Across Time and Space

One of our students poses with a computer built by Jiaotong University in the only air-conditioned room on campus. © 1982, Patti Isaacs.

Because of our isolation in China, letter-writing had been a life saver since early in our stay. The arrival of the mail at the foreigner’s hotel was a highlight of each day. Lao Zhang would bring it up to our apartment with a smile—he could count on finding us in a good mood.

Our favorite correspondence came from my childhood friend Jane and her husband, Dave. One of their first letters included newspaper clippings like “How to Spot a Case of Creeping Conservatism” and the weekly synopses for “One Life to Live” and “The Guiding Light“. Even though we didn’t follow these soap operas while we were living in Minnesota, reading about them made us guffaw. Letters from home let us laugh without effort or explanation.

Most news from the outside world was filtered through Chinese censors, and was slow to arrive. The official Xinhua news agency published an English-language newspaper, China Daily, a sort of black-and-white version of the happy-peasant “New China” magazine we’d read back home. We treated it with skepticism. English-language television programming rarely made it to the Shaanxi hinterland. We could listen to the Voice of America on shortwave radio, but since it was the official propaganda arm of the U.S. government, we were suspicious of it, too. The most reliable source of outside news was the BBC World Service, whose signal faded in and out. For the most part, we felt insulated from the news of the world “out there” as if we were deep inside a high-security facility, hearing only what our keepers wanted us to hear.

In spite of feeling cut off, we wouldn’t even consider a phone call home unless there was an emergency. We’d heard that long-distance telephone calls from China had to be scheduled well in advance, could only be made from the central post office downtown, and were quite expensive: in the neighborhood of $75 for a three-minute call, half of my monthly salary. Even local phone service was spotty enough that we found ourselves biking or walking to someone’s home or office to give them a message.

Letters we sent to my parents began to follow a formula that I likened to a newspaper: first, the front page news (where we are), then a feature story (what we saw), then some amusements (usually my take on some behavior that puzzled me) followed by the business section (in which I asked Mom to assemble a package of supplies for me). Feminine hygiene products and toiletries topped the list. I hadn’t seen tampons or hair conditioner, and didn’t expect to find them anywhere. The store sold toothpaste but since it appeared to contain sugar I was reluctant to bathe my teeth in it before bedtime.

Gauss’ globe-trotting parents lived in South Africa while we were in China. The two countries didn’t have diplomatic relations, so we couldn’t send mail directly to each other. Instead, we added our letters to them to envelopes addressed to my parents in the States. My mom reposted them from Minnesota. It took about a week for our letters to reach the States, another week to get to South Africa, and another two weeks for the return trip, so a month would elapse before we got Aldo and Luisa’s reaction to the news we sent.

The lack of technology made us feel as if we’d traveled across time as well as distance. Offices on campus felt like American secretarial pools from the 1950s. One of our students proudly showed us a refrigerator-sized computer built by university personnel. Data was stored on perforated paper tape, and the takeup reel for the tape had been broken. A young woman was paid to sit on a chair next to the machine and manually wind it onto the reel. The pride and joy of the department was a Tandy personal computer, housed in the only air-conditioned room on campus. Two decades later, when I returned to campus and spoke with the university president, I learned that as a graduate student in 1981, he had been the operator of this rare machine!

Quiet City

August, 1981

I was surprised as the plane began to descend. I saw no cues that we were anywhere near a city: no street lights in sight, no ribbon highways of white headlights and red tail lights, no neon signs. Shouldn’t we be in the city of Xi’an? What was going on? Only when we got within feet of the ground could I see a string of lights casting a weak glow on the runway. It was 9:00 p.m.

After landing, we walked out into cool, misty air and then into a building that made me think of a small-town armory, bare and lit with naked fluorescent tubes. Like other “nice” places we’d seen during our first week in China, the airport looked like a worn out version of a pretty place, with high ceilings, fancy moldings and unused decorative light fixtures. It was furnished with crinkly brown vinyl sofas. Papers, apple cores and other refuse littered the floor. Chairman Mao smiled down from a prominent place. We had finally arrived in the city that would be our home for the next year.

A posse consisting of the university president, a driver, and two handlers from the Foreign Affairs office had driven out in a single car to greet us. Counting Gauss and me—and the handler dispatched to Guangzhou to fetch us—we now totaled seven. Incredibly, since we were going to one of China’s leading technical universities, nobody had considered the logistics. There was not enough room in the vehicle to take us back to the campus. At this time of night, and this far from town, there were no taxis. We would have to make the trip in installments.

Gauss and I waited for another hour in the shabby terminal with half our luggage until the car returned with only a driver and one handler. We had left Minnesota weeks ago, driven across the United States, flown across the Pacific, and spent several days in Hong Kong and Guangzhou. The day’s flight from southern China had been delayed several hours, and by now we were dead tired and ready to finally be getting to our new “home.”

Crammed in the thickly upholstered back seat of a tubby little car reminiscent of a relic from my childhood, we bumped down the pitch-black streets with the headlights off. The driver periodically flashed them on for a second or two as if to get a quick mental picture of what was ahead, and then shut them off again. We were too tired to ask why, and in any event, we had seen much that puzzled us. There were more questions to ask than there was time to answer them. We seemed to be driving through a ghost town: the roads were devoid of pedestrians and any other vehicles, and we were unable to see beyond the ten-foot walls that lined the boulevard. I was too puzzled to find this alarming or worrisome. Instead, I gulped in snatches of visual information when I could.

Occasionally in the distance, I saw a single bulb casting a circle of light in the middle of an intersection, the adjacent streets swallowed by the darkness. Our car took several turns, the last one through an opening in one of the high walls. Finally I could see low brick apartment buildings, a few windows glowing dimly. The car slowed to a crawl and pulled up onto the dirt behind one of them.