My Chinese Thanksgiving

We are now all familiar with the historical horror that is Thanksgiving. I’ve tried to counter that by telling the real story of Thanksgiving which has nothing to do with Pilgrims and Native Americans, but it seems there is another “real story” involving George Washington’s proclamation establishing November 26 as a National Day of Thanksgiving. I found the information about the proclamation on the Mt. Vernon homepage. The irony (to me) is that Sarah Josepha Hale is not mentioned on the website. She, through the magazine of which she was the editor (Godey’s Lady’s Book) was involved in founding the Mt. Vernon Ladies Association, which still cares for Mt. Vernon. Sarah Hale happens to be the same person who worked for years to persuade SOME president — any president! — to formally establish a day for national Thanksgiving. She finally persuaded Lincoln and in 1863, Thanksgiving was officially established.

When it comes to history, humanity forgets more than it remembers, and when it comes to politics, people like to be angry. As for me, I like Indians more than I like those people who landed on Plymouth Rock, but I guess we can’t really choose sides. The color of our skin has done that for us.

I think there is something to Thanksgiving besides history and outrage, and that is the myth. Myths have a kind of magic and meaning beyond themselves. The myth of the happy Pilgrims and the happy Native Americans sitting down together is an expression of an ideal, a lesson I learned during the year I lived in the People’s Republic of China, 1982-83. That year, for the first time, I saw “my” country through the eyes of people from a very different world. For a Chinese man I came to know, a survivor of the Cultural Revolution, the myth of America’s first Thanksgiving was a story of hope and the overcoming of privation and suffering — even more than that.

Here’s how that transpired (from As a Baby Duck Listens to Thunder)…

The Chinese government flew me from San Francisco to Guangzhou, including a flight from Hong Kong, which was only a few hours away by train. I expected a long Hollywood-style interrogation when I landed behind the Iron Curtain, but the only question the People’s Liberation Army customs officer asked when I got off the plane (an Aeroflot) was, “Do you have any religious material?” By then it was an open question for me what constituted religious material. I said no. I didn’t know that there was a large and well-funded mission in Hong Kong that relied on American tourists to smuggle Bibles into China. Anyway, I don’t believe in converting anyone. I’d brought my Bible to help my students understand the Western literature I would be teaching.

I soon met a Chinese woman, a young teacher my own age, with whom I became close friends. She came from Hainan, an island in the South China Sea straight across the Gulf of Tonkin from Vietnam. Looking at its location on the map mesmerized me.

During WWII the Japanese occupied Hainan and established air bases to supply their invasions of French Indochina and the Philippines as well as to coordinate their attack on Pearl Harbor. After years of fighting, Hainanese guerilla fighters from the various mountain tribes succeeded, with the help of the American Army, in pushing out the Japanese. 

Then, during the Cultural Revolution in the ’60s, those so unfortunate as to have learned English during the anti-Japanese War were imprisoned, tortured, and killed. Survivors talked of suicide as if it were a disease. One of these was my friend’s elementary school teacher, Mr. Hu. His first wife, Mr. Hu explained, had “…got the suicide” while he had spent most of five years in a tiger pit.

With the fall of the Gang of Four, Mr. Hu married again and was transferred from Hainan to teach English in a high school in a village near my university outside Guangzhou. English was in; Russian was out. Any Chinese who could speak English was an important government property. He had been my friend’s teacher, and she took me to his house for lunch one day. We talked away the afternoon in American English. To avoid looking as if it might have changed its mind about the United States, China usually hired British teachers as Foreign Experts in English, and I was among the first “wave” of American teachers. I seldom heard a nuance of American speech or an idiom. But Mr. Hu said things like, “Oh boy,” “You bet,” and “Not worth a plug nickel.” Linguistic relics, but American relics.

Finally I asked, “Mr. Hu, where did you learn American English?”

“In the anti-Japanese war. American army. I was a clerk.” Most Chinese would have said, “clark” in the British way. Mr. Hu said “clerk,” just the way I would.

At the end of a wonderful afternoon, I invited him and his wife to the Thanksgiving dinner that I had just at that moment decided to prepare. I thought I could get a chicken.

I invited a few of my own students as well. Mr. Hu arrived with my friend and her husband. From the kitchen, I heard Mr. Hu telling everyone the story of the “Pigrims randing on Prymoth Lock on the Mayfrower.” In his voice I heard exactly what he had done in that tiger pit to keep himself sane and not “get the suicide.” He had told himself the stories he’d learned from the American GIs. It was his way of staying true, of holding onto himself and to a better world. There was more to it, something I didn’t suspect.

Some days later my friend came to my apartment and asked me to take a walk with her. I hadn’t yet realized that many of the walks I took with friends in China were taken so it would be difficult for anyone to listen to our conversation. The irony of Chinese life then was that the more public we were, the more privacy we had. We left the campus, walked across some rice fields, and up a small mountain. 

“Do you have a Bible?” she asked.

“Yes. Why?” I knew she and her husband regarded religion as superstition.

“Mr. Hu,” she answered.

***

I was to take a bus halfway to Mr. Hu’s village to a very busy stop that connected to many other buses. He would meet me at the stop, and after giving him the Bible, I would return home.

The afternoon was cold with pouring rain. I wrapped my Bible in newspapers and tied it with pink string exactly like those Chinese were always carrying. To keep it dry, I slipped it into the plastic envelope that usually held the poncho I was wearing. If anyone noticed — which was doubtful — it would look as if I had given Mr. Hu a poncho. I was conspicuous, but well-known. My package wasn’t.

Twilight turned to night. I waited beside dripping palm trees, holding my umbrella and my bundle. Finally, a bus stopped, and the crowd rushed up the street. Someone pushed me. I looked up. Mr. Hu. I opened my mouth to speak; he shook his head very slightly. I passed him the bundle as if it were a football hand-off.

I never saw him again, but on Christmas morning I awoke to find four Mao buttons had been slid under my apartment door along with two small publications from the Cultural Revolution and a hand-painted Christmas card, unsigned.

Mr. Hu.

Stopping Traffic — Green Eyes in China

Before we went to China, several people, including my Chinese teacher, told us that people would stare at us. I thought it would be 6-foot, blue-eyed Jim (the Good X) who would draw all the attention, but it wasn’t. No one told me I would be the one who would stop traffic.

We were on our way to the Friendship Store near the Baiyun Hotel. Nearing the spot where we’d transfer to a tram, we made our way to the back doors of Bus 22 and waited for it to stop. When the doors opened, people began streaming in before anyone could get off the bus. It was early in our year, and, coming from Colorado, we weren’t yet accustomed to public transportation and especially not to crowds of people pushing and shoving. 

That day an old woman from the countryside happened to look up and saw my eyes. She stopped on the steps of the bus, pointed, and cried out, in Cantonese, “Like a cat!” She froze where she stood, looking frightened, blocking the door, causing a traffic jam of bodies.

Jim had made it out, but I was trapped inside. To prevent an incident, the bus driver closed the doors and took off. I got off at the next stop and walked back. 

Over time, I think “my” city got used to seeing us around. That never happened again in Guangzhou.

I knew I was the opposite in appearance of every Chinese person. Curly, reddish hair, freckles, green eyes? It’s a look that has been regarded with suspicion all over the world, not just in the People’s Republic of China.

As the months went by, and the only foreign faces I saw were those of my brown-eyed, dark-haired Irish colleague Ruth and my husband Jim, I more or less forgot my own face. 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 Uygur man sitting on the steps of the Moslem restaurant. I stopped and stared. He grinned, laughed, and pointed at my eyes. I’m sure I blushed, and we both laughed. 

I got used to the idea that I wasn’t completely human in the minds of many of the people I encountered there in the Middle Kingdom. Most people who approached us on the street either wanted to practice English or change renminbi to Waiwei Qian. There were times when we were pushed, shoved, and called names. One night someone threw rocks at us as we waited for a tram. Events like this said, “Yankee, go home.” I guess these events could be labeled “racist,” but I didn’t see them that way. Nonetheless, it was unpleasant and somewhat scary.

Having worked as a paralegal in a law firm for three years before I escaped the clerical jungle for the PRC (People’s Republic of China), I understood something of law in general. We carried with us paperwork that said we were Chinese and had jobs that were beneficial to China’s modernization. “Ma Sa and Ji Mu” were our legal identities. There was nothing I could do about my appearance or the fact that, for some Chinese, the devil has my coloring. The potential may have existed for an “international incident,” but friendliness, openness, and the willingness to speak even bad Chinese was usually enough to disarm anyone. Walking away worked, too.

We spent our last day in China in Shanghai from where we would fly to San Francisco. Shanghai was comparatively cosmopolitan, and I didn’t expect to create a disturbance that attracted the police. My heart was full of the journey ahead of me, the journey “home.” I wanted to take in every remaining moment of China. After a full day of sightseeing, I just wanted to walk around, savoring Shanghai’s vibrant street life. 

We were walking in the neighborhood near our downtown hotel. On a blistering August evening, no sane Shanghainese was going to stay in a tiny, dark, sweltering apartment. Everyone had pulled out folding chairs and tables, set up charcoal stoves for tea and dinner, and sat fanning themselves, talking, laughing, spitting, cooking. Sidewalk life poured into the street, leaving a lane for pedestrians and bicycles. As we passed, someone noticed my eyes. I heard it again, this time in Shanghai inflected Mandarin, “Like a cat!” EVERYONE stopped what they were doing and came to look at me. I stood calmly while they looked and asked me questions. “Where did you come from?” “What are you doing in China?” Meanwhile traffic couldn’t move through the intersection. 

The cops came and broke up the “riot,” scolded me, and told us to move along. We went back to our hotel, surprised that in Shanghai, which even then had far more foreigners than did Guangzhou, no one seemed to have seen green eyes before. 

***

The featured photo is from 2008, when I was the lead singer for The Cure. 😀
Also, this is a chapter from As a Baby Duck Listens to Thunder, my book about teaching in China in 1982/83

https://ragtagcommunity.wordpress.com/2020/07/04/rdp-saturday-eyes/

Cheap Books to Take You Away from It All!

My Everest and As a Baby Duck Listens to Thunder are now available for Kindle for $.99! (Amazon doesn’t let me give them away, so this is second best.)

These books will take you somewhere else for a little while, an escape from the concerns of the present moment. Here’s where to order the books and learn more about them: amazon.com/author/martha_ann_kennedy

About My Everest:

One reader said, “I started reading your book today. Martha—I love it…If ever there was a love story—this is it.

Other readers have said:

  • “A beautiful book filled with vivid imagery and profound joy.”
  • “The book is very insightful and enjoyable at the same time.”
  • “I am a dog person but even if I weren’t I would still rate this book as excellent.”
  • “This is a book to savor.”
  • “I felt like I was along on the trails.”

From the back of the book:

In the 1980s, I moved to California from Colorado. I found work I loved and ended up staying there for more than thirty years. I always missed the Rocky Mountains.

Many of these stories are set in Mission Trails Regional Park, several thousand acres of coastal sage and chaparral. The landscape was one of the few remaining pieces of untouched chaparral so close to San Diego. To anyone who gets to know it it is a fascinating, complex, intricate, very alive wild world. It taught me to see.

About thirty miles east of the city were “real” mountains on which snow fell a few times every winter. I trekked those trails as often as I could.

Now I am back in Colorado. Every day I have the chance to get out somewhere I see and feel again how much I learned on the dusty trails of Southern California’s chaparral hills and the higher mountains beyond.

About As a Baby Duck Listens to Thunder

As a Baby Duck Listens to Thunder is a love story…. My position as a Foreign Expert in English was my first real teaching job in a career that spanned more than thirty years. I could never have imagined China would be a destination in my life, but it was. And at such a moment in history! Chairman Mao had been dead only six years. The evil Gang of Four had been “tried” only the year before. The horrors of the Cultural Revolution were still close in everyone’s memory, and people feared that the post-Mao moment of comparative freedom was a random blip. Deng Xiao Ping was determined that China would modernize and enter the world as a competitor. Every single penny of foreign exchange that came to China was used to buy technology to further China’s modernization. I was one of those “bits of technology,” too.

Propelled by a consuming wanderlust, I took my ignorance and inexperience with me, and ended up receiving some of life’s great gifts. My students’ diligence, curiosity and courage inspired me, and, in turn, I inspired them. The bridge between our cultures was a shared love of poetry and beautiful language. As for China? China was the great love of my life. Part of this Kindle edition is a Youtube video of the slides that awakened the stories.

Reading at the Rio Grande County Museum in Del Norte

Part of my mindset is still in the complicated crowded California world where it takes a long time to get anywhere and a long time to do anything. It’s OK with me if I NEVER fully get that I’m not there because it gives me the chance to be beautifully surprised, as I was yesterday.

Njal

The plan yesterday was to drive to South Fork where I was going to meet up with a woman who was buying three tiny paintings. There was a large art and craft show in the Rio Grande Club — a fancy country club along the Rio Grande in the semi-resort town of South Fork. “Semi” because people live in South Fork, but “resort” because there is an enormous subdivision of large and beautiful houses that are occupied mostly in summer.

I saw people I know, and they said things like, “I heard you on the radio!” I was flustered by that, hit again by the fact that we just don’t know that much about where we are a lot of the time. We live in a little tunnel of our immediate concerns, our habits and what’s right in front of our faces. It’s necessary that we live that way, and surprising when we learn that somehow WE were in someone else’s immediate concerns and right before someone else’s eyes. I knew the interviews would be broadcast, but I was chiefly concerned with showing up and doing a decent job. I didn’t think of people listening ON PURPOSE.

The craft show was lovely, and very large, filling all the banquet rooms upstairs in the country club. Lois shopped successfully for Christmas and I found my customer.

Mr. Haefeli

I had a conversation with a young guy who is the scion of one of the San Luis Valley families that has been in the bee-keeping honey making business for generations. I learned that they had come originally from the German speaking part of Switzerland and in Switzerland they also kept bees. I asked where in Switzerland they had come from, but he didn’t know. I revealed my “Schneebeli” ancestry and told him my name means “Little Snow Ball.”

Over the course of the day I met three people who’s ancestors came from the German speaking part of Switzerland and all of them had stories like that of the Schneebelis.

From there we headed back down the mountain to Del Norte for lunch and then to the museum. I wanted to get there early to help set up.

Well…

I got there and Louise great-grandson had gotten a haircut. He’d also burned his tongue testing the coffee. He told me he’d tested the coffee to be sure it wasn’t poisoned before giving it to Louise. I was charmed.

We set out a few chairs, maybe seven or eight. I didn’t expect people — just my friends and Louise and Rita who work at the museum. BUT…

People kept coming. Pretty soon there were (I think) fifteen people there. The youngest was Louise’ great-grandson who’s maybe 10; the oldest were well into their eighties. Most were retired people like me. We kept putting out chairs. Then I introduced the reading but I did a poor job. I forgot to give the title of the book OH WELL.

The reading went very very well. I could see interest and sympathy spread across the faces of the people in my audience. It was a wonderful, magical, thing to see. The reading had been publicized as being a Pearl Harbor Day remembrance, focused on the Chinese I met who spoke American English and who had worked with the American military at the end of WW II. The stories are really incredible and so unknown that they are interesting.

Afterward, I sold three books, gave out many business cards and talked to the people who’d come to listen, two of which revealed Swiss ancestry. Mennonites back in the day, just like my grandma’s family. This makes me think maybe I should give a reading about the Swiss Protestant Reformation since it’s the reason so many of us are here.

Again I realized how much fun it is to share my words with living, breathing people who are in front of me. I read a small piece from Martin of Gfenn and it so touched one of the women who came listen — a beautiful Hispanic grandma there with her sister — that she came up to tell me in passionate, elegant prose the story of Lazarus and Dives. “Can I get your books at the library?” she asked.

“In Alamosa. Monte Vista won’t stock them. I don’t know about your library here in Del Norte.”

“Why not?”

“They’re self-published.”

“What difference does that make? Your books are good, and I want to read them,” she said.

“Alamosa is serious about local authors,” I said, and shrugged. I would have handed her a copy of Martin of Gfenn right then and there if people hadn’t been around and I wasn’t generally there to give books away, but I actually LIKE giving books away so… She introduced herself to me and her name means “Star of the Mountains.”

BUT…. As wonderful as all of this was, the high point was Louise’ great-grandson looking at me and saying, “I really liked your story.”

~~~

Featured photo: Rabbit brush flats between Del Norte and Monte Vista, CO, 3:30 pm December 7, 2019, winter light. Taken by Lois Maxwell

My News: Another Event…

Among the things going on, I will be doing another reading, this time at the Rio Grande County Museum in Del Norte as part of their holiday celebration. The event runs from now until December 21. All the other participants are artists — most were members of the now defunct artist co-op which some of you might remember as having been, for me, a very mixed experience.

I took my stuff yesterday — all books, except a few notecards left over from the erstwhile co-op. My books are on top of a beautiful cherry-wood Victorian piano. The museum is a historical museum that has saved many things from the “old days” in the San Luis Valley — that says a lot, really, since the “old days” here go back to the Spanish conquistadores, not to mention the Navajo and Ute tribes. It’s a fascinating little museum, and I’ve learned a lot from looking at the exhibits.

Once I had my books on the piano and the poster from the Baby Duck reading set up, the exhibit looked kind of bare, so I went home and made a poster for the historical novels. It’s not as finished as the Baby Duck project, but I didn’t have weeks. I had hours. But, it’s all there now.

I was very low on supplies — even spray glue — and didn’t have time to drive to Alamosa to bigger stores with better choices. I was stuck with our little Safeway which was even almost out of tissue paper. But… I realized from making these two poster how my brain goes first to electronic presentations because that was my “thing” for so many years. I have not had to make posters for anything since my 8th grade science project on the Geological History of the Tetons. That went extremely well, by the way. I got an award from the National Geological Society and some oil and gas company. But seriously; 8th grade? I was 13…

The big open-house opening is tomorrow and I’m going with a couple of friends. “My” day is December 7, and as it is Pearl Harbor day, and there are a LOT of veterans here (one of the oldest retirement homes for veterans is near where I walk the dogs; it was built to house Civil War veterans) I decided to read the sections from Baby Duck that talk about the alliance between the US Army and China to fight the Japanese, notably on Hainan Island, and the numerous Chinese veterans I met. In those stories is a Christmas story and I’ll end the reading with that.

I’m looking forward to it very much — much less prep work for me as the museum is catering the event, not me.

Sweet Bonus

What was especially cool about the book launch party yesterday was seeing the effect of my work on other people. I am not a person who listens to others read. I don’t have strong aural learning aptitude, and I tend to lose track of things, conversations, in which I’m not directly involved. It made school difficult at times.

But most people DO get a lot from hearing something. When my friend Lois hears music, she’s completely involved, and when she sings and plays she KNOWS what she’s hearing. For me, even though I studied piano for more than 10 years, it always felt kind like good luck if I got things right. I love music and listen to it almost all the time, but not with the intensity or immersion that Lois can — and does.

Words on a page are VERY evocative to me, and I was most worried about crying as I read, so I practiced a lot to kind of desensitize myself to the story. I managed it. I used the remedy of looking at the people listening to me as much as I could because what I was doing was for THEM.

A magical result of it was that my reading inspired two people. One, came and sat down beside me and told me the story of her childhood in Germany as an Army kid when the Berlin Wall was built. Fascinating. The other, who’s traveled a lot, said, “I always write down what I do when I travel, in a notebook, just for that trip, hmmm…” she was thinking out loud to me.

I said, “Yeah, we’re at the time of life when we learn how stories turn out.”

She thought I meant death, but I told her, “No, not that, but I mean I couldn’t have written Baby Duck until now. I didn’t know enough.” Then she understood. Who knows? Maybe she’ll write her stories. I think it’s very cool that a couple of chapters of Baby Duck inspired people to think of their own stories.

As a writer, I haven’t done a reading of my work like this before. Until it was in progress, I didn’t have any sense of the what it might mean or how great it is to meet readers, to share the book with readers and to see how the book kind of living on its own. So many books I’ve read have affected me, inspired me, made me think — and my book has done that. I’m so happy.

The BIG Event

I knew I would over prepare because that’s just me. I had no idea who would show up — could be a lot of people, could be no one, who could say? So there were four dozen of every cookie, cups for sixty people, napkins and plates and and and and. A slide show and a poster and books to put in inventory, door prizes — everything just in case the ENTIRE CITY OF ALAMOSA showed up. I didn’t want that, didn’t expect it, but I was ready…

A handful of people — all of whom were my friends — showed up. It took longer to set up than we planned — the better part of an hour. Logistics and electricity and no one wanted to abandon any part of this extravaganza for the sake of expedience. So…

I read and my reading was the best part, I think for everyone.

Except maybe for the cookies. No one can compete with cookies and then EVERYONE won a prize and took home a box of sticky rice candy, known in Japanese as Mochi in China, as far as I know, as “sticky rice.”

SO all my anxiety and stress was spent so that I could learn that I am able to go to a bookstore and read stories to my friends who listened with rapt attention to the story I told.

I honestly can’t think of a better outcome. And, if I ever do this again, I will know how, I’ll have the resources and the encouraging memory of a very sweet experience.

And, I sold a book. ❤

P.S. Thank you for all the moral support leading up to this. It reminded me how much this is more than just a blogging platform. In a way, it’s a neighborhood that extends around the world. In a way, we meet here to chat over coffee, or tea, or whatever and learn interesting things about each other, share ideas, advice, help, visions of life, photos and stories of our travels. It’s very special.

The Sistine Poster Is Finished

I just have to share it. 🙂

The Thangka in the background is Palden Lhamo whom I just love. Her image shows her on her mythical mule over mountains that rise out of flames. Since I lived in mountains that were rising out of flames, that right there speaks to me. But she represents a great deal of power, the power to turn away from evil, even when it broke her heart to do so. She had to kill her own son who was the personification of evil.

I have been there, though it was not my son and it was a metaphorical rather than actual killing. When I saw “it” for what it truly was, I found the strength to take action. I learned this lesson from a Mughal painting of Krishna and Arjuna flying over the worlds. In the painting, Krishna is showing Arjuna why he must do the very thing he does not want to do.

That Christmas I was given a huge book (3 feet by 2 feet) of Tibetan Thangkas and their stories. Palden Lhamo’s image reached for me, so when I found a Thangka that represented her perfectly, I bought it.

The lesson? You just don’t fuck around with evil.

HOWEVER this is about the Sistine Poster.