My First Trip to China (Part 3)
What Am I Doing Here?
My first trip to China had unlikely origins at an unlikely time: in the suburbs of Chicago, during the 1960s.
In the summer of 1966, the U.S. and China were ensconced in a hostile, non-conversational relationship. China was in the early stages of the Cultural Revolution. American news media at the time referred to the mainland as Red China or Communist China.
Against that backdrop, that summer I received an IBM print-out from my high school suggesting that my second year courses would include Mandarin Chinese.
For a high schooler in the American Midwest in the mid-1960s to study the language of Red China was considered weird at best, and possibly suspect. The anti-Communist witch-hunts of the McCarthy era were very fresh in people’s memories.
One neighbor, commenting on my studying Chinese, asked me what I was going to do with that when I grew up: open a laundry, or a take-away joint? Another warned of possible communist brainwashing buried in the language texts. Some peers gave me nicknames which would be considered politically incorrect today.
I didn’t realize that my study of Chinese was part of a new but temporarily short-lived trend. During the mid-1960s, more than 300 American secondary schools (and a handful of primary schools) began offering Chinese language courses, mainly as a result of federal funds made available under the National Defense Education Act. NDEA provided funding for new programs in Chinese, Arabic, Russian, and Japanese studies, because these four groups were deemed most likely to be on the wrong side of future military conflicts with the U.S..
My high school was one of three in the Chicago area to get on the early Chinese language bandwagon. Within a few years, however, the NDEA funding for these programs had expired, and most of them were discontinued. My timing was thus fortunate. After three years of Chinese in high school, I became an East Asian Studies major at Princeton.
Shock and awe
Imagine, then, my shock and awe that humid April morning in Guangzhou, when I was rudely awakened at 6 a.m., by piercingly loud, searingly shrill broadcasts from loudspeakers in the streets outside the window of my room in the new wing of the Dong Fang Hotel. What a way to start the day, with the latest thoughts of Chairman Mao recited by a high-pitched female announcer with a staccato style. reminiscent of a dentist’s drill. That particular morning, her focus was on denouncing Confucius, Lin Biao, and — much closer to home — American Imperialists and their running dogs.
I looked out the window to see a river of blue and gray Mao-jacketed bicyclists for whom this breakfast broadcast was a regular daily routine.
“Dadao meidiguo zhuyi jiqi zou gou!”
There was some solace in the fact that I could understand most of the message, which proved my Chinese language studies had not been in vain. On the other hand, it was not exactly a welcoming message, especially given the method, volume and tone of its delivery.
Still only half awake as the harsh denunciation sunk home, I thought to myself: “I’m pretty sure I’m not an imperialist… but I’m not so sure what exactly constitutes a running dog.”
The irony hit hard. A few years ago at home, I’d been teased about studying the language of Red China, marginally at risk of being labelled a pinko or commie sympathizer. Now that my journey had finally brought me to China, it seemed I was now being labelled an imperialist running dog.
广州市区的典型交通场景 / Typical traffic in downtown Guangzhou
All meetings, with Americans at least, were scripted to begin with a critical political diatribe from the Chinese side. Especially given the lack of business cards or job title information from the Chinese side, it was always a guessing game as to who the senior person on their side was.
Interpreters on the Chinese side were generally young and understandably lacking in international experience. Given the politics of the day and its impact on language instruction, they were more familiar with British than American English. Language misadventures and snafus were commonplace.
广交会主展厅 / Main exhibit hall of the Fair
约瑟夫•雷芒德•麦卡锡（Joseph Raymond McCarthy，1908年-1957年），美国政治家，生于威斯康星州，美国共和党人。
In one long, tedious meeting between my Amcham delegation and a fairly senior Chinese foreign trade official, our delegation leader rattled off a long laundry list of practical trade issues. The young Chinese interpreter rendered these into Chinese with a fair degree of fluency, although he was clearly becoming fatigued as the detailed laundry list dragged on through the afternoon heat and humidity. At one point the Chinese official said something to the effect that perhaps in due course the “relevant departments” (“有关部门”) might consider looking into the matter.
At this stage the impatient American interlocutor, fond of using big business slang, responded “That sounds fine, Comrade, but I sure hope someone’s actually gonna put wheels under it”
The weary interpreter took that to mean that the American now had a proposal regarding the automotive industry. This elicited a barely tolerant grunt from the Chinese official, and from that point on, the conversation veered off into a series of non-sequiturs in the remote reaches of outer space. Both groups left the meeting in a state of puzzlement.
My return to Hong Kong after this first visit to China elicited a wave of curious questions from friends and associates, no doubt similar to what astronaut Neil Armstrong must have faced after his return from the moon.
I consider myself very fortunate to have witnessed that extraordinary stage of China’s history first-hand. I’ve lived in Hong Kong and continued my travels in China ever since that trip. Those early experiences are very helpful to the process of appreciating the phenomenal changes in China since that era.