The Dance Begins

We were home briefly after our meeting, and then the four of us walked to the teacher’s dining hall down the block for a banquet in honor of the new teachers—a banquet announced only minutes earlier during our meeting with the university president. Chris, presumably because he had already been on campus for two years, did not attend.

It was held in a private dining room, a whitewashed concrete box. Exposed pipes jutted from the wall, and flies lit on the food. The table was covered with a vinyl cloth, stained and pockmarked with cigarette burn holes. Ten places were set with chipped dishes in a variety of patterns. A dumpy woman in a stained white apron brought out a plate of cold meats, lotus root, and preserved eggs, and a bottle of bai jiu (literally translated “white wine,” but “fire water” is more accurate.)

The university president toasted us foreign experts, repeating the afternoon’s flowery statements about the budding friendship between China and the West. Then came a parade of dishes, each comprised of eggs, diced pork or chicken and some kind of vegetable—usually bamboo shoots or onions. Two skinny chickens, one roasted and one boiled, capped the meal. The evening ended abruptly when the dumpy woman removed the dirty plates and the leaders rose to usher us out.

Months later, I realized that the banquet was a step in the dance, perhaps not consciously designed to soften us up before our next round of business meetings, but a deeply ingrained cultural practice of establishing ties and favors that made it more difficult for us to operate with the autonomy we were used to in the West.

Moments after Gauss and I returned to the Foreigners Hotel—and just in time for the hot water—Chris stopped in. The concrete stairs were noisy, and it was hard to come and go without the whole building knowing.

“How was dinner?” he asked mischievously.

We described the dishes.

“That’s the standard banquet,” he quipped. “I’ve been to a ton of them, just didn’t see any reason to go again. You know Hao Keqi is going to be in charge of you guys.”

Gauss gave me a resigned look.

The pipes gurgled in the bathroom.

“Hot water’s here, time to go!” Chris said. “Catch you guys later.”

Hao Keqi’s self-assurance separated her from the other more timid bureaucrats. Although she chose her words carefully, she seemed to speak her mind without trepidation, a hint that she didn’t fear reprisal. Margaret had already told us about Miss Hao’s attempts to control her. Having someone watching what I did and where I went absolutely pushed my hot button, and I saw trouble down the road with her.

Gauss and I expected Hao Keqi to bully us into following her agenda, so as soon as we finished our baths, we sat in the living room to plot out our course for the semester. We figured that the more structure we had in place, the harder it would be for her to push us around.

It was a smart move. When she and the head of the English Department—who spoke almost no English—came to meet with us the next day, Gauss and I immediately presented our detailed plan for the class we would teach. The strategy worked. With only a few minor exceptions, Hao Keqi and the nameless department head accepted our proposal.

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Surprise Test

In our correspondence with the university before we left the States, they had hinted that in addition to Gauss, they would be hiring me, too—but they made no promises. I had experienced a lot of upheaval in the year before our departure: the death of a close friend, the loss of a job I loved at the Minnesota Geological Survey, and a car accident. I came to China ready for a fresh start, open to either teaching or not. I brought with me a map project I’d begun at the Survey, knowing that if I didn’t teach, I could finish it.

I hoped to work part-time, enough to bring structure to my life, but not so much that I would be exhausted. I had been working since age 15 and employed full-time since college graduation, and while I couldn’t imagine being unscheduled all day, every day, I was hoping my year in China would give me a chance to relax a little.

After nearly two weeks in Xi’an—asking almost daily when we would start working—Gauss and I were starting to get bored and restless. No matter who we queried at the foreign affairs office. or waiban, the reply was “Xiuxi”—rest. Then suddenly one evening, one of the university higher-ups stopped by our apartment.

“You are invited to a meeting with the university president tomorrow,” he told Gauss in Chinese, “Please have a test prepared by noon so you can screen your students.”

Huh? Couldn’t someone have said something a few days earlier when we bugged the waiban? This was how I learned that I would be teaching, and it was the first time that we heard that we’d be selecting our students as well as teaching them. Did they spring this on us with no notice intentionally, to keep us off balance? Or, like the poorly planned pickup at the airport, did this happen because nobody thought out how it should work?

Gauss and I didn’t know if we should be miffed or puzzled, but with his teaching experience and my writing ability, we stayed up late and managed to come up with a diagnostic test. Chris, our experienced downstairs neighbor, gave us a ditto master to type it on. The next morning we took it to the foreign language department where we literally cranked out 60 copies, the sweet-smelling purple ink damp on the pages as we turned the handle.

Despite the request to have the tests completed by noon, nobody asked us for them. Not quite sure what to do next, we carried the stack of tests to our meeting after siesta. Ushered into the official greeting-of-dignitaries reception room on campus, Edna, Margaret, Gauss and I sat next to each other growing bleary-eyed, listening to lengthy speeches in Chinese haltingly translated into English. The large space featured two facing rows of dark green velvet wing chairs with lace doilies on the backs, a terrazzo floor, a water-stained acoustical tile ceiling and large windows. White enameled spittoons were placed on the floor at regular intervals between the chairs. The lights flickered on and off throughout the formalities.

University personnel—the same retinue of department- and university cadres who met us at the airport—lined up on one side of the ten-foot-wide aisle, and we foreigners sat facing them across this gulf. They looked vaguely familiar, but conversation was difficult and stilted, so they remained a nameless pack to me. There was one woman among the Chinese whom I did not recognize. She was seated next to the university president.

Other aides and hangers-on, all men, hovered near the perimeter of the room. They served tea, nodded, got up to turn on the light that kept self-extinguishing, took pictures, or did nothing. From time to time, one of the dignitaries would discreetly bend toward a spittoon and use it.

Edna leaned over to me and whispered. “That woman next to the president is Hao Keqi.”

Hao Keqi interpreted, her head held high and a smirk on her face that I could only characterize as reptilian. Her voice had an even, measured quality, and each time she finished a sentence, she would assume a little close-lipped smile and nod slightly. She didn’t look so much happy or friendly as she did self-satisfied. She creeped me out.

After the top dignitaries gave clichéd welcoming speeches, we were given enameled “Xi’an Jiaotong University” pins, booklets about the university proclaiming its “glorious revolutionary history,” and colorful pamphlets showing plainly dressed, pink-cheeked coeds walking the campus byways. Then the floor was opened for discussion, but real discourse was not the point of the gathering.

Gauss said simply that we were happy to be there and looked forward to meeting our students. This was one occasion when I just smiled and let him do the talking.

Comrade’s Summer Camp

Jiaotong University Village 1. Our building is in the distance on the left. Neighborhood kids could amuse themselves by chasing a pig that had wandered into the community from the nearby farming commune. Photo © 1981, Patti Isaacs.

After the strains of “The East is Red” subsided each morning, an energetic male voice barked out the numbers one through eight as heroic music played in the background. “Yi! Er! San! Si! Wu! Liu! Qi! Ba!” Good citizens were supposed to do calisthenics to this beat in order to cultivate the healthy bodies that went with purity of thought—although we never witnessed anyone participating. Instead, some middle-aged and elderly folks gathered on street corners and in parks to practice the slow martial art of Tai Chi, oblivious to the happy drill sergeant’s rhythmic squawking. The purpose wasn’t all propaganda, however. In a place where many could not afford an alarm clock, the community music helped university personnel wake in time to make it to class or work.

Next songs from “The Sound of Music” warbled through the streets. “Do Re Mi” and “My Favorite Things” got the most airplay, and to this day when I hear one of those tunes, I smell the coal smoke, raw sewage, and dust of our Xi’an neighborhood. There was a national passion for this movie. It was one of a handful of Western films deemed sanitary and innocuous enough for the government to allow viewing by the masses—and it had been a favorite of Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, who was the gatekeeper of all things cultural until the fall of the Gang of Four following Mao’s death in 1976.

Across campus, breakfast was at 7:30 a.m., lunch at 11:30. Nap time was until 2:00 p.m., dinner was at 6:30. Hot water was available to those of us at the “Foreigner’s Hotel” between 7 and 8 p.m., so that’s when we bathed and washed dishes. Each of those activities was a little milestone. We began to feel like children in a day care center, or old folks in a rest home. It’s dinnertime! Let’s all go eat! Oh! It’s 7 o’clock. Let’s all run upstairs so we can take our baths.

As it unfolded before me, I likened life in China to a summer camp. The place of employment—both a physical entity and a collection of employees known as a work unit—was organized like a campus. Housing and other facilities for the workers were located within a compound. And “within” was literally true: walls surrounded each neighborhood, and monitors observed all who passed through the gates. The work unit was responsible for supplying its members with housing, medical care, daycare, and retail outlets.

Work unit leaders dictated where one lived and the job one had, and permission from the work unit was required before a marriage license was issued. The leaders tracked pregnancies, and in keeping with the “one child per family” campaign in China, permission had to be obtained before a child was conceived.

The walled work units tended to stay cohesive and stable, the result of a government policy called the Iron Rice Bowl which meant that no person could be fired from his or her job for any reason. People often had the same job for life, and since the work unit supplied the housing, they did not move.

As part of a government program to expand development from the coastal areas to the country’s interior, Xi’an Jiaotong University was spun off from Shanghai Jiaotong University in 1957.

As our students later told us, the University in Shanghai filled a train with furniture and the contents of the library, the staff and their household possessions. The entire lot was transported to Xi’an and a new campus set up. Because of their Shanghai roots, twenty years later, most people on the Xi’an campus still spoke Shanghai dialect. A few months into our stay, we learned that the college across the street had moved from Beijing at about the same time, and people there still spoke Beijing dialect.

When we mentioned having seen cockroaches, Jiaotong personnel were dismissive. “Xi’an doesn’t have cockroaches,” one of them said. “The roaches you saw in your apartment are from Shanghai.”

The Foreign Experts

Within a few days, I was feeling more settled. I hadn’t seen any more cockroaches since the night we moved in, although I remained suspicious, rapping on the door and turning on the lights for a minute before I stepped into the bathroom. If they were there when I wasn’t, I didn’t want to know about it.

Gauss and I were beginning to get restless and bored. When would we start preparing to teach? We still didn’t know who our students would be and who we would be reporting to. Gauss stopped by the Foreign Affairs office to ask when we were scheduled to start, but he got the standard put off: “Oh, you should take a rest. You must be very tired.”

The apartment was still bleak, but at least we were unpacked, and Margaret continued to brighten our days. She complained, however, about her boss, a woman named Hao Keqi, who Margaret described as “overbearing.” After listening to Margaret, we hoped we would be reporting to someone else.

“I should really like to buy a bicycle,” said Margaret in her lilting English accent, “since the car only goes downtown once a week. But Miss Hao is dead set against it. Every time she sees me, she tells me how unsafe it is to ride here. She even tells me I shouldn’t walk about the campus by myself!”

Margaret had such good manners that she capitulated. But Gauss and I couldn’t imagine being kept on a short tether for an entire year! We figured that once we get to know our way around town, we’d drag dear Maggie along, and the three of us could have a bit of fun.

We also met Chris, the Australian downstairs, and his Chinese wife, Xiao Lu. Smallish, with curly light-brown hair, Chris seemed to always be in motion. He talked fast, his warm Australian accent rising and falling as he gesticulated. Xiao Lu was his calm opposite, dark and taciturn, her sultry beauty evident even when she wore an army-green Mao jacket over her pregnant belly. Chris seemed to have an endless list of criticisms about China, even in front of Xiao Lu, whose English was excellent. She understood every word he said.

Gauss and Chris's wife, Xiao Lu, assemble her new sewing machine in Chris and Xiao Lu's living room

“I’ll be amazed if they get this semester started on time,” he warned us.

“Those blokes in the Foreign Affairs Office are so incompetent, they couldn’t get on a bus that was stopped in front of them.” His words were sharp, but his eyes twinkled.

Chris had already been in China for two years and said he planned to stay through at least the next year. I couldn’t reconcile his strong connections to the place with his running negative critique.

Our new Canadian colleague, Edna, who would be partnering with Margaret, arrived from Beijing with Liu Dawei, a helpful troubleshooter from the Foreign Affairs Office who seemed to counter Chris’s claims of incompetence. The Chinese consulate in Canada had misplaced Edna’s visa application and Liu Dawei (who used the name “David Liu”) managed to get her into China without an entry visa. David was definitely sharper than the sleepy fellow who had bumbled around Guangzhou with Gauss and me.

A little, round, fiftyish lady who spoke softly and deliberately, Edna had lived in Taiwan working at a church school. There was a sweetness and naiveté about her that baffled us. We fretted that Edna would be overwhelmed by the living conditions or steamrollered by Hao Keqi.

Edna proved thoughtful and considerate, but always about half a step off. Visiting with her was like talking with a child. I half expected her to say something like, “Some of my best friends are Negroes” without a touch of malice—and to be telling the truth. In spite of her years in Taiwan, her Chinese was only marginal, and she was squeamish about everything from the food to the cloth used to clean her apartment.

“When those ladies come in to clean, with that bucket of gray water and that filthy rag, I just cringe,” she remarked one day at lunch, as she picked at her food.

Edna skipped whole meals and tiptoed around the room to keep from touching the floor. Even weeks into her stay, she told us she hadn’t lowered her whole body into the bathtub because it looked so grimy. She had a point—things were pretty dirty, and I had freaked out the first time I had to bathe in my tub. But Gauss and I reasoned that we were there for an entire year; it was best get used to things and call upon our senses of humor to help us adjust.

Improving Atmosphere

The next morning I was awakened early by the sound of the national anthem played over speakers throughout the neighborhood. To my surprise, I felt a little better. The floor was not skittering with dirty, disgusting things. Gauss had plugged the hole in the bathroom floor with a wad of paper.

“If we keep the drains closed, we can probably keep the roaches away,” he said.

I wasn’t entirely convinced.

We went downstairs to the common dining room where the two chefs had cooked a Western style breakfast: eggs fried in a very ample amount of oil; cold, dry toast; and a glass of warm, reconstituted sweetened condensed milk.

One of the first-floor apartments was reserved for visiting personnel, and the other contained common rooms for all the residents: a kitchen with two enormous woks, a dining room that seated eight, a room with a TV and a couple of armchairs, and a storage room. The four upstairs units were for the Foreign Experts—that would be us, and three other English teachers.

A bright spot that morning was meeting the first of those teachers, a nice older English lady named Margaret. She was so English she was almost a caricature of herself. She had bad teeth and an underbite and wore sensible oxfords, a dowdy printed frock and a baggy beige sweater. She measured things in “wee bits” and “spots” and many things to her were “really quite lovely”. Classes hadn’t begun yet, so she invited us up to her apartment a couple of hours later for mid morning coffee. She was “really quite nice,” we thought.

Lunch in the dining room was Chinese style: stir-fried pork and vegetables and decent rice, a big improvement over breakfast. The Chinese customarily take an afternoon nap, so everything shut down after the meal. About 2:30, a young woman named Xiao Luo (“Little Luo”) came by to show us around the university. She was sunny and animated but spoke no English so I had no direct communication with her. Her appearance and demeanor were of a cheerful small-town girl, tidy and straightforward, plainly dressed with simply cut hair. Vanity was discouraged in The People’s Republic in 1981.

Our apartment was on-campus, as was the housing for all University employees and students, so the walk to the main area of classroom buildings was only a couple of blocks. We left the walled area of faculty and staff apartment buildings, crossed an empty road, and passed through a gate in another wall that surrounded the classrooms. The buildings dated from the 1950’s and many were done in grim Soviet style: slab-sided, gray, and ugly.

The grounds of the university seemed nice at first glance. A large pond filled with lotus framed the front entrance of the central library. There were trees and shrubs but hardly a blade of grass. Incongruously, large rose bushes studded with pink blossoms flourished in the dusty ground next to the sidewalks. It began to drizzle, and the dust quickly formed a film of mud, coating the paved streets.

“Here is our campus swimming pool!” Xiao Luo exclaimed proudly to Gauss in Chinese, gesturing with her arm as we rounded a corner. “It is Olympic size.”

While we were still back in the States, the university had sent us a brochure picturing that very pool filled with crystal-blue water and happy swimmers. I had the habit of swimming a mile a few times a week, so I was encouraged when I saw the photos. But the water in the real thing was green and opaque, and it scared me a little to think of what was growing in there. I would need to get my daily exercise some other way.

As Xiao Luo walked us back, cyclists turned and stared at us as though we were on display at a zoo. I worried that they might fall off their bikes or have a collision. We came to a handful of small stores at a cross street just a block beyond our apartment building.

Typical store interior, 1981. Photo © Kent Orgain.

The first store was dark and it was difficult to see the merchandise. Once my eyes adjusted, I could see that there was little to choose from. Some cast-iron kettles and couple of metal dining chairs, their blue paint already chipped, sat in the middle of the large room. It reminded me of the general store in my grandparents’ tiny town in southern Illinois in the 1950s. Nearly all the items were displayed behind the counter: a few skeins of brown yarn; canned goods, carefully stacked, but dusty; plastic handled toothbrushes—some of the only colorful items in the store—and simple stationery items like scissors and paper.

“You must ask the clerk if you want something,” Xiao Luo told Gauss in Chinese.

We bought a black umbrella, two aluminum boxes for storing food items (a hedge against the roaches, still fresh in my mind) and a couple of rolls of mauve-colored toilet tissue the texture of crepe paper streamers we used at home for party decorations. The alternative brand was a big pack of gray stuff sprinkled with Chinese characters intact enough to be read.

We entered a fresh food market across the street. It, too, was dimly lit but even more sparsely stocked, empty except for two sad-looking bunches of onions. Even in this land where there was barely enough to eat—nothing extra—it seemed that nobody deemed them fit for consumption. Another tiny storefront housed an electronics repair business, and a bicycle repair facility operated in the drizzle on the sidewalk outside its door.

There was little temptation to buy, and shopping here looked like an unpleasant experience. I doubted that we would be cooking for ourselves. Buying food seemed to be a lot of trouble, and so would setting up a kitchen. Besides, the presence of food would only encourage our 6-legged friends. Gauss and I reasoned that it would probably be best to pay our three yuan (75 cents) a day to have the cooks take care of that aspect of housekeeping.

We walked back to our apartment, and Xiao Luo bid us goodbye. As Gauss and I climbed the bare concrete steps with our purchases, it occurred to me that I was beginning to adjust to this gray building on this gray campus. Deciding to use the cooks’ services was a way to cope with the situation. Lunch had been good and I was looking forward to dinner. My fury at Gauss for bringing me here began to subside.

Exhausted after hours of interpreting, Gauss lay down for a nap and I went in to the study to write. Without warning, the front door opened, and in shuffled a smiling Lao Zhang, the caretaker. Holding an old-fashioned atomizer in front of him, he squeezed the little fabric-covered bulb as he made the rounds of our apartment, misting it with a sickening-sweet scent. He explained that when it rains, the doors are closed and it gets stuffy. He was improving our atmosphere.