China 1990

China 1990
Part 1….Settling in

I’ve wanted to write for awhile on what China was like when I first came here.  This is not a pissing contest.  I do realize others had arrived here before me.  However, I almost never come across laowai that have come here as early as I have.  That is, that didn’t give up on the place, or those that felt it wasn’t paramount to continue with their Mandarin.

I have not lived in China continuously for 23 years.  I’ve only lived here for 12 years or so.   I’ve lived in many cities(all the big ones), and of course travelled a lot.   China has changed.  In a lot of very big ways.  I guess I just want to have a record of how it’s changed in my eyes.

My first day
Was approximately August 15, 1990.  Guangzhou.   I got off the train from Hong Kong.  I do not recall how I got to my university. (There were no private schools than)  Needless to say, after having spent the summer in San Francisco, I was not at all ready for the climate.   To this day, I wear 2-3 shirts a day when in South China.
I was in a fairly good mood because by coming to China I had gotten rid of a fairly nice, but smothering gf.  I figured she couldn’t reach me from China.

I recall going through customs and a pretty immigration officer saw my visa and spoke to me in Chinese.  I was 6 feet tall, abt 145 pounds,  blue eyes with a ponytail(the peasant’s on campus called me a girl for several weeks).   All I could say was “ni hao”, “hao jiu bu jian”, and count from 1-10.   And of course I could say “zai jian”.  She had a bright smile and thought she was going to actually speak to me in her language.  When she noticed I couldn’t speak Mandarin she grew awkward and her face, fell.   I just kept saying “ni hao” like an idiot.

The immigration officer went through all my bags.  I was told this might happen.  I had a book about Gorbachev and Perestroika.   Though Gorbachev was a bit like Deng Xiaoping, in terms of openness, and liberalization, his books were banned.  I placed the book abt him and Perestroika at the bottom of my duffel bag, face down.  This is because Gorbachev’s pic was on the cover. This immigration officer actually went all the way to the bottom of my bag, saw the book, but didn’t think to flip it over. 
I also had a scrap album of Tiananmen, which wasn’t found.  I later “lost” it. 

Upon getting to campus, I found there was a gate.  I found it strange they had walls everywhere, and gatekeepers.    I noticed the consistency of a country with no academic freedom having walls around their campuses.

We couldn’t  get in.  I was with another classmate of mine.  We waited for what seemed like forever in the sun, before they allowed us entry.  Apparently they were not suspecting us.  I felt that strange.  
Now, you may be wondering why in the hell was I studying Mandarin in Guangzhou?
That would be because I was used as a pawn to serve one’s purpose, pure and simple.

I had studied Mandarin for one semester in college. I of course “failed” the class, but our Professor was a kindly old man, who didn’t “fail” anyone, and I think I got a C…I don’t remember.    But I had two thick books with me, from class, and I swear, I didn’t know a single damn word in those things.

Well….this prof was a visiting professor.  He had been persecuted during the cultural revolution, and hated Mao.  I mean, he just hated this guy.  He made fun of his Mandarin, and said “when he spoke on the radio we could barely understand him”.   I didn’t get it.  Didn’t everybody speak Mandarin?  Of course, I was totally ignorant about the dialects prevalent in China.

As it turns out, he and his elderly wife spent their one year on campus, and really weren’t anxious to go back.  So they didn’t.   However….they had a very nice apartment on campus,  that was empty.  They were being pressured to give the aprt back.  So they brokered a deal.  Once I told my prof that I wanted to study Chinese, he promptly wrote an introduction letter for me and my classmate, and we both got accepted.   In return, he was able to keep his apartment.    (I’m sure he eventually lost it however….the guy to my knowledge never went back)

Our rooms were threadbare, but I was used to student living so it didn’t bother me.  I knew one guy from Yale who cried his first day in China.   I admit, it was one hell of an experience going to China.
I had never been abroad before.  I had never taken a family vacation.  I had travelled a bit with my grandfather, but that was it.  Making China your first overseas stop was surely the “road not taken”.  
But it was a classic case of not knowing what you don’t know.

(20 years later when I travelled to Italy, I realized how much easier it was vis a via China…even than making me reflect on how I was able to cope in China back than)

I had sacrificed to come here.   I had been accepted by the Peace Corps, a late acceptance, after having bought my one way ticket for Hong Kong.   My ticket to HKG cost me a bit over $500.  It was via Taiwan of all places.  When landing in Taipei, they looked at my passport, saw my China visa stamp, and gave me a hard stare.

I convinced the PC to give me a one year suspension of my acceptance. 

My room had a red threadbare carpet, with an AC.  I had a balcony.  I should mention here that I was, and still am, deathly afraid of snakes, and I hate lizards.  I am from the Great Plains.
It turns out we lived in a 2 story building that was reserved just for foreign students.  There were less than 10 of us. 

Upon putting my luggage on the bed all I wanted was water.   We had two ayi’s.  One was young and very pretty, with a small child, and the other was old and grumpy.  They were both Cantonese.  Turns out the grumpy one was only around 38 or so, and was quite nice after awhile. 

The Ayi would communicate with us using hand gestures.  Yes, it was that bad.  All I knew was I had an empty water bottle.  But having been a college student, I was resourceful, if not brilliant.   The Ayi’s had placed a red water canister next to our door.  I was smart enough to know it was water, dumb enough to think it was cold.   I scolded my thumb when I tried to open the damn thing up.  ( These canteens had huge corks on top of them, that of course soaked up the heat from the water. ) It was on tight and I finally got it open.  

Several thoughts raced through my mind:

“How in the Hell am I gonna drink that?? “

“Who in the hell would give me boiling water to drink in August?”

“How damn stupid are these people?”

Thirsty as could be, all I could do was wait for the water to cool down.  All I had was an empty water bottle, right?  Alas, a light went on in my head!

I decided to take cork off(I did eventually succeed), and just let the water cool down.
Down the hall I had found a fridge(off).  It was a little dorm fridge.  Another luxury I was soon to realize the Chinese didn’t have.

I will take a moment here to digress:  we lived like emperors compared to our Chinese counterparts.

I had air conditioning!
A balcony!
A fridge!
Running water….running hot water!!
My own bathroom…with me being the only one in line!
My own room!(sometimes a roommate)

An Ayi!  She even brought us hot water on a daily basis…….!

(to this day I greatly respect the Chinese in America of my age and generation.  I know what they went through in Chinese university in the 80’s.  However,  it was easier for them, because they indeed were ignorant of what they didn’t know.  As for the successive generation, read my post on it.  I’m not as kind.)

Of course I’d yet to meet any Chinese, but that would come soon enough.

After turning the fridge on, and waiting what I thought was a sufficient amt of time, I carefully took my canteen and slowly began to pour the water into my water bottle.  (told you I was resourceful, right? And smart too!!)

This way I began to fill up my water bottle.  However, the water was still hot, and I realized I had failed to anticipate the chemical reaction between heat and plastic.

To my horror I watched as my only water bottle began to crumple before my eyes….
“oh shit!” I said aloud.

I quickly filled up the bottle as much as I dared, simultaneously  blowing on my fingers to cool them down, while I both put the top back on and  raced down to the fridge and threw my bottle inside. 
Feeling like an idiot, I nonetheless realized after destroying my only water bottle, I would now need more.   Lesson learned,  I would have to wait one hell of a lot longer for the water to cool down.

About 30 minutes later to my surprise I belatedly found a set of tea cups in my dresser drawer….I sighed. China was already defeating me.

 Bathroom……we in America are truly spoiled.  Here is an example all of us that have lived overseas can relate to:  when in America I never had to figure out how to turn my gas off and on when wanting to take a shower.

23 yr old me……..I needed the Ayi yet again to show me how to figure out the hot water heater in my bathroom, yes I was that damn stupid.   The things I was taking for granted in America were quickly adding up.

Meanwhile, I noticed the inside of my toilet had red streaks….(from the rust).

One of the first things I needed besides a deathly drink of water was to add my contribution to China’s fertilizer supply.   I noticed they did have toilet paper ready for me.  How splendid!  Now their TP was not on a roller, but was placed inside a concave part of the wall, next to the toilet itself.

Finishing the task at hand I reached inside for the TP, took it out of the concave, and I’ll be damned if a lizard didn’t fly out from behind the roll of TP.

Alone in my bathroom, shorts I guess down to my ankles. I let out a yelp and jumped 6 inches off the seat!   I never found that lizard, but I’m sure to this day he’s still having a laugh at my expense.   This is the reason why I never in my first semester there, ever, ever opened up my balcony door.

It was neither safe to take a drink nor take a crap for me, my first day in China.
Eventually, I was able to gather my senses about me and walk outside.  I did have RMB, and I eventually did find a shop selling water.

My first night in China proved as adventuresome to me, as my first day.  I had jetlag, was obviously tired, and was ready to go to bed.  In the interim, I  had figured out what the netting around my bed was for.   Having watched a few Bob Hope movies in my youth, I of course figured out it was to keep the spiders out….The next day I knew better.

To further add to my torment,  I had noticed these big ass creatures running around my room, here and there, while I was getting settled in.   They were  the biggest cockroaches I had ever seen in my life.  Obviously in Guangzhou fighting it out with rats for “top of the foodchain” status.   I simply needed a way to kill these things.   There was no repellent, and what spooked me the most on my threadbare carpet was that I could actually here them crawling about!  
“the night belongs to me gwailo” they were saying

So my first day in China concluded with me doing this:   Once I turned off the lights, I waited about 30 seconds, suddenly flicked them back on, and with my canister of hot water I suddenly poured it on the cockroaches.   I was simply in a fight for survival and I had to make a statement to these sons of bitches that yes a new sheriff was in town, and that they’d simply have to move on to somebody else’s room.   I very much enjoyed scolding these things.  They turn over and start to twitch uncontrollably.  

A satisfied smile would cross my face.    Did I mention earlier I am resourceful if not brilliant?  Eventually, I realized my success ratio would greatly increase if I just reverted to using cups.

The next day I awoke with a “I have ridden the beast and he is mine” feeling inside me.  I still hadn’t figured out where to eat, and I still didn’t know how to use chopsticks, nor did I have a single Chinese person to talk to.  I was lonely as hell.   So I went to the common room, took out a pen and some paper, not knowing how I would mail it, and I wrote a letter to my dad. 

To paraphrase I told him “year one would be tough, but I’ll be alright”.


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