What makes us patriotic?

I was delighted when one afternoon, Lao Wang, the man who’d accompanied us to Dr. Jiang’s gut-busting feast, stopped by. After making light, friendly conversation for an hour or so, we ended up talking about patriotism in our two countries. For the Chinese, he told me, patriotism comes from deep roots—from knowing that their ancestors had been on the land for centuries.

“I love my country because my father was Chinese, and his father was Chinese, and so on and so on, for many generations,” he said. “How can Americans feel patriotic? Your country has only existed for 200 years.”

I’d thought about this issue before, and it occurred to me that I’d seen the answer in a silly movie called “Stripes,” in which Bill Murray, as the leader of a ragtag crew of misfit soldiers, delivers a pep talk. The point, I told Lao Wang, is that Americans are a bunch of rebels and seekers from all over the world, people who didn’t have anything left to live for in their own countries and figured “what the hell, let’s try that place on the other side of the ocean.” The one thing that Americans have in common is that they’re the mutts of the world, and as silly as it seems, that’s one of the things that holds us together.

I went on to tell him about our primary elections and the political caucus system; how the parties choose presidential candidates.

“By the time the national elections come around, there really isn’t that much choice,” I lamented. “It seems like the insiders in both parties have the most influence.”

“At least you can vote,” Wang reminded me.

During our year the topic of Nixon and Watergate came up repeatedly, and Lao Wang asked me about it. When I told him about the break-in and how Nixon lied, Lao Wang said the Democrats were probably doing the same things as the Republicans, but they just didn’t get caught.

To most of our Chinese friends, Nixon was a hero for bringing our two countries together, and they were puzzled that we’d tossed him out for a little burglary. They chuckled at our naiveté in expecting honesty from our politicians. Accustomed to centuries of top-down government and cronyism, they set the bar pretty low for their leaders, hardly expecting squeaky-clean behavior.

Many years later, I voiced this idea to a visiting scholar with whom I became friends.

“I feel like my Chinese friends think we Americans are silly and naive for expecting our leaders to behave ethically,” I told him. “Be honest, do you think we are just fooling ourselves?”

“Maybe you are,” he replied, “But I wish we would hope for that.”

Maybe that is part of being a patriot in America.

• • •

Lao Wang and I talked about wages and taxes. He was very interested when I told him about the “bell curve” of the tax burden in America, where the middle class often pays the highest tax in terms of percentage of take-home pay. He was surprised.

“America is a democracy,” he ventured, “so why do you allow that to happen?”

He was careful talking about China and the Communist party just a bit. Just after we arrived in China, Gauss and I had met the manager of radio factory, a Mr. Deng, who had been a radio operator for the Guomingdang (the Nationalist party) during the Revolution. Being on the wrong side at the end of the war, he suffered.

“I think Mr. Deng was very resilient to come back from that kind of experience,” I told Lao Wang “And he manages a factory, so he has a good job.”

“He’s not really the manager,” Lao Wang replied, “If he isn’t a party member, he must have someone above him.”

When I thought about it Lao Wang was right. I remembered that Mr. Deng told us his title was “deputy” director. Indeed, someone else was calling the shots.

“Maybe he has some talent so they need him to run the factory, but a man like that always has someone watching him,” Lao Wang said.

“We must all be resilient in China. The wind blows one way and another. If we don’t like it, where can we go? In the United States, if you don’t like your situation, you can change jobs, move, even leave the country if you wish. We can’t do that. Here, our job is forever. If we don’t like it, we live with it anyway.”

We were only five years removed from the insanity of the Cultural Revolution when we had that conversation. Nobody knew for sure how long a policy would continue to be “correct” so even enthusiastic adherence to the current party line could be cause for persecution later. Just four or five years before Gauss and I arrived in China, simply talking with foreigners would have been cause for criticism. Understandably, many people felt safer steering clear of politics and history as topics of conversation, and of foreigners as conversation partners. So I was doubly grateful to Lao Wang for his friendliness and candor.

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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!