在那里的每一天，我都要向当地工作组成员打听，第二天要去的目的地位于成都的哪个方向，路上大概需要多长时间。我得到的答案各不相同，有的说 “西北”，也有的说“东南”；有的说 “大概一个小时”，也有的说“四个半小时”。他们不是故意骗我，而是确实缺乏有关本地的地理知识。因为在那种环境下，这些知识对本地消费者的生活没有实用价值或是什么特别关系。
“Just Stay in Your Room!”
As I wrote about in one post last year (Interior Design: Coffins in the Living Room), I visited many places in Sichuan Province in the early 1980s at the invitation of the provincial foreign trade bureau, to write about trade and investment opportunities there.
It was a memorable trip, long before the dramatic improvements in transportation infrastructure which have taken place during the past ten years. Private cars were unheard of and highways a future dream. Nonetheless, we travelled great distances, by rail, car, and van, from our base in Chengdu. Sichuan was China’s most populous province at the time, with more than 100 million people.
I was struck by the fact that even after hours of travel on fairly remote stretches of country road, there always seemed to be dense concentrations of people awaiting us around the next turn. I was also impressed by how friendly and hospitable they were, how the “ma la” spice content of their food was capable of making me break into an instant sweat, and how effectively they utilized every inch of arable land by terracing and planting even very steep hillsides.
My hosts from a unit under the provincial trade bureau made the arrangements and accompanied me throughout the journey. They were kind and helpful.
One slight disappointment was that despite my repeated requests in advance of arriving, they were unable to provide me any maps, either of the province or the areas we were to visit. I thought maps would be useful not only to me but to the overseas readers of my article.
Determined, I suggested we try the largest Xinhua Bookshop in Chengdu, which we did. Due to a power failure that day, the whole bookshop was lit by candle-light. Very romantic, although not the most efficient approach for shoppers to find their prey. Unable to locate any maps in the near darkness, I asked the shop assistant about maps of Sichuan. She gave me a puzzled thousand-year stare indicating I was clearly the first idiot who had ever asked about such a thing. Local maps?! This constituted a bizarre and possibly suspect inquiry.
It dawned on me that maps had not yet entered the category of “need to know” items for average Chinese folks.
After all, there was virtually no mobility, so with no one going anywhere, what was the point of maps? In those days, the work unit or “danwei” governed virtually all aspects of an individual employee’s life, including careers, family planning, education, health care, etc. In other words, the danwei had the maps, and that was good enough.
Each day during my stay, I would ask various members of my local team whether the direction of our destination the following day was north, south, east or west from Chengdu, and the approximate travel time. The answers I got from different people ranged from “northwest” to “southeast”; and “about an hour” to “4 1/2 hours.” This was not a willful effort to deceive but a practical lack of local geographic knowledge, because at that stage in the local consumer’s life it was of no practical value or particular relevance.
By contrast, walk into a downtown branch of any Xinhua bookstore today, and look at which departments boast the largest crowds of shoppers and most colorful array of products. The travel section — maps and guide books — is right up there with the English learning and business/management sections. What a change compared to the early 1980s, one which emphatically reflects the changes in Chinese society and consumer life since that time.
自行车一统街巷时期的成都市容 / Chengdu in the days when bicycles ruled the road
One day our destination was the silk producing area surrounding the county seat of Langzhong. It was a nearly a full day’s journey, by train and then van. Foreign visitors were extremely rare, and the county chief had invited me to a welcoming banquet that evening — a high honor.
As we approached the town in our van, my hosts told me to wash up and take a rest in the guesthouse, and wait for them to pick me up for dinner. I said I’d prefer to take a walk and see the town.
“Stay in your room!” was the advice, delivered in an authoritative tone yet with no explanation of why. I protested mildly, saying I really felt like taking a walk.
Again: “Stay in your room!”
This made me a bit uncomfortable and was really the first time my hosts had behaved like minders. Rather than argue the point, I decided to let them go their way and then take a walk on my own.
And that’s exactly what I did. I dropped my bag in the room, and washed my face. Then, as I walked out of the small guest house, my 35mm camera on a strap around my neck, I realized it was time for a new roll of film. I paused in the street outside of the gates, fumbling in the too-numerous pockets of my khaki safari suit to find a roll of film and replace it in my camera.
I noticed and heard kids playing in front and behind me. But I was focused on my camera, fiddling with the film, cleaning the lens cap, checking the battery, adjusting the settings. By the time I looked up, I was in the middle of a fast-gathering crowd. Initially young kids, then their aunts, their uncles, their cousins, their parents, their siblings, their grandparents, the bicycle repair man, his next door neighbor, the butcher, the grocer, the plumber, the schoolteacher, some farmers, etc. — all with eyeballs the size of walnuts, staring intently at me, myself and I.
In no time at all I was surrounded by what must have been 50, 60 and then 100 townspeople, all staring at me with a sense of unbridled, wild-eyed wonderment. I knew at that moment how a Martian visitor to a crowded shopping mall on the planet Earth must feel, or a gorilla which had escaped from the zoo into a jam-packed football stadium.
There wasn’t a hint of hostility in anyone’s eyes, just totally bewildered curiosity. And the crowd was still growing. I was TRAPPED by a riptide of Sichuanese curiosity!
A little light bulb went off in my head, as I realized my hosts had fully anticipated such an encounter when they told me to stay in my room. They were probably too polite to say that my sudden presence on that street would have the same effect on the local townspeople as an escaped gorilla or martian intruder.
So, I swam through the crowd back to the gate of the guest house, very grateful that I had only ventured 20 feet or so out into the street. And I stayed in my room like a good boy until my hosts arrived to pick me up for dinner.