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.

What makes us patriotic?

I was delighted when one afternoon, Lao Wang, the man who’d accompanied us to Dr. Jiang’s gut-busting feast, stopped by. After making light, friendly conversation for an hour or so, we ended up talking about patriotism in our two countries. For the Chinese, he told me, patriotism comes from deep roots—from knowing that their ancestors had been on the land for centuries.

“I love my country because my father was Chinese, and his father was Chinese, and so on and so on, for many generations,” he said. “How can Americans feel patriotic? Your country has only existed for 200 years.”

I’d thought about this issue before, and it occurred to me that I’d seen the answer in a silly movie called “Stripes,” in which Bill Murray, as the leader of a ragtag crew of misfit soldiers, delivers a pep talk. The point, I told Lao Wang, is that Americans are a bunch of rebels and seekers from all over the world, people who didn’t have anything left to live for in their own countries and figured “what the hell, let’s try that place on the other side of the ocean.” The one thing that Americans have in common is that they’re the mutts of the world, and as silly as it seems, that’s one of the things that holds us together.

I went on to tell him about our primary elections and the political caucus system; how the parties choose presidential candidates.

“By the time the national elections come around, there really isn’t that much choice,” I lamented. “It seems like the insiders in both parties have the most influence.”

“At least you can vote,” Wang reminded me.

During our year the topic of Nixon and Watergate came up repeatedly, and Lao Wang asked me about it. When I told him about the break-in and how Nixon lied, Lao Wang said the Democrats were probably doing the same things as the Republicans, but they just didn’t get caught.

To most of our Chinese friends, Nixon was a hero for bringing our two countries together, and they were puzzled that we’d tossed him out for a little burglary. They chuckled at our naiveté in expecting honesty from our politicians. Accustomed to centuries of top-down government and cronyism, they set the bar pretty low for their leaders, hardly expecting squeaky-clean behavior.

Many years later, I voiced this idea to a visiting scholar with whom I became friends.

“I feel like my Chinese friends think we Americans are silly and naive for expecting our leaders to behave ethically,” I told him. “Be honest, do you think we are just fooling ourselves?”

“Maybe you are,” he replied, “But I wish we would hope for that.”

Maybe that is part of being a patriot in America.

• • •

Lao Wang and I talked about wages and taxes. He was very interested when I told him about the “bell curve” of the tax burden in America, where the middle class often pays the highest tax in terms of percentage of take-home pay. He was surprised.

“America is a democracy,” he ventured, “so why do you allow that to happen?”

He was careful talking about China and the Communist party just a bit. Just after we arrived in China, Gauss and I had met the manager of radio factory, a Mr. Deng, who had been a radio operator for the Guomingdang (the Nationalist party) during the Revolution. Being on the wrong side at the end of the war, he suffered.

“I think Mr. Deng was very resilient to come back from that kind of experience,” I told Lao Wang “And he manages a factory, so he has a good job.”

“He’s not really the manager,” Lao Wang replied, “If he isn’t a party member, he must have someone above him.”

When I thought about it Lao Wang was right. I remembered that Mr. Deng told us his title was “deputy” director. Indeed, someone else was calling the shots.

“Maybe he has some talent so they need him to run the factory, but a man like that always has someone watching him,” Lao Wang said.

“We must all be resilient in China. The wind blows one way and another. If we don’t like it, where can we go? In the United States, if you don’t like your situation, you can change jobs, move, even leave the country if you wish. We can’t do that. Here, our job is forever. If we don’t like it, we live with it anyway.”

We were only five years removed from the insanity of the Cultural Revolution when we had that conversation. Nobody knew for sure how long a policy would continue to be “correct” so even enthusiastic adherence to the current party line could be cause for persecution later. Just four or five years before Gauss and I arrived in China, simply talking with foreigners would have been cause for criticism. Understandably, many people felt safer steering clear of politics and history as topics of conversation, and of foreigners as conversation partners. So I was doubly grateful to Lao Wang for his friendliness and candor.

Brilliant Cultural Revolution Photos

A Cultural Revolution era poster

My photographer cousin, Steve Penland, alerted me to a New York Times book review of images taken by a Chinese newspaper photographer during the Cultural Revolution in the city of Harbin in the northeastern part of the country. Photographer Li Zhensheng knew he was witnessing history and had the courage and foresight to stash negatives under the floorboards in his house. Here’s a link to his publisher’s website.

http://red-colornewssoldier.com/index.html

The Cultural Revolution, characterized by violent swings in policy and violence against those perceived to be “counterrevolutionaries,” ended several years before Gauss and I went to China in 1981, but the damage it did—physical and psychological—remained. Fear of standing out from the crowd, and thus risking criticism or punishment, crippled policymakers and ordinary citizens. History’s impact shaped the choices our friends and colleagues made and directly affected the trajectory of their lives.