I never lettered and alphabetized it as a fear, but I had a certain background level of anxiety about being in China because of its government and its history.
I’d read many dark news stories about conditions in China and crackdowns by the government, as well as quite a few autobiographies and one novel, Lisa See’s “Dreams of Joy,” set during the Great Leap Forward (1958-61) and the Cultural Revolution (1966-76).
It did not help that shortly before I applied for my visa, China toughened the requirements to include providing documentation for how you’d be getting in and out of China and where you’d stay every night you were there—and if you were going to stay in a private home, you had to submit a letter of invitation from your host and a copy of their Chinese ID. An American newspaper columnist said that these new requirements were about keeping illegal immigrants from taking jobs away from citizens, but they certainly felt forbidding. Indeed, I wonder now if the visa requirements weren’t toughened because the government wanted to know exactly who was going to be where during the Communist Party’s 18th National Congress, which was held in Beijing shortly after I left China.
The visa application form also required that people who chose “retired” as their occupation list their previous employment. I was grateful that there was only one space provided. In my last job I was a preschool assistant for the Lake Washington School District; I didn’t have to mention having been a journalist for many more years than I worked in a classroom, which I knew visa officials might have found problematic.
I might have worried about all this more except that I felt so innocuous. I was going to China because of the gratitude I felt for taiji and qigong; I certainly intended no harm. There really was no reason for the government to be worried about me being in China.
And yet, after the customs official at the Beijing airport looked at my passport and tore off the arrival half of the arrival-departure card I’d filled out on the plane, I was confused because I thought surely there were more hoops for me to jump through—but where were they? Wasn’t anyone going to search my luggage or ask me where I was going and why? I asked a woman wearing an airport uniform what I was supposed to do next, which caused her to be puzzled, too, and finally she pointed to a line of taxis. It seemed I was free to go. So I went.
However, it was at the entrance to the Forbidden City that I became pretty sure no one was watching me. I had tensed when I noticed a group of uniformed men marching in formation. But then a Chinese teenager darted from the crowd and began clowning behind the last row of marchers so that her friend could take her picture. Egad! The sacrilege! But no one cared.
Later on, in Chengdu, Martin told me that most police officers aren’t armed. And he pointed out how, in a couple of public altercations we witnessed, they just stood by, letting things sort themselves out but being on hand in case the situation started to get out of control.
Another thing that had contributed to my background anxiety about being in China was having read Larry and Qin Herzberg’s little book “The China Survival Guide.” It was helpful in many ways, but some things, I think, were overstated. The Herzbergs had said that while Chinese people are extremely considerate of family and friends, out on the streets, or when getting in line to board a subway or buy some sort of ticket, it’s pretty much every man for himself. I had mentally sharpened my elbows and figured I’d be doing battle every time I left my hotel—but that didn’t happen.
I did find that traffic was—well, traffic is another chapter. But I didn’t find behavior on sidewalks, or in parks or other public places, to be any different than what I would have experienced at home, and I never felt the need to use my elbows. Granted, I was not trying to ride the subway during rush hour—but I have not tried to ride the subway in rush hour in New York City either.
I felt quite comfortable when I set out from my hotel every morning. Martin and the Herzbergs and other writers all said that China is one of the safest countries in the world to be a tourist, and most of the time I was there, I did feel safe. I actually felt safer in the hutongs than I would have in the alleys in many U.S. cities. And, as I’ve said, most people were willing to help me when I asked, and some even volunteered. Was it because I’m 70 and the Chinese have a tradition of giving seniors deferential treatment? Was it because or in spite of the fact that I’m an obvious westerner? I have no idea. But I also have no complaint.
At one point before I left home I set finding happiness in China as one of my goals: I wanted to know if and how people were happy despite the horrific things that had happened there—and perhaps still do happen there.
I can’t say that I met my goal—and indeed, it was probably unmeetable, given my limited language skills and short stay. I did note that when I was feeling stricken, people didn’t seem all that happy; when I was happy, they did. Sort of like at home.
I was about to write that it seemed young people were the most vibrant, the happiest, if you will—but then I immediately started thinking of exceptions. For example, the woman I passed in one of the hutongs near Ji House with whom I exchanged what felt like an old-woman-to-old-woman smile, almost surreptitious. The 55-year-old retiree with whom I toured the Forbidden City. Some of the seniors who danced and did taiji at Renmin Park. The woman who was begging in front of Qing Yang Temple in Chengdu….
I noticed her down on the dirty sidewalk—and noticed that she had no legs. I walked past her because the Herzbergs and other writers had said you should never give money to beggars with deformities because you’d be encouraging other beggars to maim their children. (Later Martin told me that this is simply not true, that it doesn’t happen in China, and I must say that in all the time I spent walking city streets, I saw only a few adults begging, and no children.)
Anyway, I walked a short distance after I passed the woman, and then I thought, “Wait a minute. I have money. She has no legs.” So I walked back and put 1 Yuan (16 cents) in her cup and she gave me one of the most beautiful smiles I have ever seen. I spent the rest of the afternoon wishing I had given her more.
Was she a good actress or was she grateful for the gift? I have no idea. But her smile made me feel good.