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