Part One

How to get to China

Since Dante, criminals past his ken writhe in new infernos the mere Florentine gutters could never have inspired. Some are petty. Forever just coming onto hell's coldest, windiest streetcorner is the inventor of the zipper. Tied down with noses to the slime pits lie the spitters of chewing gum into drinking fountains. The driveways echo with the enraged screams of auto designers forever condemned to get their spare tires out.

But some deserve arch-sinner rank, such as the folks who have taught us to travel. At hell's vortex, his twisted sacrum strapped for eternity to a new satan's throne, rides the creator of the airliner chair. Over the seat back in front of him squalls, drools, and grimaces a child, in perpetuity. A drunken mass of flab blears intimacies at him and dozes on his shoulder. Past the incontinent in the tiny aisle squeeze whores in miniskirts to spill cold drinks in his lap. The hours and days whirl backward through his dreams. Behind him now is the pit of anxiety, where bellows and flickering lights urge hordes of the newly damned, bound with huge loads, to eternal haste, through iron gates, past grim guards, down endless tunnels bright with postered allurements to air travel. Ahead lies China.

What's China? Oh, you know. Every kid knows. It's where you come out if you dig straight down, and everything there, of course, stands on its head. We used to spool mental videos of berobed, bepigtailed courtiers, bowing in slit-eyed ceremony, upside down, and laugh at this fable, a little worried it might be so.

Well, I'm here to tell you we didn't know the half of it. Dragons are lucky. Your first name comes last. Rice is for dessert and to banquets you wear tennis shoes. Television is to teach math. In chess you fight for lines, not spaces. You feed yourself with little pickupsticks. Couches and chickens and grandmothers and lumber and refrigerators are for carrying on bicycles, but for a live pig, use a wheelbarrow. The bus can never get too full. Money is worthless, but life is cheap. Farm plots and orange groves smell like toilets. You don't much throw trash on the street. (Orange peels aren't trash. They're medicine. Okay, so you throw medicine on the street.) But in a temple, a park, or (especially) a restaurant, you show you really care by how much mess and uproar you can make. I leave you to imagine the temple restaurant in the park.

The Chinese I have met, much in contrast to their crazy world (ut sequatur), are warm, fun-loving, kind, plated with optimism, eager to share all they have, which is materially meager but fortitudinally astonishing. I have cause to be grateful. I had set out for China in correct academic fervor, and on landing felt immediately like a global-scale idiot. Me, arch-cynic and aspirant sybarite, give up bathing to save Asia? Cheng Zhongwen, chairman of the department in which I would teach, had come to the border in person, overnight by train, to meet us, and share the same punishing 726 km. all the way back from Guangzhou, sleepless in the crawling sleeper to Changsha. There what looked like half the department turned out at dawn to meet us, laughing, touching, throwing baggage around, stuffing into the minibus for the wild ride home. It was like having fallen through the screen into an action comedy. Intercontinentally groggy, we were shown to our quarters, something like a first-class cell block, and left alone. In the middle of China. Good grief, what were we in for?

The next day was one of the hardest in my life so far. It all looked so monumentally askew. I'm supposed to help these jolly, indestructible mortals? In this? What under heaven could I do for them? I was the helpless one. Why suffer who knows what, for what, for whom?

No, they didn't need me. They wanted me. Cheng, Zuo Tieyong, Wang Dawei, Chen Tingguang, Li Jinpeng, Hu, Wu, Zhou--from big wheel to little--all treated their agonizing foreign devils with affection and respect. It was we who needed them, and I think now that what we were going through was, somehow, making it possible for them to need us too, which they do, badly. We stayed, Julia and I.

What's going on in China

The Chinese I have not met are a different story. Put one of these lovable creatures in command of a motor vehicle, for instance, and you have created a peril. That interpersonal radiance doesn't go through a steel chassis, or maybe it drowns in the horn blasts. A little bit of authority, of course, is poisonous. On the bus the other day, the ticket seller had been giggling and gossiping with some riders all the way up the hill. I was just thinking how friendly she was being on the job when another girl lost the fight to get off and wound up still aboard, with her shopping net outside and her arm clamped in the door. She got a lecture from the suddenly officious conductress before being allowed to have back her arm and groceries, but not get off.

The people with real clout, on the other hand, affect humility. Since Sun Yatsen (now hopefully being puffed to fill the space left by deflating Mao), the blue workman's jacket is power dress. Nobody wears medals. The TV news recently covered a state visit from Mexico. Cliff-jawed, gorgeously macho, $98 billion in debt, Miguel de la Madrid sat across the tea table from Deng. At the feet of the tiny, drab, tortoise-headed man who rules a fifth of the world's population, and much of its resources, squatted an enamel spittoon.

China under Deng Xiaoping is determined, in approximately his words, to exploit the West's perceived yearning to exploit. The media now make more noise about China's "new opening," meaning permission for private initiative and capital venture, both native and foreign, than five-year plans, but never without hedging. A display of imported technical manuals in the Foreign Languages Bookstore says "MAKE FOREIGN THINGS SERVE CHINA" (straight but uncredited Maospeak). The same message is everywhere, like a caution label on strong medicine. Use it, but don't lose control of it. And there's the problem. The active ingredient in it is freedom. How to control that?

By permission, of course. Commerce with its bookkeeping at least looks governable. What I don't know about economics fills all the bibles on that topic, but yes, brother, I've heard the gospel of free enterprise, and if you want to control it, you're an oxymoron.

I do know something about the arts and passions, though, and I can't find any example in history of an admirable culture that succeeded in writing permits for them. That usually causes seizures. A recent bikini furor here was--er--revealing. To qualify for coveted international affiliation and take its rightful place among nations, the Chinese Bodybuilding Association accepted, blushing, the bikini requirement for a tournament in Shenzen. "The first show of women's bikinis (three-point garment). Enjoy the beauty and strength of the ladies," went the ad copy, which drew both high-minded letters and a third greater press--er--coverage than the Asian Table Tennis finals, even though reporters, unprecedentedly, had to get permits and pay about 3 months' salary in fees. The State trembles when the girls start baring their bellybuttons.

Stephen Spender got it right in his China journal with words to the effect that poets granted license had gained nothing. A Vice Minister of Culture, Ying Ruocheng, has stopped an annual art competition in Beijing, pontificating that "art should serve the masses" (more straight Maospeak), not vie for laurels. He has a point. Professionals in the arts and performance are all civil servants, trained, accredited, classified, and employed by the state. On the way to the Beijing airport, you pass an immense concrete blockhouse factory besigned "White Peacock Art Works." Make sure you're getting certified, brand-name, official, state art. Beware of imitations. In a restaurant you should order Five-star Beer, "by appointment to the People's Republic of China, Government supplier of State Banquet." Visiting gourmet monarchs away from their royal purveyors will no doubt feel correctly pampered. Have a State Beer, your majesty.

The State decides everything. What will happen to Hong Kong when the British lease runs out in 1997? A Basic Law Drafting Committee will take the heat. It is hearing reports on "the basic rights and obligations of the region's residents, its political system, economy, education, science, technology, culture, sports, and religion." Did we leave anything out? A long list of very un-Chinese freedoms, including such as whether to move, marry, or breed, has been proposed. "Hong Kong will be a special administrative region of the PRC directly under the central government. However, neither central departments and ministries nor local governments will interfere in the region's affairs" (Beijing Review, Dec. 8, 1986). Government by oxymoron. It's the Chinese way.

How to have a traffic jam in China

Sunday. Coming home from marketing, Julia and I found a convoy of trucks, loaded with a huge construction derrick, stopped on its way out the main university drive. The cathedral-sized steel boom was coming adrift. The crew, to much shouted engineering, jammed planks under it and tied it with a ridiculous little wire. But where were they going with it? Oh, no, they wouldn't try--wouldn't think of trying--sure they would. They were going to take that whole rig right through the market.

Lushan nanlu ("foothill south road") winds along the steep left bank of the Xiang river, the only through street connecting the university to Changsha proper, on the other bank several kilomenters downstream. At wide places, the decrepit buses can just squeeze by abreast. Theoretically. In fact, that street is so alive that walking single file in the middle takes skill and courage. Shops on both sides roar with commerce. Foot and wheeled traffic presses as though down a clogged digestive tract. Trucks just plow through somehow, blaring. A free market, New China's enterprise, squats, haggles, and sprawls from the main gate onward, through which now came slowly puffing the boom truck.

Under its nose, a 22-seat bus turned around and let out 73 people. I think. The lively fight to get on and off, simultaneously of course, didn't make for a clear count. Another stuffed bus pushed in. The girl at the wheel adroitly steered its battered nose into the truck's way. Damned if she was going to let that thing get ahead of her and have to try to pass it on the way back to town. The first bus, re-engorged at the loading stop, groaned half a length away and came up against the stern of a big pink gravel truck.

With the construction convoy now blocked squarely across the only way out, the street at once condensed into a hell of smoking machinery, around, under, and over which swarmed anything agile enough. Two motor tricycles carrying a squad of soldiers and farmers sputtered. A pickup full of skinned dogs tried to back into a butcher's stall. Harnessed to a barrowload of grain sacks that would have made a Percheron sweat, a little man stood glumly. Tractors hauling bricks popped and stalled. Big wood tubs of slops, nature's own fertilizer, rode in the gondola of a tricycle powered by a tiny, wrinkled crone. Two more buses, a submarine-sized log on a handcart, a truck piled story-high with tottering wood chairs, a smoked-glass, chauffered sedan full of functionaries, more trucks, scooters, cabovers, minibuses, cycles; business all around more festive than ever.

We skirted the crane rig outside the radius it would strike when it fell over and started wading downstreet to see how far the jam went. After several dozen shoplengths we found the keystone, or--well, keytruck, a dead cabover pickup urinating a forlorn trickle of oil. Inside, the driver, several assistant drivers, and an advisor or two had the engine console off and were marveling at some small part they had plucked out. Jamward-bound traffic still pushed in, with a single intent at that point: don't let anything outward-bound get past. That it would pay quickly, for yourself and everybody, to stop a minute and let things get moving? Unfathomable. Back up? Extraterrestrial. To not one of the teeming shouters did it occur to push the damned thing out of the way, into the restaurant, say, or just carry it off, for which manpower ten times over swarmed by every second. But between the intermittent peristalses further compressing the jam, a major vehicle now and then did squeeze out; after awhile the pink gravel truck; a bus; another bus. We stared. Inching down on the dam, ripping limbs off the camphor trees, crawled the great orange steel bridgework, its big diesel swearing. And somehow, incredibly, millimeterwise, it got by.

We decided the circus was about over and started picking a way back among the heaps of cabbages, baskets, ginger, eggs, fish alive and not, oranges, livers, noses, tails, hooves, guts, brooms, ducks, spokes, and folks. But the rig, still in sight down the street, appeared to have halted again, rather crosswise, so we headed that way to catch the last act.

It had stoppped, yes. Under the girder, between the huge dual axles, a woman was writhing in the gutter, squalling horribly. Julia looked, turned pale, tried not to look, looked. I looked, felt weak, thought of just leaving, stood, and looked. A bicycle, intact, lay against a rack of raw pork sides swinging on hooks, and as she thrashed, bloody trays of fat slabs and ribs clattered around her. Some dozen persons watched. The truck driver and crew stood in the street, haranguing normally. No police came, no medics. There was no very great press to see what had happened. People watched from where they were, their doorways, the sidewalk. So did we, from across the street. I could tell nothing about how, or how badly, she might have been hurt. She had careened into a sidewalk meat market, where gore, whosever, simply didn't matter. To have been pedaling along at the time right under a monster truck just chanced not to be much of a factor. She lay exactly in the path of the immense rear wheels.

Her hair-raising cries subsided. Bystanders lifted her into the back seat of a cabover somehow extracted from the jam, which inched by the big truck and wheezed off toward, I decided to assume, that medical clinic I had never seen open. I looked at Julia. She looked at me.

"Well," I gulped, "I guess she couldn't have been hurt too bad, as slow as everything was moving, her bike isn't squashed--" a man had picked it up and stood uncertainly by it, under the entrucked girder.

"Yeah," said Julia.

"Nobody seemed too awful excited. She couldn't have been really hurt, she sounded pretty lively," I cracked. Sick.

"I guess not," Julia said. We headed back.

How to be Chinese (preliminary)

I haven't quite finished reading everything that's been written about China. Haven't quite managed to see it all either. About the best I can do is assure you that most of what I'm going to say here is wrong.

Not God Itself could know this country whole. Those that mete and dole unequal laws unto its savage race know not it either. The Communists have come in for altogether too much praise and blame. It's difficult to say how much of the astonishing change that has come to China in the last several decades has really been created by its leaders.

Take Chinese marriage. Marriage is the only of the three main rites of passage we can play full conscious part in. We really weren't all there yet when we were born, and none of us has ever died. Between the two we mate, and so celebrate both the others. States don't make marriage laws; lovers do. Old men with nothing left but power just make silly rules about our most unappeasably organic behavior.

Chinese men and women are equal. You can court, dance with, kiss, or marry whom you like when you're old enough, and divorce if you don't like it. You shall have such career as you choose and are educated for, be you male or otherwise (homosexuality has been abolished). You can have or contracept or abort children pretty much as you will, and so on and on. Those are the rules. What nonsense. What utterly vapid egalitarian theorizing.

The more equal a bride is, for instance, the more she costs. This problem seems to be far worse in the cities, where enlightenment is supposed to be much brighter than in the rice fields. In town, if she's clean (no capitalist blood for at least three generations), she's going to command a houseful of hardware and finery, half a lifetime's debt (even when, as usually, there's no house to put it in). If she's unclean, and you still want her, or she's too young, or owned by somebody dangerous, or something, it can really get expensive. In the country (one of every six humans is a Chinese peasant) marriage is still the old tangle of family covenants and superstitions. At village schools in Hebei province, 36 of 47 third-graders, 36 of 54 fifth-graders, and 80% of 2,160 12-to-17-year-olds turned out already to have been dealt off by their families in betrothal contracts. That was in school. In 1986. A hundred miles from downtown Beijing, where world heads of state roost.

And out where plenty of people have never even heard of school? In Fujian, a densely populated coastal province, over 90% of the children who do make it to school are boys. Send our girl to school? Say, are you crazy? Have you tried selling intellectuals for wives around here? Come to think of it, that boy ain't gonna grow much rice with a head fulla nonsense.

More than a few of the Chinese women I see look quite worth kissing (some indeed veritably edible). I can't do that, of course, but neither, it seems, can their men, openly. I can embrace and hold hands with Chinese males, as they freely do with each other, but heterosexual body contact doesn't happen in public. In Guangzhou (olim the Canton of notoriously fleshly pursuits) I once came on a secluded park bench couple. Her head lay in his lap. That's all. Spotting me from next-block distance, he jumped up in confusion, jerking her upright. I turned back in embarrassment. On the sidewalk of a university apartment compound here in Changsha, I saw, in the twilight, from well behind them, a strolling couple. He was carrying a child on his shoulder, pressing his ear into the fat little belly. She put her arm around his waist.

Those are about the only demonstrated sexual affections I have so far seen. We haven't traveled a great deal, but we do live in a city of several million. You'd expect to see a little smooching, wouldn't you?

Once you do get through the preliminaries and marry, undoing it can be worse. Like marriage, divorce depends on permission from your boss; that is, your work unit. Everything about you goes into your permanent, secret file, and it can play hell with your life. The only thing worse than elitist ancestry is a record of troublemaking. If there's a problem in your marriage, better to live with it than let it get in the files. And if you're the woman, you can still expect to be treated after divorce like used merchandise, just as for centuries widows have had no more family life to look forward to.

Women of course can do, officially, whatever men can. But not quite vice versa. And if ladies only rarely make general or commissar, a man, of any rank, has yet to have a baby. The work unit pushes the national one-child policy with all kinds of meddlesome family planning schemes. Grandparents, tradition, and biology push back. It's the women who make the hard choices, between going for general or mother. Oh, sure, she's expected to do both now, this isn't the Middle Ages, is it? But not many do. And men don't make that choice. We are all, one way or another, going for general. Not a one of us for mother. Militant egalitarianism can skew sex role differences around, but that's all it can do.

And as if things weren't hard enough already, now comes science. With contraception, sex has to be just for fun. No more sacred duty about it. With free, easy, sanitary, socially-advocated abortion you can still do your sacred duty and then cheat. We know now whether it will be a boy or a girl, too. Few Asians are going to breed girls willingly. Have we risen from genocide to gendercide? I'd miss the women. Terribly.

I'm getting as bored with all this sententiosity as you are, but--please. I'm a professor. Ergo, I make everything too simple. Wonderful people have brought me halfway around the world hoping that something good would come of it, so I have to try. For the record, I've had three babies, with help from my wife, and once made PFC.

How to be a Chinese Communist

But now quickly to cabbages. I have not seen here quite such murderous poverty as, say, in Mexico City or New York. Nor such wealth, either. Nor anything remotely approaching elegance. Curiously, the Communists seem prouder of having destroyed the plutocracy than feeding the masses, although they claim both. Now step outside with me for a moment. Try to find an uncultivated centimeter of ground. Try to show me a weed. Then try to tell me all those people on their knees, spreading precious shit by teaspoons, grooming the surreally neat plots by fingertip, are all party cadres serving gloriously correct doctrine. Politics doesn't feed people. Peasantry does.

For a good Communist, the obvious answer is to make everybody a peasant. Cultural Revolutions have shown how well that works.

As to the symbols of privilege, the Communists never miss a chance to boast of having erased them. They also indiscriminately erased a lot of Chinese civilization in the process. But it wasn't Mao who wrecked the palaces and burned the art and ripped the temples out by the roots and beat the schoolteachers to pulps and put anybody with a brain on latrine duty and pervaded the Chinese bloodstream with phagocytic goons hunting for the slightest foreign molecule. It was the people, yes. The descendants of the hordes who toiled to build the Kingdom of Heaven toiled to tear it down.

Why? I don't know. I will say that culture an sich seems not to concern the Chinese much now. These people have a cast-iron core of practicality. The capitalists who shake in terror of socialist ideology may find they have been gunning for the wrong tiger. If China gets on its industrial feet, it will do them out of their holy private ownership, all right. Not with sloganeering, but at their own game, in the trading pits.

Sometimes, in darker reflective moments, I rather hope it will come to that. If this be treason, I offer history, always the special plea of the aesthete, in defense. When the professionally rapacious get gorged, they start patronizing the artists and professors again, or at least let them alone. And then the ancient plum trees by the river can bloom again.

Why China?

Of China's vast mysteries, why I'm here remains the least scrutable. How I got here looks easier to explain, but I've never had much faith in my ability just to stick to facts, and neither should you.

Early in l986, Dean Daniel Fallon of the A&M College of Liberal Arts made contact with Central South University of Changsha. Zuo Tieyong, Vice-President, and Li Jinpeng, Vice-Chairman of Foreign Languages, visited Texas briefly. Recently, over a massive banquet, laughing, they told me how they had enjoyed their dose of cowboy culture. I had not met them on their US visit, being then locked in a death struggle with IRS looters. China couldn't have been farther from my mind.

Dan announced hopes for an exchange program at a late Spring faculty meeting. I wondered how a specialist in Middle High German literature would fit into the latest Chinese five-year plan for industrial world dominance and decided, whatthehell, not more strangely than into agribiz computer oil ranching, and volunteered. The assignment, after all, would be more toward internationally broadening public faith in liberal arts than strictly academicotechnical, and anyway they wanted an English teacher, and my Americanese is of an altogether peculiar excellence. Dan visited Changsha that summer, leaving them a copy of my credentials.

I have before me the letter I got on July 26, 1986. "Dear Professor Lee, here on behalf of the Foreign Languages Department, I'd like to take this opportunity to express our warm welcome . . ." Salary, free housing, medical care, "transport facilities." "The Fall semester begins in September. I hope you can come as soon as possible . . ." Sincerely mine, Professor Chen Chuanchang, Deputy Chairman.

I have not met Professor Chen. He now offices where I once did, keeping company with my beloved Merriam-Webster first and second editions, fighting the ants and parking police, sampling capitalism and enchiladas, introducing Aggies to Chinese culture. And now--the law of rhetorical equilibrium requires it--I have to say what I'm doing here.

I'm drinking a cold Xiangxiangpijiu and cracking sunflower seeds. In a minute I'll get Julia up for lunch and then look up a word I'm going to need to explain to the cook that we've been invited to another banquet tonight and won't be eating in the dining hall. The sun is shining--quite an oddity. This afternoon maybe we'll battle the buses to visit the Hunan Provincial Museum again for a better look at the astonishing things and, well, former person dug from the Han Dynasty tombs at Mawangdui, now a Changsha suburb. The Spring semester begins soon, and I really have to get serious about impinging and divergent split clauses. Having lighted Macbeth the way to dusty death, Julia now needs to justify the ways of Milton to men, or more specifically to her high school correspondence course teacher. Mouse Zedong ate 3 whole peanuts last night.

Of course I didn't make it for the beginning of classes in September. By the time the wires began to cool, the ink on all the stamps and permits to dry, and the dust to settle on half the desks around the Pacific basin, it was not far from Christmas, and I agreed to finish out the semester with general lectures to the English teachers on applied linguistics.

I took that to include learning to work your tongue to sound like an American. There would be few problems with grammar; that they all seemed to know, in impressive detail. But trying to say something like "throw these celery leaves in the trash" caused most of them fits. I assigned them interdental sibilants and rhotacizations and refroflex lingual clusters to practice, did all kinds of Germanic suprasegmental intonation patterns for them, and then told them language was only as good as what you could do with it. I started performing to prove it. "All in green went my love riding / on a great horse of gold / into the silver dawn." Chromaesthesia, disembowelled dactyls, fairy myth imagination. Song with words. Sheer lyric wonder. What kind of feelings do you get from it? And then, of course I would follow with, why? How does the poet (that's cummings) do it to you?

No resonance. Class is dead. "Four lean hounds crouched low and smiling / the merry deer ran before." What makes the image so familiarly bizarre?

Well. "Before" was an adverb, right?

Some of the trouble, I figured out, was that nothing about hunting to hounds was anywhere in the Chinese experience banks. It just had no connotations for this audience at all. I was committing something like cultural arrogance by assuming it would have.

I fell right into the same hole the next week with "The fog comes / on little cat feet." They could make no sense of it. Animal domestication in China only marginally includes the concept of pets. No one could suggest a Chinese word that would quite translate what it means. About as close as I could get was explaining that I could be friends with a cat, that several of them usually shared my household, that their silent approach on soft furry little paws with behind them all paleofelid artery-strangling carnivoracity felt quite accurately foggy to me, and so on. They shook their heads and smiled uncomfortably.

After several more such sessions the class was smaller, my talk was getting more technical-sounding, and poetry didn't seem so important. Could I maybe give them something a little more specific, that they could study? Advanced applied linguistics would be nice. What books should they read?

Good grief. That looked at first like three problems, but when I went at them, they kept trying to roll up into a single global boggler. I knew what "specific" meant. Chinese students have justly earned a reputation for studying like demons when they're convinced that you have assigned them what amounts to the answers on the examination. But I wasn't prepping them for an exam. No exam? But then what . . . how . . . why . . .? And applied linguistics, I soon realized, didn't stoop to practice, much less to poetry and how it works, but was an exact science, also exam-defined.

As to books--China does not recognize copyright. In theory, all the world's writings ought to flood through the bookstores in the cheapest possible editions.

No. Copyright owners of course do their best to keep their properties from leaking into the red hole, so making common cause with the Chinese obsession for information control in the name of doctrinal purity. What gets published inside is easy to limit to what's officially fit to print. Products of the capitalist press are simply walled out by currency restrictions. Chinese money, like that of other economarian regimes, is artificial, worthless anywhere else (and coming to be dangerously mistrusted within for goods of any intrinsic value). You can't just go order something out of Books In Print. Nor can you go to the library and read whatever civilization has spared. They only have what this particular post-imperialist people's socialist democratic dictatorship (their definition, not mine) has spared, and that, I can tell you, has been fastidiously selected for orthodoxy.

It all kept boiling down to the old Maoist slogan of Make Foreign Things Serve China. Nothing must get through the Bamboo Curtain but what has been exactingly--well, bamboozled. Imported experts and what they do, books, methods, know-how, can never, must never, by definition, be exemplary. They may only do about what you'd expect of a good foreign truck, and that just until the home truck works catches up.

The school where I teach, an arm of the China National Nonferrous Metals Industry Corporation, now has 13 departments in the technologies and one for foreign languages. That one obviously has a pretty specialized mandate. Its students already know what language, foreign or other, is good for. Officially. Socialistically. Industrially. Four-Cardinal-Principally. It was barbarically presumptuous of me to try to tell them.

Now comes the hard part. I'm a teacher. I have spent most of my professional life getting up in front of people and turning my brain on. It sounds like a risky thing to do, and I suppose it is. It means opening up where you live to strangers. Not all of them can stand that. Some famous and successful lecturers draw crowds by holding back, saving a place to hide, always knowing what they're going to say before they say it, being authorities. I make the class--how to put it?--watch me try out an idea--watch me learn. There's no such thing as teaching. There's only learning. Wherever and whenever students come to me, that's what they'll get. That's why I'm here.

Getting it Right in China

One of my teaching assignments was writing for English majors. One thing you do in such a course is get them to practice describing what is not familiar to the reader by comparing and contrasting it with something that is. American textbook examples of every-daydom I had brought along as often as not, for my Chinese students, might have come from the back side of the moon. Making a peanut butter sandwich. Supermarket shopping. The weekend roar of lawnmowers. An afternoon drive in the country. You notice that your friend's eyes, in contrast to that sweater, are not really blue but greenish. Church organ music on Sunday morning.

When they looked blank or laughed at such bizarreties, I began trying to explain a little, and wound up every time swamped. Harmless little beginner's exercises kept turning into a week's lecture fuel.

Sunday churchgoing: the Chinese are surprised to hear how deeply religion is rooted in America, the great bastion of industry and wealth. Few are old enough to remember the missionary age. Beijing propagandizes its benevolent tolerance of religious freedom, but, methinks, a little too loudly, hoping to drown out the groans of history, while at the same time preventing any addiction to the opiate of the people. It's an awkward stance. Public reaction to anything Beijing is afraid of is to pretend you've never heard of it. My students could not imagine the kind of regular church attendance or religious observances so routine to many Americans. When I said, for example, that no American politician, however dangerous or petty, could afford to seem irreligious, I made things worse by compounding the born-again publican with the mysteries of the democratic vote. But when I professed dismay at a Christian president trying to bait moderate Moslems with missiles and a Bible, they brightened a little. The weapons, at least, made imperialist sense.

A friend with blue eyes? Such racial defects are no trivial matter. They are first of all a brand of the moral corruption indigenous to everything foreign, justifying ipso facto the official double rail, air, hotel, food, service, and commodity prices for those so afflicted. But they have a plain animal meaning too. My colleague Mr. Umeda, from Fukuoka, even when recognized by language, clothes, gait, gesture, and a thousand subliminal tips as an archfeudalist, neoimperialist, hated invader Japanese, still moves through Chinese society with a freedom I can never have. He looks normal. John Griffin in reverse.

On the other hand, the endo-Chinese ethnic minorities get ostentatiously patronized, as long as they appreciate the benefits of Han Chinese liberation. Rescued now from their innocent savagery by Communist enlightenment, they still can celebrate their quaint fairs in high native dress across the centerfolds of every Chinese Pictorial as well as seat delegates in quasi-governmental assemblies. Not one of them has blue eyes. To a Chinese, "a drive in the country" is a polyabsurdity. Drive what in the country? Has to be a water buffalo. You mean a car? Oh. Sure, the motor pool has a couple cars, and I guess we could get a driver. Where you want to go? The country? No, no, we can't go to other countries. What? Get out of city, closer to nature? Rice paddies are all alike. Get away from people? Don't understand. People are everywhere.

Lawnmowers? There's no such thing as a lawn. Land is to grow food on. There's no such thing as a front yard. I once assigned a poem by Gwendolyn Brooks, imagining a breakaway from the safe, neat, decent front yard for the raunchy freedom of the overgrown back one, gateway to the alley. I never did succeed in raising a glimmer of association for my students with that. Public gardens, of course, are supposed to be clipped and groomed, but how such services could symbolize any limitation on personal lifestyle, or that rankness might be just one fruit of liberty, was utterly beyond them.

All China is a supermarket. One stupendous trade riot.

At the bottom of the peanut butter hides a host of unsuspected issues. Whaever its other miseries, China has never had a staples surplus. Food grains, including peanuts and oils, still have to be rationed. About 1/4 acre per capita of arable land is left. As that declines, the peasants tilling it are somehow prospering, while Western megafarmers have to be rescued at public expense from sinking in the oceans of food they make. Primary food cost is an insignificant decimal in the consumer price for processed, packaged, transported, stored, and marketed retail edibles. Chinese food doesn't have to be hauled over an economic continental divide from the Imperial Valley to the Kroger shelves. Much of it goes straight from the grower to the kitchen without ever being packaged or processed beyond picking or catching. The animal is alive, the vegetable still has night soil on its roots. Neither has been hauled in a motor vehicle.


Go to Part Two