Wednesday, September 15, 2010


You think 1982 seems like a long distance in the rearview mirror of history here in the United States, or in Europe? Imagine what 1982 looks like to a fortysomething man or woman who has lived in China their entire life - someone who has seen the country leap through a century’s worth of modernization, societal upheaval and technological change in a mere 28 years. I was fortunate enough to have traveled to China that year (1982) when I was 14 years old. My Grandmother (of GRANDMA’S POSTCARDS fame) was a mover and a shaker in the United Methodist Church, and her national committee had a big interest in studying China. Whether it was ultimately to proselytize, I’m not sure – but I don’t think so. That’s not how these Methodists rolled. She asked me if I’d go with them on this trip, provided I could stand being the only under person under the age of 50 in a twenty-person tour group. Naturally, this struck me as an amiable bargain, as it did my parents, who didn’t have to pony up a dime for an experience that was simply not accessible to most kids.

The trip was pretty eye-opening for me, as you might imagine. We spent 3 weeks in Beijing, Shanghai, Guilin, Xian, Guangzhou, and Hong Kong (then under British control). It was very tourist-oriented on the whole, with trip to communes, museums, temples and whatnot – and even a long hike on the Great Wall. Even this cynical teenager counted that as a lifetime highlight. There are a number of stories that came out of this trip that I conjure up from time to time – I thought you might want to hear a few of ‘em, and see some photos as well.

• The first full day we were in Beijing, the trip’s first stop, we visited the tomb/mausoleum of Mao Tse-Tung, right in the heart of Tiananmen Square. Mao mania was still is full effect here, 8 years after his passing, and me, though I knew he was a bad guy, didn’t quite yet grasp the death, disease and destruction brought on by Mao and his wickedly stupid ideas. Tell that to the Chinese who were nearly weeping as they viewed his embalmed body, and filed out solemnly in shuffle steps as they let out back onto the Square. It was totally surreal: mass anguish, hero worship and collective guilt, all played out in the sullen faces of hundreds of Chinese paying their respects. That was my introduction to the country.

• Shanghai, which was then as now the most populated city in the world, certainly didn’t look it. Now I’m told – and have seen in photos – that it’s a mass of skyscrapers and neon signs, but in 1982 there were hundreds of medium-sized buildings, virtually no cars (no one could afford to own one, or weren’t allowed) and people on identical black bicycles as far as the eye could see. Here's a photo I took of the most impressive part of the skyline. When we arrived at our hotel near the waterfront, I excused myself to take a walk around the town. Immediately this blond-haired teen was beset upon by a genial man not much older than I was, who asked, “Hello, may I please speak English with you?”. I told him he could, at which point he was quickly joined by another man who had been walking by. Then a woman stepped over, then a group of men, then a dozen more people, then a dozen more, until all of sudden I was claustrophobically surrounded by at least 40 people listening intently to our conversation. I was completely hemmed in, trying to answer questions like, “What is your name?”, “Are you having a good day?”, “Do you have any pets?” etc. Fortunately I kept my cool for about 5 minutes before extracting myself – I seriously had to wriggle out and throw a few body blocks to disengage from the pack. I immediately had a laugh about it, and it said a lot to me about the friendliness and intense curiosity of these people.

• We had a tour guide and interpreter named Mr. Liu. One day on a bus trip he asked me question after question about America, and specifically New York City. Knowing full well that he would never be allowed to leave China, I told him he should come out and see it for himself, and I’d show him around. This made him quite visibly sad, and I had to quickly change the subject. I told him about New York’s crime problems, which were then near their peak. “Bracks?”, he asked me. “Excuse me?”. “Bracks”, he said more forcefully. “Bracks are the ones who make the problems there”. “Oh, blacks, oh no no no no no”, I said, backing away, needing to change the subject yet again.

• There was a man from Georgia (the state) on the trip, totally large-hearted guy named Jack who, about every 24 hours made sure to tell me that my hair was too long, and that he couldn’t wait to get to Hong Kong so I’d go to a proper "English barber". Except once we actually were in Hong Kong that was the furthest thing from my mind. After nearly 3 weeks of fatty roast duck, greasy chow mein, gristly chicken and whatnot, all eaten with chopsticks, there was only one thing this American teen could think about (besides the obvious things male teens keep front-and-center) – McDonald’s. I hit up Hong Kong McDonald’s restaurants maybe four times in three days, even took the Star Ferry out of Kowloon and over to Hong Kong Island so I could hit one over there and cram burger after burger into my pimply face. You’ll be pleased to know the food translated very well, even on the other side of the planet.

• I strangely got it in my head one morning in Guangzhou (formerly Canton) that I’d go running, something that I never did a single time after this trip until my recent bout with running obsession in my 40s. As I flounced through a public park, I ran right through a group of Chinese doing tai chi, which, to state the obvious, was completely and utterly foreign to me. I stopped in my tracks and watched them go through this ancient collective cleansing/breathing/exercise ritual, and marveled. They were so focused, with eyes straight ahead and perfect posture and composure. Young and cocksure, and still narcissistically riding from the high of all the attention I would get in public from the natives, I decided to join in to this deeply personal and nearly religious ritual that I’d never heard of nor seen in practice even 5 minutes before. As my gawky and awkward body tried to contort and hold a position that the “leader” was displaying for the group, I noticed all eyes subtly start shifting over to me, and frowns beggining to form. I was totally ruining these people’s morning, as my lack of balance forced my feet to loudly stomp back on the ground, and my breath become wheezy trying to hold a position. I got the hint and quickly trotted out of there, never to do tai chi again.

Above all, and especially looking through my photos, some of which I’m posting for you here, I can see now that China was still a peasant-based, hard-Communist society, years away from the upheavals that have made it into one of the most dynamic societies in the world. I feel lucky for having gone when I did.

The author in 1982