Transportation in Guangzhou: Me and My Bicycle.

I found the snapshots I took in China. It’s not like they were hiding. I put them where I could find them easily, but finding implies looking and I never looked for them. I found the two albums while I was cleaning for a guest.

Since I was usually the person taking snapshots, they are not nearly as scenic as those taken by my ex. My interests were different, probably still are. There are photos of people, daily life, parties, friends. And I was very happy to find this one:

My brand new Wu Yang (Five Rams) bicycle, made in Guangzhou (Yang Cheng, Ram City), decorated by my students. Things to notice: Wrist watch. Wooden clogs with NO back thing to hold in your foot (losers). Belt. Fitted waist pleated khakis. Turtleneck with pendant. Giant glasses.

My best friend in China was probably my bicycle. Bicycles were freedom. If there was time and energy, it was a far easier way to get around than public transportation. Public transportation was great, but slow and sporadic.

It took a lot of bureaucratic effort for the Heads at my school to get us permission to buy bicycles. First, we had to prove that — though foreigners — we could ride a bicycle. Then we had to prove that we could get around on our own. This was a matter of being able to speak Mandarin well enough to fulfill our needs (directions, food, etc.) and map reading. For the first month or two, we’d come back from a trek on Bus 22 and relate our adventures to our friends and Xiao Huang, our watcher. They would inevitably say, “How did you get there?”

Bus 5, exactly like Bus 22

And of course, they reported to the Heads everything we said.

It surprised them that I could read a map in Chinese. The maps were great. They showed exactly where to catch busses, which busses and which trams. That and the Fodor’s I brought along with me made it pretty simple to find things in the city. So, after a couple of months, we got bicycles.

It was a big event going downtown with our “watcher” to pick out our bikes. Mine was special in that it had green handlebar grips. Every other bicycle in the city had black grips. I’m sure that everyone in the city knew that it was the foreign teacher’s bicycle.

Traffic laws back in those days favored bicycles. Our route to and from the city of Guangzhou from our village of Shipai took us through fields and country lanes. If we were coming home at night the laws were that lorries, tractors, whatever motorized vehicles were on the road could not drive with their lights on so that bicyclists would not be blinded. From time to time, a vehicle would flash its lights briefly. Everyone relied on night vision.

It worked a lot better than it might sound.

The road to Guangzhou. Typical afternoon traffic.

One of the funniest things that could happen in Guangzhou would be when one of the exceedingly rare independent tourists came up and asked us where we rented our bicycles. You couldn’t rent bicycles in Guangzhou in 1982/83. And, truly, the Heads’ caution in allowing us to get bikes was wise. Riding bikes in that city wasn’t for the faint-hearted or uninitiated.

There were tourists in Guangzhou at the time. They were rare. Most came from European countries in guided bus tours which, of course, the government preferred because it was easier to keep an eye on them than on the stray weirdo from the developed world with his backpack. My friend and my mother-in-law came in as independent tourists. I do not remember all the ins and outs of the arrangements, but I do remember that, at the time, the only way in was to get a visa in Hong Kong from China International Travel Service. My mother-in-law had no problems. First she retained her Canadian passport during her entire life in the US. Second, she was family and family is everything in China. My friend was a little more complicated and it was literally a leap of faith for her to fly to Hong Kong. We went to meet her and lead her through the CITS (China International Travel Service) hoops, but it was scary. It could easily have gone the other way and she could have flown to Hong Kong and been told, “Sorry, sweet cheeks. You are not welcome in the Peoples’ Republic of China.”

This morning I read an extremely bitchy and unenlightened article in The South China Morning Post Magazine about the first Lonely Planet guide to China which apparently came out in 1984. The writer of the article does not seem to understand that China was still primarily a closed country, though it had begun to open to American tourists/travelers. In this article the guy compares THOSE days in CHINA (for the love of Kuan Yin) to THESE days. Even mechanically, China was very complicated.

Among other things, there were no private telephones. There were only public phones and phones attached to businesses. When I was arranging for the travel of my mother-in-law and friend, I had to get permission to call them. Once I had permission, we went (with our watcher) to a special building where there were phones. When our turn came, we got three minutes. All this had to be prearranged with the MIL and friend or the calls would have been pointless.

For local calls, there were phones on the streets. Not phone booths, but guys sitting behind tables on street corners. The phone sat on the table and people bought tickets to make local calls.

I took umbrage with a lot of stuff in this guy’s article, but most egregious, to me was this statement of false authority

There was never any doubt as to which volume was meant by “the guide”. As far as budget independent travellers were concerned, there was only one: Lonely Planet’s China – A Travel Survival Kit, by Alan Samagalski and Michael Buckley, first published in 1984.

The Post “How Tourism changed China: Lonely Planet’s First Guide

There was Fodors. There were guides in English inside China and in Hong Kong, which I also used. The author of this article makes the point that one of the problems with accuracy is that China was changing rapidly and was hungry for foreign dollars. It would be hard for any guide book to keep up.

There are other snarky comments in the article. One thing really bugged me. The thing that the Chinese liked Polaroid photos back in the day is true. Processing color film in China at the time was almost impossible. A few people had cameras (Sea Gull was a favored brand) but locally, most developers could only handle black and white film. It was a big deal. To have someone point a camera at you, wait a few minutes and hand you a picture was really GREAT and a superlative ice-breaker.

OH WELL…. One thing he got completely right was the role of CITS and CTS (CTS being the internal arm of the China Travel Service). For the most part, it was a scam. Its main role was controlling foreigner’s access to China, making sure the foreigner was not a spy. Its secondary role — which I only encountered in Beijing — was making money off of foreign tourists; graft. The author of this article has gotten that right.

I think since the beginning of foreign travel in China millennia ago people have argued about what China really is. It’s not surprising to me that the disputes continue even about something as peripheral as a version of a Lonely Planet Guide published in 1984.

But, there was one photo in the article that I appreciate very much. It’s a shot of Nanjing Road in Shanghai, the way I remember it.

Nanjing Road, Shanghai, 1986

“Tell Us a Film, Teacher.”

In Guangzhou, on those long, dreary, cold, rainy evenings in the apartment I shared with my ex and Tex the indomitable cockroach, it was not unusual for a group of students to stop by for “coaching.”

I don’t think it was about “coaching.” I think it was about long, dreary, cold, rainy evenings in the dormitory (or as they said with their British accents, “dormitree”.) Our apartment had a couple of advantages, mostly space. But we had a television and it was amazing how stressed students could become about their studies when there was a soccer game televised or a Shao Lin movie. TVs were somewhat rare throughout China at the time and so were films, especially foreign films.

So, when the night was extremely long, dark, rainy and cold, my students would sometimes say, “Tell us a film, teacher.” I “told” them as many films as I could remember. They learned a lot about Monty Python. By the end of winter, my students could act out this scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail (and they knew why it was funny 🙂 )

Every time I “told” a film I remembered the Foreign Service Test (that I failed) where the first question was, “What film would you show in the People’s Republic of China?”

I actually learned that answer to that question IN the People’s Republic of China. One night we were invited to the American Consulate to watch an American movie. It was Heaven Can Wait starring Warren Beatty. We went. It was a stupid movie and, I thought, a stupid choice because Heaven, as it’s depicted in that film, is pretty alien to China, as is American football, never mind the LA Rams but OH WELL.

But…we never knew when a movie was going to pop up. One evening we were riding our bicycles home from Guangzhou. We had various routes, and one we liked was through a relatively unpopulated, tree filled agricultural area near what is now the Inner Ring Road. That evening we saw, in a clearing, dozens of People’s Liberation Army soldiers placing benches in rows. A couple of others were hanging a giant canvas on a rope between two trees. Afraid we’d strayed into another forbidden area, we stopped.

“Ni hao!!” said one of the soldiers coming to where we stood with our bikes. “We have Engrish movie! You join us?”

That NEVER happened. We leaned our bikes against a tree and sat down on the bench we were told to sit on. The projector was turned on and the film rolled on both sides of the hanging canvas. The music came up.

It was Roman Polanski’s 1979 film, Tess. A far better choice for China than Heaven Can Wait. The problem (for us) was that it had been dubbed into Guangzhouhua (Cantonese) A beautiful young female voice in Guangzhou is NOT the same as a beautiful young female voice in the English speaking world by a long shot. Tess spoke to us in a Guangzhou opera voice, shrill, high-pitched, and nasal, with exaggerated (even for Cantonese) inflection. We wanted to — but didn’t — laugh.

We sat through the whole film. Afterward there was much “Thank you for sharing our film,” and hand-shaking. As we turned our bikes toward home in the moonlight, China seemed to me a beautiful place filled with sweet and incomprehensible surprises.

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

Foreign Country People

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No. It seems smart.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

The Pearl River…

One Child Policy

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

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

Hong Chi in a museum in Shanghai

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

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

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

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

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

“Why?” I asked the old man.

“Come on,” said Xiao Huang.

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

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

I still can’t.

“Come on,” said Xiao Huang.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


Classroom Life at South China Teachers University, 1982/83

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Classroom

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

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

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

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

“Why are you happy?”

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

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

“Yes. I love China very much.”

“Do you love America?”

“Yes. I love America.”

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

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

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

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

“Can you read it, teacher?”

“Yes but what does it mean?”

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

I live in that poem now.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Daily Life in Guangzhou, 1982/83

My apartment in China was luxurious compared to where most other people lived. My young married Chinese colleagues (equivalent in place in life with me and Jim) who didn’t have a family, lived in one room — usually a married couple and an old mother. When a baby came, they would apply for a larger place, but it would take time for that to happen. And, if they had any bad marks against them politically, it might never happen.

We lived on the third flour of a four story building. Downstairs was the university president, a really lovely man. The featured photo shows his rose garden. His passion was fish-farming, and he gave us three beautiful carp to eat. They lived in a bucket hanging from the bathtub faucet for a few days until our cook could steam them with green onions and garlic. I got fond of my carp but I think, considering how good the steamed fish was, they died a good death.

In the gallery below, are photos of my apartment. Many things in it “looked” right but weren’t. There was a bathtub but no hot water and no plug for the drain. The toilet — a Western sit down toilet (very very rare, but stand up ones are more hygienic) — was cemented to the floor. God forbid any plumbing problem ensued. There was a washing machine in the bathroom we could hook up to the sink. The thing is, it only agitated in one direction meaning it tied the clothes in knots. After each cycle, a human had to take out the clothes, wring them, and put them back in for the next cycle. Still, I think it was easier than washing everything completely by hand. Everything was dried on hangars, outside (god-willing it wasn’t raining). We had a really cool bamboo pole with a bent nail on the end to lift the hangar to the highest clothes lines on our balcony.

The kitchen was built of concrete — kind of trendy today. We had propane to cook on, but most Chinese used charcoal. The drains were open which meant the roaches had free access to everything. My mother-in-law who visited said she thought the Chinese got used to them, but I saw my Chinese brother (I was adopted by HIS mom) freak out more than once and I killed several roaches for him.

You can see a toaster over in my kitchen. I brought it from the US. At that time in China no one had a personal oven. There was bread — really excellent bread — every other evening I went to the campus bakery with coupons and got a ration of delicious, fresh-baked buns.

If you look on our stove, you’ll see an interesting terra-cotta unglazed pot. This was for boiling hepatitis tea. Jim had a damaged liver from eating something in Acapulco (poor guy) and it flared up in the spring (for lots of people) while we were in Guangzhou. Another white guy we knew also got hep. There was a crystalized tea that the doctors prescribed Jim along with gamma globulin shots.

Lots of people were sick that spring from bad water. Human waste was used to fertilize crops and the wet winter meant lots of flooding where there should not have been. When we stood at stops waiting for busses or trams, we saw lots of people waiting, carrying identical bags of hepatitis tea crystals.

I had no symptoms and by then I’d “gone native” in many respects anyway. I went every morning to the Chinese Medicine Doctor on our campus for a sack of herbs which I came home and prepared in that pot — which was part of the prescription — as I had been taught. I never got sick.

Chinese health care — even in those days — was excellent. Free to all. Clinics were everywhere, both traditional medicine and Western medicine.

The black stuff on the walls in the kitchen is mold and mildew. The walls were concrete, the climate is humid and that year was beyond humid. The walls had been whitewashed with lime white wash. Now when I hear people freak out about mold I just think, “You have NO idea.” But, yeah, it’s not something you WANT in your house.

I made curtains for our bedroom window. It faced the apartment of our boss. When he saw the curtains go up, he summoned the other “heads” and they hurried over and asked why. I explained it was for privacy.

That’s when I learned that “privacy” translates to “selfishness.” Pretty un-communist of me, I know.

“Why are they red?” asked my boss.

“It’s my favorite color,” I answered. Red is very significant in China and when I knew more about it, I realized it’s the perfect color for bedroom curtains. OH well…

You’ll notice the knotted mosquito nets over our beds. The knots are to keep mosquitoes out during the day. The worst was getting a mosquito inside the net at night.

There’s nothing romantic about mosquito nets if you need them. The perfect scenario is you open the net, check for mosquitoes, tuck the ends into your mattress, then climb in without bringing mosquitoes with you. I got good at it.

But once in a while it was funny. One night Jim kept slapping his face in his sleep, but there was no mosquito. A steam train was blowing its whistle in the distance and, to him, it sounded like a mosquito.

Most married Chinese sleep in one bed, but we had twin beds because they had seen in American movies (Rock Hudson and Doris Day) that couples in America sleep in twin beds. These were made for us.

The floor tile was pretty but not grouted, so monthly everyone (a day announced on the campus loudspeaker) got buckets of water and cleaned their floors. I couldn’t understand the loudspeaker so I didn’t know. I cleaned my floors once on an “off day” and caused a great inconvenience to my apartment building. Water was swept out the front door, went down the stairs and sometimes into other peoples’ apartments. From then on, our “watcher” (who became my brother) let me know when I was supposed to do this chore.

In some of the photos you see a kind of mural on my wall. It is a tissue paper sun. We had rain for four months and it was the only sun we saw. I glued it to our wall. Paper cuts are a true art in China — something I didn’t know — and at Christmas, when we had a party, one of my students made beautiful paper cuts to put on my wall. I’ll find them, probably…

Here goes…

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.


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… 


“Orange doesn’t mean anything to me.”


“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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