Transformation

Washing a sweater in an enamel basin in our kitchen. I was too shocked to take pictures the night we arrived. Gauss took this photo a few weeks later. Notice the big enameled Thermoses. They were everywhere.

Washing a sweater in an enamel basin in our kitchen. I was too shocked to take pictures the night we arrived. Gauss took this photo a few weeks later. Notice the big enameled Thermoses. They were everywhere.

I catch myself bringing up my China experiences a lot—probably to the chagrin of my conversation partners.

Am I wallowing in the glory of my youth when I dared to embark on a year-long adventure? No, I realize that it comes up so often because it was a transformative experience. It occurred early in my life, and I have looked the world through the lens of that experience ever since.

I’m a baby boomer. Life in the 1960s and 70s for white, middle-class kids was pretty sweet. Most of us could protest and nothing bad would happen to us. We could swear at our parents and we knew they would still love us. We could bike to a protest on campus and when we came back, we could sleep in our cozy beds. It was easy to feel like we had the world by the tail.

A hundred years earlier even royalty did not enjoy the comforts we had in our middle class suburban ramblers: central heat in the winter; perhaps air conditioning on hot summer days; a stove that lit with the turn of a dial; a toilet that flushed; hot and cold running water any time of day; a refrigerator to keep our food from spoiling; a washing machine; a car to take us wherever we liked.

China in 1981 transformed me because suddenly I did not have those things. China was agrarian and low-tech. The pace of life was slow. Nor, for much of the time, could I socialize unfettered with my Chinese friends. The Cultural Revolution was still visible in the rearview mirror.  Handlers watched us. Neighbors peeked out the window to note who was coming to visit.

That year was uncomfortable, as periods of change are. At times I was furious, but I survived and sometimes even thrived. I learned to be happy cooking dumplings or walking through neighborhoods where people went about their daily business. A frank conversation with a friend away from listening ears and prying eyes was something to write about. A piece of chocolate was a rare treat.

When I got back to my home in the States, turning on the hot water tap, or pushing a button on the washing machine, was like magic. Thirty years later I still think about it when I brush my teeth or do the laundry.

Empathy and appreciation are in all of us. The pace of modern life often drowns them out, but stripped of convenience and clamor for that year in China, I rediscovered them.

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