Free For All

August, 1981

Gauss’s status as a Foreign Expert qualified us for a three-day tour of Guangzhou. Although we were becoming weary of traveling, the stopover would help us adjust to this new environment.

On the flight to Asia, I had written in my diary: While I understand very keenly that I am leaving my family, my friends, my possessions, and my home, I have trouble imagining the life I will be going to. Europe I can picture in my mind. China, I cannot.

Each morning, we were met at the front door of the hotel by a little black car that looked like a cross between a ’57 Chevy and an old Volvo sedan. The seats were covered in woven rattan and sheer black polyester curtains hung in the windows. The representative from Jiaotong University and a sprightly young male tour guide named Yang always accompanied us. Counting the driver, the little car was always packed.

Driving was a free for all, with motorized vehicles at the top of the pecking order. The only consistent rule was to swerve to the right if things got really bad. Passing was done whether there was room or not, accomplished by everybody squeezing a bit and driving three abreast—or not accomplished when everyone slammed on the brakes a few feet before the front bumpers made contact.

We were taken to scenic waterfalls and paper-cutting factories, then a porcelain factory where, despite the diligent handwork each piece received, the finished products came out looking kitschy and garish. We were clearly on China’s new tourist circuit: at the beginning of each tour was a tea room, at the end, a trinket store.

The factory tours wore thin. I found them less interesting than simply walking down the street, watching people go about their daily business in ingenious, low-tech fashion: making chalkboards by applying black paint to plywood; collecting bottles for recycling in baskets on the back of a bike; constructing ladders of bamboo. I looked forward to settling down in Xi’an where I would be a teacher, not a tourist.

Painting a Blackboard, Guangzhou

Recycling bottles by bicycle, Guangzhou

Getting to Guangzhou

Guangzhou, 1981, ninety miles and decades removed from the nearby British colony.

August, 1981

In 1981, the world was still gripped by the Cold War and divided into two spheres, Free and Communist. China and the United States had established diplomatic relations only two years earlier, and there were few commercial flights between the two countries. To get there, my husband, Gauss, and I first flew to Hong Kong and then took the train through densely forested hills of the colony’s New Territories toward the People’s Republic.

We arrived at the shaved-off strip of countryside that marked the barrier between the “free” world I had grown up in and totalitarian China. An enormous wall topped with razor wire, punctuated by guard towers at every peak, marked the frontier. Our train slowed to a crawl and then stopped for several minutes as armed guards walked the aisles. I could almost hear the Bamboo Curtain part and then swoosh shut behind us. I felt very far from home, enclosed within a foreign place in a way I had never experienced before.

As we pulled away from the border, the desolate no-man’s land gave way to rice paddies and tree-cloaked hills, and then, surprisingly, to a patch of naked brown earth where a cluster of high-rise buildings was being constructed. This was the nascent Special Economic Zone of Shenzhen, designed as a portal for China’s planned commerce with the rest of the world. In the last couple of years, at the very highest level of Chinese government, a policy shift had taken place. Deng Xiaoping, Mao’s successor, had given his blessing to the development of a market economy, and Shenzhen was one of the early signs of that shift.

Then our train went over another hill, and all signs of modern development disappeared. We were back among livestock and barefoot peasants. The countryside was beautiful and pastoral in a way that was markedly unlike rural America: the fields, all hand-tended, were beautifully groomed and painstakingly terraced. Every square foot, every odd-shaped or hard-to-reach spot, was used. Rice grew in lush green carpets, and each field was outlined with a raised dike like trapunto quilting on a green velvet jacket. Banana trees sprouted around the perimeter.

The fields were dotted with people in wide straw hats wearing light cotton shirts and dark pants rolled at the knees. Children rode water buffalo. Clouds suddenly materialized and rain poured down, soaking farm and farmer; then skidded away as quickly as they came. The sun returned, and the vivid green landscape glowed again, shimmering in the moist tropical heat. Small villages cropped up here and there, some brick with red tile roofs, some made of rattan and covered with thatched straw.

An hour or so later, when out train pulled into Guangzhou (Canton), we were met by a helpful young China Travel Service (CTS) employee whose job it was to greet Foreign Experts. She was supposed to protect us from “bad elements”—and also to make certain that we, and any dangerous ideas we might have, remained insulated from the average Chinese. Nothing was left to chance.

She whisked us through the various checkpoints and to a waiting van. It was not empty. Inside were various helpers, among them a representative sent hundreds of miles from our University who would accompany us to the city of Xi’an where we would live for the next academic year. There was barely enough room for us and our luggage, but luckily the ride was short: just a few kilometers to a hotel where we would stay for a couple of days while we toured the city, courtesy of the Chinese government. Americans were a novelty, and our arrival was a big deal.

Hong Kong

Hong Kong, 1981

July, 1981

Direct flights from the U.S. to Mainland China were still scarce, so like most travelers to China, we entered through Hong Kong. Descending to Kai Tak airport, I couldn’t imagine how we could land. Mountains loomed up before us; we would have to turn or we’d be squashed like bugs on a windshield. The plane banked hard, and as I looked down it seemed that the wing would almost clip the roof of one of the buildings. We were close enough for me to see the laundry hanging on the balconies. A minute later, we were skimming over the water with no runway in sight, mere feet above the surface. Only when the wheels bounced onto the tarmac were we certain that we made contact with the narrow runway that extended out into the bay.

The plane slowed to a stop and the door opened. A blast of hot, sticky air whooshed into the cabin and even though I’d changed into a light cotton dress en route, I was immediately bathed in sweat. We walked, squinting, into the intense midday sunlight, across the black pavement that radiated heat, towards the terminal where double doors slid open to admit us.

Hong Kong was very western in some ways: English double-decker buses plied the streets, and all kinds of products were available: Revlon and Estee Lauder cosmetics, Goody Hair barrettes, Burger King and McDonalds, loads of stereos, cameras and watches, and Kodak, Kodak, Kodak. The place pulsed with activity: shopping, hustle, construction projects, traffic, congestion, pollution, noise.

Young people were fashionably dressed in the latest western styles: Levis and tube tops, cowboy boots and high-heeled Gucci shoes. But most of the middle-aged and elderly people looked worn down and bent, dressed in baggy pants and tired cotton shirts, shuffling around in black cotton slippers.

Everywhere we went, there were sweating, pressing crowds of toothless old men, skinny, boisterous children, chic young women and dudes with sunglasses. I smelled perspiration and cigarettes and felt damp flesh sliding across my own as I herded my way onto a ferry or across the street. In the midst of the pressure, I thought about the miles of uninterrupted cornfields at home, the bright blue sky and the brisk prairie wind. I dreamt about cracking lightning and torrents of rain that would sweep the air clean. Part of me was looking forward to the more leisurely pace of life in the mainland.