Dancing on the Queen Mary

A couple of years after I got back from China, I gave a paper at the international conference for Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL). TESOL had seen that China was going to be a big market for English as a Foreign Language Teachers and dedicated the whole conference to teaching in the People’s Republic. Many professors from throughout China had been invited and many attended my session. The thing is, my paper wasn’t directed at these men; it was directed toward young teachers who hoped to find jobs as Foreign Experts in English in China.

Even though China was developing quickly, in 1986 most places weren’t “there” yet and the conditions under which I lived in Guangzhou were still prevalent throughout the country. The paper talked about living conditions (don’t expect hot water in your apartment), student expectations (these students aren’t used to open discussions in class), what I saw as the relationship between Confucianism and Maoism (turned out that was accurate).

The conference was held at the Anaheim Hilton — very nice — overlooking Disneyland. As I recall there was a field trip set up for all the Chinese to go to Disneyland! I might have gone, too, but (if you can believe it) back then I went to Disneyland a couple times a year with groups of students from the international school where I was teaching, so a trip to Disneyland wouldn’t stand out in my memory.

I gave my paper and afterwards it was challenged by the Chinese professors from big cities where conditions for foreign experts were pretty plush. I knew this because I’d traveled to Shanghai and Beijing and had stayed in the hotels where foreign experts lived in those times. My university, however, housed us in an apartment building where other Chinese professors lived. One of my points was that it was important to ask how one would be housed and to prepare for it. I did that by taking an electricity converter and a toaster oven, a year’s supply of tampons, and a supply of various medications. Chinese healthcare turned out to be great, but there were still things I needed from home.

Face is important to Chinese and my presentation had made these Chinese professor lose face, but not really. It wasn’t directed to them. It was an interesting reminder of the one and only not-all-that-great aspect of my year teaching in China. China was (is?) also a very paternalistic society and these were older men and I was a young woman. OH well. I didn’t care. Those who needed the message would hear it, I hoped. But I felt a little bad. I never wanted to disgrace China or the Chinese. The country and the people had been so kind to me. “Kind” isn’t even a big enough word. Things don’t have to be perfect for us to love them with our whole hearts.

That evening there was a “gala” on the Queen Mary which is parked/docked in Long Beach. It’s — with all its incredible history — now a beautiful, Art Deco floating hotel. I’d been there a couple of times as a tourist but the idea of a dinner dance in the grand ballroom! How amazing. I had brought my good dress — red silk, of course — and the Good X and I were gussied up and ready to go. It was beautiful. All the Chinese professors had been bussed over and sat at the round tables set up around the dance floor smoking (1986). The Good X and I danced and then one of the professors asked me to dance. He wasn’t from Beijing or Shanghai, but a city in the interior that had faced a lot of damage in the anti-Japanese war and was even then struggling with reconstruction after all the years of Mao and poverty.

He was an amazing dancer. As we danced a couple of dances I found myself in one of those those secret conversations held out in the open I’d experienced so often in China. “My colleagues think they lost face because of your talk, Ma Sa. But I know you are right. If American teachers know what to expect, they won’t be shocked. Some of our foreign teachers went home before the term ended. America is a very comfortable country.” I told him that was my purpose in telling prospective teachers what I had experienced teaching in one of China’s biggest cities.

“But you love China,” he said.

“I do,” I said, my throat catching.

“I love America,” he said in a soft voice. “When I was a young man, I studied in America. Then the war…” Like many Chinese in the earlier decades of the 20th century he’d earned a scholarship to study in the US. “All during the Cultural Revolution, I remembered those days even though…” He sighed. Lucky for him he wasn’t a language teacher but a science professor. I heard everything in his silence. “I never thought I would come back and here I am, dancing with a beautiful American girl on this historic ship.”

Memories like this have a way of receding into the dim recesses of “almost forgotten,” then some random thing stirs them up, thank goodness! As for “myocarditis,” the prompt this morning, this kind of memory doesn’t stimulate heart-muscle pain, but the sense that there really have been some miracles along the way. ❤


The word “nostalgia” was invented by a Swiss psychologist to describe the situation of Swiss soldiers sent away from Switzerland. It didn’t mean originally what it means to us today. And today, from the prompt, I learn another word for this feeling of homesickness, “Hiraeth,” the opposite of wanderlust. It’s a yearning to go home.

As a young person I never felt “hiraeth.” I just wanted to get AWAY from Denver and OUT THERE into the world. Money was the big problem. When I succeeded in getting a teaching job in China, I very seldom felt “hiraeth.” I was learning something every single day, I had good friendships, and I was teaching. I seldom felt anything like homesickness

One day, though, the yearning for home hit me like a potato truck. I was grading papers in the penetrating cold of the tropics (that is NOT a joke). I was wearing a turtleneck, a wool sweater and my “landlord’s” jacket — a silk padded jacket of the old style. Very warm, very light, very beautiful. I was wearing long underwear, corduroy pants and wool socks, a little wool tam o’shanter on my head. No, it never got down to freezing, but it got within a few degrees. The apartment wasn’t heated. The windows didn’t seal shut. It rained every day for four months, and the concrete walls drank in the humidity. I had paper rolled around my pen because my fingers were too cold to hold the pen’s narrow shaft, and there was no way to grade papers with gloves on (you can read the metaphor there, too…). A hot shower would have been nice, but there was no hot water except that in our thermos bottles of drinking water or what we might heat in a bucket on our two-burner propane stove. Most of the winter, the Good-X and I just stayed in the kitchen because the stove was there. We could put a kettle on and have a little warmth.

My students thought we were crazy. In their minds — and their world — the kitchen was a nasty, evil, vermin-ridden place. They weren’t wrong, but ours was free of rats, anyway, though the fight against cockroaches continued throughout the year (hopeless).

In a word, it was miserable.

That chilly, rainy Sunday, a stack of papers in front of me, the boombox in the living blasting (well, playing) the Hong Kong radio station which was in English, I was immersed in reading essays from my fourth year students. They were in the middle of the poetry unit of our American literature survey, and had written papers on one of Stephen Crane’s poems. Some of them had chosen to illustrate the poem as well as write an analysis about it, so I had a small selection of amazing drawings to go with their beautiful written work. I was alone, peacefully writing comments when, from the radio in the living room…

I cried and cried and cried and cried.


“I think, the Pastoral…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1982 with two of my students.

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

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