White Rabbit

August, 1981

On our last morning in Guangzhou, the car took us to the airport for a noon flight that the CTS personnel had booked for us. The Jiaotong University representative would be accompanying Gauss and me to Xi’an; Yang was to make sure all three of us got on the right plane.

The terminal, a single open room with a barrel ceiling and full-length windows that looked out onto the tarmac, was a tropical-latitude version of the World War II-era airport that served my home town of Minneapolis until the early 1960s. It was not air-conditioned. Fans turning lazily overhead stirred up the sticky air; benches were cool woven rattan.

At the ticket counter, we learned that our flight had been delayed for at least four hours. Most passengers seemed well-prepared for the lengthy wait: surrounded by a hodgepodge of parcels and luggage, they would periodically root through to extract an orange or some cookies for a snack, alternately snoozing, visiting, and smoking. Men and women alike were comfortably dressed in light cotton shirts and dark cotton pants, nearly indistinguishable from the peasants we’d seen tending the rice paddies. Chinese society was so homogeneous that even those rare individuals in a position to fly on airplanes dared not stand out by dressing ostentatiously. A few flight attendants who worked the international routes looked startlingly chic by comparison, slim young women in narrow, knee-length gray skirts and fitted blouses.

There was no restaurant in the terminal. Our stomachs growled, and Yang, knowing he had time to spare, left the building to find some food. He returned half an hour later with lychees, oranges, and crackers.

Finally, at 4:30 in the afternoon, we were directed out onto the blistering runway and up the stairs into an ancient Russian Ilyushin 18 propeller plane. The aisle was flanked by two rows of sagging seats covered in white sheeting that refused to assume the full-upright position. Some had seat belts made of army-green webbing and leather, but most people didn’t use them.

The cabin looked like someone’s messy living room, stuff piled every which way in the aisles and on the unused seats: big cardboard boxes, net bags filled with pineapples, grapefruits, and stinky durians; rattan cages of chickens; mysterious bundles covered in white sheeting. The percentage of the Chinese population in a position to fly was small indeed—high-ranking civil servants and academicians, perhaps. There was little economic stratification, and few goods were transported from one part of the country to another. Anyone lucky enough to be traveling from the wealthy south to the isolated north used the flight as an opportunity to stock up on hard-to-find items.

Three-fourths of the plane’s fifty or so occupants smoked cigarettes, which they did not extinguish for takeoff. The air was blue with smoke. On this domestic flight, our cabin attendants were young ruddy-faced women wearing baggy white shirts and even baggier navy trousers. One of them, a sturdy, pigtailed girl, sealed the door with a little grunt trapping in the stifling air and picked her way around the parcels in the aisle to her seat the back of the cabin. The plane taxied to the end of the runway and then the pilot started to rev up the engines, causing the aircraft to shudder until I thought the wings might shake loose. Then the brake was released, but instead of shooting down the runway as I’d expected, the plane slowly started to amble down the tarmac: putt…putt…putt. I wondered if we’d really get airborne. After what seemed like too long to have any runway remaining, we finally left the ground, ascending at a painfully shallow angle.

Ilyushin II-18. Original image at http://www.vectorsite.net/avil18.html

The plane had little round windows with free-hanging aqua blue curtains that swayed as we banked. Occasionally a precariously placed parcel would fall, eliciting a screech from one of the chickens and further blocking the aisle.

There were no in-flight facilities for serving food; instead, we made an unscheduled meal stop in Changsha, the birthplace of Chairman Mao, where everybody deplaned and walked across the runway and a street to a dining room to eat. This was the most basic place we’d eaten in yet: battered vinyl cloths on the tables, a stack of badly chipped bowls and well-worn chopsticks, rice with pebbles in it, some kind of stir-fried mystery food with chunks of fat and bones, and people spitting those pebbles and bones on the floor everywhere.

After about 45 minutes, we were herded back aboard to resume our flight to Xi’an. Once airborne again, the cabin attendants elbowed their way through the junk in the aisles, passing out sticky White Rabbit brand taffy and damp wash cloths. Unlike commercial flights back home, we never flew higher than about 8,000 feet. We watched the landscape beneath us until the light faded altogether.

Getting to Guangzhou

Guangzhou, 1981, ninety miles and decades removed from the nearby British colony.

August, 1981

In 1981, the world was still gripped by the Cold War and divided into two spheres, Free and Communist. China and the United States had established diplomatic relations only two years earlier, and there were few commercial flights between the two countries. To get there, my husband, Gauss, and I first flew to Hong Kong and then took the train through densely forested hills of the colony’s New Territories toward the People’s Republic.

We arrived at the shaved-off strip of countryside that marked the barrier between the “free” world I had grown up in and totalitarian China. An enormous wall topped with razor wire, punctuated by guard towers at every peak, marked the frontier. Our train slowed to a crawl and then stopped for several minutes as armed guards walked the aisles. I could almost hear the Bamboo Curtain part and then swoosh shut behind us. I felt very far from home, enclosed within a foreign place in a way I had never experienced before.

As we pulled away from the border, the desolate no-man’s land gave way to rice paddies and tree-cloaked hills, and then, surprisingly, to a patch of naked brown earth where a cluster of high-rise buildings was being constructed. This was the nascent Special Economic Zone of Shenzhen, designed as a portal for China’s planned commerce with the rest of the world. In the last couple of years, at the very highest level of Chinese government, a policy shift had taken place. Deng Xiaoping, Mao’s successor, had given his blessing to the development of a market economy, and Shenzhen was one of the early signs of that shift.

Then our train went over another hill, and all signs of modern development disappeared. We were back among livestock and barefoot peasants. The countryside was beautiful and pastoral in a way that was markedly unlike rural America: the fields, all hand-tended, were beautifully groomed and painstakingly terraced. Every square foot, every odd-shaped or hard-to-reach spot, was used. Rice grew in lush green carpets, and each field was outlined with a raised dike like trapunto quilting on a green velvet jacket. Banana trees sprouted around the perimeter.

The fields were dotted with people in wide straw hats wearing light cotton shirts and dark pants rolled at the knees. Children rode water buffalo. Clouds suddenly materialized and rain poured down, soaking farm and farmer; then skidded away as quickly as they came. The sun returned, and the vivid green landscape glowed again, shimmering in the moist tropical heat. Small villages cropped up here and there, some brick with red tile roofs, some made of rattan and covered with thatched straw.

An hour or so later, when out train pulled into Guangzhou (Canton), we were met by a helpful young China Travel Service (CTS) employee whose job it was to greet Foreign Experts. She was supposed to protect us from “bad elements”—and also to make certain that we, and any dangerous ideas we might have, remained insulated from the average Chinese. Nothing was left to chance.

She whisked us through the various checkpoints and to a waiting van. It was not empty. Inside were various helpers, among them a representative sent hundreds of miles from our University who would accompany us to the city of Xi’an where we would live for the next academic year. There was barely enough room for us and our luggage, but luckily the ride was short: just a few kilometers to a hotel where we would stay for a couple of days while we toured the city, courtesy of the Chinese government. Americans were a novelty, and our arrival was a big deal.