What can be learned, what can't be learned, by an American in China.
By David Murray
I called my 82-year-old dad from China to tell him my sister and I had arrived safely.
“We’re in Beijing, Dad.”
“Oh, no!” he replied.
Dad had been skeptical about this trip since I originally told him we were going—and then had to break a long silence by saying, “I know, Dad. We’re not ‘China’ people.”
“That’s right,” he said, brightening a little at my recognition of his point of view. “We’re not.”
Like many Midwesterners, Dad doesn’t have anything against China because he doesn’t have much on China. Growing up in an Ohio steel town in the 1930s and working as an advertising executive in Detroit and Akron, Dad didn’t intersect too often with China, which had its own tendencies toward insularity in those years.
And so Dad calls every Chinese restaurant “Charlie Chan’s,” and when I once suggested we go to a Chinese restaurant at noontime, he said dismissively, “Aw, we can’t go to Charlie’s for lunch.” Nothing against the Chinese, of course. It’s just that they don’t serve a tuna fish sandwich.
Up until a recent grudging visit to France with his lady friend, Dad’s only experience with foreign travel consisted of a tour of Europe in the mid-1940s, with an army helmet on his head. His idea of exotic travel is Greece. His idea of space travel is China.
My Bohemian willingness to eat Chinese food for lunch notwithstanding—and though I’ve been all over Europe—I’ve always figured China was just too strange a place to travel, its history too long and its culture too opaque to a half-educated Midwestern mind like my own. Somehow, the only China lesson I had in school was a one-week unit in high school, from which I retained terms and names—Ming Dynasty, Opium Wars, Chiang Kai-shek, Mao Zedong—with little to connect them.
But like lots of Midwesterners who read newspapers, I’ve been having a harder and harder time ignoring China: Economic juggernaut this and next superpower that.
My wife’s uncle, Randall Damon, is also hard to ignore; he teaches Mandarin Chinese in a Des Moines public high school and in January he e-mailed me an itinerary for a three-week tour of China, and an invitation to join him and 15 other Midwesterners—half of them high school students and the other half adults.
The invitation came to me in the middle of a particularly virulent case of winter blahs—in a moment where my life in Chicago seemed comfortable-bordering-on-stale.
“I think I have to do this,” I wrote Randall grimly. When my younger sister agreed to go—she lives in Boulder, Colo. and we haven’t enjoyed the intimacy of daily contact since we were in high school, and didn’t enjoy it at all—I was sure I had to do it.
In the months leading up to the trip, I read Jung Chang’s China memoir, Wild Swans. I wrote long memos to my writing clients, explaining the complex arrangements I had made to clear my schedule for the three-week period and dramatically explaining that I would be absolutely unreachable in China. I got the recommended immunization shots and dropped the word, “typhoid” in conversations with friends. Then, when they called me when I left to share their worries and good wishes, I chuckled at their adorable provincialism.
I also packed my suitcase with a hysterical what-am-I-forgetting
frenzy and made a point of playing one last round of golf, driving my
old truck one more time, eating one last Polish sausage.
And, upon putting my baby girl to bed the night before I left, I held my wife and sobbed as if I might never return.
A running joke among the adults as we planned our evenings in cities and towns across China was, “Let’s stay in and order Chinese.”
It wasn’t that much of a joke.
By day, we two writers, three social workers, two human resources executives and two teachers strolled around town; most nights, we usually gathered in Randall’s hotel room, filling our glasses with Tibetan Dry wine. We talked about the food we had eaten, what souvenirs we had bought and for how cheap, how slowly or quickly our hand-washed clothes were drying, and the status of our digestive systems. We came up against a daily limit of new and often confusing information, and we felt a nightly need for the comfort of the banal.
China was a mystery even to Randall, who speaks the language fluently and whose visits to China began in mid 1980s. He was in Beijing during the tragedy at Tiananmen Square in 1989, and he took several student tour groups to China during the 1990s. But 1999 was the last year he was here, and a great deal had changed in six years. In some places, in fact, little had remained the same.
For Randall, new facts of China stood out: More cars than bicycles in cities like Beijing, Chengdu and Kunming, and in towns like Lijiang and Dali, seemingly more tourists (many of them newly prosperous Chinese) than locals.
For the rest of us—blank slates as we were—all the facts of China stood out, making memory of the trip a many-colored muddle:
All over China, small children approached us to practice their English—“Hello!” and “I love you!” and “Can I be your friend?”—their parents standing a few feet back, beholding and beaming.
On the holy Emei Mountain, shriveled old Buddhist women made their pilgrimage up and their retreat down 10,000 feet of stone stairs, spryly lugging bulky suitcases and laughingly advising sweating young tourists in their toothlessly muffled Chinese, “Go slow.”
A dentist pulled a tooth out of a farmer’s smile, without anesthesia, in the middle of a mobbed open market, in a lawn chair.
Of the big, broad, cold main streets of Beijing, somebody said, “It’s Vegas meets ….” and then trailed off.
The pandas were charming and the Great Wall was glorious and both inspired even the most cliché-conscious of us to shoot the backs out of our cameras.
Urban street hustlers sold copies of Mao Zedong’s Quotations from Chairman Mao, and bartered cheerfully on the price.
While propaganda signs from the Cultural Revolution faded, new signs were freshly posted: “Happy, happy, go to work” and “Return home with equanimity.”
The China Daily reported on the sighting of the “Tianchi Lake monster.” Said the witness who videotaped the beast breaking the surface, “I would say what we saw above water was about the size of the head of an adult ox.”
Primitive trucks rumbled around the countryside, looking less like modern farm equipment than escaped farm animals.
Two dozen men resurfaced a road—on their hands and knees, with hammers and eight-inch chisels.
On a busy sidewalk in downtown Beijing, a paraplegic man crawled on his belly, dragging his dead legs behind him, with rags beneath his knees to keep them from scraping. Later, when my sister asked a tour guide why you don’t see many people in wheelchairs in China, he scratched his head and said, “I don’t know.
Maybe they just stay home.”
With a great crash, a sun-dappled, tree-lined retail street in Kunming became a dark, dust-choked tunnel thanks to the demolition of a building a few feet away.
At an ancient Buddhist monastery, visitors rubbed the hind leg of a six-tusked elephant sculpture. Over a thousand years, they had worn off the paint and dug a hand-sized gouge in the metal beneath it.
What we Midwesterners saw in China amounted to only half of our experience; what we could not see was the other half.
One of the fascinations of those of us in the Land of the Free is just how repressive other governments can be—and how they do their oppressing.
And so at first, I asked tour guides and others lots of questions about issues like China’s one-child policy and what attitude the Chinese have about Mao and how the government controls information.
I didn’t get far.
Most of the Chinese people we talked to wouldn’t say yak dung if they had a mouth full of it.
Our guides—employed by the government-run Chinese International Travel Service—gave an enthusiastic spiel but they did not encourage questions. And when questions come, the answers were either inadequate or evasive. “Nancy,” our tour guide from Beijing, divulged in a private conversation that China’s government censors some American movies. Asked for a few examples of U.S. movies that have been forbidden in China, Nancy hesitated and then said that movies are censored if they have too much sexual content, if they are anti-China or critical the Communist Party. And then she went on, just as if she had answered the question.
After many such cautious and frustrating conversations, the tour group gratefully assented when our Sichuan guide “Bob” asked the busload of us for permission to speak candidly about President Bush. Bob said that while he admires former American Presidents Clinton, Reagan, Roosevelt and Washington, Bush is inflexible and dogmatic and “no good.” He added that every one of his tour groups feels the same way.
But like so much of what we learned in China, Bob’s mini-rant left
us only with more questions. Did he say this about Bush at
encouragement of his employer, the Chinese government? Or did he sense
a sympathetic audience and a chance to bond with us? Or was he just
bubbling over with the need to express this opinion?
It was impossible to know without asking, and of course it would have been impolite to ask.
As the trip went on, we asked fewer questions and resigned ourselves to a certain amount of bafflement.
(The only thing more baffling than China was the American teenagers we had along. After early all-group trips to the Summer Palace and the Great Wall, kids formed a secret society early in the trip, merging with the adults, in China as in life, only for transportation.)
What wasn’t strange in China was strangely familiar. A tour guide told us hitchhiking used to be common in China but it’s considered too dangerous now. There are barbershop poles in China; the stripes are black and white. And a grocery store in Leshan had a coin-operated kiddie ride outside the front door. (Though it wasn’t a horsey or a car, but rather a miniature tank).
In an Internet café in Lijiang, I wrote my dad an e-mail. I told him that the day before, I had ridden a rented bicycle past an airfield used by Claire Chenault’s Flying Tigers during World War II. No fighter planes there now; the field was now a training ground for drivers of buses to convey the millions of Chinese tourists around Yunnan Province.
I also told Dad that, on a seven-hour bus ride the day before, I had seen the America he grew up in. Panzhihua is old Pittsburgh: A smoke-choked and thriving steel town in green mountains. Along the road, I saw other things that became impossible toward the end of my dad’s century in America. I also told him I had seen coal-mining town just as much on-the-make—Allentown, 100 years ago. From a mountain high above, I’d looked down into a long and wide river basin in the mountains full of verdant rice patties and dozens of rich farming towns full of big houses. “And,” I wrote, “the Hoover Dam—one of a series of dams being begun in a gorge on the Yangtze River. They're just building the workers' dormitories now.”
Dad replied, “Maybe you'll run into their Lindbergh and their Wrights on your trip backward.”
Leaving my wife and child to travel in China for three weeks wasn’t easy to do and it was harder to justify.
So on the train one evening about halfway through the trip, I was pleased to find a passage in Paul Theroux’s China book, Riding the Iron Rooster:
“Dr. Johnson told Boswell how eager he was to go to China and see the Wall. Boswell was not so sure himself. How could he justify going to China when he had children at home to take care of?
“’Sir,’ Doctor Johnson said, ‘by doing so you would do what would be of importance in raising your children to eminence. There would be a lustre reflected upon them from your spirit and curiosity. They would be at all times regarded as the children of a man who had gone to view the Wall of China. I am serious, sir.’”
The next morning, still on the train, I found myself watching a Chinese man try to calm his crying grandson, and feeling envious.
In other moments, the trip felt more fully justified. For instance, at the giant Buddha sculpture at Leshan, my sister felt inspired to finally divulge to her crusty big brother from Chicago that she’s into Buddhism. I suppose she figured I couldn’t tease her even if I wanted to: Buddha had her back.
One of my dad’s favorite expressions is, “Every once in a while, a man ought to do something he’s a little afraid of.”
And that’s why I went.
But actually, I found less to fear in China than I’ve found in
Europe, and less to be anxious about: In China, the people don’t expect
you to know the language or even the manners, and they don’t sneer at
you when you don’t. Instead, they laugh their way through the tourist
charades, and you laugh too; talking with the
Chinese, you both laugh like people with no pretensions to competence in a thing, trying it for the first time.
And maybe, for me, for the last time.
Although I did send a postcard home to my 21-month-old daughter. I wrote, “Dear Scout: China is a strange place. Someday you might want to see it. If you do, this postcard is your ticket.”
Maybe, like I did, she’ll take her dad along with her.