The main east-west shopping street in downtown Xi’an, as seen from the central Bell Tower in 1981. The Drum Tower is visible in the upper right. ©1981, Patti Isaacs

I was crestfallen when Chris told me that one of those big, clunky Chinese bikes cost 197 yuan! At the time, that was the equivalent of about $100 U.S., and paying for two bikes would take most of Gauss’ monthly salary (six or seven months’ salary for most Chinese.) We would have to wait until Gauss received his October salary because I wasn’t getting paid yet.

Our contract situation with the university made me frustrated and resentful. Gauss was being given an interim salary of 480 yuan per month (about $250 U.S.) for the first two months until he signed his contract as a foreign expert. Although the amount was peanuts compared to salaries in America, by Chinese standards, it was a princely sum. A typical Chinese salary was 30–60 yuan, or $15–30 a month. My salary (about half of Gauss’ since I lacked a master’s degree) would not be paid until I had a contract, two months after our arrival. To be working for so long without an agreement, even though both parties accepted the terms, was puzzling and maddening. It bugged me was that while they held onto my money, I couldn’t purchase my bicycle.

To me the bicycle meant freedom, mobility, and autonomy. And since swimming in the university pool was out of the question, the bike was a way to get some exercise. Although motor vehicles careened through the streets with reckless abandon, their numbers were few, and most streets had separate side lanes for bicycles and handcarts. Taxis were almost nonexistent, and the few city buses were filled to overflowing. Foreigners were not allowed to drive, although after our experiences on the roads in Guangzhou, we weren’t eager to try. Biking seemed like a safe, dependable way to get around town.

Compounding my disappointment, the policy regarding use of the car had changed. Initially, each household in the Foreigner’s Hotel was allowed to take the car to the destination of their choice once a week. Instead, word came down—we didn’t know where from, exactly—that the university would take us en masse to some common destination while the rest of the campus personnel attended their weekly political meetings.

Hao Keqi stopped by the Foreigner’s Hotel at lunchtime one day to give us an update. “The car will be needed for other things on Sunday,” she told us, smiling sweetly. “You may all ride downtown together on Friday afternoons.”

We suspected that the university might be trying to discourage Edna and Margaret’s attendance at Xi’an’s Christian church downtown. Whatever the reason, I wasn’t interested in group treks to the city; we attracted enough attention without traveling in large white hordes.

Gauss and I had used the university car service to get downtown a few times. The main part of the city lay within a rectangular wall dating from the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644 A.D.) about three miles long on the east-west side and a mile and a half north-south. The main shopping street, Dong Da Jie (Big East Street) is lined with stores in one- or two-story buildings. At the center of town, where Dong Da Jie becomes Xi Da Jie (Big West Street) at the intersection of the main north-south street, is the Bell Tower. A block to the northwest is the Drum Tower, and just beyond that is the Muslim neighborhood, where a mosque has occupied the site since the Tang Dynasty (618–907 A.D.)

On our first trip, the driver dropped Gauss and me a couple of blocks east of the Bell Tower at the Friendship Store, the “foreigners only” store that sold luxury goods unavailable to ordinary Chinese. There were Friendship Stores in each city on the tourist circuit, and they took only special foreign-exchange scrip, which we termed “funny money.” As employees of the Chinese government, we would be issued special cards that allowed us to use regular currency (Renminbi.) However, we didn’t have the cards yet, so our only option was to browse.

The display cases were crammed with the same handicrafts one typically sees in Chinatown: painted silk fans, embroidered blouses and robes, needlepoint purses, cloisonné vases, silk and wool rugs, silk brocade fabric by the bolt, Chinese furniture, sculptures, ceramics, and paintings. Additionally, tins of cookies and candies, bottles of many varieties of bai jiu, crackers, Chinese-made red and white table wine, and Chinese and foreign brands of cigarettes were displayed behind another counter. A refrigerated case in the corner was stocked with Coca Cola, the first Western product to be widely distributed in China. Each bottle cost three yuan, about $1.50 U.S. at the time. Sometimes the store carried bicycles, which could be purchased without a ration ticket. I could live without the other stuff, but I lusted after the bikes.

Most of the goods available at the Friendship Store were priced for tourists, so after a quick look around, we headed out to where regular people shopped. Right next door was the biggest downtown department store, a two-story gray Russian-style building. Although Xi’an was a city of almost 2.5 million inhabitants, the department store was about the same size as the biggest store in my sister-in-law’s hometown of Redwood Falls, Minnesota, with a population under 10,000.

Hoping to get a better night’s sleep, we bought a big blue and white checked cotton sheet, large enough to cover the bed and hang a foot down either side. The covers on our bed were tiny, and every time Gauss rolled over, I was left bare. Next, we went to a small pottery/art supply shop where we found covered tea mugs and celadon-glazed porcelain pencil cups with a raised bamboo design on the side. These were simple and restrained, some of the prettiest things we’d seen since arriving in China.

We walked a bit more and came across the foreign language bookstore. Its shelves contained P.G. Wodehouse, Irving Wallace, Steinbeck and Ray Bradbury, and even The Scarsdale Diet, though I hadn’t the faintest idea how anyone could follow it in Xi’an. Cottage cheese? We couldn’t even find milk, except the canned stuff with sugar that Americans used for making fudge.

We drew a sizeable crowd by buying a straw mat from a lady on the sidewalk. Most of the onlookers stared at us, but were too shy to speak. American mothers slap the hands of children who point, and scold, “It’s impolite to stare!” On the streets of Xi’an, however, we saw that kids often didn’t notice us. Their parents frequently pointed us out and joined in the open-jawed gaping. I could usually laugh it off, but sometimes I was tempted to shoot the dirtiest, most vile look I could produce towards a group of people staring blankly at us with their mouths hanging open.

Margaret and I had agreed to purchase an iron to share, so on one occasion I took the car downtown with her to the big department store. Although Margaret had lived in Hong Kong for years, she was hesitant to speak Mandarin, so I was the one who made the transaction, using a note written in Chinese from Gauss, my own meager language skills, and some theatrics. I also purchased two bags of soap powder, a cake of brown laundry soap, and a bar of toilet soap.

I was proud of my accomplishment, but I kind of wished she hadn’t been there. It was even harder to be inconspicuous when I was with Margaret. She was at least 5’9”, with a big, blocky frame and a lumbering, bearlike gait that could be spotted from several blocks away. Her penchant for wearing generously-cut frocks with full, mid-calf-length skirts set her apart from the mass of trouser-wearing Chinese women. I was eager to don pants and a Mao jacket, pull my hair into a ponytail, and bike to my destination alone.

And Gauss and I longed for the kind of easy social life we’d had at home. Although when we attracted crowds in public, people rarely approached. If we spoke, people often hid their faces, giggled nervously, or stared silently. We were hungry for a group of people with whom to chat, play cards, or have a meal—nothing extraordinary, just friends who would take us at face value, whom we could trust, with whom we could share a laugh.

National Day

October First—National Day—in Xingqing Park, Xi’an. ©1981 Patti Isaacs

The morning of September 30, the caretaker, Lao Zhang, handed Gauss a note informing us that we would be attending a “tea party for foreign visitors” that evening in celebration of the country’s October 1st national holiday. Gauss and I were peeved by the last-minute notice, although we’d come to expect it. We were tempted to have Lao Zhang send back a note saying we would skip it, but it occurred to us that the occasion might give us the chance to meet some of the other foreigners who lived in town.

That evening, just after dinner, as a Jiaotong University minibus pulled up to the door of our building, Hao Keqi appeared. She would be our escort. Gauss and I discreetly exchanged resigned looks and boarded the bus. As we bumped through the darkening streets of town, she lectured us about the dangers of bicycling.

“I have heard that you are interested in buying a bicycle,” she began.

“Yes,” I replied, “I’m eager to be in charge of my own transportation.”

“You know, the traffic here is very bad, and it can be dangerous,” she said, as if she were speaking to a small child.

“Hao Keqi,” I said with a chuckle, “I’ve been biking on roads with cars and trucks since I was six years old. There’s much less traffic here than in the U.S. I don’t think I’ll have too much difficulty.”

“You must be very careful. It is better to walk. You don’t really need to go anywhere, you can buy what you need right in your neighborhood.”

I stopped answering her and tried not to let my irritation show.

We arrived at a guest house on the edge of town after nightfall, where we were ushered into a glaringly-lit hall and seated at round tables, segregated by institution. Covered with white vinyl, the twenty or so tables were sparely set with teacups and bowls of sunflower seeds and crackers. At each sat one or two European, Indian, or Japanese “foreign experts” and a handful of Chinese hosts.

Through an interpreter, the governor of the province and his deputy began the event by delivering the usual propaganda speeches about the “great socialist history of progress and prosperity of the last 32 years.” This was followed by lively folk music performed on Chinese instruments: a harp-like zither, shrill two-stringed erhus (Chinese violins), and assorted drums and cheerful, raucous metallic percussion instruments. The crowd listened politely, clapping at the end of each number.

In this city of two million, we had not yet met any of the other expats aside from our co-workers at Jiaotong University. It was exciting to be among perhaps twenty new foreign faces, and I was anxious to make contact with some of the others in town. We naively expected that when the musical interlude ended, there would be some sort of social hour. In my charitable moments before coming here, I had imagined a hall full of people milling about wearing name tags and getting acquainted.

But such unscripted socializing was not to take place. We were to learn, over the course of the year, that official celebrations always follow a program.

Next, the entertainment moved into the realm of what our students called “Chinese Light Music”: Saccharine, bouncy arrangements of Chinese folk tunes played on an organ backed by a Bavarian oom-pah beat. I half expected an appearance by Lawrence Welk’s bubble machine. A female duet twittered “Jingle Bells” and a couple of odes to Chairman Mao in high vibrato, and a man sang “Shenandoah,” followed by a four-year-old prodigy who dutifully plunked out several tunes on the piano, including “Swanee River.”

As the music continued, we munched sunflower seeds and drank tea, feeling chained to our chairs but knowing that it would be impolite to get up in the middle of an act and strike up a conversation. Only one brave person broke the rule, a young blond woman who ducked from her chair, squatted down, and spoke in hushed tones to the occupants of a table several feet away.

Then, abruptly, our hosts announced that the party was over. The Chinese handlers at each table immediately rose and began herding their foreign charges to the door, like third-graders on a field trip. A minimum of contact had been made; we left feeling isolated and disappointed.

As we rode home from the party, Hao Keqi picked up the bicycle issue again, cautioning us about speeding trucks and potholes, her face occasionally visible as we passed a rare street light.

“It is really better if you do not have a bicycle in China,” she said, in the measured tone she always used.

I suspected that her real concern was not so much for our safety but for her own hide. Our handlers were responsible for us, and if they were unable to get us to follow their directives and we injured ourselves, they would have gotten into trouble for it. Still, it was one warning too many, and combined with the frustration of our hollow evening, I boiled over.

“We’ve heard this enough. We’re not children, you know.” I said, “We’re capable of riding bicycles. We’ve been doing it for years. I’m done discussing the issue.”

She just barely reacted, pursing her lips and raising her eyebrows a bit but saying nothing. If my bluntness surprised her, she hardly showed it. No wonder many Westerners hold onto the stereotype of the inscrutable Chinese. If the only people you met were cadres in formal situations, you would think this is all there was.

I thought that Chinese society was somehow upside-down. We’d seen kindergarten children struggling for long periods of time to master chopsticks; teens—who, in America, would be out riding bikes or playing basketball—squatting in fields, weeding crops by hand; and students of all ages hunched over books for hours, learning by rote. In China, it seemed that children were expected to display the mature qualities of obedience, delayed gratification, and self-sacrifice, while adults sat dutifully awaiting instruction.

The following day was the beginning of a one-week holiday in honor of the anniversary of the People’s Republic. We went to the park with the children of a scholar who was currently at the University of Minnesota. Like museums in the U.S. and Europe, most parks in China were walled off with an entry gate and ticket sellers. People were crowded shoulder to shoulder; it reminded me of the Minnesota State Fair on a sunny weekend. One of the girls told us that many people were too busy to go to the park on regular days, and besides, the four-fen admission price (1 cent, U.S.) was waived on special occasions like this.

How different this was from home, where you could go to the park to eat your bag lunch, throw a Frisbee, or take a stroll after dinner, any old day. At home, we would go out of town for the weekend, but for Chinese people, going to the park was a twice- or thrice-yearly treat. And on this day, they could enjoy the added novelty of two tall foreigners with a camera. Whenever we stopped to take photos with out hosts, a crowd gathered. We found ourselves darting from one place to another to find a spot where we wouldn’t be followed and stared at, but such a place simply didn’t exist. It was an interesting experience, but hardly a relaxing one, and after about half an hour, we headed back to our apartment.

The long Chinese holiday didn’t mean much to us and without work to do, we felt bored and homesick. Adding to my funk was a nasty cold that seemed to be turning into bronchitis. The weather was turning colder, and charcoal burners were fired up all over the city. The air was becoming thick and sooty.

We weren’t alone in our discontent. Edna spent hours holed up in her apartment but seemed serene, while Margaret had begun to act out. This was a switch from my initial impression, when Margaret had seemed so chipper and sunny, and I worried about Edna.

Margaret now seemed to be having a lot of trouble adjusting, and she vented her frustration on the cooks. No matter what they prepared for her, she was unhappy. If they fried an egg, it was too greasy. (To this day, my family and I complain about any greasy food by imitating Margaret’s English delivery of the line: “It’s too oily, I shan’t eat it!) If they made her a hard-boiled tea egg, she complained that it smelled bad. If they gave up and served her a plain soft-boiled egg, she griped that it was bland and tasteless.

She fumed about the toast being cold, but given the constraints of the kitchen, the cooks did as well as they could. Toasters didn’t exist. While one of the cooks fixed her eggs, the other put a slice of bread in a dry frying pan and watched it carefully, adjusting the distance from the burner until it became golden, a process that took four or five minutes per slice. We knew she’d gone around the bend the time the egg, but not the toast, was delivered to her at the table. She swooped into the kitchen, past the startled cooks, and grabbed the bread out of the pan. She returned triumphantly and sat down, declaring, “Now I shall have HOT toast with my egg!”

She didn’t like the man-tou (steamed rolls) the cooks served because they were too heavy—she had a point there—and they were made of white flour, not the whole-grain she preferred. We noticed that those at the canteen down the road were a bit darker, so we bought one and gave it to her, but she said she wasn’t hungry and didn’t want it. There was simply no pleasing her.

Of course there was a lot to criticize: dirt and inefficiency, and the endless calls of “Ni kan, ni kan! Wai guo ren!” (“Look, look! Foreigners!) from people who pointed and stared as we walked down the street. But the fact was that we were on their turf for a year. Within our own apartments we could create our own little homelike environments. We could keep our kitchens cleaner and we didn’t have to decorate with kitschy plastic gewgaws. But outside, we were outnumbered. There were a billion Chinese and only a relative handful of us, so we couldn’t make them do it our way.

Visiting Scholars

At the time, the Internet was not yet in common use, so letters were the only way to stay in touch with family. The cost of phone calls was prohibitive. I learned years later that because of the cost of postage, many of the visiting scholars from China limited correspondence to a letter every two weeks. There was another downside to having experience overseas. Once they had lived and worked in the relative freedom of Western universities, returning scholars often found it hard to take the backwardness and bureaucracy of the system in their own country.

Our job was to teach these scholars the English language skills they would need to pass the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language), required for admission to American universities. And we needed to teach them living skills so that they could rent an apartment, obtain health insurance, find a roommate or buy a bus pass.

The teaching methods traditionally used in Chinese classrooms involved memorization and recitation. Classroom behavior was regimented, even at the university level. Students were expected to sit silently at attention and raise their hands if they had the answer. If called upon, they were to stand and recite the correct answer almost verbatim from a text they had memorized.

Our students were fixated on having the “right” answer. They were frequently frustrated by our reply when they asked us, for example, which of two words was “more correct” in a particular sentence. Gauss and I often answered that one was not “more correct” than the other, they just had different shades of meaning. It probably didn’t help that this was an engineering and technical university: the students weren’t accustomed to fuzzy answers.

Admission to Chinese Universities was highly competitive, and although a few of our students had made it into our class because of their political connections, I felt that most were brighter and more hardworking than Gauss or me. They knew what a rare and valuable opportunity lay before them, so they were highly motivated and hard-working. Teaching them turned out to be the most satisfying and rewarding job I’d ever done.

Although many of our students were old enough to be our parents, they treated Gauss and me with a deference and respect that made us uncomfortable. The Chinese have historically had great respect for teachers, and they usually use the title “Teacher” when addressing an instructor, the way we would use the term “Doctor” or “Professor.” When I first began teaching, my students rose before talking to me, and sometimes they bowed slightly before or after speaking. Given the intellectual horsepower of these people, and the fact that I was several years younger than most of them, I felt silly being shown such deference.

I conducted my class while sitting on the desk in front of the students, or walking up and down the aisles drilling them individually to repeat a phrase in a sort of “call and response” pattern. Many seemed aghast that I adopted a conversational tone instead of standing behind a podium and lecturing. I could tell it made them squirm, but within a week, I managed to communicate to them that my behavior was something they could expect to encounter at western universities and they would need to be open-minded about it. To their credit, they were usually successful at putting aside their preconceived notions and made the effort to learn in this manner.

Because in China the work unit made so many life decisions for them, the students were concerned about how to accomplish such tasks as signing a lease, obtaining health insurance, getting a phone, or buying food and furniture. The sheer number of tasks for which they would be responsible was intimidating to some. The idea that their western universities wouldn’t supply housing had some terrified; others were puzzled that grain was not rationed, and many were incredulous to find out that if they didn’t purchase health insurance, the cost of medical care could bankrupt them. The most interesting cultural barrier we encountered was when one of the students decided not to go abroad because he could not be sure he’d be given time for an afternoon nap. In 1981, this two-hour siesta was guaranteed by the Chinese constitution, and people took it very seriously.

Many of the older students, having experienced radical swings in government policy—and looking to finish their careers without incident—were afraid to appear too friendly with foreigners. They would participate adequately in class, but they avoided non-official contact with us. A few stopped by our apartment or offices on occasion, but only after receiving official permission. The bravest in the class eventually sought us out on the street, or stopped by our home to practice their English. They would show up with their best friends, those they could trust with the knowledge that they were socializing with foreigners. Ironically, the students who seemed most fearless about socializing with us were those who had lost family members, or whose college educations had been derailed as a result of the Cultural Revolution. It was as if the worst had already happened, and whatever discipline might be dished out to them couldn’t be all that bad.

It became apparent after a few class sessions that our students knew each other very well, almost like family. Being part of the same work unit, most had been neighbors for many years. The younger students’ respect for their elders was clear, and the older ones showed an almost parental concern for the younger ones. After their initial stiffness subsided, their comfort with each other was obvious. Gentle, affectionate teasing became commonplace in the classroom.

“Henry can’t talk right because he’s from Hanzhong. People from Hanzhong have short tongues.”

“Walter looks like an American Indian.”

“Mary gets to see all the good movies [Star Wars had come out two years earlier] because she’s a Party member.”

Giggles ensued, even from the older, more dignified students.

As their nervousness diminished, my job became easier. One of my students, Andrew, was a diminutive man with a pinched face: sharp little nose, thin lips, and tiny, intense eyes. He’d been very reluctant to speak in class, to the point where it almost hurt me to call on him. But one day, equipped with an outline, he told the whole class about his home province, something he’d probably already done many times in Chinese.

“I am from Gansu Province. It is very dry in Gansu. The wind blows from desert. Not so many people live there.” He spoke hesitantly—but he spoke!

I left the classroom that day feeling like I’d really done some good. Gauss and I walked out of the building together, and the sun was shining—actually casting shadows—for the first time since we’d arrived. I looked across the weedy lot to the next classroom building and, gray and shabby as it was, I began to feel at home. For the first time I felt that yes, I did belong in this place.

I thought of how weird everything in the United States would seem when I got back: classrooms and hallways brightly lit, clean and orderly, with polished floors; antiseptic bathrooms with gleaming white fixtures; manicured lawns between buildings.

As we walked through the campus back to our apartment, the smell of roses filled the air. We stopped in at the Foreign Affairs Office where David Liu gave us the booklets that would allow us to use RMB in the Friendship Store. Knowing that the next day, I would have a bicycle—I would be free—made me happy. I forgave the dirt and the weeds for a minute and almost forgave Hao Keqi for being a snake.

Ping Pong Secretary

Our students enjoy a lighthearted moment in our dreary classroom

Finally, almost two weeks after our arrival, we were shown to the building where our classrooms and offices would be. It was somber and gray, with naked concrete floors. We climbed three flights of unlit, concrete steps, past a malodorous bathroom to the top floor. Old-fashioned two-person wooden desks finished with streaked reddish-brown stain were crammed into two classrooms. A couple of fluorescent tubes hung from the ceiling, but much of the time, the electricity was off. Each room had a large wall of dusty, broken windows that provided enough light for most activities, although reading must have been difficult for the older students.

Gauss and I were assigned a secretary named Xiao Hu, but she could only type using the hunt-and-peck method, and was unable to read English. If we wanted her to type something, we had to submit a printed article from a book or magazine, or print it by hand in block letters. This little girl—she couldn’t have been a day over 18—painstakingly matched up, letter by letter, the printed or handwritten copy with the keys on the typewriter, pressing the key with one finger and keeping her place in the text with the other hand. If she got distracted and the place keeping finger happened to stray, she resumed typing from a new spot on the page, leaving a gap in the text that rendered it unreadable. This happened the first time we gave her an assignment, much to the confusion of our students. It was at once infuriating and hilarious.

A single paragraph could take her an hour, assuming she stayed on task. But most of the time she could be found in the hallway playing ping pong with another young woman, also on the payroll, whom we referred to privately as Xiao Hu’s assistant. A couple of days into the semester we gave Xiao Hu a paragraph to type at the beginning of a two-hour class period, figuring that she would be done about the time we finished teaching. But minutes after the starting bell rang, we heard the plink-plink-plink of the ping pong ball and the giggles as she and her friend attempted to best each other just outside our classroom doors.

If there was one thing China had in abundance, it was people, and the government guarantee of employment meant that lots of them were doing jobs that really didn’t need to be done.

The office technology was mid-sixties: a few manual typewriters, carbon paper, and hand-cranked mimeograph and ditto machines. Although there was a single photocopy machine on campus, access was strictly controlled and we were not on the list of those with privileges. Gauss and I discovered that there were almost no English study materials, we would have to produce our own. This meant composing the materials or choosing a passage from literature or a magazine, typing it on mimeograph forms, and then running copies on the ancient duplicating machine in the English department office several blocks away from where we taught.

Since our secretary had no secretarial skills, we had two jobs. Xiao Hu did not appear to be bothered by the fact that she had been assigned to a post for which she was completely unqualified. Instead, she showed up dutifully, played ping pong enthusiastically, knocked off early, and collected a salary.

We administered a written test and then conducted oral interviews with our students. The written test was hard for most of them, and a few were completely lost when we slowly posed simple questions in English (e.g. “What is your name?” “What is your favorite food?”) Although they had studied some English before, it was through grammar lessons and the translation of written material; many had not actually heard the language being spoken. Even those who could understand were hesitant to speak, sometimes because they were nervous about addressing the teacher in a conversational tone.

Two of the students stood out. One older fellow, more fluent than the rest, seemed to be a natural leader. He told us in imperfect, but intelligible English that he was the “class monitor.” In my mind a monitor was a brown-nosing teacher’s pet who wielded power by doling out potty privileges and eraser-beating duties. I wanted to chuckle when I heard the quaint term applied to this dignified gentleman in a university class, but kept my amusement in check. The man’s name was Zhou Longbao, and because of his given name, his leonine features, and his regal bearing, we gave him the English name “Leonard.”

The other, about ten years younger than Leonard, was lively and unafraid. He plunged ahead, energetically talking to us in spite of lacking many of the necessary words. Gauss and I took an instant liking to him. He told us his name was Li Yongpeng, and he asked us to translate it directly into English. Working together on the characters he and Gauss determined that his name literally meant “Eternal Phoenix” Li. We had to tell him that such a name would elicit snickers abroad, but I assured him that I would find a meaningful name for him. I asked him what he liked to do. Like my brother, he had acted in amateur theater, so I gave him my brother’s name, “Aaron.”

We divided the fifty students based on their fluency. Since Gauss knew more Chinese, he would take the less accomplished group and provide some translations in a pinch. After a couple more days spent making a course plan and writing some lessons, we began to teach.

The students were a varied bunch of University personnel ranging from graduate students about our age, late 20s, to senior faculty members. The youngest had just completed bachelor’s degrees, the first students since the Cultural Revolution to get an uninterrupted college education. College campuses had been closed for years, so some in their mid-thirties—like Aaron—were returning to resume their educations. Although some had quietly continued to study on their own, they did not have formal degrees. Other class members, like Leonard, old enough to be our parents, had learned Russian and spent time in the Soviet Union in the 1950s.

The Cultural Revolution years were especially hard on academics. The death of Mao five years before our arrival set in motion events that bettered their situation and began to release China from its isolation. The new leaders in Beijing knew that it was time to catch up with the rest of the world in trade and technology. No longer reviled as “stinking intellectuals,” our students were being called upon to be their country’s eyes and ears to the outside. The government planned to send them to universities throughout the United States, Canada, Australia, and Europe to get advanced degrees or work as research fellows.

On one hand, to be chosen for study abroad was an enormous honor, and potentially valuable to each student personally. The government stipend was about $450 a month, which at the time would barely cover room and board near any American campus. To the Chinese, who earned an average of $30 a month, it was an almost unimaginable sum. By living frugally, many were able to save money during their stints overseas. In addition, the knowledge and experience they would gain could advance their careers once they returned home.

On the other hand, the assignment meant two years away from loved ones, as family members could not accompany them. There were probably two reasons for this policy: it was cheaper to send only one person, and family back in China was a good guarantee that the visiting scholar would return to the motherland, preventing a brain drain.