Back: Our Visit to China
Jackson Duanfeng He & Agnes Weiyun He
From December 19, 1993 to January 8, 1994, we visited China for the first time since Jackson left in November 1986 and Agnes in June 1985. We spent 17 days in Beijing where we both lived most of our lives, and 3 days in Shanghai where Agnes was born and spent her early childhood. It was a dream coming true. A dream of deeply-rooted longing, of increasing curiosity, and of regrettable (but perhaps logical) ambivalence.
Beijing has changed to a point beyond our recognition. With blocks and blocks of towering office and apartment buildings everywhere, more yellow cabs than one would find in New York City, huge shopping centers which sell up-scale merchandises (electronics, fashion, etc.) at roughly the same dollar values as those in the U.S., expensive restaurants with marble and tainted glass facades framed in contemporary or traditional Chinese styles, McDonald's and Kentucky Fried Chicken, discos and karaoks, hotels such as Hilton and Holiday Inn, neon lights at night, men and women in fine and colorful clothes and women with make-up, we sometimes had the illusion of being somewhere other than China -- the China we used to know, that is.
But soon we would be brought back to reality by what we hate to see still exists. Pedestrians spitting and littering on the street, widespread and unconditional cigarette smoking, dark smoke from factory chimneys, busses filled as sardine cans, people pushing ahead at bus and subway stations without the faintest sense of apology, stern-faced and at times foul-mouthed store clerks, cashiers, waitresses, flight attendants and bus ticketing agents.... Yes, much has changed, drastically, but not so much with regard to the quality of public conduct. When it is realized that a good social environment demands respect for individuals, our home country will surely be a more pleasant place to live or to visit.
The first and last impression of our visit involves, of course, air travel. Incidentally, it also has the greatest impact on our views regarding what China is like now.
The service's Chinese style became apparent when we approached the ticket counter in San Francisco to check-in. The counter was closed, and was to remain so until an hour and half before the plane departs. This is quite unique an operation, when you picture that there are some 300 passengers lined up at the counter, where there's no room to sit or even simply to line up.
The more ridiculous situation is when the same thing happened in Beijing, where the plane to S.F. was delayed for a couple of hours without explanation. The ticket counter is between two sets of guards, one to the outside where you have to hand in your receipt of the airport fee payment, the other to the gates where you need to show your boarding pass. Within this domain, there is no seating area, no eating or drinking places, nor even restrooms. People waited here for hours, leaning against their luggage carts or sitting on the floor, while at the gate area all seats are empty.
We went through the custom twice in Shanghai, both times continuing with the same aircraft. Both times the plane stopped at one of the farthest gates from the customs, and nobody or any sign was there to inform the passengers as where to go next. You are supposed to be smart enough to simply follow the crowd and to figure out everything at each of the many steps. We have been to many airports in other parts of the world and we had never been so lost as we were in this major international airport in our own country! We almost missed our plane when we got through the border control, not knowing that we were supposed to go up an obscure stair behind a wall. What a physically taxing exercise for those with more carry-on baggages!
After a long trans-pacific flight, we landed in Beijing after mid-night and some two hours later than scheduled. We stepped out of the plane to find ourselves in an exposed stairway down to the airport ground. An unheated bus picked us up. At the same time, most gates with jetways were empty. Fortunately we brought our heavy-duty coats carry-on. On those unprepared the sub-freezing temperature must have left lasting impressions.
We flew with Air China for 5 legs during our entire trip. Our plane was late every time, sometimes by minutes, other times by hours. Not once was there any apology from the airline representatives at the gate or from the crew on board the plane. When we finally arrived at San Francisco more than two hours late, many passengers missed their connecting flights. Air China did not mention a word for help and certainly did not offer any compensation. The passengers were told to go to the counter of their connecting airline to arrange for everything. For us, the delay meant an extra meal at the airport and a six hour delay to get home. For some others it meant an extra night's stay in San Francisco. At the Delta (our connecting airline) counter, we overheard an agent suggesting our fellow Air China passengers request vouchers from Air China for hotel rooms.
The Air China magazine says that their service has improved much recently and they have received many letters of compliments. While we are puzzled by what these letters may be about, our hearts really go out with deep sympathy to those who took Air China before. For to us, their service now is next to intolerable in many instances.
Once, when cold drinks were being served, Jackson asked for Sprite. "Mei you! (We don't have that)" the stewardess said, and went on to ask other people without giving him a second chance for alternatives. Jackson had to ask the other stewardess working from the same cart to get a Coke. Curiously enough, later we discovered that another cart, serving the same isle but from the other direction, had only Sprite on it!
Our report will be missing something important if we don't mention a flight attendant, Ms. Fu Wen (badge # 0698) on Flight 985 (1/8/94, Shanghai to S.F.). Her long grave face constantly reminded us that she was the boss there. When we woke up at sun-rise, it was time to serve hot drinks. Agnes asked for coffee. "Mei you!" she said. Jackson quickly asked her for a cup of tea for Agnes instead, before she went on to serve the next row. Then a blond in front of us also asked for coffee, and Ms. Fu Wen magically produced it from another cart, which was right behind her!
In another instance, Ms. Fu Wen passed a dinner tray to our neighbor (a middle-aged Chinese lady) without a word. When she was about to do the same to us, Agnes asked what the choices were. Ms. Fu Wen said, "Sea food and chicken, but we have very few sea foods left." It turned out that there were only two sea-foods left and maybe -- just maybe, we hope we are wrong -- Ms. Fu Wen was saving the choices for the blond "foreign friends" in the next row and thus didn't even bother to inform other Chinese-looking passengers of their meal choices (or to apologize for the lack of choices). In an act of protest more than anything else, Agnes demanded sea food, which Ms. Fu Wen served unwillingly.
These things may not be meant to be reverse-discriminations. Perhaps the idea is to befriend the foreign visitors to China to project an image of friendly people and warm hospitality, which is quite understandable. However, the fact that the fellow Chinese are treated differently and worse may send a message that the Chinese don't consider themselves as worthy. We would surely feel indignant if we hear of our fellow-country(wo)men being mistreated in other parts of the world. And we begin to realize that if the Chinese haven't been regarded highly everywhere, part of the reason could be that some of our members earned the disregard for us.
During most of the time when we were back at least one of us were sick. We suspected that we caught cold and flu and had bronchitis infection, and at one point, Jackson had strong allergic reactions to a medicine. For all this time, more ten people provided us with more than twenty different medicines. Some surely must be prescribed in the U.S., others are either Chinese herbal medicine (in pills) or combined medicine with both herbal and western medical ingredients. We also received numerous tips of alternative health-care methods, such as breathing in lemon steam to combat sore throat, or pressing certain accu-points to fight allergy. Six or seven people performed massages on us, which supposedly are very effective to cure our illness. There were more people suggested to us who could perform massages for the benefit of our health, but we declined these offers.
A Chinese saying goes "when you are ill for long, you become a doctor." The reasons these good-hearted friends give for us to take their choice medicine are interesting. For example, "This is really good. I had cold for 5 days once, and wasn't cured until I took this." Or, "I am allergic to many drugs, but not this one." Some well-informed friends even went as far as suggesting several western style drugs to fight each of the symptoms (fever, infection, sore throat), and then suggesting a Chinese herbal medicine to fight the cause of the disease -- western drugs cannot cure flu or cold.
Among the dozens of people we met, Jackson's mother was the only one who suggested at some point that we see a doctor. Nobody else did. Maybe it's because we don't have a work unit in China and thus don't have a designated hospital to go to. We finally didn't see any doctor. But we did fight off more and more of the medical advices, and our health improved during time.
In a dark night in an Air China plane, before the Boeing 747 left the gate, all lights went out. Not even the emergency lights indicating the isles and the exits were spared. Luckily, nobody moved. Later, a loudspeaker announcement said the power would be out for five minutes.
Never once was there an announcement after touching down that the passengers are to remain seated till the plane comes to a complete stop at the gate and the captain has turned off the "fasten seatbelts" sign. Consequently, often times people started to gather their belongings from the overhead bins when the plane was still moving. Once a steward shouted at several people in Chinese "Sit down! Sit down!", but it had no effect.
Both at the Beijing and Shanghai airports, the seating areas for each gate are carefully segregated by glass walls all the way to the ceiling. The exit doors to the outside are carefully locked. The Shanghai airport design is more ingenious in that passengers are let into a glass-walled alley which dead-ends into a waiting area, locked at the other end (which is not the door to the jetway, incidentally). The whole operation is much like the trick cowboys play to collect cows from a farm, with no warnings nor signs. The seating area was also crowded over the design capacity, making the analogy to cows all the more palatable. Dignity aside, we were really concerned about emergency situations.
It is not much better if you stay away from air travel. We visited several multi-story apartment buildings, none of which is well-lit after dark. The best kind has push-button switches to turn the light on for half-a-minute if you know where they are. The second best has switches that you have to climb a flight of stairs to get to, and it will light the next flight of stairs indefinitely, but then you have to climb another flight in the dark again before getting to the next light switch. The worst kind has no working lights. The only thing resembling professional management / maintenance that we can see was that all the elevators in apartment buildings were operated by an "elevator driver," who occasionally also stuffs the small elevator cell with packaged food and bathroom items for sale.
Getting into traffic in Beijing wakes you up if you are sleepy, but it also gives you a bad attitude if you don't yet have one. Comparing to the orderly street situation in the U.S. (excluding NYC), traffic in Beijing is chaotic. To be sure, there are police at work. But in the heavy traffic, they certainly would not stop anybody easily, as that would cause major traffic jam in a flash. What they do is a mystery.
The mainstream of traffic is cars, taxis, bicycles, busses and pedestrians, but there are also sporadic horse carts. With the exception of cars and bikes which usually stop for the red light, nobody gives way to anybody, not even when the other party has the right-of-way. For example, cars would not give way to people waiting at both sides of the lane (not the street!) trying to get across, and people would cross the lane when the next car is more than ten feet away. Another example: at the green light, left turning cars would go ahead in a line, cutting off the cars going straight from the opposite direction.
After a while, we seem to see some reason for this seeming madness. There is really much too much traffic for the streets to take. By allowing the rules to be bent a bit, more traffic can share the same streets. Hmmm, could someone prove this with a PhD dissertation?
Compared with the chaos in Beijing, traffic in Shanghai is a more ordered stalemate. Shanghai's streets are narrower, usually with only one lane per direction. Many streets don't allow bikers, so streets nearby gets a worse time. During peak hours, motor vehicles travel at speeds far slower than a person can walk. We got out of Shanghai in time to catch our plane only by riding a police car (!) (through some "connection"), which went into the opposite direction with a flashing light when there was no hope in the normal lanes.
There are definitely more choices for transportation nowadays. While busses, subways and bicycles remain the predominant means for the average, it is quite common for some to take a taxi. (Agnes' cousin, a factory worker, said that she takes a taxi to work when she is getting late in the morning.) Yellow taxis have literally flooded the Beijing streets. And they are inexpensive. A "mian di" (a minivan taxi) costs Y1/km with a minimum of Y10. They are doing so well that the taxi drivers are picky about their clients. Several times, the drivers refused to take us as our destination was considered either too nearby or too far away.
Years ago, only rarely did we hear of people traveling by plane within China. Now there are 10 flights each day from Beijing to Shanghai. Airports in both Beijing and Shanghai are busy and over-crowded.
Shopping in Beijing has gotten the variety it lacked several years ago. One of the places we went, YanSha Shopping Center, has things often more extravagant than the two of us with the U.S. income would be willing to pay for. And we were told this is not the most expensive place to shop in Beijing.
We just bought a Hi-Fi system here in Atlanta last fall. That system would not fit in YanSha. The minimum set offered there would cost an average salary earner in Beijing more than one year's pay. But the place is full of people. And these people are not there just for window-shopping. Agnes was looking for some career wear but didn't buy any as the prices were comparable to those in the U.S.
On the street, you can still get bargains. Jackson's leather gloves with fur for the palm portion cost Y14. That is about $1.50. Some co-workers of Jackson's wondered why he didn't get a full case of them to sell in the States.
Competition is curious for some business. Many one-(wo)man stands selling a type of egg-pancake would line up a short stretch of street when other stretches of the same street are left untouched, which leads one to think that the proprietors are actually banding together for safety rather than lining up to compete. At the entrance to the subway several men were selling bananas. One would shout "Y1.00!" while another shout "Y0.80!", yet nobody seems to pay attention to any one of them.
Local people generally doubt that one can get good prices, quality and service at the same time. If you go to a privately-owned business, be prepared that you may be scorned. If you go to a government owned business, feel lucky if you get any service at all.
On WangFuJing St., one of the busiest streets in Beijing, there is a huge arts and crafts store three stories high. At one counter some hand exercise balls sell for the equivalent of $5. In the U.S. they would sell for $30 or more. All merchandises are inside the counters, not accessible to the shoppers. One clerk was behind the counter arranging some plastic flowers, while two others were talking to each other 5 or 6 feet away. Jackson asked the clerk nearby to show him a pair of those balls. "Mei Ren! (No person [to help you]!)" she said crisply, not even raising her head. We left without exercise balls.
7-8 years ago, before we left, there was a general feeling that everybody was doing business. People were selling mutton kabobs or jeans all over Beijing. In the evenings, you could find a wide range of hot snacks. Nowadays, people still say that everybody is doing business. Except, the businesses are very different from those before.
Jackson's highschool mathematics teacher was a very dedicated one, and he taught well. Now he is Vice-principal of the school, in charge of a school- owned holding company. He explained that under this company there are four companies, and in several plants they manufacture things ranging from plastic decorations to electronic devices. He still holds wild ambitions about education and believes that funding the school cannot do without the companies.
One of our relatives is an optical fiber specialist with a research institute in Shanghai and has in recent years been working as chief engineering consultant to a communications cable factory located in Jiangsu Province. The research institute receives Y150,000 (about $14,000, a formidable amount by the Chinese standard) per year as "leasing fee" from the factory. As part of the benefit for working for the factory, this relative and his family have moved to a nice new two-bedroom apartment with a living room, a tiled kitchen, and a bathroom with a bath-tub and a sink in addition to a toilet.
A talented friend of Agnes' is now leading a service company, while moonlighting as an English language instructor which is supposed to be his primary job. With the language skills he mastered as an English major and the computer skills he taught himself, he is now providing computer services to the English speaking community (e.g., foreign embassies) in Beijing. His company is the only one serving this market.
It's not uncommon for people to have more than one job. Usually the primary job is one with a government owned work unit, which pays regular salary and provides health-care and housing benefits. The second job is likely either with a private firm, or with a government owned unit but as a consultant. More effort is given to the second job because it pays more money, and also the pay is proportional to the work done, in contrast to the primary job.
As a matter of fact, it is hard to run into someone who neither has extra income nor has thought of starting a company. Further inquiry reveals that these ideas of start-up companies have very likely been cooked for some time. There are usually analyses of the market and the specific advantages the proposer has, albeit the analyses may be rough. It's also common that people think of pooling money from friends and family members to start the company. Commercial lending and venture capital are still quite foreign conceptually and also hard to come by.
Foreign owned companies and joint-venture companies with part of the funding from abroad enjoy special tax benefits. For the first three years there is no tax. In the next five profitable years, the first three will be taxed at half rate, and the last two at 3/4 the regular rate. Many times we hear of complaints that some of the new companies only had foreign investment in name in order to enjoy the tax benefits. This is usually not backed by fact, naturally, since it is unlikely for an outsider to know. Still, the view is quite commonly held.
At the same time, we hear of complaints that some of the Chinese newly rich don't know where to spend their money. They can bid very high to get a singer in a nightclub to sing a song of their choice, or simply burn their paper money to show off their wealth. This kind of story is also widely reported in the papers.
Several years ago the government said that domestic ventures cannot hire more than 50 people, in an effort to prevent a capitalistic entrepreneur class from emerging in China. This restriction is not around any more, we are told. But other restrictions abound. For example, there is no way you can own a piece of land. The most you can get is the right to use it for 50 years. This might be ok for foreign ventures, as they can earn their money and move on. But for the domestic venture, the only way they can use what they earn seems to be to spend it. Neither is there a visible way for a private company to grow up to become public.
The business environment in China is not necessarily conducive, either. For foreign ventures, you get specially expedited approval beside the tax reliefs. Of course, the same statement could be read as extra burdens for domestic companies. One kind of corporate income tax we heard of is at 55%! Another tax, bonus pay tax, is 300% the bonus pay. We are not surprised then to hear people tell us about ways to evade the taxes. You are almost forced to do so, otherwise you will lose in the competition in no time.
It seems that the objectives of suppressing an indigenous capitalist class and of attracting foreign ventures are hindering domestic industry. And with tax rates so high, tax evasions are inevitable. Apparently, further growth of domestic economy calls for new policies. (N.B. In China, rules and laws come from the top.)
At the airports one sign is eye-catching everywhere. It is in both Chinese and English. The English version says: "No smoking otherwise will be fined [sic]." But that is not an honest translation of the Chinese characters above it, which says: "Smoking is strictly forbidden! Violators will be fined!" A very strong message indeed.
Then came the time when Jackson complained to an airport attendant that another passenger was smoking in the supposedly no smoking waiting room. The attendant was a bit annoyed: "We put out the signs, as you can see. We can't do anything else." Later on we also observed that an airport staff also smoked in this room. Why not simply say "please..."? At least you are only pleading, not demanding? Nay, that would sound too soft, wouldn't it?
From the news on TV and in the radio, you get a strong feeling that laws are being made at warp speed. To meet international standard practices, they would say. At the same time, no effort is heard on law enforcement.
On the broad causeway along the HuangPu River in Shanghai, a large billboard proclaims: Adamantly implement the city government's decision to remove all illegally set-up shopping stands and structures on the sidewalks. We wondered why all the effort to put up a big billboard when you can simply practice what you preach.
During the last week of 1993, the TV and radio news repeatedly broadcast a decision by the Beijing city government: Strictly forbid illegal and ungrounded price raises during the New Year's season. It sounds like all "illegal and ungrounded" price raises have to wait until after the New Year. Certainly, the over-all prices did go up after the New Year, partly triggered off by a new 15% value-added tax.
It must have become a cliche to say that life in China is to a large extent sustained through a web of connections. Forgive us for being unable to resist echoing this saying from our own experience.
When we needed to call Air China in Beijing to confirm our return tickets, none the of three phone numbers printed on the jacket of the tickets worked. No one answered the phone at any of these numbers. After Agnes tried numerous times in vain, Jackson's mother contacted a relative who works in a travel agency, who gave us an Air China number which bears no resemblance to those listed on the ticket jacket -- the fact that Air China has changed their office address and phone numbers in Beijing for at least a year is sadly not reflected in the information the Air China S.F. office gave to their clients. When we finally reached Air China two days before our return date, we were told that our seats had been cancelled, that all the seats had been sold, and that we had to wait until the next flight to San Francisco three days later.
We were of course worried, to say the very least, and furious, to be more accurate. While Agnes was persistently negotiating directly with the managers of the Air China International Control Office, juxtaposing English with Chinese and appealing to their conscience, our friends and family got mobilized as well: a family friend who works in the airport was asked for help; another friend who has the credential of successfully putting on to the plane people without assigned seats was to be contacted; and yet another friend booked tickets for us for the next flight, to prepare for the worst.
Luckily, we didn't have to use those "connections." Our negotiation with Air China which spread over 19 hours was fruitful and we got our seats back -- the managers even apologized, to our pleasant surprise. But there are lessons to learn. First of all, without the current Air China phone number from our relative, we would have kept trying the numbers listed on the ticket jacket, wasted more time and had an even smaller chance of getting our seats back. Secondly, we learned not to believe anything "they" say. Recall that we were first told that all the seats had been sold; it is then a mystery how we got ours back. Furthermore, our friend who works in the airport later told us that she was able to book anew 2 seats for us on the SAME flight!
We had an opportunity to visit the Beijing Foreign Studies University (formerly Beijing Institute of Foreign Languages), Agnes' alma mater, and to interact with some of its professors and graduate students.
With perhaps the most unlucrative career, university instructors lead difficult lives. Here is an unbelievable tale from a junior faculty member making Y200-300 per month: up until this day, she has not been assigned a living space by the university. Since she and her husband have not had any children, they are considered as the less needy and are on a long waiting list for an apartment. They now rent an apartment outside the university campus, paying Y600 (about $75) per month (more than 10 times the average rent for an apartment assigned by a work unit in Beijing). To cover the cost, she takes on a second job and he resigned from his job with a government corporation and works as an independent computer consultant. "We work for the socialist system but enjoy no benefits from it," she put it sarcastically.
The homes of the professors we visited all look very simple, with little luxury. We didn't see any PCs in any of the homes. Some still use squat- toilets. (N.B. University professors in China do not have their own offices; their homes are also where they meet with their students outside class individually.)
Funding for conferences and research? Well, if you have a paper to present at a conference, that's wonderful, but you have to either finance the trip yourself (which no average professor can afford if the conference is outside China) or to get someone invite you (= paying for you, which, as we know, would be equally impossible in normal cases). And, really, hardly anyone cares if you do research or not, as long as you cover your teaching load. The very few who do do research are senior faculty, usually trained overseas, and their projects are usually commissioned and sponsored by institutions such as the National Commission of Education and the Social Sciences Academy.
The university tries to make money by providing foreign language service courses to business corporations. IBM donated 20 PCs (386) to the English Department in exchange for English courses for their employees. The English Department set a goal to send its faculty abroad for in-service training to upgrade and update their knowledge once every four years, largely to "sister universities" in the UK and Australia. Where to go and how long to stay are all determined by the Department.
It is little wonder then that the best and the brightest choose not to stay in the academia. Where are the top crop of Agnes' fellow students? Many are overseas, pursuing graduate studies and careers such as business, law, public service, and education. Those who remain in China take advantage of their English skills to work for foreign companies and joint ventures as senior secretaries or representatives. They enjoy a far better life than their university professors.
The situation is truly disturbing. The university has been considered the best of its kind in China, endowed with the best grammarians, phoneticians, critics of foreign literatures, thinkers of western and Chinese civilizations, translators and interpreters, and language teachers. Now the big names, the creative and the dedicated have all reached the age of retirement and it will take time to fill the void they are leaving behind.
Agnes gave a talk to the MA students and faculty in the Linguistics Section of the English Department. What must be 50 people attended the talk; the room was too small for everyone to have a seat. Agnes shared her "podium" with 2 students. Two or three people had to share a handout since the department couldn't afford to make copies for everyone. As we were used to when we were students ourselves, the audience remained very quiet, hardly giving any feedback. As we later found out, perhaps only half of the audience were able to follow the talk; the other half felt it was too technical and jargon-ish. At the end of the 1 hour talk, Agnes got 2 questions, from a professor who himself recently received his PhD in England.
The part which we wish had never happened and which we dread to relate here was the mandatory AIDS test for Chinese nationals at the border. Entering passengers, as long as you hold a Chinese passport, have lived outside China for over 3 months, and are not permanent resident in another country, are required to take a blood test which involves a $15 fee, the pricking of a finger (so called "rapid whole blood agglutination") and a few minutes' wait for the test result. Foreign nationals are exempt. Those with "green cards" (U.S. or elsewhere) are exempt -- it has to be a physical card; a stamp on the passport (a temporary green card before the official one) will not do.
Is there any correlation between nationality / place of residence and AIDS? Do the Chinese have a higher rate of HIV positive than non-Chinese? Does this simple test really test a complex disease such as AIDS? Can the health of the Chinese residing within China be better safeguarded this way? Is this a moral and effective way to make more foreign currency? We asked ourselves these questions and more and still have not been able to rationalize this practice. In fact, one of the uniformed officers who administered the test showed her empathy. "I am sorry for the inconvenience but we all have to observe the regulations," she said softly to a group of disgruntled test takers.
Of all the things we did when we were back, what we enjoyed the most were visits with family, friends, family friends, and friends' families. We particularly enjoyed interacting with those who address us as "ge ge" (elder brother) / "shu shu" (uncle) and "jie jie" (elder sister) / "a yi" (aunt). In them we see a more self-confident, more open yet at the same time more reflective, more articulate, and, above all, more diversified generation.
In the early 80s when we high-passed the National Entrance Examinations to Colleges and Universities, we entered the best university in our disciplines with pride and prestige: we were among the 4% of all high school graduates who competed successfully for college and whatever fraction of a percentage it was who were accepted by key universities. We (i.e., all of us who made it to college) were called "tian zhi jiao zi" (Heaven favored children) by the press and in literature of various genres. To get into college was then the dream shared by everyone with decent high school grades.
But not any more. One of our cousins decided not to engage herself in what she calls "blind struggles" for a membership in higher education, despite the influence from her U.S. educated, university professor grandparents and university-degreed parents. Bright and assertive, she chose to be a tour guide after high school, traveling widely and meeting people from all walks of life. "To me what I do now is important; it helps me see the real world and helps me decide what I really want to do in the long run," she said. She is 20 and she is embracing life in her own way so as to live it fully.
Another cousin is currently a sculpture major. His sculptor father and painter mother would like him to inherit the family trade. But he has other plans. He spends a good deal of his time playing the electric guitar. He is Director of Recreation and Entertainment of the student association in his university and leads a rock-'n-roll band which played the whole night through on New Year's Eve. Sculpture and painting he does to please his parents (and he does them well), but in music and guitar lies his real passion. "His art work is ok, but his music is avant-garde," commented his father half disappointedly half approvingly.
One relative's daughter studies in a key high school in Shanghai. Upon her graduation from junior high, her parents, with limited financial resources, advised her to apply for vocational schools, which will be less costly and will lead to a tangible career. She, however, decided otherwise. Her goal is to attend a good university -- a top student in a key high school, her chances are promising. Her senior high school tuition now is Y500 per semester (compared with Y5 in our days!) and she is ready to support herself through college by taking part-time jobs.
Another cousin's son, a 13 year old boy, impressed us with his almost precocious remarks. In the middle of our answer to his question regarding our life and work in the U.S., he pondered, "I want to 'sheng huo' (to live a life), not just to 'sheng cun' (to survive). It seems that people everywhere are all so very busy. I wonder what for?" A similar question was raised by another cousin, a charming young lady with a newly earned bachelor's degree in mass media and an aspiration to one day have her own advertisement company, "Is it really worth the effort going overseas?" Undoubtedly, their questions are much more important than our replies.
Politics is not a taboo topic any more, as it was when we were younger. A junior high boy questioned, "Our political studies teacher insists that Socialism will defeat Capitalism. But look at what is going on in our country, how can we believe what she says is true?" A girl in senior high noted on a different occasion, "When we look at modern Chinese history, we can see that when the New China [socialist China] came into existence, 'the western imperialists' fled China with tails between their legs; now they are invited back with briefcases in their arms. What an irony!"
We also noticed differences between the ways some of today's parents interact with their children and the ways the parents of our days with us. Our generation (and our parents' and our grandparents' and our great grandparents'....) grew up with few choices. Our parents, by and large, decided for us what to eat, what to wear, where to go, what to do, and sometimes even what to say. Not that they intended to be dictators, but there were not enough variety of food, clothes, places and things to choose from. Today's parents, at least some of them, seem to treat their children more as persons with their own predilections. In a restaurant, our friends asked their 5 year old to order her own dish and to choose her own drink and dessert. At a family gathering, an adult was discussing with a 7 year old boy ways to solve his too-much-candy-eating problem: "Let's see what we can do. What would you suggest?"
Diversity of material life, diversity of behavior, and diversity of thought construct and enhance one another. And this is what we think is happening in China.
Time permitting, we could continue for twice, three times, and even ten times as long. Indeed, much more deserves our report and much more is beyond our ability to put down in words. Writing about experiences is itself to re-experience and we are well aware that as we write, we are trying to re-evaluate and re-structure our thoughts and sentiments. Hence in a way, even the most comprehensive trip report would fail to record accurately events, people, and reactions right then and there. By the same token, reading someone else's trip report is never the same as being there in person. Both in spite of and because of everything, we are very glad that we made the trip. And we hope that some of our reports and reflections could serve to invite more discussions and maybe to inspire some people to go and have a look for themselves. In this spirit, we would like to share the above with concerned readers, for whatever it is worth.
January, 1994 Atlanta, USA
Copyright (c) 1994 He & He. Copyright Reserved.
[Originally carried by CND-US (www.cnd.org) February 12, 1994]