Free For All

August, 1981

Gauss’s status as a Foreign Expert qualified us for a three-day tour of Guangzhou. Although we were becoming weary of traveling, the stopover would help us adjust to this new environment.

On the flight to Asia, I had written in my diary: While I understand very keenly that I am leaving my family, my friends, my possessions, and my home, I have trouble imagining the life I will be going to. Europe I can picture in my mind. China, I cannot.

Each morning, we were met at the front door of the hotel by a little black car that looked like a cross between a ’57 Chevy and an old Volvo sedan. The seats were covered in woven rattan and sheer black polyester curtains hung in the windows. The representative from Jiaotong University and a sprightly young male tour guide named Yang always accompanied us. Counting the driver, the little car was always packed.

Driving was a free for all, with motorized vehicles at the top of the pecking order. The only consistent rule was to swerve to the right if things got really bad. Passing was done whether there was room or not, accomplished by everybody squeezing a bit and driving three abreast—or not accomplished when everyone slammed on the brakes a few feet before the front bumpers made contact.

We were taken to scenic waterfalls and paper-cutting factories, then a porcelain factory where, despite the diligent handwork each piece received, the finished products came out looking kitschy and garish. We were clearly on China’s new tourist circuit: at the beginning of each tour was a tea room, at the end, a trinket store.

The factory tours wore thin. I found them less interesting than simply walking down the street, watching people go about their daily business in ingenious, low-tech fashion: making chalkboards by applying black paint to plywood; collecting bottles for recycling in baskets on the back of a bike; constructing ladders of bamboo. I looked forward to settling down in Xi’an where I would be a teacher, not a tourist.

Painting a Blackboard, Guangzhou

Recycling bottles by bicycle, Guangzhou

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Hong Kong

Hong Kong, 1981

July, 1981

Direct flights from the U.S. to Mainland China were still scarce, so like most travelers to China, we entered through Hong Kong. Descending to Kai Tak airport, I couldn’t imagine how we could land. Mountains loomed up before us; we would have to turn or we’d be squashed like bugs on a windshield. The plane banked hard, and as I looked down it seemed that the wing would almost clip the roof of one of the buildings. We were close enough for me to see the laundry hanging on the balconies. A minute later, we were skimming over the water with no runway in sight, mere feet above the surface. Only when the wheels bounced onto the tarmac were we certain that we made contact with the narrow runway that extended out into the bay.

The plane slowed to a stop and the door opened. A blast of hot, sticky air whooshed into the cabin and even though I’d changed into a light cotton dress en route, I was immediately bathed in sweat. We walked, squinting, into the intense midday sunlight, across the black pavement that radiated heat, towards the terminal where double doors slid open to admit us.

Hong Kong was very western in some ways: English double-decker buses plied the streets, and all kinds of products were available: Revlon and Estee Lauder cosmetics, Goody Hair barrettes, Burger King and McDonalds, loads of stereos, cameras and watches, and Kodak, Kodak, Kodak. The place pulsed with activity: shopping, hustle, construction projects, traffic, congestion, pollution, noise.

Young people were fashionably dressed in the latest western styles: Levis and tube tops, cowboy boots and high-heeled Gucci shoes. But most of the middle-aged and elderly people looked worn down and bent, dressed in baggy pants and tired cotton shirts, shuffling around in black cotton slippers.

Everywhere we went, there were sweating, pressing crowds of toothless old men, skinny, boisterous children, chic young women and dudes with sunglasses. I smelled perspiration and cigarettes and felt damp flesh sliding across my own as I herded my way onto a ferry or across the street. In the midst of the pressure, I thought about the miles of uninterrupted cornfields at home, the bright blue sky and the brisk prairie wind. I dreamt about cracking lightning and torrents of rain that would sweep the air clean. Part of me was looking forward to the more leisurely pace of life in the mainland.