[My last blog for Peter Beinart’s class]

My first trip to China was almost ten years ago. I boarded a plane for a flight that would take over 24 hours to get me from Boston to Shanghai with a layover in Vancover. Air Canada – not much over $500, if I remember correctly.

When I landed and got off the plane I felt I must be on the moon. Nothing had ever felt so foreign. It was a fairly unstructured study-abroad program of one person – me. I was to be a “visiting scholar” at the government-run Academy of Social Sciences in Hefei, an unknown third tier city of with a population larger than New York City. I had arranged living accommodations, daily Chinese classes and lined up someone who would greet me in Hefei. If only I could get there. I bought a bus ticket from a man who told me to meet him on a street corner. The trip would put me out just over the equivalent of two dollars. It was the first renminbi I had spent and he didn’t have change for my crisp 100 Yuan bill.

In the six months I was away, I called home once from a pay phone on a street corner. After dialing in 4 sets of 10 digit numbers, I could hear my family’s distance voices until we were cut off 4 minutes and 58 seconds later.  Today I travel to China sometimes three times a year. With my netbook and ubiquitous wifi I can stay connected as easily as if I am in my home office in Brooklyn. Once I scheduled an appointment with my New York dentist over the phone from a hotel in Beijing. Another time I circumvented Chinese censors by calling my husband’s Skype account so I could listen to the BBC news on our home radio. What a difference ten years makes. I can’t imagine ever writing a “letter from China” like this again. (Unless of course that is the title of a magazine article). These letters are the real “letters from China.”

In Hefei, I only had internet access for one hour a day and during that time wrote feverishly — to my mother, sister and friends. For my final blog for this class, I thought I would take a trip back in time to remember some of those old letters.

Me with students from Beijing Foreign Affairs University, Spring 2002


Here is one early letter, to my mother, about being a vegetarian in China:

So far I am loving everything. Most food is unidentifiable to me. I have tried all sorts of things, something might have had meat in them, but I only tried a little. This usually happens when I am invited to dinner at someone’s house and I don’t want to be rude. Most people ask, and then only serve me vegetarian food, but for Chinese “vegetarian” translates as something like “jealous person”. So I just go down the list, … I don’t eat beef, I don’t eat pork, I don’t eat turtle, I don’t eat mutton… I tried once to say instead what I do eat: vegetables, tofu and wheat. I didn’t know the word for bread so I said Wheat, which brought on fits of laughter, I guess I was describing the diet of a cow. Also, I did what I was told was the equivalent of dipping your pizza in your coffee. I put my fried vegetables in the bowl with my dumpling sauce. This brought on more fits of laughter from my hosts. There are some things I have turned down. Like lotus with bees. Now I eat this all the time though, since my Chinese has improved, I realize this was a bad translation and it is really just lotus and honey — very good.

And another, after my first solo travel in China:

Hong Kong is green and gorgeous. It is so nice to be in a city that is full of Buddhist and Daoist temples with incense pouring out .The ocean is green and it is not polluted like mainland China plus it  has a “coffee culture” which I really appreciate. And The Economist is on newsstands!

I returned to Hefei by train. This was quite horrible. I took a train from Hong Kong to Guangzhou and then was planning to get on the overnight train to Hefei from there. Nothing was in English and people only speak Cantonese which I can’t understand at all. The train station was huge and I was completely lost and could not find the right ticket window or where I was supposed to board or anything. The “lines” for the ticket windows were like a mosh pit, one of the craziest things I have ever seen. You have to push and shove and everyone is yelling and elbowing you, not New York City subway-style, but hard malicious jabs in the ribs. I kept losing my place because this group of men would convince me I was in the wrong line and then I would move out of the mosh pit and lose all of the progress I had made. I finally figured it out somehow, but discovered that even if you buy a ticket, it does not guarantee you a place on the train. I had to push through a sea of people trampling each other, old ladies getting knocked on the floor, contents of purses spilled out, crying babies, angry beckoning fathers, rolley bags being hoisted over heads to get through the dense forest of legs. When the gate came down everyone went crazy throwing themselves on the floor on top of each other trying to get under the gate to get on the train. I had to do this too. I had no more money with me [there were no ATMs in China at that time] so I had to get on that train or else I would have been stuck in Guangzhou without money or communication. Everyone was climbing in and out of the windows of the train. Should I do that too? Or stand in “line”? I met a gentle girl my age who spoke Mandarin and helped me out. We sat together on the train (30 hours to Hefei) and she sang sweetly to me next to an open window with the night country side zooming past. First Chinese songs, then “Take me home, West Virginia” which embarrassingly brought tears to my eyes. West Virginia, where I’ve never been, suddenly felt like home. She called me her sister and gave me the Chinese equivalent of a best-friends-forever bracelet. In the middle of the night she woke me up and told me that her wallet was stolen and could I give her money. I did but suddenly felt like our “friendship” to her had reached its purpose and was now over. I was so disappointed and officially declared everyone in China my enemy. I felt like everyone was trying to trick me for my money or for their entertainment. Then in the middle of the night while I was sleeping clutching my bag, I felt a man’s hands touching me. I bolted up and clutching my purse, ready to throw something at his eye sockets, but he was just putting my blanket over me which had fallen on the floor.

The next time I woke up it was light out and two giddy girls were taking pictures of my feet (big, I guess) which were sticking out the end of my bed.


And a few months later, this one to my sister:

Life is so great here. Buses are interesting, they are just a little larger than a VW bus and usually packed when you get on. Everyone stands. I am a head taller than everyone else, so buses are particularly interesting for me because my head is usually touching the ceiling, so I am being compressed horizontally and vertically simultaneously. Then when I think we must be at capacity, the bus stops. Five more disgruntled commuters shove themselves into the mass of humans. It is remarkable how many people you can fit on a bus. The other thing is there is no coffee. Instant coffee is available in the supermarket but the only milk is powdered baby formula, so it really is not even worth it. I have learned that it is best to stick to eating and drinking what everyone else does. Green tea or just plain boiled water all the time, oolong or black on special occasions, and pijiu (light beer) the rest of the time. And then there is baijiu, which is a little stronger than vodka, tastes retched, but warms you up, and loosens the tongue. good for speaking Chinese!

Some other good things:
CDs and DVDs are sold for 1 US dollar each, and pretty much everything is available. Even movies that were not yet released in the US when I left are available on DVD here. I do a lot of exploring, getting on random buses and just seeing where I go, then walking a bit and getting on another one. If I lose track of my steps I can always hail a taxi and for a little over a dollar I can say “ni hao wo yao qu jiu jin san da dui” and they will take me home. I am enjoying a lot the translations of things into English. A friend’s hotel bathroom had a sign that said “beware of the slipperies.” And there is the “Sad Feelings American Music” CD of mostly Kenny G. A friend told me not to”keep my fingers acrossed” for the good weather. A note on my tea mug reads the whimsical/philosophical: “if you own this cup you will don’t have all.” There are fireworks all the time, like right now, even in broad day light there is a firework show on the street. At night, fireworks are so loud I have had to pause the movie. This is because it is almost the Chinese New Year, Spring Festival.

I decided to go on an adventure and go out to this party with a couple that I met at a restaurant. Their English was poor so all I really knew was that they would pick me up at 5:30.  It ended up being his company’s (a watermelon seed company) Chinese New Year party which was a dinner party that got rowdy quickly. After dinner was Karaoke. The first song came on, and the vice-general-president-manager, a gruff, ruggedly handsome, smoky intense face with a slow smile held out his hand. I realized he wants me to dance. With him, alone, on the stage. At this point, everyone is very drunk but I decided that I was going to just do this, and get over my fears and discomfort and embarrassment. So I danced with this guy in front of everyone, then all the vice-manager-officers and assistant-general-deputy-secretaries and manager-director-presidents wanted to dance with me, too, or give me roses or toast each other with linked arms the way brides and grooms do. Finally I sat down and a particularly weak singer took the stage. Another man stood up and tried to get the crowd back to its rowdy self by conducting the audience with his chop sticks. Then all the lights went out and it was disco dancing time. I think Gruff Man took a special liking to me because he had asked me to dance several times, toast several times, and was the one who gave me the rose that I had to keep passing to people and then taking back again. Everyone was now eating pieces of a very giant cake that appeared to be 80% frosting. Gruff Man came up to me and I thought he was going to say something that I might need a translator for, but while I am looking around for some such person, WHAM, he throws his piece of cake in my face! I was so shocked, I couldn’t picture something I expected less. I was looking around for an explanation trying to figure out if I had just been insulted or honored, while a woman next to me is wiping pink frosting out of my ear canal. When my host discovered what had happened he apologized over and over and explained to me in Chinese that this meant I was the Lucky One of the Party for the New Year, and an honor. He could tell I was not pleased and tried to make me feel better by sticking his finger in his own cake and putting frosting on his cheeks like warrior paint, and with a little laugh sticking some in his ear drum too. “See??? It is OK! We are all happy, this is happiness! This is Chinese custom and we are all so happy!” he said with the grin and the good old universal two thumbs up, which I have unfortunately also adopted.

My experiences in China now couldn’t be more different. I am less awed, more hurried. Starbucks is everywhere (although the buses are still crowded). I am in touch with my husband so often when I travel that he doesn’t even need to ask “how was your trip?” when I get home. I am not sure if it is China changing, or new technology or getting older or all three that is responsible for the change.

After my 13th trip, China (well, Beijing) is like a second home. People always say about China that you can come to China for a week and become and expert and write a book about it, but if you stay a little longer you begin to realize how little you know about such a big country. And if you stay long enough, you should just forget about writing anything altogether. These letters remind me of what that first impression is like, with all the hubris, naivety and delight that is wrapped up in it.