In America, it’s July 4. In China, October 1 is the national holiday, and the beginning of a one-week holiday in honor of the anniversary of founding of the People’s Republic in 1949. Here’s how Gauss and I celebrated National Day in Xi’an in 1981, when the Republic celebrated its 32nd birthday.
With no work the long week stretched before us. We felt bored and homesick. Adding to my funk was a nasty cold verging on bronchitis. The evenings were turning colder, and charcoal burners were firing up all over the city. The air was becoming thick and sooty.
The daughters of one of the scholars Gauss had helped back in Minnesota knocked on our door that morning.
“Please come with us to visit the park across the street,” the older daughter said.
Like museums in the U.S. and Europe, parks in China were often walled off with an entry gate and ticket sellers. How different this was from home, where you could wander into the park to eat your bag lunch, throw a Frisbee, or take a stroll after dinner, any old day.
Most days the park was nearly deserted but today, the place was as packed as the Minnesota State Fair on a warm Saturday. It was hard to move, and curious people pressed in on us, eager to get a glimpse of the foreigners.
“It’s free because of National Day,” one of the girls told us.
Normally it cost 4 fen (2 cents) to get in.
At home, we would go out of town for a holiday, but for Chinese people, going to the park was a twice- or thrice-yearly treat.
The park had walking paths, a willow-shaded pond with rowboats to rent, and a picturesque crooked bridge where a professional photographer had set up a booth. Few people had their own cameras, so for a yuan he would take your picture, and a week later you could pick up a black and white print.
And on this day, they could enjoy the added novelty of two tall foreigners with a camera. Whenever we stopped to take photos with the girls, a crowd gathered. We found ourselves darting from one place to another to find a spot where we wouldn’t be followed and stared at, but such a place simply didn’t exist. It was an interesting experience, but hardly a relaxing one, and after about an hour we headed back to our apartment.