Pearl Buck — one of the three Scarlet Emperor Beans in my garden who survived the spring frost — has lived up to her name. I guess most people who’ve heard of Pearl Buck know The Good Earth but maybe not that she adopted a lot of children or that there’s an organization even now in her name, Pearl S. Buck. She adopted seven children and fostered many, many more. It seems only right that Pearl Buck, the Scarlet Emperor Bean, has more flowers on it than I’ve seen on a bean in my four years of growing them. Pearl Buck was also a very prolific writer. So, not only did Pearl Buck, the Scarlet Emperor Bean, make it through two frosts, but she’s living up to her name in other ways.
I wasn’t self-motivated to learn about Pearl Buck. My thesis advisor, Dr. Richardson, said, when I got home from China, “Why don’t you write a book about Pearl Buck?” It was a good idea. I’ve always been interested in popular literature as opposed to the arty-farty stuff (some of which I like, too). Before I started the project, I hadn’t even read The Good Earth. And Pearl Buck had — this is my assessment based on reading most of what she wrote — never loved anything as much as she loved China. I started reading and writing and, in my old trunk, is a manuscript discussing Pearl S. Buck as part of the Chinese literary tradition. There’s a good case for that, but, really, who cares? It was the first book I ever attempted and most of the time I had no idea what I was doing.
Other people have since written “that” book.
I did have a fancy typewriter that would delete whole sentences if I told it to as well as making corrections. It had a little micro-processor, I think. About two years into that project, when I was living in San Diego near Balboa Park, some guys moved into the apartment above ours (me and the good-X) He was (as was the Good X) a computer guy and he had a Macintosh. “You want to borrow it while I’m in Japan?” he asked one day. “It’ll make your work a lot easier.”
I was hooked.
Still, there was no Internet. Old time research was a lot more colorful and less a matter of finding answers. I did my research in the library at San Diego State and at the public library in San Diego where I found everything I wanted in 3-D form, actual old Asia magazines. I had a nice little file box to carry my 3 x 5 cards on which I wrote notes and quotations. It was a serene way to do research with elements of discovery that no longer exist. It’s really NOT the same to “Google” something as it was to sit at a long library table in the late afternoon with a stack of old magazines from WW II. And, then, too, there’s this.
It was from these magazines I learned about WW II, beyond what I was taught in school or the fragmentary stories of my dad and uncles. I learned that the Japanese attempted to conquer China (never learned that in school) and then, in great detail, of the Rape of Nanjing. The magazine was Asia Magazine and its main push was to involve the United States in helping China eject the Japanese. It wasn’t successful, but Pearl Buck and her husband were the owners/editors, and I know from reading through every issue that Pearl Buck was desperate to save the place she viewed as “her” country.
Pearl Buck grew up in China, the daughter of a Presbyterian missionary. There were few trips back to the United States, and China was home. Besides being taught at home by her mother, she had a Chinese tutor. At the time she returned to the United States, she was teaching at Nanjing University.
That she was in the United States at all was the result of a combination of things — but one was the whirlwind of the Japanese invasion of China. Two years after she left, the Japanese would occupy Nanjing in the most horrific way. Pearl Buck wrote graphically about that, an event that may have escaped the notice of most Americans who were struggling with the Great Depression. China must have seemed very far away. Pearl Buck’s impassioned plea for American intervention seems to have been not much more than singing in the wind.
I visited her house in Pennsylvania back in the 1980s. I’d read about her house and how and why it was designed in a certain way, notably that her desk looked out a window onto a Chinese style garden. When I went into her office and looked out the window, I saw what she had done to assuage her life-long homesickness for China. She truly saw “China” through those windows.
She sought a visa to return to China in 1972 after Nixon’s visit, but her attacks on Chairman Mao had made her persona non grata in the PRC. It wasn’t until 1992 that she was “rehabilitated” and allowed to “return”. Of course, by then she was dead, but perhaps the most important part of a writer’s life is the books, the legacy of their ideas, transcribed and shared. You can read about it here: Pearl Buck’s Return to the Good Earth.
But what did she say about writing? That had the longest-lasting effect on me.
“[writing] is a process proceeding from within. It is the heightened activity of every cell of [the writer’s] being, which sweeps not only himself, but all human life about him, in him, in his dreams, into the circle of its activity. From the product of this activity, art is deducted, but not by [the writer]. The process which creates is not the process that deduces the shapes of art. The defining of art…is a secondary not a primary process…for the novelist the only element is human life as he finds it in himself or outside himself.” Pearl S. Buck, Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech
Last night as I was learning about Confucius I saw a historian who reminded me of my thesis advisor and friend, Dr. Robert D. Richardson, Jr. I thought, “I haven’t heard from Bob since???” It was fall 20219. We’d lost contact with each other at some point in the 2000s and after I found a book he’d written — Nearer the Heart’s Desire — about Edward FitzGerald who had translated The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam into English. I wrote about it here.
I went online to find him, found contact information for an email, and wrote him, basically asking him if he were still alive as I’d found an obituary with his name but couldn’t be sure it wasn’t him. He wrote back — happily! — that he was still there. He asked for my address and sent me a copy of the book. I read it over a couple of evenings and loved it.
So…last night I again looked for Dr. Richardson online and, sadly, this time I found obituaries. The first was written by one of my former professors. I realized if I ever opened the alumni magazine that arrives from time to time in my mailbox, I would have known last year.
When I wrote the China book, he was in my thoughts the whole time. Although I was so burdened by wanderlust at that time in my life that I studied densely printed National Geographic maps for fun, Dr. Richardson was the one who put the China bug in my ear. He wasn’t serious, as it happens. He’d recently visited Shanghai and Beijing (1980) and had returned with the assessment that it was a grim, stultifying, ugly, evil place where no one should go. He referred to it as “Dickens’ China.”
“Why don’t you go to China?” he said to me one afternoon when I’d come into his office with a draft of my thesis and my wanderlust.
“How can I do that?”
“Just send a letter to a university with your CV.” (I didn’t know what a CV was)
When I actually DID that (after he’d recommended some universities) he became very worried. What if I actually WENT? He and his wife invited me for supper and the killed the fatted leg of lamb and asparagus for the event. After dinner, his wife and daughters left the dining room so Bob and I could talk. He was afraid I was having an existential crisis and recommended Erikson’s book, Identity, Youth, and Crisis. A week or so later, I saw him in the English Department office and he said, “Why do you want to go away so badly? You know what Milton said.”
Of course I didn’t. I had always found Milton unreadable. I shook my head.
“In Paradise Lost. He wrote, ‘The mind is its own place and can make hell a heaven and of heaven a hell’.” Milton’s actual words are a little different, but I think Dr. Richardson was a better writer.
When I was clearly determined to go, he introduced me to one of his students from China so I could learn Chinese. When I finally got a job and went, I wrote Dr. Richardson often. My letters were so enthusiastic that he searched for — and quickly found — a position at a university in Sichuan. He happened to be in Beijing when I was there but the government refused to allow us to meet.
I dedicated my China book to him, and while I want to sell it and for people to read it, the reader in my mind as I wrote was him. When I finished, and it was published, I sent him a copy. His response was one of the loveliest letters I’ve had in my life. Now I know that we completed our own circle in those exchanges.
Since then, I’ve remembered many of our contacts over the years. It’s normal that people pass in and out of our lives and even that we lose the thread of people we care about. I don’t really buy that “people come into our lives for a reason” thing, but it is impossible that all the people we care about can stay in the same place any more than we can stay in the same place. We don’t, not physically or psychically or philosophically or anything. It seems like human life is this constantly fluctuating mess of change. Once I thought it was like mountain climbing but now, if I were to give it a sports analogy it would be surfing. We are all trying to stand safely on our board and make it to shore. And shore? It might be a nice beach where we relax until we’re ready for the next set, sometimes it’s THE shore.
But I’m sad, a little washed out today, even with company coming. Dr. Richardson was a remarkable man, a very fine writer, an inspiring teacher and — in my little life — one of my staunchest allies. Here are a couple of lovely obituary/articles about him. He was a fine writer, a find scholar and an inspiring teacher.
The email I wrote in 2018? looking for him when he was still there.
Dear Bob — I was looking for you online this evening and happened on a page that said you were dead. Someone left a note that was a tribute to your work on Emerson. I was stunned, wondering, “Is this true?” I kept looking and found nothing else that indicated you were no longer “here.” In doing that, I found out a lot about your recent projects and something about your current life. I hope you remember me. I think about you pretty often and how lucky I was that you were my thesis adviser, how right you were about who I am (though back at the University of Denver I didn’t have much of a clue).
I tihnk the last time we corresponded I had just finished writing a novel (with which I was in love) and I wrote asking what I should do next. You said, “Find an agent.” I followed your advice and went out in search of one — and that was the SASE days when one might be blessed with a rejection slip on actual paper. One of these said, “You need an editor,” and he was right.
My writing life has been fruitful, minutely rewarding financially, entirely without an agent and very enlightening. It’s brought me many of the happiest moments of my life. Most of all, I’ve loved what I’ve written and the work that’s gone into the books. Turns out I’m a Swiss Medievalist Historian — i know this is true because I was labeled by two Swiss Medievalist historians. You can see what I’ve done if you want to here at marthakennedy.co
Of your work I really enjoyed the little book, “First We Read, Then We Write” — I wanted to assign it as a text in one of my writing classes, but at that point I was teaching mostly Basic Business Communication at San Diego State and Freshman Comp at a couple of community colleges who had sold their souls to the beast of Prentice/Hall, so that didn’t happen. I love the William James book. The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam was my father’s favorite book. He carried a little copy with him when he was in the Army and that book was his last Christmas present to me before he died in spring 1972. Having learned (tonight) of yours I will have to get one.
Mostly I want to know that you are still here. I retired from teaching (what?) after 30+ years (double what) in 2014 and moved from the San Diego area to the San Luis Valley in Colorado. I love it. I’m surrounded by mountains; the Rio Grande traverses it, I’m 1 1/2 hour from Taos, I have real snow, the light is amazing, the people are warm and friendly. I’m in Monte Vista, a town of 4000 and the home of the first pro-rodeo in Colorado.
From the time I was seven I thought that going on an expedition was a great idea and an eventuality. Now I’m trying to figure what is NOT an expedition.
I viewed heading to China in 1982 to work as a Foreign Expert in English as an expedition. I remember standing at the counter at the San Francisco airport with my trans-Pacific fardles — a little trunk that held a year’s supply of tampons, a wide array of prescription drugs, books for school, electricity converters, and a toaster oven. I also had a large convertible backpack (because I was going on an expedition) that held my clothes. That wasn’t all, though. I had my skis. One of the really wonderful (should’ve) men in my life, who happened to have been the person who took us to the airport in the VW that I had sold him, asked, “Are you sure you want to take them? Why are you taking skis, anyway? I can take them back for you.”
I’m pretty sure I answered him, but the answer’s almost too embarrassing to write here… Oh, ok. I thought we were going to Tibet and we would ski. They were back-country skis, after all… And hey; this was an EXPEDITION.
Thinking about it now, that’s no more absurd than those elegant, expensive British expeditions with the silver tea service. Or maybe it is. Skis are a lot harder to pack.
I had the idea that the difference between an expedition and a simple trip was the degree of exoticism and the degree of difficulty. With that as my operative theory, the Great Chinese Expedition of 1982 really began when we were stuck at the tiny airport in Guangzhou with our fardels and no one to meet us. It was instant total immersion. I had to figure out what to do next.
I did and we ended up at the Bai Yun Hotel in a spartan, clean room with pale green walls and white linens. A sink hung on the wall and in a small closet was a squat toilet, beautifully tiled. We ate our first meal in the People’s Republic of China in the hotel restaurant. There wasn’t much left in the kitchen and all there was to eat was “Joak” which is a kind of rice porridge with chicken or fish, thousand year old eggs, scallions and a kind of fried bread on top. That qualified as an expedition, too, as did the rat my X saw scurrying along the floorboards.
I would like to have gone on more expeditions like this. Compared to other expeditions in life, the Great Chinese Expedition of 1982 was pretty simple and straight-forward. Find a job, pack your stuff, go to the country. The real Chinese expedition was a lot like other life expeditions — coping successfully with quotidian frustrations like a washer that agitates in one direction and didn’t spin the clothes, or an infinite number of giant cockroaches or nothing but cold showers or recurring GI blues all combined with the inability to understand most of what’s going on around you.
Thinking about it now, an expedition seems like a very easy way to simplify one’s life. For a while, a person just surrenders to the imperatives of the road. As Kerouac said, “99% of Americans attempt to solve their problems by going on the road.” I’m not sure that’s limited to Americans.
My expedition today involves a journey to the Big City of Alamosa to pick up groceries. This will be followed by painting more of the deck, a task that has to be done in pieces and at a certain time of day because I need to accommodate my friends, Bear and Teddy. Sometimes I get advertising from Globus for an “expedition” to one of the world’s nether regions (nether from here). I look, sometimes, and imagine the expedition.
This is a chapter from my memoir about living and teaching in the People’s Republic of China, 1982/83. As a Baby Duck Listens to Thunder.The characters are my ex-husband, Jim, his mom, Frances, an amazing, resilient and humorous woman, and my best friend, Ann. Frances enjoyed China and took everything as it came. Ann really hated it but went back years later to make peace with it. 🙂 I’m posting this as a way to respond to the post of another blogger, Simon Waters, who today wrote about Emie Shan, another of China’s sacred mountains. He visited it in 1982 as a tourist in China — tourists at that time were very very very rare. His piece and this one almost seem like companions.
From Hangzhou, we planned a trip to Yellow Mountain, Huang Shan, one of the Chinese sacred mountains, a day’s bus trip away. Pictures of this mysterious and beautiful place had long filled Ann’s imagination. It was her China dream destination. The China Travel Service agent in our hotel told me where to get the bus and buy the tickets. Because I had a Chinese ID card, the representative sent me to the office where Chinese tourists would go. It was very simple. I bought four tickets and, early on the appointed morning we went to the terminal and boarded the bus.
It was not a tourist bus. It was a Chinese regional bus with rattling windows and a rough-running engine. Frances spent the morning stuffing wads of tissue in the loose windows to keep them from rattling. I am not sure about Ann, but I suspect she was not happy.
Lunch was part of our ticket and we reached a village bus station and restaurant at about 11 in the morning. We were the only remaining passengers. The bus driver joked with Frances when she returned to the bus to get her fork. By then Frances had learned to say “green bean” and “ice cream” in Putunghua, but she’d resisted using chopsticks. Not one to take such well-meaning mockery lightly, Frances did not retrieve her fork, and she did not use a fork again the rest of her time in China.
Lunch was tomato and pig-liver soup, braised steamed tofu, and scrambled eggs. Though Frances asked in perfect Putunghua, there were no green beans to be had. In that mountainous world, their season had not arrived.
After lunch, we returned to the bus. It started up and chugged its way out of the village, but not far. At the remains of an old city gate, the bus stopped running. The driver lifted the hood inside the bus to look at the transmission. Jim joined him. There was much scratching of heads and attempts to explain and help, but to no avail. The bus was broken. Someone would come out from the village to tow it back to the bus station, but we were stuck.
I was used to being a precious Foreign Expert. I expected that something would happen and we would be fine. I knew the gossip system. Someone else would go through that town, stop at that restaurant bus stop, learn about our situation, and we would be rescued. I was so sure of this that I felt no anxiety. I was happy to be where I could see mist-draped mountains, terraced tea plantations, and clouds obscuring and revealing distant scenes in changing light. I was only interested in climbing up and seeing the view from the top of the ancient gate of what had once been a walled city.
And if by some remote chance, no rescue came, I didn’t much care about that either. We had food, warm clothes, and water, but I didn’t think it would turn out like that.
I was worried about Frances, but she wasn’t worried about herself. Meanwhile, I drove Ann crazy.
It wasn’t long before a fancy Japanese tourist bus filled with Japanese tourists stopped to pick us up. I’m sure the people at the restaurant/bus stop knew this bus was on its way. I even suspected that, as we three were the only people riding the bus all the way to Huang Shan, our bus driver had faked a breakdown, knowing the Japanese bus was coming.
The driver of the Japanese bus thought our situation was normal, even funny. The Japanese passengers were polite and made room. We ended up on the back seat of the bus, near the toilet, where no one wanted to sit anyway. Ann was fuming, but it was a much more comfortable ride.
“Sorry about that. I knew we wouldn’t be stuck there.”
“You didn’t know. You just don’t care.”
How could I ever have explained this? Everything that explained it was offensive. We were watched all the time. That “Big Brother” was our friend more often than our enemy was an idea that, I knew, was pretty hard to accept.
Huang Shan, one of China’s four sacred mountains, is in Anhui Province, which, at the time, was primarily agricultural with tea as the main crop. A mountainous province it was still suffering from a lack of transportation and occasional food shortages. While Huang Shan is now a well-developed tourist destination, in 1983 it was still remote. On the way, we passed many small villages with whitewashed houses, dramatic shingled roofs, and misty scenes against a dark green landscape. The most visible point of each village was a stage for propaganda shows above which sat the great red star of China.
Once at the hotel, we had no problems checking in. Our rooms were ready…sort of. Unfortunately the toilet in Frances and Ann’s room had backed up earlier that day, and they had to sit in the lobby until the bathroom floor dried. Once they were in their room, we all saw that it was large and beautiful. Frances made us cups of Dragon Well Tea, I opened a can of Danish butter cookies, and we tried to put a good face on things.
At dinnertime, we learned that, except for eggs, the hotel was out of food. I explained this to my guests and suggested a picnic in our room. I had my dependable stash of Foreigner Food I’d stocked up on when we picked up Frances and Ann in Hong Kong— the excellent Havarti and a tin of butter cookies from Denmark, crackers from England, great Chinese peanut butter, as well as a few tins of pineapple. Completely disgusted by China at that point, they refused, but after an hour, there was a gentle scratching on our door.
It wasn’t a bad picnic, but our guests were still angry. I couldn’t blame them. We had come part way on a bus that broke down, hitched a ride on a Japanese bus only to arrive in a hotel room with a broken toilet, and then told there was no supper? I suspected the Japanese tourists got dinner, but I don’t know.
“Is THAT why you brought food? You KNEW this would happen?” demanded Ann.
I made a feeble remark about the Boy Scout code, said we always traveled with food, and shrugged.
Independent tourism at that time in China was rare, and China didn’t have piles of “extra” anything with which to prepare for surprises. A lot of food was still rationed, and it was very possible that the hotel didn’t have enough food for four stray travelers.
A random search on Expedia tells me there are now more than two hundred hotels at Huang Shan. In July of 1983, there were three hotels in a chain up the mountain; one at the bottom, one in the middle, and one at the top. Our original plan was to spend two days climbing. The first day we would climb from the bottom hotel and spend the second night at the middle hotel. From the middle hotel we would go back down again. We knew we didn’t have time to climb the whole mountain, and Frances would be alone while we were gone.
We were rained out the next morning. No chance of climbing anything, so we looked around the village. There was an antique store and a small market. Young people sat on steps selling hard-boiled eggs. In the antique store, I bought a cloisonné box and a carved wooden statue of a god riding a dog.
It was in that village that Ann saw how food was carried to our hotel and to the hotel higher up the mountain. Skinny teenagers and old women who had arrived that morning on the train, hoisted heavy bamboo baskets filled with a dozen winter melons as big as watermelons, bitter melons, cabbages, scallions, and other vegetables, their baskets suspended from shoulder poles. They trotted rhythmically up the mountain’s steep stairways. Ann was horrified. “Communism is dehumanizing,” she said.
“I don’t think this is Communism. It’s poverty.”
“How can you defend it?” For Ann, communism caused the poverty. My jury was out on that question.
We rose early the next morning to make our “summit attempt.” It wasn’t long before we understood that there is nothing of the rugged individualist “conquering” the wilderness in a pilgrimage up a Chinese sacred mountain. Ahead of us were thousands of stone steps. The climb was tedious, boring, painful, and uninspiring. In front of us were more steps and the backs of our friends. Every meaningful moment or spectacular god-perceiving view was marked with a pavilion with seats from which we could look out on the mountain’s steep faces. On those magnificent granite faces, lines of poetry had been scrawled in enormous bright yellow characters. Those who had painted them had to have been fantastic mountaineers, but to us, Coloradans, these lines of poetry defaced the mountain. Maybe if we could have read them, we would have felt differently. At the halfway point, we turned back, for once all of one heart. We had grown to resent the steps and, while the scenery was spectacular, we felt we were visiting a “used” mountain.
The hotel had food that night. The next morning we were to leave on a bus that had been arranged by CTS and paid for. It also happened the next morning that the concierge (if you can call her that) of the hotel said, “We have a good breakfast for you today! We have coffee!”
Jim, Frances, and I were happy and hungry, but Ann didn’t even show up in the dining room. She was arranging with a private group for us to get a ride back to Hangzhou in their “mienbao.” We hurriedly finished our delicious breakfast and crammed ourselves into the Toyota van.
On the ride back to Hangzhou, Ann apologized to me. “I thought at first you were just showing off or something, but now I know. This doesn’t bother you.”
“True, it doesn’t. I guess after a year you get used to it.”
“I don’t think I could get used to it. I think you love China.”
I nodded. “I do.”
That night we had a lovely dinner in the hotel restaurant in Hangzhou, with Frances asking, now in a complete sentence in Putunghua, if they had green beans. Another guest, who’d been there when we took off for Huang Shan, asked us, “How was it? Did you make it to the top?”
“No,” I said. “I hated it.”
“It’s good you went, even if you didn’t make it to the top. Everyone needs to know what a pain in the ass a Chinese mountain is.” I couldn’t have said it better. It had been a pain in the ass, legs, and back. You name it, there was pain, psychic and otherwise. In Colorado we like our mountains a little less regimented.
As soon as we got back to Hangzhou, I arranged with China Travel Service for Ann to return to Hong Kong, then Denver. I tried to talk her out of leaving, saying Beijing was a big city and none of this would happen there, but she made the very plausible argument that Guangzhou was also a big city and she’d hated it.
When the taxi stopped at the airport, Ann put a little old wine cup, a small bowl, in my hand. She’d bought the bowl from a street-vendor in Guangzhou who was selling black market antiques in a back alley. Once, probably, the little bowl had been white and blue, but it had aged to a pale green. The hand painted designs of blades of grass swaying in the current of a stream had faded to blue/gray. It was such an ordinary thing, the glaze blistered in a couple of places, a small crack on one side. The ideogram on the bottom of the bowl was simple and very elegantly written.
The man selling it said the bowl was from the Ming Dynasty and was five hundred years old. I believed that to be true, having, by then, seen hundreds of old Chinese things. He wanted only 5 mao, fifty cents, but he wanted Waiwei qian. I told Ann it was a good deal even though the bowl was small and flawed, the rim chipped through time and use. As the man showed it to us, I wondered about all the lives the bowl had seen, the hands that had held it. Ann bought it.
“You should have this,” she said in the taxi. “You love China with all its ugliness. You don’t mind the political system, the dirt, the brokenness. You should have this cup. It’s not beautiful. It’s like China.” She’d also bought many new and beautiful things, something in carved jade from an exclusive shop in Guangzhou for her parents, something similar for herself. That was Ann’s China. She was right that the worn and chipped old bowl with its long lost stories was my China.
We hugged each other goodbye, said we’d see each other soon in Denver, and she took what might have been her last flight on an Aeroflot. She returned to China years later, wanting to make peace with the country. She says, now, that she thinks of that miserable, frustrating, dispiriting, and hilarious journey as the greatest adventure of her life.
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.
Thanks to the miracle of the inter webs, I listen to a Chicago radio station. Through the winter they play REAL albums on Fridays which is great. They also introduced me to my second favorite song , “Home of the Brave” by the Nails.
“It’s 1983 on XRT Saturday morning flashbacks.”
The song comes up. Ouch. Sometimes Mohammed’s Radio hits a nerve.
In my list of worst years of my life, 1983 is right up there. I came back from a year teaching in China late that August — about now (yeah yeah I know it’s September. Split hairs will you…) and tried to negotiate a place for myself in the Great American West which I had left in the first place because I hadn’t found a place for myself in the aforementioned Great American West. Whether or not you can go home again remains an open question, but I know for sure you can absolutely return to alienation.
I loved China and didn’t want to come back, but my marriage seemed important. It wasn’t. It wasn’t working, remained not working for the ensuing decade, and staying in China would have been an easier way out than the one that happened ten years later. My brother’s life went rapidly south soon after we returned to Colorado (no cause and effect there). It was a real nightmare and even my little niece was in danger. I came back to that. The ONLY good thing about that winter was Denver got an absurd amount of snow. The next summer saw us moving to California. Serenity remained elusive. I continued yearning for China for a long long long long time, I think until a few years ago I googled my Chinese home town and saw that it was gone and there was no way to go back.
So here I am in Monte Vista, Colorado, YEARS later. A few of my heart and brain cells are still missing China, but a whole lifetime has filled the interval. I’m sitting at my table finishing my coffee. Bear’s chewing a rawhide pencil. I give Teddy my empty coffee cup to clean. I’m trying to write this blog post and feeling intimidated at the reality that I’ve paid $100 to write this blog every day. Tracy (Untidy Mind) suggested I think of it as $2/day and that’s a good idea, but seriously, I’m not saying much here. I have 1900 blog posts up. I’ve deleted hundreds. How am I NOT saying the same thing over and over????
The last two posts I wrote, I deleted. They didn’t seem worth $100/year.
This morning as I put together my smoothie I wondered to myself how is it I have everything I need all the time, especially in THESE times?
I’ve lived in a time and place where having everything you need all the time was no certainty. The largest single feature of my Chinese kitchen was an immense cistern (featured photo) so that when there WAS water, whoever lived in the apartment could stock up for the future. Most people cooked with charcoal or wood. I had propane, and I had a refrigerator. Most people didn’t have those conveniences. Vegetables and fruit were 100% seasonal. Bread was available twice a week from the university bakery. Meat was so scarce that when it was available it was a big deal. Canned food was available in the Friendship Store only and we sometimes went to Hong Kong to get provisions — cheese, tuna, peanut butter, flour, cocoa, coffee, mayonnaise. Who would ever think that stuff would inspire a journey that involved government permission, visas, a three hour trip on the hovercraft, four hours on the train, or overnight on a riverboat? We were allowed because it was a well-known (Chinese fact) that white foreigners needed more protein to maintain their larger bodies than did lithe and slender Chinese. Chinese also hold the belief that food is medicine, and my school did not want their foreigners to become ill.
I didn’t even mind the comparative scarcity of things. It was liberating to have what I had and that was it. It was through this that I came to understand materialism.
So there I was this morning, breaking a banana into my blender connecting that moment to China somehow. There was no blender in China. There was a two burner stove (all I use now, as it happens), my toaster oven that I brought with me (and left behind for the next foreign expert), a wok hanging on the wall (like all good Chinese cooks). An aluminum tea pot I used to make coffee. Pretty much all I need now except for a coffee grinder and a blender.
I thought about the markets in Guangdong at the time. Very very very very few were state run markets. Most were independent vendors. If prices were controlled by any outside power (and I doubt they were) it wasn’t obvious. In the vegetable market vendors openly competed for customers, and it was part of the bargaining process. “What! You want fifty mao for a li of green beans? Old Ma over there only wants thirty mao!”
“Old Ma’s beans were picked yesterday! I picked my beans this morning! Old Ma cheat you!”
If a vendor KNEW the customer LOVED a particular thing (as I loved hot chilis) they’d raise their price and THEN fight over who got my money partly because they’d get a lot and partly because doing business with the foreigner was fun. It broke the monotony, it was a show, and they liked me. Most foreigners never ventured into these markets. At that time, when China was hesitantly opening to the United States, most foreigners were visitors, and their comings and goings closely controlled by China Travel Service. Shi Pai, my village, was rich in foreigners (7!) because there were three colleges and each had foreign experts.
The thing is that when my university realized that I did not have to shop in the Friendship Store or have fancy things, they started paying me mostly in Renminbi, people’s money instead of Wai Wei Jen, foreign exchange money. I was a bargain to them. I got 100 yuan in Wai Wei Jen to send home every month and the rest in Ren Min Bi so I could live in Guangzhou like a Chinese.
That was part of my life under Communism. Communism did not create China’s poverty. Poverty was part of China for thousands of years, the result of periodic famine (climate related), overpopulation, dishonest politicians, foreign imperialism and war. Communism was an attempt to equalize the distribution of wealth in that immense and immensely populated country. How well did it work? Well, Chairman Mao was a great leader in war and a lousy leader in peace, in my opinion, anyway. He constantly strove to keep things stirred up. Chaos is the enemy of prosperity, but a bad leader can benefit from it (for a while), and Mao did by painting himself as the savior of the Chinese people. Two generations into his dominion, there were people in China who had never known any other leadership, and it was easy for them to believe him. But, by the 1970s, even Maoist Chinese leadership had copped to the reality that major players in Mao’s government were corrupt. When Mao died, it wasn’t long before they were thrown out and China — still communist — began to go in a new direction.
We know how well that worked. 🙂
I’m not an expert on Chinese history by any means, and I’m not Chinese. These are just the wandering thoughts of me making breakfast which I’d probably better eat (drink?) before lunch.
It’s worn and tired. The fringe was chewed away long ago by dogs and vacuum cleaners, but when it was new? My 3 year old niece came into my apartment, saw it, immediately sat in the middle medallion where the two blue dragons fight and said, “This is HEAVEN!” as if she knew Chinese mythology. She’s 41 this year.
I bought it at the Friendship Store — the store where export goods were sold — in Guangzhou a few months after I arrived in China.
There were two things I wanted to buy in China; one was this carpet the other a down jacket. That sounds a little weird considering I was on the Tropic of Cancer, but Chinese down IS the best and such a jacket was very expensive and hard to find in the US at the time. I came home with a down jacket and a full-length down coat. I was glad, too, because that first winter after I returned to Colorado was one of the snowiest and coldest in Colorado history.
The carpet was picked up by the college’ van at some point and brought to our apartment. I didn’t open it. I could see it would be easier to bring home if it were still rolled and wrapped. It waited in room in our apartment that housed the fridge for the whole year and I feared mold, moths or worse, that I’d bring home a cockroach.
When the time came to return to America, I had to haul the carpet to Shanghai along with many other fardles. All went well until one of the last legs of the journey — San Francisco to Billings, where my mother lived. We got on the plane. I was sitting in a seat where it happened that I could watch the bags being loaded. My carpet was on top of the baggage cart as it began to drive away.
I went ape-shit. Yes the carpet was an Albatross but it was MY albatross.
“Ma’am, it will arrive in Billings later. Don’t worry.”
“I don’t WANT it to arrive later. I want it to arrive WITH ME.”
The other passengers were thinking, “That screaming bitch is going to make our flight late!”
I cried. In frustration, exhaustion and more. I already didn’t want to be back in the US. I wanted to be in China. The stewardess called back the baggage handlers, and they loaded my carpet.
I showed the carpet to my family in Montana, then rolled it up again. It flew with us to Denver and remained rolled until we finally got our own place. It was there that my niece recognized it for what it is.
Not too many years after returning from China, the Good X and I traveled to Delaware to visit his mom. I wanted to visit Pearl S. Buck’s house in Pennsylvania. I was writing about her at the time. We drove from Wilmington up to Bucks County, PA, over these nauseating rolling hills, surrounded by obnoxious, tall, shady trees that blocked the view of the horizon (I know, I know).
Her house is a pretty two story stone structure filled with her things, but what touched me most was her office. Outside her window she had built a Chinese garden, and it looks like China. On her floor was a beautiful Chinese carpet, worn and a little tattered. I was in the depths of my yearning for China at that time, and I saw Pearl S. Buck’s own yearning in that garden and that old carpet.
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
I had a pretty incredible Christmas all in all. But last night was probably the strangest, most incredible experience of the whole season.
My ex-husband, the one with whom I went to China, called to tell me he loved the China book. We got married and went to China after only knowing each other 4 months. We agreed last night that that was crazy. We also agreed it was crazy to have taken our skis. Then he said that I’d accurately captured the fear he felt when we arrived in Guangzhou and there was no one to meet our plane. “But,” he said, “you didn’t write about the other times I was afraid.”
“What other times?” I asked him.
“Well, there was the time the giant spider came out of the bathroom drain. I was terrified.”
“What giant spider? I don’t remember that at all.”
“Yeah. You took me for a walk around the campus and when we got back it was gone. That was good. I felt better after that.”
“Wow. I don’t remember that.”
“Then there the was time, you know, we’d just gotten into our apartment and set it up. we had our beds in that big room, and you wanted to cuddle, but I was still too freaked out. I didn’t want to. I couldn’t.”
A light bulb went on. I said, “I had no idea,” I said and thought, “What if you’d TOLD me that? Why DIDN’T you tell me that?”
Jim and I were not compatible. We tried for 12 years to make something work. My mom loved him, his kids loved me. We liked (still like) each other. We had a lot going for us. We both liked to ski. We came from similar backgrounds, a lot of stuff, but…
We talked on the phone for about an hour. I heard his wife say, in the background, “Are you still on the phone?” He didn’t answer her. Inside myself I nodded and smiled at that. I believe that conversation was the longest Jim and I have ever had.
In the years since, I have quietly diagnosed Jim as being somewhere on the Asperger’s Spectrum.
“When you meet someone who has Asperger’s syndrome, you might notice two things right off. He’s just as smart as other folks, but he has more trouble with social skills. He also tends to have an obsessive focus on one topic or perform the same behaviors again and again.”
That little Dr. Google definition of Asperger’s describes Jim. During our marriage, Jim struggled hard to improve his social skills. He really likes people. He joined and became very involved in Toastmaster’s. He knew where he had a glitch. When Jim DID express himself, it was always — to me — a little obscure. Sometimes I felt that I was just supposed to understand things without getting any information from him at all. If I confronted him, it never went well. He had problems even making eye-contact with me. I could present objective facts such as, “If you don’t get a job, we’re fucked,” that just pushed him into wherever he went in his head. He was impossible to communicate with. Impossible for ME to communicate with. I got frustrated, took things personally — but now I get that. None of the skills I had worked at all, and my skills weren’t that great.
A reminder of how Jim’s mind works came when he said he had found 20 small mistakes in the China book. He gently asked if I would like him to put them on a spreadsheet so I can correct them.
“With the page numbers?” I asked.
“Page numbers and line numbers,” he answered. I felt a little twinge of affection hearing that. It’s SO Jim. His profession — at which he succeeded incredibly so — was writing code, programming. He wrote code for the Space Shuttle simulator. Most people would just say, “There are errors on page 10, 23, 40, 100,” etc.
Last night was an epiphany for me. In China, those two times he mentioned last night, he seems to have thought I KNEW he was afraid. How many other times in the 12 years we shared did he think I KNEW what he was feeling? What would our marriage have been like if he had been able to say, in words, “I need to be alone right now,” or “I’m frightened”?
It was obvious in that phone call last night that he is proud of me, that he’s proud of having gone to China with me, that he’s proud of what I’ve accomplished and that he — NOW — feels he can open up to me. I’m not sure 20 years ago I would have understood, and maybe he couldn’t have said, “You didn’t write about the other times I was afraid.”
“I was afraid.” A very powerful admission.
I wanted to wrap my arms around him last night, but that might not have been welcome even if we’d been within 20 feet of each other instead of some 1000 miles. That would have been my instinct, my nature. Instead I said, “We did well over there, Jim. We were just two nice people.”
“That’s true. We were just there being nice to people.”
“Yep. We can be proud of that. We’ve sure lived through a lot.”