Hainan Island, Part One, the Journey

Haikou City. Posters for sale, used for decorating the house for New Years

The most remote and exotic phrase of my growing up years was “The Gulf of Tonkin.” It was also a little scary. I grew up during the Cold War and during the Vietnam “Conflict.” The way Huntley and Brinkley said, “Gulf of Tonkin” was enough to send chills up anyone’s spine. But…

There I was. I’ve always studied geography on a “need to know basis,” when place names and boundaries had some kind of context for me, so there I was, looking at a map and seeing that very soon I’d be near the Gulf of Tonkin on my way to Hainan Island for Spring Festival aka Chinese New Year at my friend’s ancestral village, Fu Family Village, All Beauty.

To get there, we took a ship down the Pearl River, through the estuary at the mouth leading into the South China Sea.

Permission to visit Hainan was hard to get, but because we were going with close friends who’d invited us and I could speak Mandarin, the provincial government gave us the OK. Because we were traveling with Chinese and had Chinese ID cards, we were ipso facto Chinese. We bunked in the bottom of the boat with the other Chinese passengers. A foreign expert in French — from Switzerland — was traveling in one of the upper deck cabins as a foreigner. It was a hard night, with a neon light shining in my face on the upper bunk, but so what? It was a real adventure.

The Old Mother, with whom we traveled, was criticized by some other passengers for traveling with foreigners. She just replied that we weren’t foreigners. Jim was her son and we’d just been studying in America for a long time. It was her way of saying, “Shut up,” but it also made the point that we were her family. ❤ In China, you don’t mess with a person’s family.

From Guangzhou to Haikou

The ship crossed the South China Sea overnight and when the next afternoon came we were in Hainan’s major city of Haikou — Sea Mouth. It was a bustling, dirty, confused and confusing city with the most filthy toilet I’ve ever seen in my life. “What can you do with countryside people?” said my friend, Zhu.

Second leg of the journey, Haikou to Wengchang…

Travel in rural China in those days was nothing like it is now. It was a system of pre-arranged hitchhiking and luck. I had not understood the numerous cartons of cigarettes and cans of pineapple that we traveled with, but as soon as we started our journey, I understood. Guangxi, payment/bribes.

The first night we were supposed to stay with friends of my friends, but they had consulted the I-Ching and it had told them that entertaining strangers at this time “would not further” so they turned us away, with ferocity, apologies and the banging of a drum. We’d hitched (paying for our rides with cigarettes) a few miles out of Haikou.

“Superstition. I’m sorry Jim and Martha,” said our friends. I was bewildered. It took some study once I had returned to the US to understand what had happened. My friend had another possible sleeping place in mind and we went to the house of her old high school teacher. “Sure,” she said. It happened the dormitories — faculty dormitories — were largely empty, too, so we bunked up in some unknown teacher’s room.

That’s when my difficulties began.

I was seasick.

Seasickness happens to some people when they’re in motion. Mine hit me when the ship had docked. I learned later — when we’d arrived at our destination, a village of fishermen — that my nausea and vertigo, constant “companions” when I was on Hainan — were common. They joked, “You need to get on another boat!” but…

I could write an entire post on toilets in China and seven-eighths of that would be toilets on Hainan. It’s enough to say that we went back in time from late 20th century Chinese toilets (Guangzhou). I know this for a fact. In between, in our first night in Hainan, at the high school outside of Haikou, we had the toilet equivalent of Roman times. From there we descended to early. human history. Just know, I was sick the whole week I was on Hainan but, thanks to my great doctor in Denver, I had anti-nausea suppositories. And now, I will do as my grandfather and “draw a veil of silence” over the subject.

The next day we were back on the road. We stood beside the “highway” with our stash of cigarettes and canned goods and waited for a van that was supposed to pick us up. The van came, we got in and had a ride to our first destination, the town of Wenchang. There we would (hopefully) get a ride to the village of All Beauty.

Today Wenchang is a city and it is also the location from which the Chinese have launched rockets carrying satellites. In 1983, my friends and I stood beside the main road with our luggage and our Guangxi, hoping for a ride to the next place.

Hainan was an American outpost during the Anti-Japanese war, but it was very rare for any Hainanese to see white people. Most of the foreigners in their experience had been Asian. There we were, my tall, bearded, blue-eyed husband and me, reddish brown hair and green eyes, with our two Chinese friends. We were an attraction.

Old women came up to us and looked us. Some tried to rub the freckles from my arms with spit and pressure. Others stared into my green eyes. Others touched Jim’s beard. My friends were embarrassed and angered by this, but it was OK with me. I was in China with all the curiosity these villagers were displaying. My friend Zhu yelled at them to go away, but I said, “It’s OK. I don’t mind.”

“You should mind,” she said. “They’re ignorant, superstitious people.”

“Yeah but they’ll be less ignorant when they finish examining us,” I thought.

Then came one of the most profoundly beautiful moments of my time in China, of my life. A young man — maybe 18 — came up to us. His face was shaking in nervousness. He gently made his way through the crowd of black-clad grandmothers. He looked at Jim then looked at me.

“Are you Americans?” he asked in English.

Everyone in the crowd looked at him in total surprise.

“Yes,” I said.

He looked at me in joyful astonishment. His nervousness vanished. He smiled. His eyes sparkled.

“Where did you learn English?” I asked.

“I listen to Voice of America. Welcome to my country!” he took my hand and shook it, then Jim’s hand before he turned and walked away, a spring in his step. I am sure he had never tried out his English before and was thrilled to learn that it actually WORKED.

To be continued…

Subversive English Teacher?

Out of the thousands of slides my ex and I took while we were in China, only about 400 remain, and out of those, 300 were scannable. As I went through them, doing the tedious mechanical business of trying to get them centered in the frame, then uploaded, then (somewhat) refined with the photo software on my lap top, I expected to have a more intense emotional reaction. My year as a Foreign Expert in English was the experience of a lifetime. But I often thought, looking at a scene, “There are better photos of that on the Internet.”

In 1983, photos of the Forbidden City were unusual. Now?

In 1989 I was living in San Diego. When there were protests in Tiananmen Square in Beijing and people were killed, my Aunt Martha called me from Denver and said, “Are you happy with what you’ve done?” I laughed, but soon I realized she wasn’t kidding. I could imagine her all in a lather, her right forefinger raised in the air, prepared to deliver one of her incomparable stentorian remonstrances.

“I just taught English, Aunt Martha.”

“But look at what’s happening in Peking!!! You should have left China alone!”

I loved my aunt for thinking the little person that I am had that kind of power.

I thought of my little anthology of American literature and its possibilities as a subversive text. I thought of arguments I’d had with graduate students over the individualism (selfishness) expressed Emerson’s essay “Self-Reliance.” I thought of the city-wide lecture I’d given on the lost generation. “We’re a lost generation, teacher,” said one of my graduate students. “All of us.” When I asked them what they meant they explained that they were going to university only to have to return to their villages. Neither they nor I could know that by the time they were my age NOW (they were my age then) China would have launched stuff into space or that Guangzhou would have hosted the Asian Games. Their villages (most were in Guangdong) would be filled with skyscrapers. Electricity wouldn’t be “iffy” there would be consumer goods for everyone. None of them knew that some would come to America to live forever. Others would come to study and they would return to China. They couldn’t know that their one child would probably study abroad.

While my Aunt Martha overestimated the power of my classroom lectures, she was right in a way. During Mao’s “reign” China remained closed. When it opened to more foreigners, China changed and could never go back. That the young people took to the streets to protest China’s economic policies, only to learn that the iron fist remained clenched, was sad, but, to me, not surprising. Neither Rome nor Modern China could be built in a day.

Last night I woke up realizing that the slides are just a “shard” of a huge adventure that isn’t bound by time and that in a very small way, I became part of the history of China, far more than I am a part of the history of my own country.


* The featured photo is a shard of Anasazi pottery a friend of mine picked up near her home in Arizona. She left it for me, a small gift. I found it on my desk at San Diego State atop a stack of papers-to-grade. Once upon a time, this shard was a shallow bowl, I think, from the way the painted surface is concave and the top edge is finished. Someone took a lot of time to dig the clay, prepare the clay, mold the pot, grind the pigment and paint it onto the surface before firing it.

Thoughts on Totalitarianism (and Chairman Mao)

“Our Party enjoys the greatest prestige, unshakable prestige, among the people. Our Party represents the highest interests of the proletariat and the broad masses of the working people, and its relationship with the masses of the people is, as Chairman Mao says, like that between fish and Water.”

The Great Socialist Cultural Revolution

This little book came to me on Christmas Eve, 1982, slid under my door with a Christmas card and an assortment of Mao Buttons. It was not signed but I knew where it came from. It was a gift from Teacher Hu, a high school English teacher in the nearby village of Liede, a man from Hainan Island who was a good friend and former teacher of my best two Chinese friends. He was also the man to whom I had given my Bible. You can read that story here, and if you have enjoyed my stories of China, I think you would enjoy that post. I had invited him and his wife to our Christmas Eve party, but I did not expect him to come. What had happened between us was certainly not as secret as we imagined it had been.

Most Americans should be grateful that they have never lived under a totalitarian regime. I have, and while the iron fist of the Party never came down on me, I knew plenty of people who had suffered from it. Even during my year in China, there were students who were consistently being pulled out of class or denied privileges and sent to extra “political study.”

Every Thursday there was college-wide political study which meant Jim and I had the afternoon off. If anything came up during that meeting, we would learn about it one way or the other. There was the moment when a Chinese tennis player, Hu Na, defected to the US, and for a week our students and friends were forbidden to talk to us.

Mr. Hu had served with the US Army on Hainan Island during the war against the Japanese. He became an interpreter because of his linguistic abilities. He was one of the few people I met in China who spoke English with an American accent. His having contact with Americans led to him being imprisoned in a Tiger Pit for several years during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. His wife was similarly imprisoned and, at some point during this nightmare, she killed herself.

Many people killed themselves during the Cultural Revolution, so many that people I met who were older than I by at least ten years frequently spoke of someone who had “gotten the suicide” the way you might get a cold.

Generally speaking, the Cultural Revolution was, “… a sociopolitical movement in China from 1966 until 1976.” And it sounded great, but, in real life it was a trap for squelching any remaining dissent on the part of the Chinese people.

Mao was a true hero. During WW II his leadership did a great deal to defeat the Japanese, far more than did the leadership of President Chiang Kai Shek and the Republican army with whom the US had allied. Mao understood the people, was one of the people, and still embodied many of the “virtues” people expected in an dictator, oops, leader. For one thing, he could write poetry. IMO it’s not great, but it’s legit. “Snow” is his most famous poem.

North country scene: 
A hundred leagues locked in ice, 
A thousand leagues of whirling snow. 
Both sides of the Great Wall 
One single white immensity. 
The Yellow River’s swift current 
Is stilled from end to end. 
The mountains dance like silver snakes 
And the highlands* charge like wax-hued elephants, 
Vying with heaven in stature. 
On a fine day, the land, 
Clad in white, adorned in red, 
Grows more enchanting.

This land so rich in beauty 
Has made countless heroes bow in homage. 
But alas! Chin Shih-huang and Han Wu-ti 
Were lacking in literary grace, 
And Tang Tai-tsung and Sung Tai-tsu 
Had little poetry in their souls; 
And Genghis Khan, 
Proud Son of Heaven for a day, 
Knew only shooting eagles, bow outstretched 
All are past and gone! 
For truly great men 
Look to this age alone. 

If the subject of Mao, Chiang Kai Shek and the US in WW II interests you, Barbara Tuchman wrote a great book about that moment in Chinese history in Stillwell and the American Experience in China.

After the war — both the Anti-Japanese war and the civil war against the Nationalist forces, with Chiang Kai Shek gone to Taiwan, Mao had to consolidate his power. To my knowledge, he didn’t have any problem doing this, but then, how would I know? He started up various movements. At first he followed the Soviet idea of Five-year Plans. The first was successful, so he came up with his own. There was the movement to eradicate sparrows (they eat grain, you know) which led to famine (imagine!). In 1957 he came up with the Thousand Flowers Movement with its beautiful slogan, “Let a thousand flowers bloom, a hundred thoughts contend.” Some historians now think it was a ploy to trap dissidents. I tend to agree.

In 1958 he began “The Great Leap Forward,” (website with a good description and amazing posters) described to me by Chinese colleagues as, “When we all made steel in our backyard.” This was also the moment in which villages were converted to communes, and in cities, factories and neighborhoods were divided into “work units” which facilitated spying on your neighbor and reporting back to the cadres via China’s ubiquitous gossip system. Mao’s last desperate attempt to retain total power was The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution which lasted from 1966 to 1976.

I’m not an expert on the Cultural Revolution, but what I do know is that it fostered ignorance, led to the persecution of intellectuals, anyone who’d traveled abroad — especially to America, anyone who spoke English, and, of course, anyone who criticized the government. It was a youth movement that seems to have harnessed the zeitgeist, “youth is truth,” that was happening all over the world. It was taught that the only knowledge anyone needed was in the Little Red Book — the Thoughts of Chairman Mao.

It’s superficial objective was the elimination of the “Four Olds” — old ideas, old habits, old customs, old culture. Essentially, everything about China before that particular moment in Chinese history. In some ways it reminds me of the Protestant Reformation (and the Roman Catholic counter-reformation), down to the destruction of icons and the execution of dissenters.

Propaganda was disseminated in every possible way — big character posters, loudspeakers on trucks and the commercial media as well as in the classroom. When I first studied Chinese I learned to say to my students, “Ni hao tóngzhìmen” or “hello comrades.” Later I was told to say “tongxuemen” or students. I never said either. I spoke to my students in English. 😉

Many of China’s great writers and artists — patriotic Chinese — were imprisoned, forced to write confessions, hounded publicly, driven to suicide or killed outright. Among them was Lao She, a writer I happen to love. His love of China shines in every word he wrote (and I’ve read everything that’s been translated to English). One of his novels, Camel Xiangtse, was translated to English soon after it came out in the late 1930s. It became a bestseller. It’s known as Rickshaw Boy.

All translations published in China. “Teahouse” is a beautiful play that tells the story on an old-fashioned Chinese story-teller amid the rapid changes in Chinese society in the early/mid 20th century.

It’s true that Lao She criticized Communism in his satirical, science fiction novel, Cat Country (the word for cat in Chinese is “mao”) that gently points out the problems of “Everybody Shareskyism” and its intrinsic conflict with traditional Chinese Culture, and he never joined the Party, but, at the same time, he frequently expressed support for Mao and the actions of the Chinese Communist Party.

For a short time Lao She lived in America. His friend, Pearl S. Buck, brought him over for his own safety. He was never at home anywhere but Beijing, so he returned. Perhaps his having lived in America is part of the reason for his treatment during the height of the Cultural Revolution. A good article about what happened to Lao She is here in the South China Morning Post, “The Mystery of Lao She.”

For a while the Chinese were aware that things had gone awry with their revolution, but until Chairman Mao died, they couldn’t do anything about it. With such a heroic figure in power, who was going to do anything? Mao dies, the Gang of Four powerful party leaders, including Mao’s wife, were accused of crimes against the state (were they guilty? were they scapegoats? I don’t know) Deng Xiao Ping rose to power, Nixon came to call, and it was time for China to rebuild itself.

The most wonderful letter I have ever received. ❤

What I learned about totalitarianism in endless conversations with people during my year in China is that:

  • the people must support it;
  • it cannot co-exist with critical thought;
  • it requires a cult of personality, someone with the larger-than-life image of Chairman Mao;
  • the media must be controlled and free expression of ideas must be suppressed;
  • knowledge is the enemy of totalitarianism;
  • the language of totalitarianism relies on hyperbole and absolutes such as “the greatest” and “the only;”
  • repetition, repetition, repetition, slogans and proverbs serve the ends of totalitarianism;
  • totalitarianism is attractive to desperate people who are looking for a fast solution to their problems.

I also came to understand that communism is not totalitarianism; that is just the only model recent history has offered us.

Tiananmen Square in Beijing.
Chairman Mao on the Side of a Building in Haikou City on Hainan Island

Very little of Chairman Mao remained in “my” China. There was only one random Mao picture. It was on a remote and then very poor part of China, Hainan Island.

Hainan is now a developed luxurious place for tourists.

The Great Wall of China

A few weeks ago I read one of those click-bait teasers “The Ten Top Over-Rated Tourist Traps in the World.” On top of the list was The Great Wall of China. Tourist “trap”? Not hardly, yet…

“Every year, more than 10 million people flock to the Great Wall of China, making it one of the world’s most popular tourist attractions. In 2013, 10,720,000 tourists visited the Badaling and Mutianyu areas of the wall.”

I looked through the slide show and saw tourists packed onto the top of the Great Wall at Badaling, and I thought, not for the first time, “I was lucky to be in China when I was.”

Not my Great Wall

To get to the Great Wall in 1983, you had to go to the Summer Palace to buy Tickets. My friend Zhou took us to buy the tickets and told us where to go to catch the tourist bus. Other than us, the tourists were all Chinese. It was an inclusive tour of the Great Wall and the Ming Tombs. The bus wandered up into the mountains around Beijing. We parked and followed the others up to the Wall. The tour was in Chinese but I had my (now ancient) Fodors and we had all read up.

The Great Wall of China is one of those things people put on their bucket lists. China taught me that my life’s wonderful experiences might not be famous monuments.

But later…

I returned “home” from China wondering where in the world I had been. I really didn’t know.

The building of the Great Wall under the evil first emperor, Qin Shi Huang — was an enormous hardship on the people of China. It was begun in 200 BCE and added to over the centuries, but, ultimately it didn’t work. Some dynasties — such as the Tang — did not add to the wall but attempted to use diplomacy and warfare to keep invaders at bay. Most of today’s Great Wall was built by the last Han Chinese dynasty, the Ming. The last dynasty — which lasted for nearly 300 years — was the Qing dynasty. The Qing were Manchurians, the very people the wall was built to keep out.

Two of China’s most renowned Tang Dynasty (618–907) poets — Li Bai and Tu Fu (8th century CE) — were sometimes exiled to the frontier. Li Bai wrote this poem about fighting at the Great Wall.

The Huns have no trade but battle and carnage; 
They have no fields or ploughlands, 
But only wastes where white bones lie among yellow sands. 
Where the House of Qin built the great wall that was to keep away the Tartars, 
There, in its turn, the House of Han lit beacons of war. 
The beacons are always alight, fighting and marching never stop. 

Men die in the field, slashing sword to sword; 
The horses of the conquered neigh piteously to Heaven. 
Crows and hawks peck for human guts, 
Carry them in their beaks and hang them on the branches of withered trees. 
Captains and soldiers are smeared on the bushes and grass; 
The General schemed in vain.

Tu Fu wrote this about fighting in the deserts of the far western frontier, on the Tibetan/Mongolian plateau:

My lord, have you never been to the ends of Qinghai, 
Where none come to gather bleached bones long dead, 
And the fresh spirits fret, and the old spirits weep, 
And the dark rain is full of their twittering cries?

When I stood on the Great Wall with a bunch of people taking pictures, I just felt numb. It wasn’t until I came home and began to learn where I had been that the Great Wall meant anything to me.

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

One Child Policy

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

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

Hong Chi in a museum in Shanghai

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

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

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

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

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

“Why?” I asked the old man.

“Come on,” said Xiao Huang.

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

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

I still can’t.

“Come on,” said Xiao Huang.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Classroom Life at South China Teachers University, 1982/83

Being a Foreign Expert in English at South China Teachers University was my first teaching job. I was thirty. I’d gotten my MA three years earlier and, after five years in the clerical jungle, I wanted badly to be in the classroom. However, I wasn’t going after a PhD and I was not the greatest student in my masters program (I was essentially thrown out) so what was I to do? Someone said, “Become a Foreign Expert in English in a Chinese University.”

To get this coveted position, all I had to do was send letters to Chinese universities. I started with the major ones — Beijing University on the top of my list. I got no response and essentially forgot about it, moving on with my life, then, two or so years later, I got a letter from South China Teachers University inviting me to come. One of my letters to some Chinese university had found its way to Guangzhou.

Welcome Dinner at the historic Panxi Restaurant in Guangzhou. Me, University President Pan; Dean of Foreign Language Department, Kewey Tseng. Back, Party Member whose name I have forgotten, Jim Richardson, Li Ji Ming, co-chair of the English Department. I guess Li Han Cai, the head of the English Department is Taking the picture.

There is a lot to say on this subject, but most of it is teacherly stuff, and all of it would make a book. I don’t want to write a book here and now, so…

Classrooms were large and comfortable with windows on both sides. Guangzhou is on the Tropic of Cancer and air circulation is an issue much of the year. The teacher stood on a podium and most teachers lectured. I am not a lecturer and that was the biggest change for my students. For months they couldn’t figure me out, but as all of them were training to become English teachers themselves, they got a lesson in one of their training classes describing the “direct method.” They were very excited to come to class and explain to me that they understood now.

My biggest challenges were the radically different learning tradition they had grown up with, the indoctrination my students had experienced all their lives, and my own inexperience. I taught three classes of seniors American literature. Three classes of juniors, composition. I taught a graduate seminar in American literature and I coached anyone who came to me needing help.

My students had been in the same class with the same classmates for their entire time in college. Each class had a “head” and the nature of each class reflected that student’s personality. One of my classes was almost always silent because the “head” was a passionate Young Pioneer and a Party Member. The other two were more liberal.

A day came when I couldn’t stand the silence of the silent class any more and I yelled at them. “I’m just talking at you like you’re a bunch of empty jars I’m supposed to fill up!”

That comment made it all around the campus. The next day the “head” stood up and apologized, saying, “They’ve been silent for four years now. You can’t expect them to start talking all at once.”

“You could all try,” I said. From then on, having been criticized, they began to venture their ideas, but they were still a very reticent group.

From then on, though, it was kind of a rueful joke throughout my department; my students were empty jars. But I didn’t know — and they didn’t know — how quickly China would change and their being empty jars would be a problem for them when (and they couldn’t have expected it) they went overseas to study. At that time, almost NO ONE left China; few people ever left their village.

After reading my students’ first essay assignment, I discovered that the Soviets had written Communist literary commentary on most works in the USIA textbook I was using. An example of this kind of commentary is, “Rip Van Winkle is the story of how the bourgeois revolution did nothing to help poor peasants like Rip.” “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening shows the hard life of the peasant while the rich man is warm in his house.”

In combination with Communism, Confucian philosophy isn’t conducive to original thought A good scholar is humble and repeats what the experts have said. You see how it was… When I read their first essay, 2/3 of them said the same thing. Half of the remaining third said some of that. Five out of the 75 essays offered me unique student readings.

I decided that I would write my own textbook for my literature classes. I typed it on ditto masters, sitting in the office of the Foreign Language Department secretarial pool. It was a small anthology compiled of work that wasn’t in any of the American literature books in the college library or the USIA textbook.

Chinese generally love poetry, and it’s a big part of their tradition. I love it too, so that made classes fun for all of us. I’d read a bit of Chinese poetry and sometimes dared to bring it into the discussion, not very successfully because the Chinese truly believe (believed?) that other nationalities and cultures are inferior and cannot truly understand anything Chinese.

Maybe they’re right, but American literature did not prove to be so inscrutable. 😉

One of the most beautiful and memorable teaching moments of my 35+ year career was teaching Longfellow’s poem, “A Psalm of Life.” Maoist propaganda was all about inspirational BS, but none of it looked at the struggles of an individual against personal despair (all despair would end when they reached Communism). That doesn’t mean that personal despair wasn’t part of being Chinese. Non-Maoist Chinese literature is full of it. It was that in the collectivist world view, personal anything is at odds with “serve the people.” I believe that serving the people is a good mission. But you need to be healthy yourself, and life demands the individual courage Longfellow writes about. Plus, I knew the poem by heart.

So I taught it, all over the chalkboard, pictures to illustrate the journey of the poet. I used a piece of marble as a metaphor for a person’s life, something we, ourselves make. One of my students suddenly said, “Teacher, you mean Rongferrow says we must carve our stone, even when it is very hard, to make our life as beautiful as possible so others will be inspired.”

Their first, non-Soviet mediated moment with American thought, American literature. My “empty jars” were learning to engage directly with ideas on a page. I have tears in my eyes thinking of that moment, the moment my class — for those students — became an adventure.

And “Rongferrow” became forever my secret name for a poet I love very much. In Cantonese, R and L are difficult sounds. More than once, on a picnic, a student asked to borrow my “life” meaning my Swiss Army Life. ❤

My Classroom

I was always happy in my classrooms. Life in a place like China (as if there were another place like China) was a dream come true for me. I loved teaching. You can imagine that I was deeply, deeply happy. I went to class every day smiling.

Then came a time when I learned the difference between a smile of happiness in Colorado and in my Chinese classroom.

“Teacher, why are you always smiling? Do you think we are funny? Our English is funny?”

“You’re English is good. And no, you’re not funny. I’m smiling because I’m happy.”

“Why are you happy?”

“I’m in China. I’m teaching. I love both those things.”

My students were amazed. They were all going to be teachers, but they hadn’t chosen it. The government had compelled them to become teachers. One boy asked, “You love China?”

“Yes. I love China very much.”

“Do you love America?”

“Yes. I love America.”

“How can you love both countries? Don’t you miss your family?”

“Yes, I miss my family.” I didn’t but I thought of the Rocky Mountains as my family. “I miss the mountains. I miss a lot of things, but in China I get to be a teacher and I love teaching. And, I love you all. I love everything I learn every day here. It’s beautiful.”

My students were stunned. That was the end of that class. There was no where to go from there. They’d asked a question, expecting to be humiliated and got that instead. The “head” got up and addressed his classmates in Cantonese (they’d figured out I might understand if they spoke Mandarin). When he finished, my students collected their things, and he said, “Come on, teacher. We’re going to show you something.”

They took me to see some of the future of my village, Shipai. A new park was being made out of a blasted out slum. The grounds of a large garden had been laid out. Some had been built and planted. There was a brand new moon gate through which the little mountain behind the college was framed. Above the arch of the moon gate were four characters. “Sky, wind, clouds, mountain.”

“Can you read it, teacher?”

“Yes but what does it mean?”

“It’s a famous poem.” Some Chinese poetry is like that. Very, very spare, part of its beauty comes from the characters and the scene. I looked through the arch. All that was missing was “wind.”

I live in that poem now.


A Psalm of Life
What The Heart Of The Young Man Said To The Psalmist.

Tell me not, in mournful numbers, 
Life is but an empty dream! 
For the soul is dead that slumbers, 
And things are not what they seem.

Life is real! Life is earnest! 
And the grave is not its goal; 
Dust thou art, to dust returnest, 
Was not spoken of the soul. 

Not enjoyment, and not sorrow, 
Is our destined end or way; 
But to act, that each to-morrow 
Find us farther than to-day. 

Art is long, and Time is fleeting, 
And our hearts, though stout and brave, 
Still, like muffled drums, are beating 
Funeral marches to the grave. 

In the world’s broad field of battle, 
In the bivouac of Life, 
Be not like dumb, driven cattle! 
Be a hero in the strife!

Trust no Future, howe’er pleasant! 
Let the dead Past bury its dead! 
Act,— act in the living Present! 
Heart within, and God o’erhead! 

Lives of great men all remind us 
We can make our lives sublime, 
And, departing, leave behind us 
Footprints on the sands of time; 

Footprints, that perhaps another, 
Sailing o’er life’s solemn main, 
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother, 
Seeing, shall take heart again. 

Let us, then, be up and doing, 
With a heart for any fate; 
Still achieving, still pursuing, 
Learn to labor and to wait.

P.S. The sign in the featured image is funny. It should say, ‘Hua Nan Shi Fan Xue Yuan” but “h” and “n” do kind of look alike. Chinglish was one of the best thing about daily life in China. But I made mistakes, too, all the time. Communication was a huge source of laughter for all of us.

P.P.S. South China Normal University now has three campuses and is a prestigious university with more than a thousand international students. It looks NOTHING like it did when I was there.

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.

Not Too Difficult… Scanning China

The slide scanner arrived and I set it up within a few minutes. I bought a cheap one because I’ve never been very motivated to do this little task and would rather buy something fun. I spent an hour or so working on scanning slides this afternoon. I started with my most precious slides, then went to the box that became my “traveling this is China” show. The machine is primitive and effective and easy to use. I recommend it. The photo fixing software on my Mac does what the little machine can’t. All is well.

I did not take most of the slides I have of China. My Ex did. He is a good photographer with a sensitive eye. He also used the camera as a way to distance himself from China which was dirty, inconvenient, uncomfortable and ugly in ways that bothered him. His health suffered while we were there. He was teaching, which is not the best job for a very very very shy guy to do, especially one who is not a teacher. It’s a really stupid idea to get married to someone you’ve only know four months (stupid in any case) and then take them to the third world to fulfill YOUR dream when they hardly know you and don’t share it.

Years later, he said China was the greatest experience of his life, but during the reality of it, it wasn’t. I can’t say I liked it all the time, either. The roaches were as big as Bear. I was sick with vertigo the first few weeks. It was challenging teaching students from such a different learning tradition — Confucianism and Communism formed a good partnership. We also happened to be there during an intense El Niño year — my hometown of Denver had record snows (I learned later) and we had four solid months of rain with TWO days of sunshine that winter. Still, once I was physically accustomed and made friends, I loved China.

Communism is not easy to live with. While there I learned it is NOT a political system but more like a religion. People spoke of it in the way Christians speak of Heaven, “When we reach Communism one day.” They spoke of that moment as “Ming Tien” or bright future.

Students at the time in China, I don’t know about now, were TOLD what they would study. They had no choice. I’m sure there was an exam that indicated what they might be good at. My students had all been compelled to study English. Until Nixon’s visit, the required language was Russian. My students would all become English teachers and their great fear was that they would be sent to the countryside to teach English to peasants, though, of course, most of them had “good backgrounds” and were peasants themselves. My students were constantly being sent to “political study” to “struggle” with the corruption of anything they might learn from their American teachers (we were the second ones the college had ever had) and from American literature (which I taught).

Anyway, here are some of the first photos I’ve scanned of Guangzhou and Hainan Island in 1982/1983.

The featured image is Guang Xiao Temple — Bright Smile Temple. It was the home of the Buddhist Saint, Hui-Neng. His famous poem (sutra) is inscribed on a slate tablet on a wall of this temple. Looking at these photos really brings it home to me. As I remember it from the wall:

Bo tree is not a tree
Gleaming mirror is not mirror, either.
Stained with dust
How could they be?

There are 10,000 commentaries on this poem that you can read. It is a poem about the non-being of things, the transience of life and phenomena. It almost can’t be put into words. In a sense, it’s a kind of Buddhist Platonism.