Totalitarianism, Part 2, Espionage

China was not a “free” country.

How did totalitarianism manifest itself in my world? Mostly in the pervasive sense of paranoia and stories about the Cultural Revolution I heard from the people around me who had experienced it. Everyone had an agenda and a backstory, most of which I never learned.

For my students, there was in the “Catch 22” reality of their lives. All of them had been assigned by the government to study English, BUT English — particularly American English — was mistrusted. Not many years before, effigies of Uncle Sam had been burned in protests against the “Paper Tiger.” In weekly Political Study meetings my students took the brunt of the abuse and criticism. There was really NO WAY they could win. For example, our college held a folk dancing competition for all the students of languages (French, German, Russian, English, and Chinese). My students worked hard, practicing nightly, to have the best possible performance. We were not invited to attend which, right there, was a message that this was not a simple folk dancing competition; this was political.

If they did not deliver a great performance it would be viewed as disrespect, and they would be criticized for being lazy. If they did an excellent performance, they would be criticized for preferring “foreign things.” It was a foregone conclusion that they would lose. My students, English students, lost every competition. It didn’t matter how well they did. The Party’s message was that English, and the cultures of which it was an expression, were clearly inferior to all others. The goal was to make sure that in spite of the comparative opening of China and the advent of American teachers, the United States was not the equal of China or any other country. 

The Chinese language students always won. 

“So what?” you might ask. Imagine growing up during the end of Mao’s reign and finding yourself in a classroom in which lessons were conducted by an American. When Mao died and the Gang of Four was deposed in 1976, my senior students were twelve years old. My graduate students were teenagers, and could have marched around our very campus with the Little Red Book. My colleagues, some of them, I knew were imprisoned during the Cultural Revolution and others? Had they been the persecutors of the imprisoned colleagues? 

This was the back-story of the world that fulfilled my dreams.

As foreigners, we were exempt from Political Study for obvious reasons. It was the meeting in which my students might be criticized — individually or collectively — for such things as being larger than average as in the case of one of my students who had been picked to become an Olympic swimmer, sent to a special school, fed a better diet than the average Chinese at the time, and trained. When her swimming didn’t turn out to be as great as expected, she was released from this special school and sent home. She was constantly accused of wanting to be American because she was different looking from the average Cantonese, and she had an aunt in Hong Kong who sometimes sent her clothes. Others were criticized for being pretty. Others for being outspoken. Others for their parentage. The list of possibilities is long and English language students took the brunt of it. 

While my students and colleagues sat in a room for several hours every Thursday hearing everything the “watchers” had seen during the week, being singled out and criticized, Jim and I explored Guangzhou.

Their problem was how to extend goodwill to the American teachers if doing so leaves you open for criticism and additional Political Study? How would you — as a Chinese at this moment in history — ever know you were safe enough to make friends with the American teachers?

If your family background were good enough, you had a safety net as did my friends, Zhu and Fu with whom I went to Hainan Island. I don’t know much about Zhu’s family. I suspect that somewhere back there was a successful bourgeoise shopkeeper or intellectual (read school teacher). Fu’s ancestry was perfect. He came from a poor peasant family in one of China’s most remote and impoverished provinces, Hainan Island. His mother had little or no education and had been a guerilla fighter in the anti-Japanese war against the Japanese. I don’t know what other things were involved in their being allowed to become our best friends, but I’m grateful. I loved Zhu like a sister and helped her come to America to study a couple years later. Her husband and son soon followed and, as far as I know, they didn’t return to China.

People without this kind of ancestry apparently had to be careful. That would include most of my colleagues all of whom spoke English. Some of my colleagues wanted to approach me, but didn’t dare. I was warned away from others. I was told that one woman, with whom I ended up working on a poetry translation project semi-secretly, was not to be trusted. What that actually meant to the people who warned me I have no idea. It could have meant that her background was full of intellectuals or it could have meant that she was very likely to point the finger at others in order to protect herself. 

Clearly, we didn’t socialize much with our colleagues. At first we made gestures in that direction but was usually met with, “I’m sorry, I’m too busy.” 

At first I thought, “Seriously? You teach two classes. I teach six. If I’m not too busy how are you?” but soon I learned that it meant, “No.” Socializing with them was limited to formal occasions such as my welcome dinner at the Pan Xi restaurant, my goodby dinner at the Guangzhou Restaurant, a couple of banquets held by the provincial government, a trip downtown to watch the Royal Ballet perform Sleeping Beauty, a concert in which the conductor — a man from Germany — yelled at his audience ahead of time, telling them to stay quiet while his orchestra played. I did not then understand why he felt he had to do that, but when I saw the Chines opera later, on Hainan, I understood. A performance was a social event for the Chinese, not something to watch in reverential silence.

Essentially, everyone could be or was a spy. Maybe they were a spy to protect themselves from criticism. Maybe they were a spy because they were legitimately a spy for the Party or the Wai Shi Ban (Foreigner’s Office) of the Province or the university. Maybe they were a spy because they hoped to get a good appointment when they graduated. Maybe they were a spy because they had a bad background. There were manifold reasons for spying. 

There was always the fear of talented Chinese defecting to that vague and amorphous promised land of “The West.” My students were taught in Political Study that “The West” was not all that great. They were told that many Chinese who went there ended up killing themselves in disappointment. Lonely for mythical places like their “hometown,” alienated in the great, cold, ruthless capitalist, imperialist world, they surrendered to despair. If appeals to their patriotism or fear were not enough, they knew that their family at home could suffer retribution. 

The first post-Nixon Sino/American diplomatic crisis occurred while I was in China. The Chinese tennis player, Hu Na, defected to the United States in 1982 when she came in the Federation Cup. She sought asylum in 1983 saying that if she returned to China, she would be persecuted for not joining the Chinese Communist Party. When the US granted Hu Na asylum, my students were instructed to shun me. 

I knew about Hu Na, but not how the story ended. I couldn’t read the Chinese newspapers or understand the news commentary, and no one was eager to tell me about it. I learned the story when I went to class after the all-China afternoon nap. I found my students outside the classroom batting a badminton birdie back and forth. I made a joke, “You might want to stay out here and practice.” None of my students expected that. I knew that, secretly, most of them wanted to go to America to study. I knew some of them had family in places like New York and San Francisco. All this was a shadowy undercurrent that was not brought up into daylight. They stopped, looked at me, and suddenly burst into laughter. It was real laughter. 

We went in the classroom and I said, “What happened?”

This led to a discussion about safety in America. My students had learned from Chinese newspapers that America was a very dangerous place. Chinese newspapers had learned this from American newspapers which tend to publish mostly BAD news. Chinese newspapers mostly published good news, happy stories and tales that reinforced the greatness of the Chinese model of communism. My students were worried about Hu Na, that she would leave her apartment and be murdered.

“Aren’t you afraid in America, teacher?”

“No. Why?”

“So many rapes and murders.”

I tried explaining that American newspapers published stories that were exceptional, that normal, ordinary life wasn’t interesting to their readers. I even thought — but did not say — that maybe Chinese papers did the same and good, happy stories were out of the norm, but I didn’t say it. I knew the Chinese propaganda machine well enough by then. 

Because of the ubiquity of spying, private conversations were carried out on the street. Most of the time I was completely unaware what was going on, for example when Mr. Fu — Zhu and Fu’s middle school teacher friend and our friend — wanted a Bible, Zhu negotiated the deal with me as we wandered the levees between the crops of the agriculture college. Such a conversation took place between me and Zhou, my Chinese teacher, when school was out and we visited Beijing.

Totalitarianism, Part 1, Espionage

When I decided to go to the People’s Republic of China, my mom freaked out. An American student had recently been imprisoned in Beijing for (suspected? real?) espionage. “Couldn’t you just go to China Town?” she asked, somewhat distraught, as my ex and I packed up his pick-up truck for the drive to San Francisco. His children lived in the Bay Area and he wanted to see them before we left. 

I think he was afraid, too. I know he was. When we finally arrived in Guangzhou, at the airport, away (very obviously away) from any of the things he was used to, he just collapsed, laid down on a bench in the dim waiting room. He wasn’t prepared for the reality of China, for a Russian airplane, for being met on the ground by soldiers from the People’s Liberation Army, for being questioned over whether we had religious materials with us. He wasn’t prepared for there being no one to meet us and not having any idea what to do next.

I didn’t know him very well. We married after only knowing each other four months, and I would not call a year in the PRC in 1982 an ideal honeymoon. My ex was shut down, but I was also flummoxed. “What now?” An English speaking worker at the airport phoned our college (Hua Nan Shi Fan Xue Yuan as it was then). We’d arrived a day earlier than expected. They thought we’d spend two nights in Hong Kong. I learned they couldn’t pick us up until the next day. My job then was to get a taxi big enough to carry our footlockers (and skis). 

“Where do you want to go?” asked the man at the airport.

“Bai Yun Hotel,” I said with great certainty and in Chinese. What did I know? I did know the Bai Yun Bing Guan was the closest foreigner hotel to the airport. All I knew what was what I’d read in my Fodor’s. We stayed our first night in China with our fardles in a big room in this 33 story hotel. 

It was our first easily identifiable experience with totalitarianism. I am sure others had already occurred, but with such subtlety that we didn’t notice. 

The hotel took our passports and the letter from my college when we checked in. I’m sure that they phoned the Wai Shi Ban (foreigners office) at the school to confirm our legitimacy. On our floor was a “watcher” seated at a velvet covered table. She had the keys to our room. When we left the room, we gave her our keys. When we returned, we retrieved them, opened our door and took them back to her. I wondered why we even had keys. My feelings about this might have been different from those of my ex, I don’t know, but I felt that this was the price I had to pay for being where I wanted to be, for fulfilling my dream. 

Dinner was “joak,” a rice gruel often made with chicken or with fish and served with cut up fried bread and green onion on top. Our first joak also had “thousand year old eggs” which are  pretty shocking to the unwarned, uninitiated foreign eye. As we ate this strange meal, Jim noticed a large rat skulking along the wall. To me the rat was just a promise of more adventure. To Jim it was an added dimension to a nightmare.

When morning came, there also came a “mien bao” or Toyota van (mien bao means loaf of bread which the Toyota vans of the time really did resemble) from our college to take us “home.” I was excited and happy. I do not know how my ex felt. We rode in the mien bao — in silence? Talking? I don’t remember. At our college we were met by Xiao Huang, our watcher. This lithe, slender, skinny young man of 27 or so lifted each of our footlockers up onto his back and carried them up three flights of stairs to our “flat” and there we were. Home. 

I remember that first afternoon, standing on the balcony of our large furnished apartment and looking over the fields of the agricultural college that was behind us. Under an ingenious structure that was both his shelter and food storage, stood a water buffalo. All my childhood, girlhood and young womanhood dreams came true in that moment. Whatever they were to be, I accepted the terms of the alien world that contained this vision and had opened itself to me.


I was alone on an exalted plane of acceptance and curiosity. For the rest of the world in which I had so recently arrived this was no exotic place. It was not the realization of their dreams of adventure. For my husband it was a relentless nightmare. For my students, faculty colleagues and friends it harbored dark memories, fears and anxiety over the future.

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

Leaving China and Finding Pearl S. Buck

When our contract had expired, and we were not renewing it, we had to go home. My ex was glad. I was not. I wish I had had the wisdom I have now and had said, “It’s OK, sweet cheeks. We were only in this for a year. File divorce papers when you get back there.” I didn’t do that. I don’t know why, but I went home, too.

Our journey home was in two stages. On the first (because of Chinese custom and good manners) we were accompanied by our former watcher and now my adopted Chinese brother, Xiao Huang. The Heads apologized that they could not come to see us off, but they were very busy and it was expensive. We got to ride in the fancy car, the Hong Chi (Red Flag) to the airport in Guangzhou where we got on our last Aeroflot to Shanghai. The university put us up in Shanghai’s best hotel, a gorgeous art-deco building with all original furniture. Xiao Huang had never experienced anything like that and felt, I think, a little strange. He was also unsure how he would manage to take care of us in a strange city. He had no idea what our abilities were.

We had one day in Shanghai to sight-see. The first thing I did was buy a map in the hotel gift/book shop. The map was in Chinese, but I was used to that after a year. We met Xiao Huang at breakfast the next morning, and he expressed his concern. “How will be get around, Ma Sa? I don’t know this city.”

I pulled out the map and my Fodor’s and said, “No problem.”

“How can you read this map?” Xiao Huang asked, amazed.

“It’s pretty easy. We’re here,” I marked the spot on the map where our hotel was. “And there are many things to see around here.” I showed him the guide book. Ultimately, we showed Xiao Huang around Shanghai.

I cannot “speak” to the changes in Shanghai since 1983. I saw only a small part of this interesting city. I learned more about it after I got back to the United States than I knew when I was there. We did visit the Yu Garden which had been carefully restored in the section of Shanghai that would later be a kind of “old town” for tourists. We bought an abacus that we watched two men make in a shop across the street.

The next morning, Xiao Huang’s big job arrived and that was getting us to the airport and on the plane. China was always changing its rules (to make money) and we’d been told we had a weight limit on our luggage. So we carefully packed, leaving things behind. We each had a footlocker and a backpack as well as the Chinese carpet. When we got to the airport, we were told it wasn’t about weight any more since the plane was almost empty. It was about pieces and we were about to be charged a horrific amount of money for having too many pieces of luggage.

There was a solution. Giant string bags. We bought two, big enough to hold each of our footlockers and backpacks and the rug went in my string bag. Seriously. These string bags could hold four people. Ha. We each had one piece of luggage.

We said goodbye to Xiao Huang, who desperately wanted to come to America, a scheme I was determined to work out for him (I did). I cried. I felt like my heart was being pulled out of my chest as I boarded the brand new 747. My ex was happy.

The plane had only eleven passengers. Imagine! We stretched out on the leather seats, slept (and wept) across the Pacific and woke up in San Francisco.

As I’ve written these posts about my life in China I have learned a lot about how China changed me. Some of these posts have made me cry nostalgic tears, others tears of regret. How one could love a place that is so alien and so absolutely in contradiction to ones philosophical beliefs is still amazing to me. I was homesick for China for at least five years after my return. I recognized how little I knew about the place I had been and immersed myself in Chinese history and, most wonderful, Chinese fiction.

Dr. Richardson, my thesis advisor, who’d asked me why I wanted to go to “Dicken’s China” had returned himself because my letters to him from China were so enthusiastic. His second visit was much better. He suggested I write a book about Pearl S. Buck. He had no idea what direction I could take, but I soon found her perception of herself as a writer in the Chinese tradition, not the American tradition. That was interesting (still is).

I haunted the San Diego library and used bookstores and bought and checked out everything written by her. I had friends in China send me books written by Pearl Buck’s peers. I actually did write this book. The project led me to larceny, too. I stole Pearl S. Bucks Nobel Prize speech from the San Diego Library. I justified my theft by the fact that the book had not been checked out in twenty years and it meant something to me.

I even went to see her house in Pennsylvania. From her office, she could look out on a Chinese garden she had built. Faded Chinese carpets covered the floor. Pearl Buck missed China all her life.

I did not know then that her house was only a few miles from my ancestors’ homestead. I knew nothing then about the Schneebelis. I had not been to Zürich or to Italy. I had not taught very much yet. I was still on the edge of the nest, flapping my wings. If I had not come home from China, other precious things in my life and treasures in my memory would not exist now.

Goethe wrote in the prologue to Faust, Part I, that life is a labyrinth of error. (Des Lebens labyrinthisch irren Lauf) It was a metaphor that he used often. Nothing I’ve read has resounded so clearly with me as that line.

P.S. Thanks for reading all these stories. It’s been an intense experience writing them. ❤

Stopping Traffic

We’d been told that people would stare at us in China. I expected people to really notice my tall, blue-eyed ex, but no one told me I would stop traffic.

It happened a lot. In Guangzhou, where there was only a handful of non-Asian foreigners, I expected it. The most notable moment came as my ex and I were attempting to get off Bus 22 to change to a tram. As we headed to the back door of the double bus, the doors opened. It was incredibly annoying that people getting on the bus NEVER waited for people to get off the bus. “Personal space” was a non-existent element in Chinese society. People pushed and shoved all the time and we were finally prepared to fight our way off any bus we were on. But that day…

Usually it was a stream of people getting on and a stream of people getting off and we just maneuvered through this like streams converging or diverging or waves or something. But one day an old woman from the countryside happened to look up and see me. She saw my eyes.

OK, I was younger and my hair was reddish brown, but you can still maybe get the idea that they are pea-soup green. The old woman stopped, pointed, yelled, in Cantonese, “Like a cat!” She looked frightened and froze where she stood.

My ex was outside the bus and I was in and the bus driver closed the door. SO… I got off at the next stop and walked back.

The funniest was in Shanghai. In our ONE day there I managed to create a disturbance that attracted the police. We were walking in a neighborhood. The day was sweltering hot. No sane Shanghainese was going to stay in a tiny, dark, airless apartment. They had all pulled out their folding chairs, set up their charcoal stoves for tea and dinner, sat in the comparative cool (compared to Hell) fanning themselves, talking, laughing, spitting, cooking living life on the sidewalk and into the street, leaving a lane for bicycles. As we walked by, someone noticed my eyes. I heard it again, this time in Shanghainese, “Like a cat!” EVERYONE stood up and came over to look at me. Traffic couldn’t move through the intersection.

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

Which makes me think of racism. I had some negative experiences, too, in China. After I got used to the idea that I wasn’t completely human in the minds of most of the people I met or saw on the street, I didn’t care any more. It wasn’t my “white privilege;” it was just the realization that I was a very unusual sight. There were times when we were pushed, shoved, called names. One night rocks were thrown at us as we waited for a tram. Lots of things happened that said, “Yankee, go home.” I had paperwork that said I was Chinese and I had a job, in case anything happened, I had a legal identity. There was nothing I could do about my appearance or the fact that, for some Chinese, the devil has my coloring. “Gingers” don’t get a very good rap in any culture and it’s only slightly better for little white-haired ladies. 🙂

Hainan Island, Part Seven, “Tai Gii” (Goodbye)

We had to return to Guangzhou before our friends did. The day was coming quickly. A ride was organized and I wondered if we would be responsible for our own cigarettes and canned pineapple. First we would go to some of our friends’ relatives in Haikou City. From there we would go to the airport and we would fly back to Guangzhou. I was glad. A week into our ten-day visit, I still felt seasick. I was exhausted and weak, though happy. I loved “my” Hainanese family and the healthy part of me didn’t want to go, ever. We also had work to do before the next semester began at the end of Spring Festival. Our friends would come back about a week later.

Two days before we left we had a big expedition planned that didn’t involve guangxi so we didn’t have to dip into our stash of nicotine and fruit. We were all going — the young adults, that is — to the beach. We got in the back of the flat-bed truck and were off. The beach was a ways away far from All Beauty unless you are, like me, from the Western US and then it was pretty close. We arrived with our picnic lunch. It was a beautiful, empty beach with coconut palms. We wandered aimlessly around for a while. Hanging around the beach was not a Chinese thing to do, but now Hainan is developed as the “Hawaii of Asia.” After our picnic lunch, the guys shimmied up the palms and dropped green coconuts to the ground.

I had never seen this before. I was astonished. They punched holes in a few of the coconuts, and we drank the cool and refreshing coconut water directly from them. Then the guys loaded the back of the truck with the coconuts, we all hopped back on, and we returned to All Beauty.

Then the work began. The coconuts went into the back courtyard and the young men of the family descended upon them with cleavers.

Fu, left facing, front, his two cousins. In back, a kid wants to sample the coconut.

They chopped it into bits and it all went into China’s ubiquitous bags. And then?

The next night we had a banquet with all the best Hainanese dishes. Cilantro (which I called “Iron Chai” — chai meaning vegetable) was a big part of every dish and I hadn’t developed a taste for it, but during that meal, I did. Probably the most famous dish on Hainan Island is Wenchang chicken, and there were two cooked in that style. There were rice noodles, both sweet and savory with peanuts. I don’t remember everything, but it was all delicious. It was that night that the Old Mother uttered her one word in English as we sat in the darkness after supper.

The old mother, her sister and me

The next morning, the whole village came to see us off. The reliable flatbed truck with the panels returned to take us to Haikou City. Bags of coconut were going with us. Some of the coconut was guangxi for the people in Haikou at whose home we would stay until our flight left that night. More bags would go home with us to Guangzhou, some for the Heads, some for us to offer the various guests who would come over to wish us Happy New Year. Fresh coconut was a real treat.

We climbed up onto the truck bed. It’s Chinese good manners to go as far as possible with the departing guest. How far you go with them indicates how much you will miss them. Our friends jumped up on the bed of the truck with us and rode as far as they could and still be able to walk back for dinner. Fireworks were lit for good luck on our journey. Many cries of, “Don’t get sick Ma Sa!” (in Hainanese) followed by laughter came from the fishermen in the family. The Old Mother wiped her eyes. The little kids waved.

I cried.

Featured photo: Us with all the kids and their moms in the main room of the house. The kids weren’t named until they started school. This was to make sure the gods didn’t get the idea that the kids were at all important and take them away. Old, old, old superstition. They were just called Bu Bang, Bu Ji (first born, second born) etc. I am not sure the gods were fooled, but they might have liked the deference.

Total Immersion…

I arrived in China with a small pile of language. I really did not know how much of this precious life resource I had until I was on the streets of Guangzhou or the market of Shi Pai bargaining for whatever it was I was trying to buy. That’s when I learned an important thing about “foreign” languages. People — other than teachers and pedants — are unlikely to correct you; they are likely to engage with you. They don’t notice you’re speaking a foreign language because, to them, it’s not foreign. Duh, right?

Most of the time speaking Chinese was just fun. Everyone with whom we wanted to communicate (who did not speak English) WANTED to communicate with us. Where we had no words, we had hand gestures and good will.

Chinese is a tonal language and meaning depends on HOW you say something. It’s not easy for a Western foreigner to hear, let alone replicate, those sounds. Once on a taxi ride home from something I told the driver to take us to “Hua Nan Shi Fan Da Xue.” Our school. When he failed to turn left where he needed to, I asked him, “Ni chu nar?” “Where are you going?”

Hua Lan Chi Fan Da Sha.”

Bu shi, bu shi. Hua Nan SHI Fan Da XUE,” I said.

He laughed. “SHI fan, SHI fan, ho, ho.” (Ho being Cantonese for “good.”) He made the universal Chinese gesture for eating, cupping one hand like a bowl and holding air chopsticks with the other. “CHI fanna, chi fanna.” He had been about to take us to a restaurant across the river. South China Mansion. Da Xue — university. Da sha — big house, mansion. I showed him the badge I wore all the time that had the name of our college on it.

Hua Nan Shi Fan Xue Yuan
The old badge before our school was elevated to a university.

Students who came to our house for “coaching” had an epiphany about English when they saw my ex and I communicating with each other. “Wow, teacher, you speak English at home!” Somewhere inside they probably thought we went home and spoke Cantonese — or they’d never thought about it at all until that moment.

There were two little girls who used to come to our apartment to do their homework because of all the space. They sat at our table or one of the six desks in our apartment and worked. I never knew whose little girls they were or why they got the idea of coming to the foreign teacher’s apartment, but there they were. They brought their homework to show me. They spoke only Cantonese — not having reached the age at which they would start learning Mandarin (Putunghua) — so I couldn’t communicate with them. Sometimes they got very frustrated trying to explain a painting they’d done in school just to have me say “Ting bu dong” meaning “I hear but I don’t understand.”

Then they got the idea of WRITING. Written Chinese is the same in every dialect. I’m sure they thought that all the people in the world READ one written language. It should have worked but my reading vocabulary was pretty limited. I joked that like most other Chinese peasants I was partially illiterate. AND I couldn’t read the Chinese equivalent of “cursive” never mind the handwriting of six year olds.

Because the language all around me was Cantonese, or the Hainanese spoken by my friends and the Old Mother, I was never able to REALLY use my language until we went on our “vacation” to Hangzhou and Beijing. In Hangzhou I found myself (surprisingly) in a pleasant conversation with two men about lychees (then in season) and the beauty of South China. I was stunned by my abilities. After a year in China, I used tones without thinking about them.


There’s an ancient saying in China that it’s better to live far from the capital. My experience arriving in Beijing proved that axiom. Until we arrived in Beijing, we had been (relatively) free from the REAL political system in China. Still, it was in Beijing that I reached my linguistic peak in a moment of rage at the China Travel Service (CTS). I do not know how CTS functions now, but in the early 80s it was the Chinese government’s way of keeping close track of foreigners in China. It was a combination of tourist agency and spy/custodial agents. ALL travel in and to China was coordinated through this government agency.

I was traveling with my ex-husband and his 70 something mom, Frances. We’d arrived on a plane from Hangzhou. China Travel Service met us at the airport (because we were helpless foreigners with Wai Wei Jen — foreign exchange currency). They bled us but good just getting to the hotel — wrong hotel — $50 US to be met, $50 US for the taxi (more than a month’s salary!) then? They took us not to the Yo Yi Binguan (Friendship hotel), the Soviet inspired semi-residential hotel near Beijing University where foreigners had stayed since it had been built. There was no where else in Beijing a foreign expert could afford! It was where we (as Foreign Experts) were supposed to stay, but to a fancy downtown hotel. Why? Frances.

Frances was a REAL foreigner (presumably with LOTS of American dollars) and, as such, Frances was not allowed to stay at the Yo Yi Binguan. We were assigned to stay with her at $90 US/night. That would have been $900.00 just for us. $1800 for all of us. INSANE and illegal and I knew it. It was pure Chinese graft.

I protested to the China Travel “guide” who’d met us at the hotel door ($50). She explained — in the patronizing way only the Chinese can explain something — that because of the “old mother” China Travel Service insisted that we had to stay here! Naturally, China needed to pay for this bit of bait for western tourists. The hotel had many expensive, imported features not then made in China. I tried to negotiate with this woman and the clerk behind the desk, but…

Then, from the courtyard, I heard shouting and cheering and fireworks (no shortage of that in China). Why? It was no Chinese holiday. For the tourists? The streets were quiet. After a while a happy American family came in and wished us a “Happy Fourth of July.” I was so far mentally and emotionally from the United States at that particular moment that I stared at them as if they were from another planet.

“We forgot,” said my ex.

“I’m Canadian,” said my mother-in-law, though she’d lived in the US for 50 years.

I just gawked. Then, “Oh yeah, happy fourth to you, too!” I returned my attention to the woman behind the desk and the determined girl who was our “guide.” (Read “spy.”)

She said, in the high pitched voice of feminine authority, “You must stay here. You cannot go to Yo Yi Binguan.”

I don’t react calmly to be ordered about like that, especially when I know the rules and my rights. I was not even supposed to stay at so-called “foreigner hotels.” I wasn’t paid in foreign exchange. I was paid in People’s Currency. I’d already spent more than half of the money I had saved and was allotted by my university (they’d given us money so we could see Beijing, but this money was not foreign exchange) for this trip, I got angry.

The China Travel Service Agent led us to the elevator. I took a deep breath. I took another deep breath. I counted to ten. No way to stop this. I launched into a lacerating tirade at this “guide” in Mandarin! We were not alone in the elevator. Another China Travel Service “guide” was there, too, and the elevator operator. I reamed out this girl for three solid minutes. Her face went white. Her lips vanished. Her nostrils flared. She had no face left And I? I had done all that in Mandarin. I had no idea I had that ability.

The next morning we were fed an early breakfast in our rooms (6 am) and smuggled away to the Yo Yi Binguan in a cab. At Yo Yi Binguan they weren’t happy to see us, but we were given an apartment and that’s where we stayed until it was time to go back to Guangzhou.

Frances was never given a bed.

Hainan Island, Part Six, WW II and Christmas

My first night on Hainan was the first night of Chinese New Year. It was horrific. There was the rat, of course, there was the nausea (but the suppositories worked), and then…

A lot of things in life are better if someone tells you ahead of time what’s going to happen. A lot of things aren’t, but a midnight hog slaughter with firecrackers is really better if you know. If I’d KNOWN I wouldn’t have gone to bed. I’d have stayed up and watched, but…

After a few days we were comfortable with the family and the various extremely different aspects of life in a Hainanese Village. Because it was New Years, Fu and the Old Mother had to to the family grave to pay respects to the ancestors, including Fu’s father. We could not go. As foreigners, it would be inauspicious, but it was during their journey I learned from my friend about the Old Mother’s role in the anti-Japanese war and that Western Foreigners were buried on Hainan. How?

The edges of Hainan are populated by Han Chinese, but the middle, the mountain area, is populated by the Miao people. They live in many parts of southern China. In the United States the ethnic group is mostly H’Mong, a related group who emigrated from Laos in the 80s. Maybe a subject for another blog post.

Anyway, the Miao people and the Han people worked together to get the Japanese out of Hainan. In the late 30s, as part of their invasion of China, the Japanese established naval bases on the island which was a strategic location to keep allied forces and materials from going into Hong Kong and up the Pearl River to Guangzhou. These stories — and I heard several — are largely unknown in the West even though the efforts of Hainanese, Han Chinese and Miao, saved many allied lives. I found one doing a little research this afternoon, and it involves a member of the Fu family, whose village I visited.

Tang Qiude, 57, burns paper and incense in front of a tomb outside the village of Lao’ou, a backwater township on the southern Chinese island of Hainan.

Every year on Tomb Sweeping Day, the festival when Chinese people honour their dead, Mr Tang carefully places offerings of wine and food at the gravesite near his farm and lets off strings of firecrackers to scare away evil spirits. He has done this for the past 20 years, taking over the ritual when his father died. 

It is the traditional Chinese way of caring for ancestors, but the men buried here are not Chinese, and they are not blood relations. The tomb bears the English inscription “Lest we forget”. It is the final resting place of two soldiers from the Australian Gull Force contingent. 

“My son and my grandchildren will do the same and take care of them one day,” Mr Tang said. For the farmer, it is a debt of honour that must be paid. Locals said the Australians were among a group of men who escaped from the nearby Basuo POW camp. Once free, they chose to fight side by side with the Chinese resistance.

Fu Tianxiang, now 82, remembered meeting the Australians in 1943 when he was eight years old. “I was so curious about foreigners, so when I heard that there were two of them in our village I rushed to see them,” he said. “They were in bad shape. 

“The Japanese came here frequently to search for the escaped Australian PoWs and threatened to kill all the villagers if anyone tried to hide them. Everyone kept the secret. They lived here until they died of disease.”

I met many Chinese who had worked with the allies during WW II. During the Great Proletariat Cultural Revolution, they suffered greatly. After Nixon’s visit, they slowly re-emerged. Their language ability was useful to the rebuilding of China.

One of these appeared one afternoon at our local post office in Shi Pai Village near our college. I got a note in my mailbox in the department office at my school that there was a package. It was December. I went to the Post Office and as soon as I walked in, the women behind the counter went to the back, I thought to get my package but no.

An old man I had never seen came to the counter with the package from my Aunt Martha. I reached out my hands to take it, and the man said, in perfect American English:

“This season, in your country, you say ‘Merry Christmas’.”

Even now, so many years later, when someone says, “Merry Christmas!” to me I relive that moment.

And that old man was from Hainan Island.

Hainan Island, Part Five, Mr. Shi and the Vietnam War

I was a kid when the Vietnam War started and it followed me into young adulthood. It was an insoluble problem which, as it happens, my dad was involved in solving. He was a wargamer with the Department of Defense which is why we lived in Nebraska for six years. His job was at Strategic Air Command Headquarters at Offutt Air Force Base. Basically, my life was paid for by the Vietnam War. My dad hated the war, and as his job was using game theory to predict various outcomes, and none of the outcomes were good, he was constantly advising the Joint Chiefs of Staff (under JFK) that getting out was a good idea. Good idea, but not very “politic.” It was during JFK’s reign that the US became entrenched in a losing battle.

This went on for years and years and years. We moved to Colorado, dad went to work for NORAD (North American Air Defense Command) and I went to high school, joined speech club (which included debate) and, naturally the topic was whether the US should get out of Vietnam. It wasn’t just debate. There were protests everywhere against the war. Young men left the country to avoid the draft. Others came up with medical conditions to get out of it. Others were legitimate conscientious objectors. Many got a deferment by going to college. Some joined ROTC so they could be officers when they went. Others just joined up. Many more were drafted. The war split the country, alienated family members and changed the nation. Why do we have an all-volunteer military now? So no one can bitch about a war. That’s why.


After the opera we all went to Mr. Shi’s new house. The smoke holes flanking his front door were Chinese characters (featured image), two characters for each smoke hole. They said, “Self-Reliance.” I, of course, heard Ralph Waldo Emerson, but apparently he was quoting Chairman Mao. The explanation for this was very interesting and complicated. Mr. Shi was sending two messages with those smoke holes. One, “I am a good Chinese” the other “I don’t trust any of you. I will take care of myself.”

Mr. Shi was a Malaysian Chinese who’d come back with his family to Hainan when Chairman Mao sent out a call for overseas Chinese to return to rebuild the Fatherland. During the 50’s Mr. Shi worked hard to rebuild the village of All Beauty and worked as a teacher. He had a good education and he spoke English. While English wasn’t desirable at the time, there were times when it was good for the Party to have someone around who could speak and read it. Then came the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution and anyone who spoke English or had an overseas background was suspect. Mr. Shi was arrested, imprisoned and tortured. His wife died.

A common story, but continually shocking to me how people spoke of it matter-of-factly because it was an experience shared by so many. “Yes, yes, those were hard times.”

Mr. Shi took us inside, lit the kerosene lamp and offered us coffee. Hainan Coffee is incredible, and I wanted it, but not at night. He made it anyway. Like Vietnamese coffee, it’s usually drunk with sweetened, condensed milk. I was already not sleeping because of the rat and my nausea, but OH WELL. I’m very happy now for each opportunity I had to drink Hainan Coffee. There are some good stories just about the coffee, and I wish I had some now.

We sat around the table and talked. Mr. Shi told us his story (which I’ve just related) and then the topic went to the problem of the Vietnam War.

China invaded some Vietnamese cities in 1979. The situation was incredibly complicated and even after doing some research into it, I can’t follow the players. It’s enough to say, I think, that it was partly a result of the split between Moscow and Beijing. It involved several Cambodian tribal factions and the Khmer Rouge with whom the Chinese were allies, a relationship that had at least to appear to have been abandoned when China decided to normalize relations with the United States. But for years following, there was a Chinese presence in Vietnam and deadly skirmishes on the border. (The linked article is excellent and says everything I didn’t know back in 1983)

It was also something no one was supposed to talk about. But we were on Hainan Island only a few hundred miles away from the border where the action was taking place.

I sat at Mr. Shi’s table in the lamp light and listened to the same arguments I’d heard growing up, in high school, on the news, from anti-war *peers and I thought, “What? I’ve traveled so far to hear THIS conversation?”

“What do you think, Ma Sa?”

“There’s no answer to Vietnam,” I said. “Except leaving them alone.”

My response was shrugged off as typically irrelevant foreigner non-comprehension, and I returned to appreciating the irony.

This song says it all…


*Since my dad was working for the DOD, and Vietnam had paid for my life, put food on my table, paid for my education, and because I believe humans are intrinsically belligerent and power hungry, I had no position on the war other than I believed that if a person was old enough to be forced to carry a gun in defense of whatever, that person should be able to vote. At this point in my life, I think the cleverest thing our government has done is make an all-volunteer military and market it as a “job.” It is no longer reasonable to protest a war since the people fighting it joined up on their own free will.

Hainan Island, Part Four, Opera

All Beauty had no electricity, but when the Hainan Opera came to the village for two nights, they brought a generator. The stage in the village (most villages had stages built for propaganda speeches and plays during Mao) was lit, decorated, transformed. Everyone brought chairs and stools from home. For five fen (cents) we bought funnel shaped paper filled with tiny, salted mussels (popcorn?).

As we settled down to watch, an older man with a crew cut, pulled his chair near ours and greeted our friends. He was an English teacher at the local school. Mr. Shi.

The Chinese audience for Chinese opera (or any concert) never gives the artists their full attention, and following this tradition, Zhu, Fu and Mr. Shi were soon engaged in a very animated conversation. The ex and I hopelessly tried to follow the story on the stage. I couldn’t begin to read the “captions” projected on the side of the stage, Chinese characters. I wasn’t fluent enough to keep up. (One of the wonderful aspects of Chinese is that though there are hundreds if not thousands of different languages spoken in China, everyone writes the same way.)

When I asked my friends what was going on in the opera, Zhu said, “It doesn’t matter. It’s just an old culture thing.” Blessings on the Great Proletariat Cultural Revolution for that. My friends knew as little as I did about the vivid cacophony on stage

Strangely, maybe, I really liked the opera. The beautiful costumes, the stylized movements punctuated by banging gongs and drums, the makeup, the masks — wondrous. When I came back to the United States I saw several as they traveled the country. My favorite — and the favorite of most Chinese children — is the Monkey King.

Painting of the Monkey King on a ceiling in Beijing

Next — A new angle the Vietnam War