Give and Take

Mao Tai, China’s famous sorghum liquor or “bai jiu,” is a standard at banquets. It tastes like gasoline and I think its primary purpose is to get you as drunk as possible in the shortest period of time. Photo © 2012 Patti Isaacs.

One day, Lao Zhang delivered a note to our door inviting us to dinner the next evening at the home of Dr. Hu, a Jiaotong University professor who attended college in the States. Dr. Hu had returned to China to help rebuild it after the Communist revolution, an act of patriotism for which he was awarded no medals. In the small-town atmosphere of the campus, he knew that there were Americans living next door. He wanted to meet us.

Gauss and I were excited to be doing something different for dinner. Several times, we asked our students for restaurant recommendations, but they insisted that it just wasn’t worth it to eat out. While we got along with the other foreign teachers, after three meals a day together, we weren’t eager to pal around after hours. And while they participated enthusiastically in the lessons, our students seemed to avoid contact with us outside the classroom.

Lao Wang, a middle-aged man who taught in the English department, showed up to walk us to Dr. Hu’s apartment. Lao Wang had been educated at a missionary school in Shanghai before the revolution, and as a result, his English was excellent, better than any of the other Chinese. However, his childhood attendance at that church-run school was a black mark on his record, and kept him from being promoted. Others with appropriate political connections ran the department.

The Hus lived in the building next to ours. Their apartment was identical to ours in layout, although darker and more cluttered. We were astounded to see what Dr. Hu’s wife had prepared in her simple kitchen, although it appeared that she had help. His college-age daughter and elderly lady, whom we assumed to be an aunt or grandmother (no introductions were made), brought in some of the food. There were two other guests: an American physics professor and his wife here on a two-week visit. Counting Lao Wang, our host, Gauss and me, there were six people to eat the mountain of food that was offered.

We lost track of the number and variety of dishes—baked whole chicken, chicken with onions, deep-fried pork, eel, jellyfish, anchovies, beans and lotus root, steamed carp, steamed buns filled with walnuts and sugar, more steamed buns filled with sweet bean paste, won ton soup, shao my (little pasta cups filled with minced meat and vegetables), “Eight Treasure” rice pudding studded with candied fruits and nuts—to list perhaps a quarter of the offerings. Sweet grape wine and tiny cups of potent bai jiu accompanied the food.

At first I ate heartily, but I became more selective as dish after dish was brought to the table. After an hour or so I was painfully full, but it kept coming. Gauss and I slowed down to the point where we took only one bite of each new dish, then ground to a halt, physically unable to cram another ounce into ourselves. We heard our host in the kitchen explaining to his wife that we weren’t just being polite, we simply couldn’t eat more—and her insistence that she bring on more food (Gauss translated.) In the end, some of the dishes she prepared didn’t make it out to the table.

Beyond gut-busting amounts of food, hackneyed sentimentality and elaborate toasts seemed to be the way conviviality was done. As the eating wound down, Dr. Hu proposed toast after toast, downing swigs of bai jiu until he was sweating and losing his ability to speak English. He soldiered on, stumbling through tributes to the friendship between our two countries, the modernization of the Chinese economy, and the bright future of science. Each toast was cornier than the last, and I felt like we had traveled back to the set of a silly, lightweight Hollywood movie from the 1940s. I made a stab at joining in, but felt clumsy. Fortified with a little booze I bumbled lamely through a couple of my own, saying something about making new friends and establishing new ties between our countries. My older companions seemed to forgive my lack of experience—maybe they were as incapacitated as I was by the excessive amounts of food and drink.

Later we would understand that in treating us to this impressive feast, Dr. Hu was laying the groundwork for a relationship based on the exchange of favors that he hoped to have with us. Such mutually beneficial alliances were more than commonplace in China; people depended upon connections (guanxi) and mutual back scratching in order to work around chronic shortages and an impossible official bureaucracy. Long before we realized what was happening, Dr. Hu was seeing us as a lifeline for his daughter, a way that she might escape to the outside for the kind of opportunity that had passed him by.

Dr. Hu’s tone shambled into nostalgia about his days in the U.S., to the point where his eyes misted over, and he hinted at the opportunities he had missed—beaten, humiliated, and exiled to the countryside to shovel manure—as China went though years of political upheaval in the sixties and seventies. His voice was heavy with regret about the wasted years that he could never get back.

We waddled back to our apartment at the end of the evening, an undercurrent of sadness and loss simmering just beneath the surface of my tipsy giddiness. As I lay in bed, I thought about big issues like history and fate, and drifted off feeling small, lucky, and sad.

It was a holiday week in honor of the anniversary of the People’s Republic. With little to do and no bikes, time hung heavy on Gauss’s and my shoulders. At this point we hadn’t really gotten to know our students well, and in any event, they were spending the vacation week with their families. We had almost no visitors, except for Miss Hu from next door, now asking us for a letter of recommendation to send to American colleges. We had met her only once, at the spectacular dinner, but she had not spoken that evening.

I found it difficult to think of anything to say about her, so I politely typed a generic “To whom it may concern” letter that mentioned her enthusiasm for speaking English and studying abroad. As I put my signature to the letter, I told her to ask her father to photocopy it so we would not have to type it again, should she need to send additional copies. Xerox machines were tightly controlled and one could not simply pay a nickel to get another print, but as a full professor, he would likely have had the privileges to use one.

She was so steeped in the notion of guanxi that she thought we would be able to secure admission to the University of Minnesota for her.

“I’m sorry,” I explained, “Gauss and I do not have any position of authority within the university. And even if we did, we would not be able influence the admissions department. You will still need to follow the standard application procedure.”

I wrote the address of the admissions office on a piece of paper for her. Her eyes narrowed; I could tell she didn’t believe me.

“I can ask one of my father’s former classmates to do this,” she said. “He is a professor at University of Minnesota.”

“Of course you can talk to him,” I replied, “But things work differently in the U.S. He can give some advice or send another letter of recommendation, but he will not be able to guarantee that you are admitted.”

Her face clouded up and I could see her irritation before she caught herself. She pasted on smile, took the letter and left.

Across Time and Space

One of our students poses with a computer built by Jiaotong University in the only air-conditioned room on campus. © 1982, Patti Isaacs.

Because of our isolation in China, letter-writing had been a life saver since early in our stay. The arrival of the mail at the foreigner’s hotel was a highlight of each day. Lao Zhang would bring it up to our apartment with a smile—he could count on finding us in a good mood.

Our favorite correspondence came from my childhood friend Jane and her husband, Dave. One of their first letters included newspaper clippings like “How to Spot a Case of Creeping Conservatism” and the weekly synopses for “One Life to Live” and “The Guiding Light“. Even though we didn’t follow these soap operas while we were living in Minnesota, reading about them made us guffaw. Letters from home let us laugh without effort or explanation.

Most news from the outside world was filtered through Chinese censors, and was slow to arrive. The official Xinhua news agency published an English-language newspaper, China Daily, a sort of black-and-white version of the happy-peasant “New China” magazine we’d read back home. We treated it with skepticism. English-language television programming rarely made it to the Shaanxi hinterland. We could listen to the Voice of America on shortwave radio, but since it was the official propaganda arm of the U.S. government, we were suspicious of it, too. The most reliable source of outside news was the BBC World Service, whose signal faded in and out. For the most part, we felt insulated from the news of the world “out there” as if we were deep inside a high-security facility, hearing only what our keepers wanted us to hear.

In spite of feeling cut off, we wouldn’t even consider a phone call home unless there was an emergency. We’d heard that long-distance telephone calls from China had to be scheduled well in advance, could only be made from the central post office downtown, and were quite expensive: in the neighborhood of $75 for a three-minute call, half of my monthly salary. Even local phone service was spotty enough that we found ourselves biking or walking to someone’s home or office to give them a message.

Letters we sent to my parents began to follow a formula that I likened to a newspaper: first, the front page news (where we are), then a feature story (what we saw), then some amusements (usually my take on some behavior that puzzled me) followed by the business section (in which I asked Mom to assemble a package of supplies for me). Feminine hygiene products and toiletries topped the list. I hadn’t seen tampons or hair conditioner, and didn’t expect to find them anywhere. The store sold toothpaste but since it appeared to contain sugar I was reluctant to bathe my teeth in it before bedtime.

Gauss’ globe-trotting parents lived in South Africa while we were in China. The two countries didn’t have diplomatic relations, so we couldn’t send mail directly to each other. Instead, we added our letters to them to envelopes addressed to my parents in the States. My mom reposted them from Minnesota. It took about a week for our letters to reach the States, another week to get to South Africa, and another two weeks for the return trip, so a month would elapse before we got Aldo and Luisa’s reaction to the news we sent.

The lack of technology made us feel as if we’d traveled across time as well as distance. Offices on campus felt like American secretarial pools from the 1950s. One of our students proudly showed us a refrigerator-sized computer built by university personnel. Data was stored on perforated paper tape, and the takeup reel for the tape had been broken. A young woman was paid to sit on a chair next to the machine and manually wind it onto the reel. The pride and joy of the department was a Tandy personal computer, housed in the only air-conditioned room on campus. Two decades later, when I returned to campus and spoke with the university president, I learned that as a graduate student in 1981, he had been the operator of this rare machine!