China 1983 – Experiencing the culture

Our scheduled flight out of Narobi was delayed. We learned after we were on board that the plane had been high jacked. This gave us pause and heightened our alertness. This is following a full out search in Narobi as we left the terminal heading for the tarmac. We were all traveling light with only a backpack. We had tools, clothing and personal items. One of our ladies was carrying a pocket knife. Since we were totally American, and had never experienced the need to search or be suspicious of travelers, we reacted badly. We thought it was all a joke. After all, the dress code was alien. They wore full body protective gear, helmets and carried weapons. We figured it was for show. Oh, how wrong we were.

The gal with the pocketknife was literally thrown up against the wall and bodily searched. Shock does not cover our sentiment. The took her knife even as she was trying to explain it was not a weapon but a necessary item for maintaining our bikes, tires, gears, etc. They would not hear of it. We left without the knife. But, the lady was allowed to join us.

In a few hours we could feel the descent starting and began to look out our windows of the plane. There was NOTHING down there. We did not panic, but it gave rise to worrisome chatter amongst all of us. Turns out it was not dangerous, but very unusual and curious. The town of Beijing does not allow the lights to be turned on until the plane is on the ground. A few landing lights were visible as we neared the actual landing.

Then, as we piled into buses to make our way to our lodging, the driver of the bus was using only parking lights. This was terrifying. Our introduction to the new culture we were to be a part of for 27 days was defiantly culture shock. I had read the book “China” ( I think it was written by James A. Michener), but it did not prepare me for real world China in 1983.

Most of the time I felt like I was back in 1950 with the electronic equipment like box cameras; but the clothing (mostly Mau suits) was totally unfamiliar; the  propaganda everywhere was a foreign concept to me (our billboards offered cigarettes with the Marlboro Man – not sure it was much healthier), the food was nothing like I had experienced in the US restaurants but the limiting a whole Nation to one child was beyond belief. The families all wanted boys only, so females were often maimed (especially in the country towns) so they were allowed a 2nd child. Abortion was the only method of pregnancy prevention and the ladies in Beijing could not understand our outrage.

Men over about age 50 were required to leave their jobs so the young men could have them. This reduced them to caring for their fowl, meeting other ‘old’ men and chatting all day. The women had jobs like sweeping the streets (literally weeping the dirt) to ensure there was not a speck of litter. We had a young woman as our first translator. Her job was to speak English. She was allowed to interact with us, sharing was guarded and while she dined with us, she was not allowed in any of the lodging buildings we occupied for a night.

So by now, you may be getting the impression that these people were oppressed and unhappy. Maybe even Argumentative and demanding more. Not true at all. For our standards in America, they had very little. A bicycle cost a full years salary of the working male. The bicycle was the only means of transportation with his wife on the back or on the bar and the child in the front basket or in her arms.  They lived in literally, hovels. I had to use the bathroom once along the way and was directed to a private bathroom. It was a dirt hole in the backyard. Now, this is the form of bathrooms used in Japan and China. A hole but usually clean, flushing apparatus with water and places to put your feet as you ‘do your duty’. No so with this one. Very odorous, dirt all around and of course, no paper. But……..

Unlike other countries I have traveled to with similar conditions we were NEVER accosted for money, jewelry, food, anything. The Chinese people are loving, caring individuals who make a happy life for themselves enduring the oppression with grace.

In Beijing, early mornings at Mau Square, the City of Beijing people turn out for their daily Tai Chi. I joined them. mau-square-in-bejeing-china-1983They welcomed me. The pictures of me trying Tai Chi say it all. I was totally ‘the odd one out’, lost in the process, confused and still people went out of their way to try to help me with placement, breathing and correct, pose.


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