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.

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