Drawing the line in different ways

"Folks say we're regimented," said Lao Yang, looking up with a grin as he laid down the foreign newspaper. "On the contrary," I answered, "I think most foreigners who have lived among the Chinese people for any length of time would agree with me that you are the most individualistic people and the least regimented on earth. Superficial observation might lead people to think the Chinese tolerance and patience with all the irritating things, -- that we fly off the handle about too quickly -- is subservience. But they couldn't be more mistaken."

"Granted, the 10 years of the decultural revolution shut people's mouths pretty firmly, and it's still taking us all a long time to unseal them," said Professor Li, looking up from his students' papers. "But," he went on, "those blighting and essentially superficial remarks about us being little blue ants, all alike and deprived of individuality, would never have been made if the critics had been able to investigate. They'd have found bright, multicolored silks and brocades beneath the navy-blue cotton. And that goes for the clothing of the mind, too."

"I'd go further than that and diagnose our young people's problem as quite something else," said Professor Dai, turning around from his desk to join in. "It's just that they've had literally nom education since 1966, so what can you expect?"

"But," Lao Yang said, bringing the subject back to his point, "this article says that we're all told in meetings what to believe."

"Granted we've all attended interminable meetings for 30 years. But with what effect? The best technique was to withdraw entirely into your own thoughts. . . ."

"Or read the tabloid, or just drink tea. . . ."

"We have to admit we paid lip service to a lot of claptrap, but the majority of the people never sold their souls."

"Right. Think how different meetings are nowadays, only once or twice a week and then they're very short . . ."

". . . with everybody bursting to voice his opinion, whereas before, it was all evasive action. People aren't afraid any longer."

"Yes, but could you say there is any infringement on our private life?" Lao Yang insisted.

"If I started beating up my wife," said Professor Li, with a little glint in his eye (his wife is twice his size), "I should expect the neighbors in within minutes, or the neighborhood committee."

I wouldn't call it infringement," said Professor Fu, sitting on a corner of my desk, "but I was delighted to notice the police were not in the least permissive last night."

"What do you mean?" I asked."As a rule, you can never see a policeman for months on end, except the traffic police, of course."

"My wife and I were in the park yesterday evening when it was just going dark and we noticed a ring of white-shirted men sitting talking on the grass. You know the parks keep open till 10 on summer evenings, and that means that everybody goes in to get a breath of air. It clears the streets of hooligans, too. So apparently the police concentrate in the parks, to maintain order if necessary."

"What happened?"

"A young couple on the lawn decided to act in what they considered a 'Westernized modern' fashion. One of these white-shirted officers immediately turned to another with a laugh: 'Go and break it up, Hsiao Wang!'"

"What did he do?"

"Ran across the grass and told the modern young couple to sit up and behave properly, much to everyone's relief."

"I'm perfectly certain that not one person who saw that episode felt it was an infringement on human rights. But quite often I find my human rights infringed on," said Professor Dai, filling our teacups with hot water from the thermos.

"How?" Professor Fu, asked smiling.

"Would you like to be awakened at 5 every morning by songsters in the park, human ones, practising scales out of tune and at the tops of their voices, or Peking opera . . .?"

"Or other local opera arias," I agreed (I live in the same college dormitory). "They stand on the hill and bawl across the clean morning air into our open windows."

"There are the instrument practisers, too, brass, woodwind, and Chinese violin," added Professor Dai.

Professor Fu now warmed to the subject. "You can fling wide your arms, open wide your mouth, shout as loud as you wish -- and nobody so much as looks at you. My wife can do the most repulsive stomach exercises, rubbing against a tree trunk like a cow, or back-scratching exercises reminiscent of a horse plagued by flies, and nobody turns a hair. Now can you see a dignified lady in her 60s doing that in St. James's Park?"

Lao Yang grinned. "I can jog around the park with nothing on but a pair of ancient underpants, every day, quite without interference.

"And dozens of kids can take big fish out of the lake and swim, a serious breach of two park bylaws, and not so much as a word," Professor Dai said feelingly. "And the boys can steal the lovely lotuses and lilies and leave a welter of ice cream cartons and ice-on-a-stick papers in the lake instead and nobody notices."

"But I'll let you into a secret," I said. "Sometimes I do feel a bit regimented and I rebel."

"When's that?" asked Professor Fu.

"When there's a hygiene campaign on," I replied. "We don't mind cleaning our offices at school, do we? But somehow, yesterday morning when seven or eight ladies from the neighborhood committee invaded our house, my hackles rose.

The leading lady and four or five others were crowding into the kitchen, which, as you know, is a tight fit for one, opening cupboard doors and trying to see with the aid of a flashlight how many cockroaches we were harboring. The other ladies were wandering round the living room looking at the Wang household gods. That was when I left my typewriter and moved in. My immediate reflex action was to mutter, 'Bu yao'm ["not want".] The flashlight lady straightened up and looked at me disapprovingly through her gold-rimmed glasses. Then she said, 'Ni bu yao'm ["You don't want".] Another said, 'Ni bu yao,'m and so on, one by one. Then they turned and departed, while my daughter-in- law, who had let them in, stared at me in round-eyed awe.

"Luckily, Daughter-in-law couldn't understand what I said, but I saw from the look on her face that, even after my 30 years' practise at being a good Chinese, I had shocked her by getting rid of the inspectresses and by my lack of Chinese tolerance."

"But, after all, isn't an Englishman's home his castle?" said Professor Fu kindly.

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