China Revisited - 1989
.....On February 13, 1989, after an absence of four and a half years, my younger daughter, Miriam, and I arrived in Shanghai, where we would spend a few days before proceeding to Beijing and from there to Baoding, where once again we would teach at Hebei University. We immediately noticed that people's clothing was much brighter and more varied than on our previous visit in 1984. Quite a few people had curly hair. I remarked to one young man that his hair didn't look Chinese. "It's a permanent," he explained. "Is it beautiful?"
.....Another obvious difference was the presence of money changers. In the downtown area, you could hardly walk three feet without being approached by a man, often with blond or brown hair, saying "Change money?" I asked one where he was from, and he answered that he was a member of a Moslem minority from Xinjiang Province. There seemed to be a substantial population engaged in this profession, which is illegal but openly practiced.
.....Shanghai was a place I had only been a tourist in. Beijing was different. It is only two and a half hours by train from Baoding, and we had gone there frequently. Seeing Beijing was a great emotional experience, coming home after a long absence. I was a bit surprised at my reaction; I had never thought Beijing especially nice. But it was China the way I remembered it and understood it.
.....The next day we went to visit a woman we had gotten to know in New York who is a professor at Beijing University. As we approached her apartment on the campus, I was struck by how similar faculty housing at Beijing University and Hebei University were. The halls of her building were identical to ours in Baoding: the same two doors on each floor, the same bare concrete look, the same smell. Then we entered her apartment and saw the tile floor and the wallpaper. Never had we seen such a beautiful interior in China. Even more than the curly hair and money changers in Shanghai, this showed us how much China had changed.
.....We got to Baoding after dark, and as soon as we could, we went to see two old friends in their apartments. In both cases, there were girlie calendars on the wall, the kind that were called "cheesecake" in the 1940s. Later I saw that these calendars are found everywhere; they are the rule and not the exception. In fact, when we went to visit the city of Tianjin about a month later, we saw that the new railroad station had paintings of scantily clad women on its ceiling.
.....The biggest surprise of all came the next morning: the red stripe on all the buildings, walls and trees in Baoding was gone or fading. Trees now are simply unpainted. A few of the buildings are the way they used to be: white on the bottom, red stripe three feet from the ground, gray above that. Others had been repainted pink, green or yellow. I asked someone about it. "Oh that," he said. "We used to paint those stripes to show how revolutionary we were."
.....I found this reply quite significant; it was a statement that China no longer believed in its revolution. At the same time, it didn't seem possible; I had been in eight cities and passed through countless villages in China, but only Baoding had a red stripe. Could Baoding have held on to its revolutionary faith longer than anyplace else? I decided to ask lots of people. About half didn't know what I was talking about until I pointed to a fading stripe (there was no sense asking this question when I was indoors), and then said they had never noticed it before. Others simply said they didn't know. Still others opined that the bottom halves of buildings got dirtier faster than the top halves and had to be painted more often, and that the red stripe simply marked the level below which houses had to be painted white. Finally, a few people said that it was simply a local custom, and that every town and region had its own style. This last explanation seemed the most reasonable to me.
.....A few months later, in early May, we were on a train in Shanxi Province, somewhere between Taiyuan and Datong. A friend was traveling with us, a former student who is a native of Baoding. The train whizzed by a village where the houses were painted white on the bottom and gray on the top, with a red stripe separating the two colors. "Just like Baoding," we said simultaneouly.
.....The fading of the red stripe was merely one instance of a great many changes that had taken place in Baoding. There were bright, new restaurants. There had been some drab, unpainted restaurants in 1984, with walls and floors of unpainted concrete, just like the interiors of most apartments. Now there were inviting, attractive establishments, many of which advertised Peking duck as their specialty. Dancing, which was a daring innovation in 1984, was now a regular event. Some students were champion break dancers; indeed, one had placed second in a nation-wide contest. Faculty members were even more likely to dance than students, and there was a weekly dance in the exhibition room of the esthetics program.
.....If Chairman Mao had known that a Chinese university would one day teach esthetics, he might never have undertaken the Long March. Nothing was more offensive the Mao's idea of socialism than owning an object simply because it was beautiful. Except for its parks and surrounding countryside, there had been simply nothing beautiful in Baoding in 1984. A desire for beauty was considered selfishness and therefore counterrevolutionary. In 1989, buildings were being painted or even refaced. A new classroom building that had gone up during my absence had been designed to be attractive as well as merely utilitarian. Another building, still under construction, was decidedly modernistic. One new department store was very twentieth century in its style; another had a Ming Dynasty facade. That too reflects a contemporary mode of thinking, a desire to preserve or rediscover tradition.
.....Baoding has a computer store. That if anything respresents an acceptance of the twentieth-century respect for convenience and efficiency that is so different from Mao's puritanism. On the other hand, the telephone system is still primitive. It is impossible to dial Beijing from Baoding, and waiting for a line typically takes an hour. Although computers are available, they cannot use phone lines. It is still impossible to buy a round-trip ticket in China.
.....Americans think of China as more formal society than the United States. In certain respects this is true; in other ways, Chinese manners are less structured and freer than American behavior.
.....A particular incident comes to mind. About ten days after my arrival in Baoding, I was having a leak in my bicycle tire repaired. As I was waiting for the job to be finished, a group of four students approached. I didn't recognize any of them. "In our recent discussion about you," announced one, "we said you were not interested in clothing. Is this true?"
.....I was delighted with their audacity. In America it is not polite to tell people you don't know very well you have been discussing them, nor is it proper to comment on another's clothing if you are not going to be complimentary. "That's right," I answered.
....."I'm interested in other things."
.....The students persisted, "What other things?"
.....I rejected the impulse to say sex. "Music," I replied. "How come you were discussing me?"
....."We read the article you contributed to the student newspaper."
....."Article? What article? Was it in English?"
....."In Chinese. It was called 'Teaching at a Provincial Chinese University.'" An article of mine by that name had appeared in The American Scholar.
.....Was this a cultural difference, a difference in manners, or was it pirating? What had happened to my essay in translation? I decided not to worry but simply to feel flattered that my essay had been republished.
.....What is a polite question? In China, there is nothing wrong with asking, "How old are you?" or "How much money do you make?" Perhaps we Americans are too bound by formality and should be more relaxed about our ages and incomes. Other questions gave me pause: "Do all Jews have big noses like you?" "Which of your children do you prefer?"
.....Watching people scramble to board a bus in Baoding makes New York seem the paragon of decorum. Service in the local post office is faster and more courteous than in New York, but in Baoding there is no such thing as forming a line when buying stamps. As for traffic, it just moves; nobody looks, nobody stops. What will happen when there are more cars?
.....On the other hand, Chinese culture demands the scrupulous repayment of favors. There were a few students from Baoding studying in America whom I had been able to help. Their relatives in China overwhelmed my daughter and me with hospitality. They rented or borrowed vans to drive us around, cooked elaborate meals for us, and treated us to banquets in hotel dining rooms. A banquet is indeed a formal occasion, with course after course and innumerable toasts. Still, how formal can you be when using chopsticks to eat fish with bones. It is Americans and not Chinese who worry about table manners. Perhaps my hosts found me rude; I never downed the contents of my glass after each ganbei ("bottoms up," literally "dry glass"). I have never understood why anyone should ever want to get drunk. One similarity China shares with America is the presence of heavy drinkers.
.....When Americans bump into passersby, they say "Excuse me," but Chinese rarely say duibuqi under similar circumstances. When you ask for something in a Chinese department store, the answer is usually meiyou (there isn't any), although the item may be in plain view. On the other hand, people went to enormous lengths to be helpful to me on occasion. When my printer didn't work, a man I had never seen before spent three hours with me going from shop to shop until the problem was solved. I never learned his name, so I can never repay his favor.
.....Good manners should serve the purpose of making human interactions smoother, easier and more pleasant. Sometimes formality is the best way to achieve this, sometimes not. Manners should break barriers rather than build them. To get back to the four students who wanted to know about my interest in clothing, I think they did the right thing. Americans are very good at waiting in line, which certainly makes life more agreeable. But I think the Chinese are better at making friends quickly.
.....My students were English majors, and a certain percentage of them were destined to become teachers. Chinese students still do not choose their own jobs; the university assigns them to the positions they will theoretically hold for life. There is a great deal of dissatisfaction with this system, and things had gotten a bit freer than they were in 1984, but job assignment was still a source of anxiety, especially for the seniors. There were two things the students particularly feared: being sent to a place they didn't want to go, which occasionally meant separation from a fiance, and being assigned a job as a teacher. Teachers are not respected and do not get paid a decent wage, I was told again and again.
.....Here are unedited excerpts from compositions handed in to me by two of my own students. In the first, the author claims to be quoting a ten-year-old elementary-school dropout.
Nowadays, the most important thing for us is to earn money, money is most powerful in our society. I can earn a lot of money everyday, much more than a University Professor do. Why should I go to school? It's not worthwhile to be educated!
Everybody knows clearly that China's education is in a very bad situation. Teachers' lower wages, lack of lodgings, humble social status and meager investment of the government throw the Chinese intellectual into despair.
.....On April 11th, I was asked to give a public lecture about college education in the United States. Afterwards, I was interviewed by reporters from the local radio station. There was a question that both my audience at the lecture and the reporters in my apartment asked me: "Why are Chinese students disillusioned with education?" I said that in the final stage of communism, according to Marx, there would be no specialization, no trade and no distinctions between country and city. A nation that believed in such a philosophy would at best be grudgingly tolerant toward education, and at worst, do what China had done during the Cultural Revolution and make being educated a punishable offense. No one took issue with what I said. Chinese people, it seemed to me, had both the desire and the freedom (or should I say the courage?) to complain.
.....Hebei University is at the eastern edge of town, adjacent to farms where tomatoes, cabbage and wheat are raised. The western half of Baoding is heavily industrial, and we rarely went there. One day in 1984, however, Kathy Lewis (a member of the other American family teaching there at that time), my wife and I decided to walk around western Baoding simply because it was there. Inside a walled compound with several factory builidngs, we saw what looked like a Protestant church. This aroused our curiosity, so we entered the compound and took a picture of the building. Before we could leave the compound, three young men stopped us and told us to sit down in an office. Of the three of us, I was the best Chinese speaker, although this was not saying too much. They asked who we were and why we had come. I answered we had simply been strolling and were curious about the church building. They took my film, and tried to tell me what kind of place we had entered, but my Chinese was not good enough to understand their explanation. Then they asked what country we were from. We said "America," which must have been the right answer. They said we could go, told us not to come back, and added one word in English: "Sorry."
.....For five years I wondered what kind of place I had stumbled into. One of the reasons I wanted to go back to Baoding in 1989 was to learn the answer to this question. I told the story to one of my students and asked him to accompany me to the church. He had never heard of such a place and was quite amazed at the complicated route I took him through, to a neighborhood he had never seen. We found the place and asked to see the manager. He was quite apologetic, but said he hadn't been there in 1984 and had no idea where to find my film. He was sure it would no longer be good anyway. He explained that 1984 was not all that long after the Cultural Revolution, and people were still very nervous about letting foreigners take pictures. As for the building, it had never been a church but had once been a Protestant school, and that certainly I could take a photograph of it. All I had to do was fill out an application and submit it to the police, who would be sure to give their consent.
.....Nothing has changed, I thought. "Application?" I said. "I don't want to bother. I'm just curious. What is this place?"
....."An underwear factory," he answered. The mystery of why my film was taken is still unsolved. I guess underwear is supposed to be hidden.
.....My stay in China can be divided into two distinct periods: before April 22nd - the date of the memorial service for for Party Secretary Hu Yaobang - and after. The second half was dominated by the fact that China was going through an extraordinary period in its history and perhaps in the history of the world. The people were rising up against a totalitarian state.
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