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When West meets an Eastern tour guide

By Frederic HunterSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / July 22, 1980

So you're off to visit a communist country? I'd like to know your experience with guides. If you're like me, unable to speak the language, you'll have few sidewalk encounters with people. So guides will become more than just spouters of facts, figures, and ideology. They will be your main window on communist society.

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It's a cloudy window at best. Valentina, the Intourist guide, seemed to exemplify all I'd read about Russian xenophobia. She made me remember that Russian civilization really isn't Western. "Comrade" Kung had a wonderfully Chinese charm and dignity -- and distance. And in a low-key way she spoke with great conviction of progress brought about by the "liberation."

Still, after consistent experience of standoffish guides, it was both surprising and refreshing to encounter Chang, a busy go-getter guide with an ironic, irreverent, teasing sense of humor. He enlivened our week-long tour of Peking and the provincial rail center of Shijiazhuang.

Our group of American journalists -- "the gang of nine" -- met Chang our first morning in China. "You've got to meet this funny guide," said the woman who discovered him. "He's full of one-liners."

Chang did charm us -- rather deliberately -- with his ironic wit. He spoke of doing early winter morning exercises "in the warm glow of the party." Asked the name of China's nuclear test site by a science writer from Seattle, he replied that it was called "Taiwan."

Chang's irreverence was not limited to things Chinese. One of the group told him that Americans considered Chinese to be inscrutable and culturally arrogant. Furthermore, while Chinese smiled a great deal, they always acted in their own interest. Chang said: "Fascinating. That is exactly how Chinese think of Americans!"

He reminded us that we perceived each other through the distortion of stereotypes. Then, as if to underline the fact, he invited us to call him John-John. Some of us even did.

It did not take long to notice that Chang wrote constantly in a little white notebook. We discovered he was jotting down idioms, witticisms and American turns of phrase. When he was not writing in the "book of slangs," as he called it, he was studying its contents. He was preparing to recycle one-liners heard elsewhere, to introduce new Americanisms to his speech.

The "gang of nine" had done a good deal of traveling. But none of us had ever encountered an official guide with such a seemingly skeptical attitude toward his own government's line.So what was going on?

There emerged among us two ways of answering this question. And both ways were responses to the context of competing social systems in which capitalists visit communist countries. It was as if reading the very publications we worked for had programmed our reaction.

One group regarded Chang as -- to quote the San Francisco magazine writer -- "definitely not to be trusted." His irreverence was a subtle form of manipulation. "Those aren't the shoes of a flunky," the Los Angeles food editor pointed out. "This guy's a sophisticated operator."