One of the things that limited my first stay in China to one academic year was the intrusiveness of surveillance. In 1981, gatekeepers monitored who entered our neighborhood and who socialized with us. At one point our visitors were required to sign in at the front door to our apartment building. The surveillance had a chilling effect. Our social lives dwindled to nothing for awhile, or we spoke furtively after class to students, agreeing to meet at a neutral location blocks away from campus.
In the last three decades, China has become economically more like us: capitalist, wealthy, consumerist. And we have become more like them: especially since September 11, 2001, government surveillance, usually through monitoring of phone records and emails, has been employed to enhance our “security.” But what’s old is new again.
A recent Splinter News article details the Trump Administration’s Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement (VOICE) hotline, with a stated mission to “provide proactive, timely, adequate, and professional services to victims of crimes committed by removable aliens.” However, the line is used to rat on neighbors and even family members by nosy folks with grievances to settle. Read the full article here:
The Trump administration’s VOICE hotline
Cold War Americans feared that China and its oppressive regime threatened the American way of life. And in China back in 1981, Gauss’s and my movements and contacts were closely watched, often because authorities didn’t want their society “polluted” by Western culture. Everyone’s fears have come true; we are now much more alike than we could have imagined.
We arrived in Xi’an in August, 1981. The weather was overcast nearly every day for our first month there. Without a sunrise and sunset, it was difficult to get oriented; my sense of direction was messed up.
I hadn’t known what to expect, coming to Asia. I’d only been outside North America once, visiting Italy in March, 1981, to meet Gauss’s relatives there. I was fine with staying in no-frills European pensions with a bathroom down the hall, but was completely unprepared for China’s gray concrete architecture and haphazard wiring.
Washing jeans on a washboard in our rough cement tub in our rough cement bathroom.
Our kitchen was a plain cement box with a cement sink and cold running water. Washing in an enameled metal basin. The two giant red Thermoses contain boiled water for drinking.
Gauss in our living room. Painted wood floors. Exposed pipes. BUT…we had radiators, which meant heat from November first until March first, a rare privilege reserved for the foreign teachers. Not visible: the spittoon that came standard with the apartment.
Just this week we got several of my husband Gauss’s slides from our time in China in 1981-82 digitized. Here’s a look back to life in the slow lane.
The first two photos are of our trip from Guangzhou to Xi’an. To read the story behind them, revisit this early post: White Rabbit
Patti in the waiting room of the Guangzhou airport, ready to leave for Xi’an, July 1981. Note rattan furniture (it was HOT) and ashtray. Photo © Gauss Rescigno.
Getting back on the plane at Changsha airport. It was dinnertime and they didn’t serve food in flight, so we landed, everyone got off and walked to a dining room, ate, and got back on. Nobody left the flight or joined the flight at this stop. It was just like the Greyhound bus pulling off the interstate to a Hardee’s to eat. Photo ©Gauss Rescigno.
Writing on the balcony of our apartment at Jiaotong University, August 1981. I’m could be composing teaching materials, writing in my diary, writing a letter home, or correcting someone’s homework. Photo ©Gauss Rescigno.
Lunch break with students at the hot springs at Lintong, one of our early field trips. Left to right: Arthur, Martin, Michael, Patti, Aaron Li. Photo ©Gauss Rescigno.
I’ll be adding more photos as they become available, so check back in a week or two.
China’s notorious smog has made the news again.
I lived through episodes of smog there even in the early 1980s. Back then, individuals did not own cars, but nearly everyone in Xi’an heated and cooked with coal. The greasy pall blanketed the city and invaded our lungs.
The central heating plant at Jiaotong University in Xi’an, 1981. ©1981 Patti Isaacs.
I returned to Xi’an for two months in 2005. People were cooking with natural gas, but coal was still being burned in power plants, and cars were everywhere. The city was shrouded in smog most days. You can read in more detail in this earlier post.
A sunny day in Xi’an, November, 2005. The sun is the faint orange dot just above and to the right of the office building in the background. ©2005 Patti Isaacs.
Everyone was acutely aware of the problem, and looking for answers. “We do not need sunglasses,” said one of my students. Xi’an’s taxis could run on regular gasoline or natural gas. There was never a line at the petrol station, but the cabs would be lined up for blocks waiting to be refueled at the natural gas facility.
About six weeks into my two-month stay, I began to feel desperate to get out, to go someplace where the air was clear, to take a deep breath that didn’t feel bad. I finally got my chance on my return trip home, when I had to change planes and terminals in Los Angeles. I decided to walk instead of taking the shuttle. I stepped outside, looked up at the blue sky, and drew the Los Angeles air deep into my lungs. It seemed so clean.
Every American who thinks that environmental regulations place too much of a burden on industry should be required to spend a few months in China, breathing smog without the chance to escape.
The day before the presidential election, a friend who had voted for Hillary Clinton displayed this photo of the candidate. “You know that’s styled like a Cultural Revolution poster of Chairman Mao,” I commented.
She answered that she’d bought it from the Hillary store. I was surprised. A favorite attack tactic in races like this is to equate Democrats with communism and Republicans with fascism. Yet here was the presidential candidate’s own organization marketing this image of her to the party faithful.
Critics of candidate Trump have Photoshopped images of him styled to look like Hitler. These would never be sold by the candidate’s campaign. In fact, sympathetic websites have ranted about the comparison as unfair and dangerous.
Was the Clinton camp going for irony? Was there a mole in the graphics department who thought s/he could pull one over on her supporters? Were they clueless? Or is America officially over its fear of socialism?
An elderly woman with bound feet on a city sidewalk in Xi’an, 1982. © Patti Isaacs
Just today a friend posted a short video about foot binding on Facebook. Living in interior, rural China in 1981-82, I often saw elderly women with bound feet; the practice continued longer in the country’s interior than in the big coastal cities of China’s south and east.
In an earlier post, I mentioned elderly women with bound feet who nonetheless made the arduous climb to the top of Mt. Huashan not far from Xi’an. It was a challenging climb for me with my youth and big feet. I was doubly impressed by the women, many in their 70s and 80s, who picked their way up 5000 vertical feet on lotus feet.
View the video here:
Scroll’s Facebook video of bound feet
A controversial new theory has arisen about Xi’an’s famous army of terracotta soldiers. I first saw them in 1981, only six years after they were discovered in a farmer’s field east of the city.
New research—and the results of a genetic study—hint that Western explorers may have reached China more than 1,500 years before Marco Polo. Some experts think ancient Greeks may have inspired and helped build China’s famous Terracotta Army.
The BBC reports that the new theory is based on evidence from excavations at the tomb of China’s First Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi, as well as the results of a genetic study. Read the full article here:
Did those who made the terracotta soldiers learn from Greek sculptors?
This makes me a little happy…and a little sad. I’ve loved that Xi’an food has been my little secret. But after Anthony Bourdain discovered Xi’an Famous Foods in New York people are learning about the region’s spicy, tangy cuisine. Here are a couple of shots from restaurants I frequented when I lived in Xi’an, and a link to Business Insider’s profile of the New York chain.
Xi’an Famous Foods gets noticed again
Meats, vegetables, and tofu ready to be skewered and grilled at a sidewalk eatery
“Pants Belt Noodle”—a Xi’an specialty. Often served in the leftover broth from Spicy Fish Head. Sounds weird, tastes amazing!
The instant I saw the landscape in this photo, I thought, “This must be just south of Xi’an.” Sure enough, when I read the full article from www.thisiscolossal.com I discovered that this 1400-year-old gingko tree sits in the courtyard of a Buddhist temple in the Zhongnan range of Shaanxi’s Qinling mountains.
Foothills of the Qinling Mountains south of Xi’an, Shaanxi. ©1981 Patti Isaacs.
In 1981 Gauss and I went with our students to nearby Cuihuashan. It had not been developed as a tourist destination and was a poor but scenic agricultural area.
Rice paddy at the base of Cuihuashan. Photo © Patti Isaacs.
Every bit of arable land was used. Photo ©1981 Patti Isaacs.
The following spring we were able to bike to a nearby monastery, one of the few left intact following the Cultural Revolution. Steve Jackson (far left in the photo below), another American teacher, rode with us. He got a flat tire just south of the city and when we stopped for a quick roadside repair we drew a crowd of onlookers who were quite willing to give advice to the guy fixing the innertube.
Steve Jackson (left) looks on as a roadside repairman fixes his flat tire. Photo ©Patti Isaacs.
Monks spread grain on pavement to dry at the Xing Jiao monastery in the foothills of the Qinling Mountains. Photo © 1982 Patti Isaacs.
Inside the monastery. Photo ©Patti Isaacs
For more gingko tree eye candy, visit the Chinese website where it originally appeared, or go to This Is Colossal for English captions.
©Matt O’Brien/The Washington Post
Lanzhou is Xi’an’s dustier and more remote cousin to the west on the Silk Road.
This article from the Washington Post’s Wonkblog describes the challenges China faces in bringing the country’s economic miracles to the hinterland—and sustaining that growth throughout the country. Author Matt O’Brien discusses the role that insecurity plays in hindering that growth.
In the early 1980s, people were reluctant to innovate, fearing a policy change that might open anyone with ambition to criticism or worse.
In 2005, ambition was no longer a dirty word. China had become the wild west of capitalist expansion. But along with American-style development came American-style insecurity: fear of losing a job, fear of becoming bankrupted by illness, fear of not having enough to live on in one’s old age.
Read the full story here: