanning slides doesn’t hold up to the vagaries of time, and shifts radically to the blue end of the spectrum. When I first saw it, I was disappointed and a little angry at my ex for loading his camera with experimental film. While I wish I could see the scene again, the whole image is in my memory anyway.

The big white area in front of the woman is a floor covered with fragrant Ji Dan Hua, drying in the sunlight. She’s walking carefully, putting one foot in front of the other so as not to step on a single blossom.

In case you don’t know the flower, here’s a photo.

Ji Dan Hua

Deep Snow

The snow is deep here in Heaven and it’s GREAT. I didn’t buy skis, my new snow shoes have shark’s teeth on the bottom and they scare me. But we remain undaunted and yesterday we headed out to the golf course to smell things and look for tracks.

The San Juan Nordic Club has groomed beautiful trails and, as it was Sunday, people were using them. It was wonderful to see — and it made me envious. Anyone who was outside yesterday really WANTS to be outside. Dusty made two new friends — a friendly neighbor opened his arms and let Dusty run to him, and one of the skiers — a really amazing ski-skater — stopped and asked if he could meet my dogs. They were all about it.

The tracks for cross-country skiing are really nice — there is a wide one for the skaters, lines for the people like me who just glide, and then a packed part to the right of all this for walkers. In snow over a foot deep it’s nice to have something a little more solid under foot. I love that they do that. It’s kind and respectful and protects their ski tracks from the kinds of postholes idiots like me drop into the snow with every step.

So far this winter I have fallen three times and gotten up three times, twice in deep snow. That was one of my biggest fears thinking of winter sports. Every time it was nothing. “I fell, so what,” not even that much thought or dread went through my mind. When you think of being mobile, you don’t think of falling, but it’s part of the equation. Anyone who moves around risks being attacked unaware by inanimate objects that are out to get them. It’s vital to be able to recover from a fall without fear. Just pick yourself up, brush yourself off and start all over again. Yesterday we walked a mile and a half through this deep snow. It was hard work, but fun. Dusty was suffering by bedtime, though.

But I’m getting skis. This is insane.

P.S. The photo is from three days ago. We’ve had more snow since then. 🙂

“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.

Foreign Country People

In 1982/83 most traffic in China was bicycle traffic. I often found myself, in the center of the city, in four or six lanes of bicycles going one way. Separated by barriers were four or six lanes of bicycles going the other way. I was once in a pile up. The Chinese cyclist next to me cursed me, called me a foreign devil and blamed me for the pile up which had occurred 1/4 mile ahead of us. He kept yelling at me until I hit him.

Shamed and chagrined, I went home later and told my best Chinese friend about the incident. She looked at me, shocked. “You’ve been here eight months, and it’s the first time you hit someone? Don’t feel bad. It’s normal.”

Usually, though, my ex and I were treated very kindly by everyone we met. We were curiosities. There were fewer than 100 foreigners in Guangzhou and most of them were Asian. The handful of white people stood out and when our bikes broke down one afternoon, and some people came out of an apartment and fixed them for us, they got headlines in the Yang Cheng Wan Bao — the Goat City Evening Newspaper. It was propaganda, an opportunity for the government to reinforce the agenda of the moment (a good one, by the way) that helping strangers is good for society. I am not sure the idea ever caught on.

Even the Bible was brought in to enforce this idea. The tale of the Good Samaritan was known by many of the Chinese I met as “one good thing from Western superstition.”

There is a LOT going on here. A worker going home on her bike. A sidewalk maintenance person taking a break. A 19th century rich family house with the Communist Star, probably conscripted as a government office

China was poor, determined to advance, and struggling. My Chinese friends and students were ashamed of their poverty, imagining that we pitied them. But the truth is that when everyone is poor, no one is poor. I didn’t see anything wrong with anything except the roaches. Even rats seemed reasonable given the circumstances.

“Face” is everything. Learning that they would not lose face in front of us because we were (as they described us) “simple and humble” meant no one would lose face if we saw their house, met their old mother, or any other thing. One example, on a visit to Foshan to a student’s house for lunch, I saw that under the kitchen drain was a chicken in a cage. “Seems poor to you, teacher?”

“No. It seems smart.”

Unfortunately, they’d learned British English so “smart” didn’t mean intelligent, it meant stylish. Really, communication is a bitch.

Of course, they teased us. Cantonese eat anything, practically, and innards of chickens are prized. I had a hard time eating spinach with chicken intestines but it was 1) will the foreign teacher eat it? and 2) we sure wish we had those guts, but she’s an honored guest.

As time passed, and it became clear throughout the province that my ex and I were not materialistic or judgmental, that we liked China and I was proficient enough in Mandarin to take care of myself (and my ex), we were welcome everywhere. We had the freedom to go almost anywhere we wanted. We carried Chinese ID cards (our passports were the property of the provincial government while we were there) and the secret message network kept everyone in the city aware of where we were at any given time.

Only twice did we venture into forbidden lands. Once we took a bike ride to Huangpu (then Whampoa). We didn’t know its history, that it had been the military academy for the Nationalist Army. We wandered around, seeing things that were completely incomprehensible (and remain incomprehensible). I wished at that moment I’d paid attention in my world history class in high school when Mrs. Metcalf attempted to teach about China.

We rode somewhere we shouldn’t. A People’s Liberation Army officer came running after us, checked our IDs, took our bikes, asked us to follow him, made a phone call to our school. I could imagine them saying, “Yes, yes, those are our foreigners. Yes, we can’t keep them home. They are always straying, those crazy Americans. Send them back. The woman speaks some Putonghua (Mandarin). You can talk to her.” The officer came back and in a loud voice (so I could understand better) explained we had to go home. That’s exactly what we did.

Another time we rode up Bai Yun Mountain, and on our way home found ourselves riding through a People’s Liberation Army base. We were stopped again. The phone call was made. No one was angry this time, but we had to leave. We were escorted out by several young PLA soldiers on bicycles who were more happy to see us than upset at our being there.

Why were we treated so well? China hated the “paper Tiger” of America for decades. Capitalism was regarded with as much fear and animosity as some people in the US look at Socialism. America was considered an imperialist country, something that astonished me at first, but I left China not sure about that. I’m still not. Fear and hatred against America were aroused continually in Mao’s China. But here we were, just six years after Nixon’s visit, being treated very kindly by everyone — even if my green eyes and reddish hair literally stopped traffic and were the coloring of the Chinese version of the devil.

I believe three things acted in our favor. One, the propaganda of the moment was that Americans would be coming to China to help with the reconstruction of the country. None of these Americans were the evil ones. These Americans were good ones, sympathetic to the goals of the People’s Republic of China. Second, Jim and I were completely non-pretentious people and liked being there. If anyone on the street asked us if we would practice English with them we would. Third, we weren’t looking for racism. When it did emerge, it surprised us. In time we learned it was a constant undercurrent, but what can a people do when they KNOW they are a superior people, the oldest and most advanced civilization in history? Sure, they were going through a bad patch, but with the “inexhaustible creative power of the masses” a people who could “crush any enemy,” no one doubted that somehow China would recover its nation’s historic greatness. (Quotations from Chairman Mao’s English pamphlet, “The Great Socialist Cultural Revolution in China.”)

Frankly, I was happy to help. I believed then — and I believe now — that if all the nations in the world are prosperous, and all the people in the world have enough of life’s necessities, we can finally have peace. All around me I saw people working incredibly hard, but with a sense of humor and human curiosity. If we bought jiaotze (potstickers) from a roadside restaurant, everyone gathered around to see if we could eat them with our chopsticks. We could. That we could, made everyone very, very happy and sometimes they bought us more jiaotze so they could watch some more. Every normal everyday thing we did in a Chinese way broke down the cultural barrier a tiny bit. We were Wai Guo Ren (foreign country people) but there is only one planet.

Typical old-fashioned Guangzhou windows. Eyes from another era. Most of these apartments (from the 20s?) were long rectangles with these beautiful windows at one or both ends. Only fancy hotels had air-conditioning at this time
Under everything was always ancient China. Traffic, advertising and the 14th century Five Story Pagoda (Zhenhai Tower) now the Guangzhou Museum. A completely empty building when I was there.


These photos show early construction on the “Inner Ring Road” known as the “Round the City Road.”

Street scenes… (open the slide show to see everything)

The Pearl River…

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


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…