Once upon a time there was a man who was alive.

Location: Hattiesburg, Mississippi, United States
St. Cuthbert and Disciples in a Boat


My Friend the Counter-Revolutionary

I had been looking foward to this particular entry in our schedule. Chinese calligraphy is as fascinating to me as it is bewildering, and before coming to China I had doodled about with some characters, oblivious to the correct method or tools. But I was rather tired this morning, and as I walked into class I felt a tinge of weariness: our teacher was a clearly older man, and there wasn't a translator in sight. Wonderful, I thought to myself. I was a little late (this Chinese habit I have no trouble replicating, even if it was not desired in Westerners, who, as everyone knows, are always early if not precisely punctual), so I had missed our instructor for the day's name. I would pick up that it was Mr. Gao- one of the most common names in China, I think.

As Mr. Gao patiently instructed us in the proper writing of characters, I gradually realized that he was rather different somehow. For one thing, he did speak English, quite well. For another, he was very patient: Chinese instructors are, by nature, extremely demanding. It is not impolite or unexpected for them to levy criticism without encouragement, or precious little of it. Mr. Gao, on the other hand, would continually correct our continual errors.

We practised our calligraphy for a couple hours, and managed to talk with Mr. Gao some during that time. He told us a little about himself- such as that he had learned English from American instructors in Kunming during the War. It being China and the question not being rude, I asked him how old he was. Eighty years old, he replied. As class ended, he treated us to a wonderful rendition of "You Are My Sunshine," which he had learned from an American instructor in Kunming.

You are my sunshine
My only sunshine
You make me happy
When skies are grey
You'll never know, dear
How much I love you
Please don't take my sunshine away.

Our class officially over, he then took us to visit another instructor at the school who did proffessional calligraphy, where we watched the calligraphist weave his great brush over the scrolls into those flowing, incomprehensible (to us) characters. Afterwards, a number of the Americans asked Mr. Gao if there was anyway we could aquire a hand-written calligraphy scroll. He said yes, and would a couple of us like to walk back to his apartment and write down commisions? He is retired, but the school still allows him a little apartment on campus in the teacher's housing building, where he keeps many of his books and memorabilia, and comes to as a sort of retreat from time to time. He explained to me that he still loves to be on campus- it is a mode of life more pleasing than city existence.

His little appartment lies on the third floor, up a low-ceiling stairwell. It is small, of course, with paintings and scrolls and photographs hanging on the walls. As Mr. Gao wrote the various lines our group wanted written, I looked at his bookcase. Most of his volumes were Chinese, of course, but one book caught my eye, Mr. China's Son, mainly because it was in English and dealt with China. I took it off the shelf and looked at it with interest. I asked Mr. Gao if perhaps I could borrow it, and he immediately replied yes, and remarked that he was in fact good friends with the author. Unfortunately, we had to say goodbye to Mr. Gao for the time, but he invited us to come and visit him anytime- he was on campus every Thursday, at his apartment with his son in Mengzi the rest of the time.

Of course I took him up on his offer the next time he was on campus. My roommate and I walked up the narrow little steps, a couple hours after lunch, past the birds chirping in their bamboo cages. Mr. Gao greeted us warmly and shuffled us to his study, where he proudly showed us his collection of things Western, particularly American. I would soon find that he had a great love for Americans and Europeans, and had in fact visited Holland and France a few years before, having been invited and funded by a good friend in Holland. We then sat down in his tiny 'living room' and drank green tea together and talked. I mentioned that I had read much of the book he leant me, and found it very interesting. I then, somewhat cautiously, asked about his experience in China's history. One is never sure what is acceptable to talk about in China, particularly when politics or modern history is broached. But Mr. Gao was quite willing to tell us his story, as it converged with the awful forces that tore China apart during the twentieth century.

He spent his childhood in Shanghia, during that city's days as a cosmopolitian city, where his father made friends with British and Japanese businessmen. During another conversation he remarked, with a hint of sadness, "My father had many Japanese friends in those days": maybe the only positive sort of remark I heard concerning the Japanese. Then World War II broke out, and his family shuffled about China, finally arriving in Kunming. While there he came into contact with the Flying Tigers and other American militarymen. He spoke of dining with his father with American officers and speaking a little English with them. As the war was in its final stages he entered an academy to learn English, and did a brief stint in the Nationalist Army. But whatever future he had in mind would soon come to a halt.

Yunnan was one of the final areas the Communists seized, but by 1949 their rule was complete across China. The first few years were more or less benign. Mr. Gao worked at a bank in Kunming and got married. But in 1956 Mao began the Great Leap Forward, the prelude to the Cutural Revolution. Mr. Gao was suddenly labeled a 'rightist' and 'counter-revolutionary,' along with a multitude of other intellectuals and educated people. His official crime, he said, was speaking up for a friend of his who had been previously arrested for 'crimes against the people.' He was sent to a specially constructed labour camp, which housed political prisoners exclusively, most of whom were intellectuals from the city. There they were given farm labour to do, and were confined to the camp, with few exceptions.

Mr. Gao described the first few months: they promised he would be detained only briefly, just long enough to be re-educated, to destroy his rightist ways. Within six months he would be released. Then it stretched to a year. Within time the realization sank in: there was no leaving, no escaping. For the first two years he worked almost constantly, twelve, maybe thirteen hours a day, with almost no rest days. Further into his imprisonment the hours decreased, but he remained confined to the camp. He was allowed to visit his parents in Kunming twice, in the span of twenty-one years. For the length of that time he tended pigs and cows. No books, no learning, no intellectual activity.

With the end of the Cultural Revolution and the downfall of the 'Gang of Four' Mr. Gao, along with many others in China, was released and rehabilitated. He was almost immediately sent to what was then Mengzi Teacher's College to begin teaching English, and begin a new life. And that is what he did. He is now retired, and has made extensive friendships with Westerners and travled within China and abroad in the past few years. His first wife divorced him when he was arrested, but he remarried a few years after his release, to a fellow teacher (she is a wonderful lady in her own right, and a superb cook I can report). He does not hate anyone for what was done to him, he told us. He joked that he learned many useful skills, and after being a bachelor for so many years he is quite capable of doing anything that needs to be done. Still, it is obvious that those years deeply affected him, more than I could ever know or imagine. As he related his story his eyes visibly watered a little, and he was very quiet. It was deeply shocking to me: how could this wonderful, friendly man sitting before me have been treated so badly? I have read many accounts of the crimes of the last century, but to actually be talking to someone who was a victim of them: that was a different thing altogether.

Yet he was able to rebuild. Today he is still in excellent shape. One day we played ping-pong together, and he thoroughly defeated me. On occassion he rides his bicycle to school, instead of the bus. In town he walks everywhere, never rides.

Over the next few weeks I had the chance to spend more time with Mr. Gao- including eating at his apartment in town with his wife, a particularly grand treat after weeks of cafeteria and restaurant food. He has had many Western friends over the past several years, and has a thorough-going love of things Western (he was beginning to read The Hobbit this month). The re-education program does not seem to have done its job in that respect! But he also loves China quite clearly, even if his experience with her has been one of 'contradictions.' He has lived and suffered through a remarkable epoch, and is now seeing another period of change. He has some misgivings about all the new descending upon China: he regrets how many old things are being lost, as bulldozers and cranes work tirelessly. We talked about the drug problem that grips both our countries, and what to do about it. He was always ready to discuss such things, and listen to our ideas and conceptions, and then offer a few words of his own. But just as enjoyable was sitting down together and drinking afternoon tea, with few words at all.

One of the things I have gradually learned about China is that, no matter how many experts on it you hear or books you read, it is a nation that will always defy precise categories. Mr. Gao is a wonderful example. The last thing I expected to do in China was make friends with a survivor of the Communist labour camps who sang "You Are My Sunshine" and loved to play ping-pong, even at eighty years old.

Mr. Gao and his wife at home


Arrival in China

My trip to China began in Jackson, from whence I flew to Atlanta and Los Angeles, and then to Hong Kong. Along the way I met up with the other members of my group, two of which had traveled in China before. There were ten of us in all, mostly from the Deep South, with one guy from Illinois. We arrived in Hong Kong at five o'clock in the morning, and were there for several hours, wandering about the stores, using the free internet portals, and watching Chinese music videos.

We then flew from Hong Kong to Kunming, the capital city of the province of Yunnan, which lies in the southwest of China, bordering Burma, Laos, and Vietnam, with Tibet to the northwest. Hong Kong and Kunming are quite different places, and upon walking out of the airport and boarding the bus I immediately began to have the so-called sensation of "culture shock." As I noted below, even Kunming smells rather bad. The nearly five hour bus ride to the town of Mengzi, where Honghe University is located, was rough and nauseuous, at least for someone not yet used to Chinese bus-riding. The scenery seemed rather drab for most of the ride, and the roadside architecture and industry depressing and decripit. Upon reaching Mengzi it was night, so everything was terribly dissoriented to me. The main highway from Kunming to Mengzi is decent until Mengzi, at which point it devolves into an under-construction track. Under-construction does not mean re-routing; it means really bumpy dirt road with big buses and trucks. To reach the college it is necessary to turn off of the main highway and down onto an even rougher one and a half lane road that leads onto campus.

It was quite late when we arrived, but we were still ferried to eat dinner in a private room in the cafeteria. The food was excellent, but I was feeling rather nauseous. I managed through dinner, but ended up spending the night in general agony. I slept but little, and became aquainted with the bathroom fairly quickly. The dorm itself was not too bad: more than large enough for only two people, with bunk beds (you sleep on top) with desks and a closet beneath. The beds were spartan- wooden planks and a quilt with a mosquito net about it- but I soon found myself sleeping just fine. There is no air conditioning, but the weather was rarely hot. My roommate from North Alabama thought it too warm at times, but I found it more or less fine, coming from South Mississippi where we get excited if it drops below ninety. The squatty potty doubled as the shower drain, which is really quite economical, so long as you use the grate and don't drop your shampoo bottle down the drain like one of my comrades did... Our room rounded out with a sink. The day after we arrived one of the facets decided to turn on and not stop running. We had it fixed, but it repeated its performance two more times. The water, of course, is not drinkable, so we were provided with a drinking water dispenser in one corner, which the front desk would refill for six yuan.

I got to feeling better by Monday afternoon, and got up and walked about campus for the first time. Honghe University is small, only about five thousand students, but is very nicely landscaped, one of the most attractive campuses I have visited in fact.

Our Chinese classes began later in the week, and were taught by several people from the Foreign Affairs Department. We attended class most days from 8:30 to 11:00, with breaks in between. I cannot boast too mightily of my Chinese skills. It is a difficult language to aquire for an Indo-European speaker, as its overall dynamics are so different. However, through both class and continually being in a Chinese-speaking environment I was able to pick up some basic sentences and words. We also had various classes on elements of Chinese culture, such as calligraphy and painting and dance. I am not cut out for dancing of any sort, I am afraid. Neither am I much of a calligraphist, though I find the art of Chinese calligraphy quite fascinating and beautiful. I love Chinese painting, ancient and modern.

It was not long before we ventured into town. Honghe's campus lies a few kilometers from Mengzi proper, and is most easily accessed by the venerable No. 4 public bus, which, despite attrocious roads, is very dependable. The bus ride into town was always an adventure. In the first place, our little band of Americans was the object of continual staring, since Mengzi has only a handful of Western residents, and we were very much a novelty. Then there is the bus ride itself. The first half is fine, and the road is actually semi-paved. Upon reaching Mengzi city limits is degrades into what looks like a bombed-out track. Riding felt more like sailing on a boat in choppy waters. But you seldom had to worry about falling on the floor, as the crush of people that crammed in prevented that. We quickly learned that there is almost no limit to the number of people that can get into a Chinese bus, particularly on market day.

The ride into town passes at first through pomegranate orchards and rice fields, the former being something of a speciality of Mengzi County. It then meets a sort of low-grade industrial area, with various factories and, um, recycling centers, if that is the proper name for enclosed massive piles of rubbish. It then comes into town proper, where the streets are a continuous line of vendors and stores, selling everything from Coke to farming appliances to fruit and vegetables to men's suits. China is an immensely capitalist nation (though this does not of necessity translate into a true free market at all), and stores and business seem to exist everywhere, even in the public library. The road was always busy with buses, bicycles, motorcycles, taxis and cars, pony-drawn carriages, and three-wheeled contraptions the Chinese call sanlanchu. In addition there are many curious open-air engine trucks employed in Mengzi, and I would often see them on the roadside pumping water in a field.

The 'main drag' of Mengzi lies a quick walk from the final No. 4 bus stop, and on it one can find the main Bank of China, where we exchanged our dollars for yuan. Further down are numerous stores, bakeries, restaurants, and two large supermarkets. I was somewhat surprised at the ease we had in finding Western, or at least Western-style foods and products. Many things, such as the pastries I regularly consumed from the bakeries, had a certain Chinese flavour to them, but were still very much in the vein of Western treats.

Speaking of food, we were treated to a steady supply of excellent meals. A few things were somewhat odd, but I tasted very little I did not like. Yes, I did eat dog on one occasion: it is rather tough but not bad, I have to admit. However, it is very expensive, and I talked to relatively few people who liked it. My favourite dish was a Yunnan specialty, over-the-bridge-noodles, which consists of a big bowl full of broth and coated with a hot oil surface, into which are dumped meats, vegetables, spices, tofu, and of course, noodles, all of which cook beneath the hot oil. Ah...

My first week in China was a continual process of adjustment, to different food, social mores, living conditions, language, everything. But right from the start I loved it. The people we met were wonderful, extremely courteous and helpful. Getting accustomed would have far more difficult without the aid of the students and staff who befriended us.

In my next post I'll describe some of the people I met, and try to tackle some of the cultural differences as well.

Smells of The Middle Kingdom

This is a funny and accurate short introduction to some paticularities of China: A Pictoral Guide to Life in China. I can personally attest to all of these, except the bit about the collapsing Internet cafes. In my experience they were only really, really warm.

The smell is an immediately noticable thing. I stepped out of the airport in Kunming upon arrival in the PRC, and my first sensation was, "What's that smell?" One of my friends refers to it as "China funk," and it pretty much swathes every city and town in China. Even pre-packaged food has a particular China-funkiness, that, like the smell, cannot exactly be described, but it very tangible.

However, the general China funk- which, after several days I stopped noticing- doesn't hold a candle to some more specific smells. Bathrooms range in sanitation, from the partitioned holes in the countryside to perfectly acceptable ones in some restaurants and hotels. The one in my dorm room smelled horrid perpetually, and it quickly became a rule that neither I nor my room-mate was allowed to leave it open for longer than necesary to get in and out. Speaking of toiletries, the "squatty potty" proved less difficult to get used to than I had thought. Actually, considering the state of sanitation in many places, Western-style toilets would have been much more frightening...

The market was always a smogasboard of interesting smells and sights, from mushrooms of sometimes insane sizes to livers and hearts and intestines and such hanging about in the open air. Not to mention the debris that covered the floor- it was always best not to look down too much. Most people just throw their rubbish down, whether organic or inorganic. I must admit I had gotten into the habit of just tossing my fruit seeds, until I went to market one day with some of my Chinese friends, Victor, Truman, and Irene (their English names, a terribly helpful thing for those of us with a limited grasp of Chinese). We had to get a bag and put the husks and seeds in the bag and dispose of them properly. I hope more people in China will emulate their custom. Until then, the rubbish and stench is all part of the fun, I suppose.

Zai Jian China

Well, I flew back to Jackson, Mississippi, Friday. It's been quite an experience, and I'm still gathering my thoughts regarding it all. So this post is just to affirm that I'm still alive and well, except for the fact that Western food is still bothering my stomach... I shall begin posting my recollections soon.

For the moment, here's a picture of me standing next to the PRC flag in Kunming.