When West meets an Eastern tour guide

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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."

The other group regarded Chang as a soulmate. The underlying assumption here suggested our own indoctrination. We seemed to assume that "we" work in our system as a matter of choice while "they" work in their communist system as a matter of coercion. Wasn't Chang's irreverence corroboration of that?

In the week we were together we learned relatively little about Chang. He was 24, he told us. He was an assistant manager of the Peking office of the China International Travel Service, the government agency which plans all tourist itineraries into China and furnished guides for every tour. But, of course, his title revealed little.

His salary told us more. He claimed to make 38 yuan a month, about $24. His famous shoes had cost 35 yuan. Chang sat at the second table at ten-table banquets. But was that because of his rank or because he was interpreting for some dignitary?

Chang lived in a dormitory housing CITS workers, he told us. His room sounded not like a home, but merely sleeping quarters. Designed for five men, it was now being shared by only three. Two of Chang's roommates had married and left.

If Chang himself had a girlfriend, it was something he did not tell us. This may have been out of discretion -- or out of perversity. chang knew that relations between the sexes conumingly interested Americans.

While Cahng did not always like answering questions, he was a champion at asking them. Returning to Peking from the Ming Tombs, I listened for an hour as he quizzed the Seattle science writer about his family life. He seemed particularly impressed that the man had four sons, great bounty to the Chinese way of thinking, and that he "beat" them. The science writer was never quite able to convince Chang that a spanking need not be a beating.

The Cultural Revolution had deprived Chang of university training. He confided that he had requested overseas tourism work at the University of Hawaii. He was told that he must wait. He was too young. Ah ha! we thought. He really wants to escape, and they are afraid to let him. We began to see him more and more as a soulmate. Known for our impatience, we Americans counseled patience.

By the end of the trip the "gang of nine" felt real affection for our young guide. In many ways Chang was unique to us; he gave us our most important access to viewing Chinese people. But we were far from unique to him. He sees dozens of foreign visitors every month.

I'm doubtful that our affection was returned. Seeking its return seemed a way of asking Chang not to be Chinese. And wasn't the best mode of affection hoping he was happy where he was?

Still, there was a moment in the Peking airport when we wanted to express our affection, returned or not. That moment showed again how different Chinese and Americans are. Indomitable over their centuries, they are the immovable object. Propelled by-well-meaning goodwill over our decades, we are the irresistible force. The two can meet, but the contact is sometimes askew.

The magazine writer from San Francisco -- who had earlier dismissed Chang as "definitely not to be trusted" -- was not content merely to shake Chang's hand. She reached out to embrace him. He, being Chinese, was astonished and backed away. He averted his head. She, being determined and American, gave him a kiss anyway. It landed on the back of his ear.

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