“I think, the Pastoral…”

I recently watched the PBS Great Performances program, “Beethoven in Beijing.” I love seeing film from the early days of the US/China rapprochement, but this turned out to be something very special and, for me, very moving.

I was a Foreign Expert in English at South China Teachers University in Guangzhou from 1982-83. I would have stayed longer but I mistakenly thought my marriage was a higher priority and my then husband was very miserable, then sick, in China so when my contract expired we came back to the States. I remained homesick for China for many years afterwards.

My students had grown up in — and the older ones had likely participated in — the Great Proletariat Cultural Revolution which was an enormous and deadly debacle. During this time schools were closed; education was drastically devalued and any western thing was considered evil. Many scholars, writers and artists “got the suicide” (the words of a friend in China). In 1972 when Nixon went to China to meet with Mao, the door opened a crack and then, slowly, more and more. Early in the opening,1973, the Philadephia Orchestra went to China.

I didn’t know about that. Why would I? I was 21 and dealing with university and various other things. That I would EVER go to China was beyond even my wildest imagination. I didn’t — at that time — know where I was going, but as far as I could see I had to graduate from university first.

In 1982, I was among the earliest group of American teachers in Guangzhou. When I was there, the city housed about 100 foreigners including diplomats. I was an attraction.

In this program there are several of the members of the Philadelphia Philharmonic who had gone to China in 1973. That was wonderful to see, but what touched me most deeply was my realization that…

My students had no chance to fulfill their dreams. Not for the most part, anyway. When the Gang of Four fell and things began to “normalize” they were still in school and woefully behind in everything. Teachers were hard to find. Many didn’t trust Deng Xiao Ping to actually DO what he was doing. They’d been lied to before and drastically, tragically.

The government at that time had a plan for what it needed to do to modernize China and it controlled much of the peoples’ lives. My students were told by the government where they would go to school and what they would study. They would be English teachers. Middle school English teachers. A few would teach high school. A very very very few who showed unusual promise would teach college. It didn’t matter where their gifts or interests lay. Most were accepting and resigned. Some were elated even to have the chance to attend university (that year my school was upgraded from a teachers college to a university). Some were frustrated and angry. A very few came to America. It was difficult to do this. The US wasn’t accepting refugees from China and any Chinese who hoped to study in the US had to be accepted by a university before they could get a visa. They needed a sponsor, also, who could put up $20k/year for them.

Their lives were full of traps, though, because of what they’d been told to study. Still worried about Western influence on the minds of the young, the government did what it could to make sure these students never had a high opinion of themselves. Individualism was synonymous with selfishness anyway. The example of this that struck me as I watched this beautiful program was when my students put together a show for a music competition. They had to perform music in English and because they had two, new, American teachers they were told to perform American music. I wasn’t invited to the show, so I don’t know what they did, I only know that they lost the competition (of course) and one of my students tried killing herself by jumping out of a ground floor window which wasn’t (thank goodness) much of an attempt. She ended up with a sprained ankle.

Watching this program, which is filled with western music, I thought of my students who would now be, at the very least, in their late fifties. They would have taught English to thousands of Chinese children, some of whom would now be in their fifties and forties. Some of them might still be teaching. Some of my students would be grand-parents now. My students children and grandchildren would be the young people in this film. I even thought, briefly, “I helped,” and felt very good inside.

The film touches on some important points — important to me, anyway — specifically the deterioration of our educational system due in part to most school districts jettisoning art education because (in their tiny minds) it doesn’t lead to high test scores. One American elementary school in this film had applied for the Lang Lang grant. What is that? A grant from the Lang Lang Foundation begun by and named for the Chinese pianist who plays for the Philadelphia Philharmonic. Watching Lang Lang play in this program? Amazing. He LOVES it. He clearly loves the piano, loves performing, loves the music. Individuality sizzles from him, a character my students could barely even have dared to reveal to the world. His philosophy of music, its why and who, is beautiful, too. Lang Lang was born in 1982. My best friends in China’s son was born in early 1983.

One of the artists in this program makes the point. “Our parents grew up in the Cultural Revolution. They didn’t have a chance. They poured all their lost dreams into us.”

1982 with two of my students.

There’s a lot going on this program; at times, I thought, a little too much. It could have been twice as long and gone a little slower with more music. There are a LOT of stories in it that barely get the chance to breathe. My favorite is that of Tan Dun who won the Acadsemy Award for best motion picture score for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. His story is wonderful.

I like Chinese music and the places in this film where the two come together are beautiful.

Tins of New Zealand Butter

As soon as you go out into the world after a semi-sheltered life in the homeland, you’ll start seeing things you’ve never imagined.

Of course, that’s WHY you go out into the world. You expect to see different people, different buildings, different customs, different food, all the stuff in National Geographic and all that, but you don’t expect the changes in the ordinary stuff of your life. Butter for example.

Butter comes from cows, OK, we know that. But otherwise it comes from a refrigerated shelf at the supermarket. It’s wrapped in waxed paper in an 8 oz sticks marked off with 1/4 and 1/2 and 3/4 cup lines making it easy to measure. It sits next to three others of its ilk in a cardboard package until someone buys it and does something with it. Cookies, maybe or just to spread on bread and jam in the morning. Who knows?

But out there in the world you have to go questing for it. You take a train, then a subway, and find yourself in a little supermarket on a Hong Kong street where you know they have good Havarti straight from Denmark. But butter? Where is it? There must be some here. This is Hong Kong, where everything is available even mango milkshakes at McDonalds.

Finally, not far from the canned tuna (which you also need) you see large, golden cans of — butter. “New Zealand?” you think, looking at mysterious can, “What about cows in New Zealand?” You know nothing about New Zealand, but you’re about to find out something rather intimate about the cattle who roam New Zealand’s pastures. You know that, whatever the fodder on which these cattle feast, French toast cooked in the resultant butter will be better than French toast cooked in peanut oil and you’ll be able to use that biscuit recipe your mom sent you. You load up your shopping basket with the necessaries — this mysterious antipodal butter, several cans of tuna, a jar of mayonnaise, five pounds of Danish Havarit, a can of cocoa.

When you’re finished you have a several pounds of food that will go into your backpack for the return trip. Two nights in Hong Kong and the main purpose is a hot shower and the grocery store. You laugh, thinking that for some this is an exotic destination and you do your share of sight-seeing, too, wandering the labyrinth of streets that circle the mountain on Hong Kong, but you stay in deep in Chinese Tsimtsatsui where hotel prices are lower. You love the Star Ferry, the sight of ocean-going junks with their butterfly sails on the bay, the enormous freight ships with their containers and the cranes lifting them so easily onto the wharf.

The next morning, you hoist up your backpack, get on the subway and head for the hovercraft landing. It’s a wondrous journey on this “boat” that floats above the Pearl River for 75 miles. Along the way — all green hills, rice fields and an occasional old pagoda, perhaps once a lighthouse — are memories, not your memories, but memories belonging to the land, memories of opium pirates and war. All this you expect but a tin of butter? That’s the big surprise.

https://ragtagcommunity.wordpress.com/2019/10/22/rdp-tuesday-butter/

Ephemera

Among the “ephemera” through which I looked in writing the China book was a map of Guangzhou that had been a placemat. It’s definitely my favorite bit of paper from all that “self-archeology.”

Here it is.

Placemat map of Guangzhou, 1982

What makes it so wonderful to me is that I sent it to my mom and had the thought of marking it up so she could see all the places we went. On the bottom right facing you’ll see I’ve written “Coors did not provide this placemat.”

In many of the restaurants in Colorado back in the day (for decades of the day) paper placemats were sponsored by Coors.

Common placemat in cafes and diners in Colorado back in the day… This one (found on eBay) is from the 1950s. There is no I-25 (Interstate 25). Instead old 85/87 runs from Denver to New Mexico. ❤

I have no idea if my mom found this half as funny as I did…

https://ragtagcommunity.wordpress.com/2019/06/24/rdp-monday-ephemeral/

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.

China

36 years ago I went to China. It wasn’t the place it is now. Today I’ve had the chance to wander down memory lane through my blog posts with a blogging pal who’s in China now with his family. 

It makes me want to invest in a slide scanner so I can see the pictures we (mostly my ex) took while we were there. The things I want to see really are gone — some for real, some just as they were back then, such as junks on the Pearl River, favorite street corners, my apartment, the university where I taught.

Sometimes people ask me if I want to return to China for a visit, but it’s impossible. I wish sometimes there WERE worm-holes in the universe through which we could revisit places AND times. More than once this morning I was moved to tears through the sharing of memories. 

AND the miracle of my blog, his blog. and the Internet. Imagine exchanging knowledge of places in China with a man from India (that one has not met) in real time — seriously. That’s unreal and wonderful. 

This song by Vasco Rossi is right on. 

Ormai è tardi
E quanto nostalgia
Guarda il tempo
Vola via …
Non si torna.
Comunque sia
E la Vita 
Continua a correr vi

Translation (with the repeated bits left out)

Now it’s late (or) It’s already late
And so much nostalgia
Look at the time
Fly away
And we don’t come back
And life
Continues to run on… 

Souvenir

“Orange doesn’t mean anything to me.”

“What?”

“Writing prompt. ‘What does orange mean to you?‘ No meaning whatsoever. It’s a color, red and yellow mixed together and voilá!”

“You’re grumpy. I think they mean what do you think of when you think of orange?”

“The word inspires one thought; the color inspires nothing.”

“OK what does the word inspire?”

“Oh, a terrible joke from my childhood. A knock-knock joke.”

“Oh god.”

“Yeah. Orange you glad I’m not telling it?”

“So why do you have those orange towels?”

“Those aren’t just towels.”

“Yeah, they are just towels. Kitsch towels. And why are they in the living room?”

“They protect my books from dust.”

“I mean, why do you have them?”

“A long time ago in a faraway land that was very hot (or cold) and very humid a young couple got on a boat to go down the river to a big city where they could buy cheese, mayonnaise, tuna fish and take hot showers. Because the entire place was so humid, most people slept with a towel on their pillow. For that matter, most people slept on a woven reed mat on boards because it was cooler than a mattress.”

“And THEN????”

“Oh, these towels were on the pillows on the boat. We stole them. The pagoda in the picture is the Temple of the Six Banyan Trees which was near the Guang Xiao Temple.”

“Wait, YOU were THERE???”

“36 years ago about now I got on a plane in San Francisco, bound for Hong Kong.”

“How was it?”

“You know, a big bus in the air.”

“No, I mean Hong Kong? Was that your ultimate destination?”

“No. Guangzhou was the ultimate destination. See, on the towel.”

“How was it?”

“Ah… Cold, hot, wet, crowded, roach and rat ridden, inspiring, beautiful, heart-rending, complex, challenging, uncomfortable…”

“Why are you crying?”

 

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https://ragtagcommunity.wordpress.com/2018/09/11/rdp-tuesday-prompt-orange/