What can be learned, what can’t be learned, by an American in China.
By David Murray
I called my 82-year-old dad from China to tell him my sister and I had arrived safely.
“We’re in Beijing, Dad.”
“Oh, no!” he replied.
Dad had been skeptical about this trip since I originally told him
we were going—and then had to break a long silence by saying, “I know,
Dad. We’re not ‘China’ people.”
“That’s right,” he said, brightening a little at my recognition of his point of view. “We’re not.”
Like many Midwesterners, Dad doesn’t have anything against China
because he doesn’t have much on China. Growing up in an Ohio steel town
in the 1930s and working as an advertising executive in Detroit and
Akron, Dad didn’t intersect too often with China, which had its own
tendencies toward insularity in those years.
And so Dad calls every Chinese restaurant “Charlie Chan’s,” and when
I once suggested we go to a Chinese restaurant at noontime, he said
dismissively, “Aw, we can’t go to Charlie’s for lunch.” Nothing against
the Chinese, of course. It’s just that they don’t serve a tuna fish
Up until a recent grudging visit to France with his lady friend,
Dad’s only experience with foreign travel consisted of a tour of Europe
in the mid-1940s, with an army helmet on his head. His idea of exotic
travel is Greece. His idea of space travel is China.
My Bohemian willingness to eat Chinese food for lunch
notwithstanding—and though I’ve been all over Europe—I’ve always
figured China was just too strange a place to travel, its history too
long and its culture too opaque to a half-educated Midwestern mind like
my own. Somehow, the only China lesson I had in school was a one-week
unit in high school, from which I retained terms and names—Ming
Dynasty, Opium Wars, Chiang Kai-shek, Mao Zedong—with little to connect
But like lots of Midwesterners who read newspapers, I’ve been having
a harder and harder time ignoring China: Economic juggernaut this and
next superpower that.
My wife’s uncle, Randall Damon, is also hard to ignore; he teaches
Mandarin Chinese in a Des Moines public high school and in January he
e-mailed me an itinerary for a three-week tour of China, and an
invitation to join him and 15 other Midwesterners—half of them high
school students and the other half adults.
The invitation came to me in the middle of a particularly virulent
case of winter blahs—in a moment where my life in Chicago seemed
“I think I have to do this,” I wrote Randall grimly. When my younger
sister agreed to go—she lives in Boulder, Colo. and we haven’t enjoyed
the intimacy of daily contact since we were in high school, and didn’t
enjoy it at all—I was sure I had to do it.
In the months leading up to the trip, I read Jung Chang’s China
memoir, Wild Swans. I wrote long memos to my writing clients,
explaining the complex arrangements I had made to clear my schedule for
the three-week period and dramatically explaining that I would be
absolutely unreachable in China. I got the recommended immunization
shots and dropped the word, “typhoid” in conversations with friends.
Then, when they called me when I left to share their worries and good
wishes, I chuckled at their adorable provincialism.
I also packed my suitcase with a hysterical what-am-I-forgetting
frenzy and made a point of playing one last round of golf, driving my
old truck one more time, eating one last Polish sausage.
And, upon putting my baby girl to bed the night before I left, I held my wife and sobbed as if I might never return.
A running joke among the adults as we planned our evenings in cities
and towns across China was, “Let’s stay in and order Chinese.”
It wasn’t that much of a joke.
By day, we two writers, three social workers, two human resources
executives and two teachers strolled around town; most nights, we
usually gathered in Randall’s hotel room, filling our glasses with
Tibetan Dry wine. We talked about the food we had eaten, what souvenirs
we had bought and for how cheap, how slowly or quickly our hand-washed
clothes were drying, and the status of our digestive systems. We came
up against a daily limit of new and often confusing information, and we
felt a nightly need for the comfort of the banal.
China was a mystery even to Randall, who speaks the language
fluently and whose visits to China began in mid 1980s. He was in
Beijing during the tragedy at Tiananmen Square in 1989, and he took
several student tour groups to China during the 1990s. But 1999 was the
last year he was here, and a great deal had changed in six years. In
some places, in fact, little had remained the same.
For Randall, new facts of China stood out: More cars than bicycles
in cities like Beijing, Chengdu and Kunming, and in towns like Lijiang
and Dali, seemingly more tourists (many of them newly prosperous
Chinese) than locals.
For the rest of us—blank slates as we were—all the facts of China stood out, making memory of the trip a many-colored muddle:
All over China, small children approached us to practice their
English—“Hello!” and “I love you!” and “Can I be your friend?”—their
parents standing a few feet back, beholding and beaming.
On the holy Emei Mountain, shriveled old Buddhist women made their
pilgrimage up and their retreat down 10,000 feet of stone stairs,
spryly lugging bulky suitcases and laughingly advising sweating young
tourists in their toothlessly muffled Chinese, “Go slow.”
A dentist pulled a tooth out of a farmer’s smile, without anesthesia, in the middle of a mobbed open market, in a lawn chair.
Of the big, broad, cold main streets of Beijing, somebody said, “It’s Vegas meets ….” and then trailed off.
The pandas were charming and the Great Wall was glorious and both
inspired even the most cliché-conscious of us to shoot the backs out of
Urban street hustlers sold copies of Mao Zedong’s Quotations from Chairman Mao, and bartered cheerfully on the price.
While propaganda signs from the Cultural Revolution faded, new signs
were freshly posted: “Happy, happy, go to work” and “Return home with
The China Daily reported on the sighting of the “Tianchi Lake
monster.” Said the witness who videotaped the beast breaking the
surface, “I would say what we saw above water was about the size of the
head of an adult ox.”
Primitive trucks rumbled around the countryside, looking less like modern farm equipment than escaped farm animals.
Two dozen men resurfaced a road—on their hands and knees, with hammers and eight-inch chisels.
a busy sidewalk in downtown Beijing, a paraplegic man crawled on his
belly, dragging his dead legs behind him, with rags beneath his knees
to keep them from scraping. Later, when my sister asked a tour guide
why you don’t see many people in wheelchairs in China, he scratched his
head and said, “I don’t know.
Maybe they just stay home.”
With a great crash, a sun-dappled, tree-lined retail street in
Kunming became a dark, dust-choked tunnel thanks to the demolition of a
building a few feet away.
At an ancient Buddhist monastery, visitors rubbed the hind leg of a
six-tusked elephant sculpture. Over a thousand years, they had worn off
the paint and dug a hand-sized gouge in the metal beneath it.
What we Midwesterners saw in China amounted to only half of our experience; what we could not see was the other half.
One of the fascinations of those of us in the Land of the Free is
just how repressive other governments can be—and how they do their
And so at first, I asked tour guides and others lots of questions
about issues like China’s one-child policy and what attitude the
Chinese have about Mao and how the government controls information.
I didn’t get far.
Most of the Chinese people we talked to wouldn’t say yak dung if they had a mouth full of it.
guides—employed by the government-run Chinese International Travel
Service—gave an enthusiastic spiel but they did not encourage
questions. And when questions come, the answers were either inadequate
or evasive. “Nancy,” our tour guide from Beijing, divulged in a private
conversation that China’s government censors some American movies.
Asked for a few examples of U.S. movies that have been forbidden in
China, Nancy hesitated and then said that movies are censored if they
have too much sexual content, if they are anti-China or critical the
Communist Party. And then she went on, just as if she had answered the
After many such cautious and frustrating conversations, the tour
group gratefully assented when our Sichuan guide “Bob” asked the
busload of us for permission to speak candidly about President Bush.
Bob said that while he admires former American Presidents Clinton,
Reagan, Roosevelt and Washington, Bush is inflexible and dogmatic and
“no good.” He added that every one of his tour groups feels the same
But like so much of what we learned in China, Bob’s mini-rant left
us only with more questions. Did he say this about Bush at
encouragement of his employer, the Chinese government? Or did he sense
a sympathetic audience and a chance to bond with us? Or was he just
bubbling over with the need to express this opinion?
It was impossible to know without asking, and of course it would have been impolite to ask.
As the trip went on, we asked fewer questions and resigned ourselves to a certain amount of bafflement.
(The only thing more baffling than China was the American teenagers
we had along. After early all-group trips to the Summer Palace and the
Great Wall, kids formed a secret society early in the trip, merging
with the adults, in China as in life, only for transportation.)
What wasn’t strange in China was strangely familiar. A tour guide
told us hitchhiking used to be common in China but it’s considered too
dangerous now. There are barbershop poles in China; the stripes are
black and white. And a grocery store in Leshan had a coin-operated
kiddie ride outside the front door. (Though it wasn’t a horsey or a
car, but rather a miniature tank).
In an Internet café in Lijiang, I wrote my dad an e-mail. I told him
that the day before, I had ridden a rented bicycle past an airfield
used by Claire Chenault’s Flying Tigers during World War II. No fighter
planes there now; the field was now a training ground for drivers of
buses to convey the millions of Chinese tourists around Yunnan Province.
I also told Dad that, on a seven-hour bus ride the day before, I had
seen the America he grew up in. Panzhihua is old Pittsburgh: A
smoke-choked and thriving steel town in green mountains. Along the
road, I saw other things that became impossible toward the end of my
dad’s century in America. I also told him I had seen coal-mining town
just as much on-the-make—Allentown, 100 years ago. From a mountain high
above, I’d looked down into a long and wide river basin in the
mountains full of verdant rice patties and dozens of rich farming towns
full of big houses. “And,” I wrote, “the Hoover Dam—one of a series of
dams being begun in a gorge on the Yangtze River. They’re just building
the workers’ dormitories now.”
Dad replied, “Maybe you’ll run into their Lindbergh and their Wrights on your trip backward.”
Leaving my wife and child to travel in China for three weeks wasn’t easy to do and it was harder to justify.
on the train one evening about halfway through the trip, I was pleased
to find a passage in Paul Theroux’s China book, Riding the Iron
“Dr. Johnson told Boswell how eager he was to go to China and see
the Wall. Boswell was not so sure himself. How could he justify going
to China when he had children at home to take care of?
“’Sir,’ Doctor Johnson said, ‘by doing so you would do what would be
of importance in raising your children to eminence. There would be a
lustre reflected upon them from your spirit and curiosity. They would
be at all times regarded as the children of a man who had gone to view
the Wall of China. I am serious, sir.’”
The next morning, still on the train, I found myself watching a
Chinese man try to calm his crying grandson, and feeling envious.
In other moments, the trip felt more fully justified. For instance,
at the giant Buddha sculpture at Leshan, my sister felt inspired to
finally divulge to her crusty big brother from Chicago that she’s into
Buddhism. I suppose she figured I couldn’t tease her even if I wanted
to: Buddha had her back.
One of my dad’s favorite expressions is, “Every once in a while, a man ought to do something he’s a little afraid of.”
And that’s why I went.
But actually, I found less to fear in China than I’ve found in
Europe, and less to be anxious about: In China, the people don’t expect
you to know the language or even the manners, and they don’t sneer at
you when you don’t. Instead, they laugh their way through the tourist
charades, and you laugh too; talking with the
Chinese, you both laugh like people with no pretensions to competence in a thing, trying it for the first time.
And maybe, for me, for the last time.
Although I did send a postcard home to my 21-month-old daughter. I
wrote, “Dear Scout: China is a strange place. Someday you might want to
see it. If you do, this postcard is your ticket.”
Maybe, like I did, she’ll take her dad along with her.