Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Once Upon A Time in China...

I wrote this post a few years ago, trying to sum up how I went to China in the first place and why the experience had such a profound impact on my life…Sorry for the lack of photos -- one of these days I'll get around to scanning them all! 

China seemed a grim place when I arrived there in the fall of 1979. Actually, it pretty much remained grim through the winter and into the spring, until I left in March 1980. And I have to say, my friend Paul and I were more than ready to leave by then. After a while, nearly everything in China felt like a battle. Doing your job, taking a taxi, buying a shirt, riding the train, booking a hotel, ordering a meal...everything was a complicated fight, and hardly anything turned out the way you thought it would or wanted it to.

1979 was the era of Democracy Wall and the trial of the Gang of Four, a period when China had begun to "open up" and yet was not at all prepared for what came in through their door. I was 20 years old and acutely conscious of my status as cultural irritant. I tried to tread lightly. I felt like Captain Kirk, beaming down from the United Federation of Planets, just knowing that I was violating the Non-Interference Directive at every step. There were hardly any Americans in China at the time. Because of this scarcity, I and my friend Paul both ended up teaching a semester of Conversational English to Beijing college students, at the Branch school of the Beijing Institute of Foreign Trade.

The Branch school was the poor cousin of the Foreign Trade Institute proper, and as such, had to settle for two San Diego college kids for English teachers. They hired us, but they were scared of us too. We were the Young Americans, and we were unpredictable.

In fact, I took my teaching duties very seriously. I was the first American most of these kids had ever met, and I didn't want to screw it up.I say "kids" but they were all a few years older than I, most having spent the last few years in the countryside shoveling pig manure or what have you. One time for some reason the subject of the American Constitution came up. I winged it, dredging up whatever shreds of high school civics I could recall, and I came up with a rather nice spontaneous lecture on the subject, emphasizing the importance of the rule of law in the safeguarding of human rights. I liked this lecture so much that I repeated it to my next two classes. Afterwards, I got really worried. Maybe talking about the Bill of Rights hadn't been such a grand idea. I consoled myself by with the fact that the majority of my students didn't speak English all that well, so they probably hadn't understood much of what I was saying anyway.

But what the school authorities really feared most was that we might teach our students "the disco dance." Luckily for them, there were few things I hated more than disco dancing (I later became a rock musician so I'd always have an excuse not to dance), but with my friend Paul, the Peoples' Republic was on shakier ground. Paul was gay, and he was known to disco dance. In fact, he had what must have been one of the first boom boxes ever manufactured, some gigantic thing that even a prison-biceped gangster would have a tough time toting around. We had friends who'd send us tapes of the latest stuff from home, and we'd fire up a joint made from the weak pot that grew wild at the Temple of Heaven and listen to Talking Heads and the Clash and David Bowie. This boom box had two tape drives for copying tapes. Chinese friends would ask us to make them copies of some Carpenters tape they'd gotten ahold of, and Paul would do so, except he'd stick a cut from the Residents at the end. If you've never heard of the Residents, they are that avant-guard Bay Area band that used to wear tuxedos and put giant eyeballs over their heads, and their songs were weird-ass shit like "Bach is Dead," and "Eskimo." It went well with the Carpenters. We copied a lot of our music for people too, and I often wondered what happened to those tapes. Were they listened to, all that Talking Heads and Pretenders and Bowie, the Beatles and the Clash? Fripp & Eno? Siouxie and the Banshees?

Around Christmas, we threw parties for some students, not our classes, as we'd just started teaching, but Paul's parents' students. We'd gotten to know some of them when we'd first come to China. Three guys, William, Rocky and Simon, took us around Beijing one time. They showed us Democracy Wall and a bar where the Beijing delinquents hung out (you could tell they were "rascals" because they wore vinyl jackets and sunglasses with the "Polarized" sticker still on them and drank a vile mixture of beer and soda), and we were followed by the not-so-secret police. Rocky, a slight, intense guy with black framed glasses, quoted Thomas Jefferson at me. "Sometimes the tree of liberty must be watered by the blood of tyrants," he said. Simon was very handsome. He had a perfectly symmetrical face, like one of those terracotta statues from the Qin Emperor's tomb. His parents were cadres, officials of some sort - I knew that because they had a phone in their apartment, and at that time, only high-ranking officials had phones. But Simon was not content. That day we toured Beijing, we ended up renting rowboats at Beihai Park and rowing out into the lake so we could talk and have some privacy. And I remember Simon, staring not at me but over the water. "I hate this country," he said. No one can hear us, I told myself. But still, those words seemed to have some dreadful significance.

We threw the parties in the living room of Paul's parents apartment in the Friendship Hotel. Paul and I provided the music - all the latest punk and New Wave stuff from home. We turned the lights down low and cranked up the boom box as loud as it would go. We'd gotten the new Talking Heads album, and we were playing "Yi Zimbra." And I remember William - the third member of the trio. William was a big guy, a Northerner, sort of shambling and shaggy. And he let this music into his head and he was jumping up and down, he was pogoing, bouncing off the walls, off other people, abandoning himself to the beat, and I thought, he's never danced like that before in his life. None of them have.

That day we left China, crossed the border into Hong Kong, I said to Paul, "thank god we're finally out of here!" Out of all the repression and the arguments and the being stared at all the time and the pain in the ass bureaucracy. And after we crossed the border, I looked back towards China, at the pain in the ass border guard who'd demanded we pay him some bullshit tax before we could leave, and I thought, I'll be back here some day. I'm leaving something behind, and I'm going to have to go back and get it.

I didn't even think about returning to China until the spring of 1989. You can probably guess what inspired me. Coincidentally, I had gotten in touch with an old acquaintance, the Dean of English Language study at the Foreign Trade Institute, Lao Zou. Lao Zou was a trim, middle-aged man when I'd known him in Beijing. He had a calm, soothing presence; he seemed like a very nice person. Earlier in life, he'd been in the Chinese diplomatic corps and had travelled abroad. Because of this, he'd been terribly persecuted during the Cultural Revolution. His wife had committed suicide. His daughter had died of cancer. For some reason, he felt comfortable telling me about these things. Maybe because I was 20 years old and a foreigner, about as harmless as they came. How do you cope, I asked him once? He had smiled. "I go running," he told me. "I run every day."

When Paul and I left Beijing, Lao Zou was there to see us off. And uncharacteristically, for such displays of emotion were uncommon in the China of that time, he suddenly gave me a huge hug. Tears in his eyes. I think I cried too. I don't know why we'd made the connection we made or what I represented to him, and now I suppose that it's too late to ask.

Anyway, I'd written to him that I was thinking of coming to China, and that I was hoping to see some of my old students. I was writing in code. When he wrote back, so was he. "Oh, I think you will certainly see some of your old students!" he'd written.

Damn, I was excited. Who would have thought? Beijing Spring was the dream I never would have dared to dream for the people I'd known in China. Finally, I thought, it was time for me to return. I hadn't been ready to go back there before now. The place was too full of pain and trouble, too full of trauma, too full of gray hopelessness. But out of nowhere, everything seemed to have changed. I could feel it all the way over in California. There was finally hope.

As it turned out, I didn't end up going back to China until 1993.

Lisa…every other Wednesday...


  1. Thanks,Lisa. I've often wondered about how you became interested in China. Brave woman, going there so long ago!!

  2. I agree with Stan, Lisa. This is the second time I've read this post and on both occasions I think "remarkable" woman!

  3. Ah, shoot! I hadn't realized I'd posted this one before -- sorry for the repeat!