The not-so-inscrutable Chinese

We received a letter the other day from Peking. The letter took 10 days to get here and showed no marks of censorship or inspection by the secret police. It was written by a young teacher we met in a rainstorm in Peking several weeks earlier.

My wife and I were studying one of those ubiquitous poster boards that adorn almost every Chinese street when the storm came up suddenly. We took cover under the cantilevered edge of the poster board, along with several hundred Chinese on their way home from work. We were regarded curiously but politely and provided our space, as we always were in China. We conversed, not expecting we would be understood by any of that assembled group.

We were wrong. In a few minutes a young, lithe, bespectacled Chinese moved to our side and asked in almost flawless English if we were American tourists. We talked for almost an hour. It was our first night in Peking, and we had been warned about introducing political subjects, so we were cautious -- at first. But our friend -- whose name is Wong -- showed little inclination to guard his words.

He told us that we would see a great many apparent signs of freedom in China and we shouldn't be taken in, that freedom as we knew it didn't exist there, although things were certainly a great deal better than they had been and seemed to be improving. Wong told us we would be shown what the government wanted us to see, and we must take that into account in assessing the evidence.

He said his father also spoke English and might like to have us visit his home, but our new friend would have to check with him first.He memorized our address because we had no pen or pencil, repeating it carefully after us. Then we made arrangements to meet at this same time and place the next day.

Before we parted, Wong asked if we thought Ronald Reagan meant what he was saying about Taiwan and how we assessed his chances to be elected president. It was a question we would hear from every Chinese with whom we spoke over the next three weeks.

Although we returned to our meeting place each of the next three days, we were unable to get there at the precise time agreed because our bus was late returning to the hotel. So we never saw our friend again -- and found it comforting to assume that he hadn't appeared, either.

We found that wasn't true a few weeks after we returned home. Wong had indeed memorized our address, and his letter was warm, and a little wistful. His father had welcomed the idea of our visit, and so our friend had returned each day to the meeting place, apparently giving up just before we arrived. All this left us with an ache over what might have been, but at least we have a pen pal.

We answered Wong's letter immediately and have already heard from him again. The correspondence promises to be fascinating.

That's how we found all of China -- fascinating. Not so much because of its social institutions or geography or industrial growth or political system (although they were fascinating, too), but because of its people.

We went to China -- something we wanted badly to do long before the possibility existed -- expecting to find little opportunity to communicate directly with any people other than those assigned to our official party. We were astonished and delighted to find that almost every time we ventured out alone -- which was frequently -- we were discovered on the street by English-speaking Chinese with a fervent desire to talk. And most of the time, the talk wasn't guarded, or didn't seem to me to be. Polite, but not guarded.

Our Chinese tour was a package offered by Japan Air Lines. We had resisted going with a group of professional associates (either journalists or teachers) and went, instead, with a group of 20 strangers from eight states. It was a wise decision.The eclectic nature of the group (including several retired schoolteachers, a right-wing business executive, a black judge, two young college students, and a young woman lawyer, among others) added variety to the questioning of Chinese officials and dimension to our experience. It was the first time we had ever traveled with a group, and we did it this time because the Chinese give you no choice. But it was an altogether satisfying experience.

Traveling in China differs from any other nation (except Russia, where the state-run tourist agency Intourist provides the same service, although the atmosphere is radically different), because the China Internal Travel Service takes over every visiting group as soon as it enters the country. A CITS representatives from central headquarters is in charge of the group until it leaves China; he is assisted by a local CITS guide at each stop along the itinerary, which is dictated by CITS and may be changed at its whim. (That's why any tourist agency that guarantees you certain stops in China is talking through its hat.)

Our itinerary, however, turned out to be exactly as advertised; Peking, Beidahe (a seacoast resort town newly opened to visitors), Shenyang, and Canton.

Visiting China -- at least today and probably for some years to come -- is not a vacation. It's an experience. The Chinese hosts assume that anyone putting out the considerable amount of money required to visit China in the full knowledge that no luxury accommodations exist must have a deep curiosity about the country. And so they fill every day, and a good many evenings, satisfying that curiosity. If you don't have it, you shouldn't go, because touring China can be extremely hard work.

It's also enormously exciting, mostly because of the people. Their life style has virtually nothing in common with ours. They are still so deeply involved with the basics of life that they have little time for its amenities. But this is changing, and there is concern among the Chinese hierarchy that ideology is losing out to apathy and burgeoning consumerism. Yet there is neither envy of the touring visitors nor hostility toward them. Only a great and abiding curiosity to know what is Out There -- and what it's like.

And for the first time in many years, the Chinese authorities are putting no discernible roadblocks in the way of that curiosity. English is taught in the schools (after a long hiatus during he reign of the "gang of four"); the Voice of America comes in without interference; and visitors are pursued and questioned at every opportunity.

But to bring this about, we had to go to the Chinese people, to make ourselves available where they could reach out to us. My wife, Janet, made that discovery the first day we were in Peking when she joined a group of Chinese exercising in the street in the very early morning. She was received politely at first, then warmly. I didn't join the exercises, but I did mingle with the street people, and we were invariably discovered by English-speaking Chinese. This continued wherever we went, but especially in the northern cities, where the people are unaccustomed to tourists.

These meetings took on a predictable pattern. As soon as we separated ourselves from normal tourist areas, we would be regarded curiously and sometimes followed at a respectful distance. And when we stopped, we would be surrounded -- but not crowded -- until a Chinese or two would emerge from the crowd and address us in English. Then the others would press in to try to make out what was being said.

The conversations would usually turn into a trade-off. The Chinese would pursue a topic to its end, then we would attempt the same thing. At first it seemed to me they were reluctant to talk every deeply on political subjects; I was frequently told, "I'm sorry, but I do not understand the question," and the subject was changed. But when I discovered that the likelihood of getting answers to political questions was in direct proportion to the grasp of English by the Chinese with whom I was talking. I began to realize that sophisticated questions frequently weren'tm understood. And when they were, at least an effort was made to answer them.

Some of the topics they wanted to pursue seemed odd. They had, for example, an enormous curiosity about refinements in the English language and shades of meaning. One high school teacher kept Janet occupied for an hour one morning trying to explain such distinctions as those between "road," "street," and "lane ," the difference between "sound asleep" and "fast asleep," and the variation in meaning of "wish" and "hope."

We once spent an hour discussing birth control, quite clinically. They explained the mechanics of it in China, then described -- with apparent approval -- the rewards of having one child as opposed to the economic hardships imposed by the state if there are multiple children, a system that has quite effectively stabilized the birthrate in china.

They were astounded to learn that we had no limits put on the size of our families, but when I tried to explain why the birthrate of non-Caucasians is much higher in the United States, it became a difficult concept for them to grasp.

We discussed minorities. Our traveling party included six black people, and although they never joined in these discussions, the Chinese were aware of them and interested in the mix. They asked many questions about the treatment of minorities in the US, then tried to explain to us that they had a minority, too: the Koreans. By way of demonstration, they produced one morning a young girl they described as Korean; while she smiled broadly, the Chinese spokesman told us that "in China, the Koreans now have one foot up."

They asked direct questions, and so did we. They asked, for example, how much money I earned. Since we had already discussed their earnings -- often less than $1,000 a year -- I hesitated to answer honestly, realizing how enormous the figure would sound to them.But I did tell them the truth, then we spent a lengthy session trying to explain where the money went and that such an income did not -- by any stretch of the imagination -- make me rich.

They were hungry for magazines, and we gave them what we had -- some New Republics and a New Yorker. They were fascinated with the ads in the New Yorker , especially those showing automobiles. Chinese citizens are not allowed to own cars; the family conveyance is a bicycle, and the vehicles that fight for space on Chinese streets with the bicycles are either buses, trucks, taxicabs, or government cars.

Our Chinese friends seemed curious but not envious -- I saw no sign of either envy or the melancholy we perceived in Russia -- to learn that virtually every American family owned a car.

They showed no reluctance about accepting the American magazines, and The New Republic opened up some political discussion. I showed them several articles blistering Presiddent Carter and asked if such criticism of high public officials would be tolerated in their country. They insisted that such criticism does indeed take place in their press but also admitted that the press was totally controlled by the Communist Party.

We were never able to resolve this apparent dilemma, since I couldn't read Chinese and thus had to accept their assurances that criticism was permitted. I have a feeling that -- in this instance, at least -- there was a small gap in communication.

Only twice during these impromptu talk sessions were we aware of any imposition of outside authority. In Shenyang one morning we were surrounded by a large group of Chinese when an MP in uniform came along and dispersed the crowd, speaking sharply to them. But the people at the core of our group held firm, and when we started to leave, feeling that we might be causing them trouble, they told us we needn't leave for that reason, that the officer was not angry at the political tone of the discussion but only concerned that our listeners were crowding us too much and therefore treating us rudely.

In the other instance, I was involved in a rather heated political discussion in a shop in one of the Mandarin palaces about Mao and the "gang of four" with a young woman teacher who spoke excellent English, when an employee of the store barked orders at her and she left abruptly.

I tried to find her to apologize for embarrassing her and couldn't. But another member of our party found her later, conveyed my apology, and was told acidly that she could talk about anything she liked and the reason she was hustled off was that she was interfering with our buying in the shop.

Except for these two mild incidents, we saw no evidence of either thought or talk control at the conversational level or of fear on the part of the individual Chinese with whom we talked. The one thing we -- or rather I -- had to be especially careful of was coming on too strong. The Chinese are polite and reserved, and although they are capable of quite straight talk, they tend to circle a subject warily before plunging in.

I had a touching example of this in Shenyang when I asked a frail young Chinese how he had learned to speak English so well. He cleared his troat a half-dozen times, looking off in the distance for inspiration, before he finally asked timidly if I would be offended if he were to mention the Korean war.

When I answered, "Not at all," he seemed enormously relieved and then told me a touching story about living, as a child, in a village quite close to the Korean border. One day a platoon of Chinese soldiers brought a single American prisoner of war into his village. since there was no place to keep hem, the platoon leader asked for a family to volunteer to take the prisoner in, and this young boy and finally teaching him to speak English.

When the war was over, the prisoner was return to the Americans, and his Chinese family never heard from him again. They would like to hear but have no way of making contact. They know only that his name is Edward and he then lived in California. If Edward is in range of there words, I can tell him how to reach the Chinese family with whom he once lived.

He would be rewarded many times over if he did. We were. It astonished us that so few of the other tourists we observed took advantage of the opportunities offered to make very direct connections with the Chinese people. If you go -- and you should do it soon, before ties are cut with China by a new US Taiwan policy, at one extreme, or a McDonald's and Colonel Sanders takeover, at the other -- reach out to the people. They'll reach back. And the touch will be exciting and stimulating.

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