from Chinese Lessons, by John Pomfret
My first impression of the Chinese at the Beijing Languages Institute was how skinny they were. Foreigners studying at the institute were not allowed to live with Chinese, so for me the best way to meet them was to play pickup basketball, introduced to China in 1896 by American missionaries. Despite its imperialist pedigree, Mao loved basketball; it was the only Western sport not banned during the Cultural Revolution.
Courtside, the Chinese students would peel off layer after layer of clothes; a blue or green Mao jacket, a brownish gray sweater, an off-color white shirt that hadn’t been washed in days. Finally, a thin, blue long-sleeve cotton sweatshirt came off to reveal the bony body, all ribs and elbows. They wrapped their belts two, sometimes three, times around their sylphlike waists. Caloric intake in China in the early 1980s was at the same level as it was in the 1930s. Although greatly improved from the decades immediately following the 1949 revolution, the Chinese diet was almost devoid of protein and fat. Perpetually hungry, my friends would jostle in line for access to the best dishes in the dining hall, wolfing down the glop in seconds.
As my first semester drew to a close in December 1980, the institute conducted a singing contest for the Chinese students, foreshadowing the karaoke craze that would sweep the country a decade later. One group of students, dressed in overalls, strumming guitars and banging soda bottles together for rhythm, sang the old minstrel favorit “Plantation Boy.” In the middle of the song, a waiflike woman minced up to the mike and, swaying like a Hollywood starlet of the 1940s, tempted the audience with Beijing’s very tame version of a come-hither look. Their pitch was perfect, even tough they were tone-deaf to the song’s racist connotations. Another group of students penned their own lyrics to the tune of a Chinese propaganda ditty, “Study Hard!”
Everyday there is nothing
Nothing to go after at all
Except soy bean milk and onion pancakes on Wednesday morning
But then 20 people cut in line
Our classes are ridiculous
We must study on our own
Maybe tomorrow things will change
The party members did not approve. First prize went to a group of straitlaced students in Mao jackets singing “Jingle Bells.”
As my Chinese improved and I met more people from within the institute and beyond, I was struck by the deep hostility toward foreigners among Chinese in authority. There was a lot of talk of friendship but very little to be found. My minder at the institute, a diminutive Maoist named Mr. Bi, read my mail and monitored my contacts with Chinese students. The watchman at our dorm forced Chinese visitors to write down their names and addresses, which were then handed over to security personnel.
Politically, it was much safer for Chinese to be hostile than to be friendly. Those brave enough to talk to foreigners were often treated harshly and criticized by fellow Chinese, yet they still look incredible risks just to meet me. Not that I was particularly special, but to them I embodied something – a carefree life and access to a freer world – that many of them wanted.
One evening I found myself in Beijing’s tiny downtown at a dance in the Beijing International Club, where elderly tourists from the American Midwest mixed with the elite Chinese who had the connections to get past the guard at the door. I had come with Wang to celebrate his admission into Yale. As I boogied to the Clash, Wang sidled up to me. “I want to be like you,” he squealed, hugging me impulsively on the dance floor. Nearby, security service agent clumsily snapped their flash cameras, documenting the faces of the partying Chinese.
Another evening, I was strolling out the door of my all-male, all foreign student dormitory when a Chinese girl entered. The gatekeeper burst out of his little room by the door. “You shouldn’t be here,” he screamed, the veins bulging in his neck. The girl stared steadily at him and kept walking. He made a note in his log and went back to his pipe and his radio. A week later, I learned that the girl, a friend of an African student, had disappeared.
Daily life for me in China was that of a zoo animal. The fact that I used my body more than my hands on a basketball court, had a large nose, and slept naked became subjects of conversation. This last habit was of special interest because, as I learned first in public baths and later with roommates, Chinese would employ the skills of a contortionist to avoid exposing their private parts. One American woman spent a year rooming with a Chinese woman and never saw her legs above her knee.
Cultural clashes occurred nonstop; we called them “China moments.” One day in the fall, I was invited to a friend’s apartment for dinner. When I arrived, the night guard stopped me and told a blatant lie: my friend was not in. There was no way to call because people had no phones, and I couldn’t scale the brick walls because they were too high. I erupted at the gatekeeper, mangling my Chinese in a fit of futile histrionics.
“I get angry here,” I wrote in a letter home to my parents, “a weird almost uncontrollable rage, a rage that makes me want to break up restaurants, push people, scream and yell, smack into people on my bicycle as they cross the street with their heads down.”