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.