Part Two


There's More To It than English

To write something, anything, you have to start down very deep near where thought becomes language. You have a discouragingly long way to go before you reach the point where you can make yourself at all understood to someone else. There, you hope, your reader starts the trip back down his own long trail of language to thought and meaning. It's astonishing that it should be possible to accomplish anything at all by such a process. It only works because people share some kind of animal consciousness. Maybe that explains why the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, statistically certain to exist, hasn't turned up anything. The signals coming up from a mindness we can't share are indistinguishable to us from noise. What my Chinese students wrote for their assignments always was plainly recognizable as intelligence, but decoding it often seemed to lead far away to some utterly alien thoughtscape.

Some samples. One of the tricks I tried to teach them was the use of illustration to put substance into abstractions. I had them read an apology for the American military presence in Europe (something I also hoped would start some flaming arguments, but didn't). The assignment was to write an illustration, using some kind of real example, of how we often have to do something we don't like. Here's one response:

In our country, there are many regulations that people have to obey whether you like it or not. In the following, I'd like to give two examples to illustrate this:

First, women are not allowed to keep bare head (of course, except some disease) if you are not a nun. If you have you hair cut without remaining hair, people will say that you are not satisfied with Communist Party.

Second (last one), the Middle School Students are forbidden to make love, because if students make love during to middle School, that will influence their study. One more a point, the students in this period are not mature, they don't know the real meaning of love. If they make love in this period, their teacher or parents will regard that as a terrible matter and give them all kinds of warning. In some middle schools, if the student make love with boy or girl, the school will dismiss them from school. But, I think, with the development of society, this opinion will disappear. In my opinion, if the students make love at the base of helping each other to do well in study, that's OK!

Let's hair it for the Party, make love for grades. The Chinese college junior twists between his own unique set of social imperatives and appetites.

Another assignment was to figure out and describe exactly how a certain presentation caught the student's interest. That didn't work as intended. Almost everybody looked in the window and saw only his own reflection. Such as:

Today, I've seen an very exciting film, it's name is "Person, who is killing me" From this topic, you must feel very reverse. Really?

"Me" is the actress in the film, She was a thin. small. short and pretty girl, Her beauty focused a lot of man, to ran after her, but she was very proud and tended to think she was the best and always looked down upon the others, at lest, she was published by the God!

Oh, my dear teacher, What I have said, I just made up a film at that time, because I was waken up by the struck of 1, It was nothing but a dream!

One more specimen, this time a self-comparison to another person:

I'm a un-self-conifidence no belief very casual and strong sense of self-abased girl. in a sense, I lack compititve. All these character lead me in a tight corner. and and alsamt became to a each day I was in low spirit and fear everything. When I lost the hope of life A girl came to my life. her coming brought absolutly changes. Her advantage nature gave me much impression and It's also effective. not only from the outward features but also his inner nature is tremendous different comparing to mine. She is self-responsibility very confidence and (determined) willpower, from a subtlities of his action. all those can reveal to me. Sooner or later I imitate her. with attention. of long stand I gradually regain his marvou feature. and up to now. I do everything full of my energy.

To be fair, I must say that most of my English majors did much better mechanically than this one, but the outpouring of autocastigation was universal, quite at odds with their typical rowdy goodnaturedness. They are sieved through an education and upbringing that sorts all experience and response into separate, rigidly correct bins. Speech and essay contests invariably spawn predictable dithyrambs to principles, among which most strikingly absent are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. A teacher's first duty is to preach what is right. After one of my more romantic performances, a student came up to me and asked, "Prof. Lee, what should we learn from this?" I had left off the moral, all that really mattered. The best I could come up with was "well, what did you learn from it?" I like to think she's still wondering.

Outside of class, every paleface in China quickly gets used to the let's-practice-our-English routine. The opening gambit is standardized. You are from what country, have you ever been to China before, how long have you been here? If you haven't fled or played dumb, by now you're the center of a crowd, all of whom know and simply have to try out at least those three. There must be a universal English primer somewhere that begins with them. Very few seem to have gone on to page 2, but there are some surprises:

In the market street. A tiny, ancient man threading among the tangle of sidewalk food piles, squatting vendors, bicycles. Thin white hair, shabby blue jacket, cloth slippers gone through at the toe. A cane in one hand, in the other a plastic bag, two small fish, leeks, garlic. Suddenly he turns to me, as though aware of my eyes on his bent back.

"Are you an American?" he inquires, very precisely. Half a dozen bristles on lip and chin.
"Yes." I stoop to catch his words in the ambient uproar.
"When I studied English, long ago, my teacher, an Englishman, taught me to say `I'm sorry, but I don't know.' Now I have read in a book that you must say `I'm sorry, I don't know.' Is that correct, without `but'?"
"Yes, that's right. It's also correct with `but'."
"Which is more correct?"
A question I hear so often. "Without." To dodge is useless.
"Thank you. It is important to speak exactly." His steady gaze sparkles.
"You certainly do. Your English is excellent."
"Oh, no, I speak only well enough to be understood. I am pleased to have met you."
Smile, chuckle, thin brown handshake, and gone.

How to take a Vacation in China

The Fall semester at Gongda, as its inmates dub Changsha Tech (zhong nan gong ye da xue), never really ended. Everybody just lost interest in it. The weather gets seriously foul towards Christmas, and that helps make the locals feel like celebrating. After mid-December, classes couldn't outdraw the banquets. Official China runs on the solar year, but what counts in real life is the old lunar cycle of rites and seasons, still printed on every Chinese calendar along with that newfangled Gregorian nonsense. Of course, there's no sense in letting any holidays go to waste, so Santa Claus and the reindeer do their act and auld acquaintance gets baptized with fireworks and -water too, but really just as a warmup for Spring Festival, which starts the lunar new year (January 29 in 1987). To celebrate you go home and eat.

Family and food have outlasted every dynasty and doctrine to remain the two institutions Chinese life is founded on. People show how they love both by what they're willing to go through to celebrate them at chun jie. A Chinese would see in the most insane holiday congestion Americans can create a model of sedate efficiency compared to the shoving, spitting tumult he tangles with every day. When all billion of them are trying to get home for Spring Festival dinner, the antipodes groan on their axes. And the foreign devils on the teaching staff, let off from spreading bourgeois liberalization for awhile, have nothing to do but travel.

Huddled under our roaring heat pump in sweaters and parkas, Julia and I ruled anything outside the tropics de facto suicide. How far south can you go in China? That question, like many another, turned out to have both geographical and political answers. Maps printed in China enclose the whole South China Sea in a big red bubble, claiming every coral reef (and the oil under them) almost down to the equator. The airline map led us to believe a flight went as far as the southern tip of Hainan Island, which just about everybody agrees is part of China, and I found some promoganda shots of coconut palms and beaches there. Sold.

After Christmas, as we got down to banqueting in earnest, Zuo Tieyong, a Gongda vice-president, heard of our project over a toast, and immediately took things in hand. We were still learning that that's how things are done--indeed the only hope of getting anything done: through connections. The Nonferrous Metals Corporation, Gongda's parent ministry, has research branches on Hainan and in Guangzhou, where Zuo was owed some favors. A phone call tomorrow would command their hospitality, no trouble at all. They would be only too pleased to bed and banquet me, honored guest, first exchange professor in our new program, its pioneer, the Head of the Dragon. Bottoms up!

Now I had both the key to the tropics and a Chinese name, Professor Lee Longtou (Lee Dragonhead). The latter, jovially honorific (serious prestige attaches to dancing the parade dragon's head), stuck, and is good for all sorts of respectful hilarity. The former would take some twisting.

A conference delegation was headed south in a few days. They could take us along, get us tickets at the native price, and someone from Guangzhou Research would meet the plane. Fine.

The Gongda minibus tore along for the airport flat out between the buttonwood trees, the fastest I had ever moved in China, dodging trucks, pigs, mountains, children, and even missing a few of the potholes. I wondered how many flips it could do with a blown tire, in this land so famous for its acrobats.

All for naught. Nothing blew, nothing flew that morning. The flight, rumored for 7:40, deferred, as usual, to the usual near-freezing drizzle. By lunchtime I was shaking too hard to steer chopsticks and turned to drink. Sometime that dim afternoon we did go, though, and the first thing I really remember noticing at the Guangzhou airport was a nice pair of legs in hose and skirt. My god, what has she done with her quilting?

But that problem would have to wait. There was no sign of our appointed escort, hardly a surprise for a flight 8 hours late. Ah, connections. Cheng Zhongwen, Gongda Foreign Languages chairman and accompanying delegate, had them too. We taxied to the hotel where Nonferrous Metals keeps an export headquarters. The phone worked. By dinnertime we had moved into the VIP suite at the Guangzhou Research Institute, out in the suburbs, guests of Mr. Shen Wenrong, Vice-Chief Engineer, Ret., a man I like very much and will tell you more about in a minute. I was going to learn a lot from him.

Our quarters were as severely Chinese as could be. A great wall, no joke, encircles the institute, like any such unit really a small city, with 3 gates and guardhouses manned or womaned day and night. You neither come nor go unnoticed, although access is public, with no badges or saluting nonsense. The gatekeepers, like their counterparts everywhere, are first of all service people, and in my experience very willing and sometimes even able to fix or find or call or fetch. They have a phone and the keys. They could instantly turn the whole place into the equivalent of a medieval fortress. The threat is expected from without.

Walled subcompounds are the functional organs in the Chinese soma, in the present example enclosing apartment complexes, factories, utility stations, a motor pool, a slum, fish ponds, banana, palm, orange, and azalea groves, the guest house. That last doesn't connote right. In Chinese cities, people don't live in what we would call a house.

A dwelling means a concrete multistory blockhouse kind of thing with wee balconies cluttered with gutted critters drying and laundry and flowers and junk, and apartments scarcely less wee and communal--well, sanitary holes, if any, down the hall, and open drains spewing up and down the walls outside and broken windows and friendly, eager rats and a resident party warden and the stairwells always wet and full of bicycles and shouting and spitting and honeycomb coke blocks and the whole thing just smells right, like home. But a guest house is more ambitious than that. Mr. Shen assured us our suite was "ministry-level."

The sitting room could hold a committee on the plastic-covered furniture lining the walls in typically severe rectangular arrangement. Lace mosquito nets swooped from the ceiling over clean, hard beds. A shower room with tiled floor and drain also contained a flush toilet, otherwise unenclosed, and a demand water heater, alas, that demanded more current than the wires draped rakishly around the roof gutters were willing to carry. We never saw a rat.

Banqueting started right away. Its intent is not to nourish but to stun. What creepeth, flyeth, swimmeth, shooteth forth or oozeth about where or howsoever, that shalt thou eat. What biteth like a serpent and stingeth like an adder and stinketh like drain cleaner, that shalt thou drink. And all shall be in quantity at least fourteen times what those gathered together could possibly finish. And let host and guest not fail to praise one another. Then go to bed.

Dawn struck with bugle blasts, loudspeakered harangues and martial music, barnyard commotion, much splashing, and a hell of a roar. The guesthouse overlooked the wall, beyond which began peasantry. Producing food is what China takes most seriously. They go at it with alarming organization and energy--I do wish they'd turn all the public services over to a peasant commune. At an airfield across the road, somebody came out every morning and fired up the A-50, a huge crate of a vintage-Russian biplane the Red Baron would have been scared to fly. It made a stirring thunder for about 10 minutes. It even took off once. There wasn't fuel, I since heard, for more.

Mr. Shen programed our day. We could give him our red cards, white cards, green cards--no, he didn't need the green ones--passports, and 300 Yuan, and he would get us plane tickets for our further explorations. Did we know the Guangzhou Botanical Garden was larger than any but Kew? No. Well, it's right down the road.

It's big all right. All the usual vegetable wonders, beginning with the justly famous avenue of Archontophoenix, like living Gothic, groves of Caryotas and Livistonas and Arecas and Phoenixes (palms, unlike the bird, can indeed be plural), a deliciously jungliferous fern arbor, gravely beautiful bamboo forests. Despite the native tropicals, I didn't think it matched Berlin (every known Tillandsia!). I have yet to see Kew.

Over that evening's banquet, Mr. Shen told us he had come home to retire from a six-year hitch with the UN Industrial Development Organization in Vienna. When he occasionally got stuck in English, he could get unstuck and carry on in quite serviceable German. He had also visited Rome and Paris. Wasn't that, I asked cautiously, a rather uncommonly fortunate experience record? I knew that to work, study , or travel abroad headed the list of fond hopes held by many of my Changsha colleagues and students, anyone who had never succeeded in unlatching all the catches to getting out of China, and most of those few who had. Yes, he thoughtfully supposed, he had enjoyed some privileges. I should understand, though, that China was very different from other countries, that their free enterprise and development looked very attractive, but that thanks to socialism China had no crime or prostitution or drugs, the ills inseparable from the capitalist system.

He went on so sincerely I decided it would be impolite to argue with such surprising facts and feats of logic. I said I thought our way of doing things made for efficiency by competition, that any private airline, for example, would put CAAC (Civil Air Administration of China) out of business overnight.

"Yes," he smiled, "very different." He slowly patted the back of his left hand with his right, rather like a priest spending absolution. "China is poor, and many things are hard here. Very hard."

We left it at that and did what we could with the sea slugs, turtle, spicy sliced flesh things, shredded kohlrabi and pig stomach, wiggly rubber fungoids, assorted weird weeds and a dozen more platters of I know not and would rather know not what. Then came the rice and vats of soup and the hot pot, a thing like a big cake pan with a charcoal fire in the middle. You dump in the soup and any stray scraps or unwary bystanders and little unpeeled shrimp and wads of cilantro and spinach and thin-sliced raw pork and it all boils merrily while you snap at whatever you hope to fish out with chopsticks, and everybody gets little liqueur glasses of icky sweet red wine and rancid-smelling white booze and volleys toast for toast until the oranges are served, and that means it's about over and time to go to bed.

Guangzhou is a real city, somewhere in China's top several sizewise, and otherwise at least a little like what a Westerner means by civilization, lying there helplessly exposed to Hong Kong TV, swarms of so-called overseas Chinese, and the leapfrogging vanguards of businessmen breaching socialist purity with dollars and decadence. Often in January it was the only mainland Chinese station reporting temperature minima above freezing. A Ming Dynasty fort, sharing a hilltop in the park with a skypoking TV tower and Araucarias the size of mature loblollies, houses a thorough display of archeologicalia from the Paleolithic on the ground floor, where Mr. Shen, patting his hand, pointed out that ancient Mexican civilization came from China, up to the heroes of liberation on the fifth, from the porch of which there must have been, B(efore) S(mog), a fine view of the city where since the Mongols most Chinese revolutions get started. There are also old temples and a mosque and a Catholic cathedral ("stone house" in Chinese) and the cracked Victorian elegance of the old opium-trading commercial quarter, now dominated by the ridiculously stupendous White Swan Hotel (welcome you please pay in foreign currency), and a well-swarmed river walk, and huge, root-twining banyans, and Bauhinia trees blooming everywhere and smelling distractingly seductive through the diesel smoke, and a screeching tangle of traffic.

"You know, we don't have private cars," Shen told me proudly. "I think that is better." Score one more for socialism, I said to myself. Chinese cities have grown up innocent of the automobile. But here it comes, and the fight is awesome. Nothing seems to me more likely to batter down the highminded puritanicality of modern Chinese society than the Toyota.

I raised at least a couple of book-sized issues in that last sentence. Please keep your seat while I bunt this time up, and I promise we'll be off to the islands directly.

Recently, Zhao Ziyang, for the moment China's most visible statesman, predicted that within a few years China would become the world's greatest market for motor vehicles. The auto makers no doubt are tooling up to replace St. Christopher with little plastic dashboard Zhaos, praying he's right. If I know my socialism, what he meant was that China is going to build its own cars and flood the rest of the world with fleets of them too. The latter may turn out to be more feasible than the former.

Chinese society looks to me ultimately composed of incredibly tight home-family-school-work-unit atoms within which there's no place to go, much less park. The automobile has shown how easily it can blast open old social structures. In New China, everything depends on the cohesion and governability of those vital cells. If people suddenly decide they want the freedom to go wherever and whenever they please, the system will break. They will also start doing and thinking and wanting whatever they please, and all those plagues now so feared and so anxiously screened out at the border will be let loose inside, and everything the Revolution has fought for, the control, the discipline, the righteousness, will be spoiled. China will be pure no more. We'll soon see.

Now what about our expedition to the beach? Oh, Shen apologized. No tickets. Flights to Haikou all full.

Haikou? That's the harbor on the north end of the island. We were trying for the south sea shores at Sanya, the most nearly equatorial PRC civilization. Shen never exactly said so, but I'm sure he felt responsible for networking us along within the Corporation, to its research unit in Haikou, where of course there would be a guest house fit for VIPs and white folks. Forfend we should be cast adrift, beyond connections! But we had our minds made up to get to the beach, and we weren't going back to our walk-in freezer in Changsha without having another shot at it. We retrieved all our documents from Shen, and then, just for the hell of it, went next morning ourselves to the China International Travel Service in Guangzhou.

Just finding the gate in the chainlink fence around the corner from the parking lot took some fancy navigating. In the office, behind a long counter, five clerks manned desks. No other customers. No stampeding, elbowing, shoving hordes. Strange.

One clerk even noticed us. Getting stranger.

"Yes?" he said.
"We'd like to go to Sanya. Can you get us tickets?"
"Well, I hear there's a tourist hotel there--can you get us a reservation?"
"Now look--the airline schedule shows 5 flights a week down there and back--"
"You buy ticket next door." The CAAC office.
"Oh. Then can you get me reservations?"
"I don't much want to get stuck down there. Can't you--"
"You get there, you go to Sanya travel service. No problem."
"Can you give me their number or address?"
"No." He went back to his desk. Not so strange after all.

I guess it was the challenge. I knew better than to waste any wattage getting mad. We hiked around a kilometer of fence and lot to the airline office, geographically just next door, and there they all were, the stampeding, elbowing, shoving hordes. Julia elbowed and shoved to what advertised itself as an information counter. An old bluejacketed and capped functionary looked up in alarm. "Oooh," he hooted, eyes wide, handing her a mimeo form. It asked for flight number and time and destination and the like. Well, I had always thought that was the kind of data information counters gave out, but this is China. We had a slightly obsolete airline schedule a friend had stolen for us somewhere--that's not the sort of thing the airline wants you to have. We wrote in some numbers, fought our way to a ticket window, and an hour later, behold, were booked the next morning for Sanya. One way. No return ticket. No hotel. Whatthehell.

I don't quite know what should come next. The empty shack on the otherwise empty beach where the plane came down, the bus ride in search of town (town?), wrangling pediscooter vultures squabbling to loot the helpless white prey, the utterly disintertested boy frontdesking the hostel totally full of sourly idealistic foreign-devil backpackers, the frank enmity at the fancy beach hotel on the other side of the mountain, the hilarity I caused with my notion of getting plane tickets out of there, all went by so uniformly depressingly that they hardly seem now to have been separate events at all. The hotel clerk grumpily conceded us a room for one night against our express promise to move on next day. We graciously promised.

And there was the beach. Just as improbably gorgeous as the bait the hucksters print in the ads.

I must pause a moment till my heart come back to me. I was born and grew up on a beach. And I have lived to be crowded, pushed, insulted, ordered, and revolted off it. That crucial line between us and the ocean we came from eons ago we are now turning everywhere into a huge trap. The lure is water, the ultimate vital fluid , the archamniotic running in every living vein. Nothing angers me more than the sight of futile humanity drawing battle lines on the beach. We have cause to envy the whales. They have made it back. We are killing each other trying.

We didn't see any whales. Elaborately bored or maybe just frightened capitalist subadults, frantically casual, sprawled or jogged or gymnasticated earnestly. A little gray cruiser sent ashore a team-drilled, fit-looking squad, who pointed and triangulated and signaled bravely with a huge red flag. A TV video crew, incongruous in clothes and battery packs, waded around in the sand, hunting a story. Their English was about as good as our Chinese, and of course they had to try it out on us. I don't think we made the evening news. In a way, it was a relief to be just more white dogshit instead of the spectacle from outer space. As custodian of passports, room key, every cent to our names, and four delicately excellent pieces of coral, I combed the tide line. Julia floated out into the South China Sea like a small, blonde, free whale.

From the airline agent, snarling with laughter at my wanting tickets, I had at least learned where the bus station was, and had gotten tickets next day for Haikou, a good 350 km to the north at the other end of the island, whither we had so recently disdained to go, but which now looked like the far keyhole back to civilization. We hoped to fly, boat or swim back to Guangzhou from there. At 7:29 a.m., the 7:30 run began. The big Mitsubishi diesel roared to life, so did the tape system at about twice the horsepower, and the little straw-hatted hominid in the seat in front of me threw up all over the oranges and sprouting coconuts stacked in the aisle.

I was mad and scared. This was vacationing? Ahead, I worried, after eight hours of pounding by road and tape and vomit, would be the dismal chaos of a Chinese bus station in a city I knew nothing whatever of, on an island thousands were standing in line to leave.

As it turned out, I had it about right. But the city made up for it, first of all the Overseas Chinese Hotel. Buddha bless them. We staggered in off the bus. They didn't know any English and it didn't occur to them to shake us out for dollars. Room? sure. How long you want to stay? (giggle, shy smile). Plane tickets? Sure, we get them for you. How about tomorrow?

Julia says I cried. They put us back together with clean beds, cold beer, service-with-a-giggle and that feast of the gods, fresh seafood. In another, better age, maybe we'd have been there yet. But the age and condition being what they were, we dared not spurn such a rarity as plane tickets, so we signed on for the Guangzhou flight the next evening. That would give us most of a day to stuff down fresh banana-sized prawns and see the town.

Haikou is a gem. There's the sea--you can smell it. And the harbor--you can smell it too--full of vast, solemn, incredible junks. And an intestinal tangle of streets--I can smell them still--arcaded with fancifully balconied and crenellated fronts, almost Paduan, but distinctly Chinese-riotous. And a huge central park on a hill with tombs and temples and coconut palms and flowers blooming everywhere. We hiked all over town and the wharves and even risked stopping for a few seconds to just look (in a moment all you can see is a wall of staring, slack-jawed faces).

We got back and checked out of the hotel through the middle of an absolutely deafening wedding. Airport? The taxi drivers weren't interested. Not far enough. You go with them, there--a stray minibus. How much? Oh, nonono, come on, you come. By ten we were having hot showers at the vast Dong Fang Hotel in Guangzhou.



Go to Part Three