Downtown

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.

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One thought on “Downtown

  1. Pingback: China’s Once-Hot Economy Is Turning Cold – NYTimes.com « Ye Olde Soapbox

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