3.4.5 Beijing

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First written July 2019; revised Jan 2020

As you may recall from the Teaching chapter, I got a degree in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages in order to be able to travel, and travel I did. That itch to travel might seem ironic now when, in part due to the climate crisis, I try to travel as little as possible. A few months after graduating from University of Illinois at Chicago, I departed for Hawaii, where my cousin from the chapter on Eating Plants was living. I taught in Honolulu for about 6 months, until in mid-1983, one of my former professors helped me secure a job in Beijing, as part of a joint project between China’s Ministry of Foreign Trade and University of California at Los Angeles.

I don’t know why, but I had always been interested in China. In high school, every year for Mother’s Day, I would buy my mother a present, and one year, I purchased a statue of an old traditionally-dressed Chinese man. And, that statue is still in my family 50 years later [photo of statue].

Another thing that appealed to me about China were the images I had seen of so many people riding bicycles. Yes, I enjoyed driving cars, but bikes always had a special appeal for their simplicity and the chance to exercise while traveling. One of my first purchases upon arriving in China was a bicycle. I have to admit that my status as a teacher allowed me to get what was considered a top of the line bike – only one speed, but solidly built and a smooth ride [photo of Phoenix bike]. I had so much fun amidst the throngs of fellow bike riders in the safety of the broad bike lanes with so few cars to threaten my safety or pollute the air I was breathing.

China back then was very different than it is today. Now, cars are the main form of transport, and it seems that many of those people who still ride bicycles ride motorized ones. Now, the air pollution in cities like Beijing is so bad, but back then, the air seemed okay except for a week or so each year, when the winds brought dust storms from further west in China.

The food available back then was so simple. The main vegetable, especially in the winter, was cabbage. As the winter temperatures were cold, and many people didn’t have refrigerators, mountains of cabbage were built in the streets, and then sold or rationed as needed. Once, some ex-pat neighbors of mine organized a party in which people showed off their culinary skills by coming up with novel ways to prepare cabbage, such as chocolate cabbage.

The teaching experience in China spoiled me for life. The students were mid-career adults who worked for government import-export organizations in various provinces. Most education institutions in China had been closed for many years due to the Cultural Revolution; so, these students were hungry to learn. Motivation was high, and not just in the classroom. On the weekends, when I wanted someone to go with me to visit somewhere in Beijing, students were always keen.

I have to confess that during my one year teaching in China, I was more of a tourist than a teacher. In my free time, rather than learning more about language or language education, I was out on my bicycle visiting the sights in Beijing. To me, China was such a unique place filled with old lanes and historical buildings, the best known being the Forbidden City, which I visited on my bike many times. By the time I left China, it’s only a slight exaggeration to say that I was qualified to be a Beijing tourist guide.

Back then, most foreigners could only live in designated places, and my colleagues and I lived in the Friendship Hotel. Living there was very convenient with a cafeteria where we could take all our meals. Another enjoyable feature of the Friendship Hotel was the weekly film showing of recent China-made films. Of course, these films were made to promote Chinese government’s messages, but I’ve always been fascinated by how media, consciously or unconsciously, conveys messages, whether the messages aim to convince people to purchase particular products or to support government campaigns.

I met many memorable people in Beijing. One was about 20 years older than me. What I remember about her was that she didn’t like hanging out with people my age or younger. At the time, I found her view puzzling, but now I can see where she was coming from, although I try to have a broad mix of acquaintances.

One of my Chinese teaching colleagues is someone I have stayed in touch with. Where I taught, there were about equal numbers of teachers from China and from the U.S. Later, one of the Chinese teachers ended up studying in the U.S., and continued living their afterwards. I remember her son was maybe about 3 years old, when I was in Beijing. He loved to wear a Chinese military uniform and he thought foreigners like me were strange. It was fun to see him many years later as a young adult in the U.S. I also stayed in touch with a couple of my students, one of whom still writes to me every year.

One incident near the end of my time in China stands out. I had been struck by how nationalist people in China were. I appreciate that when a country, such as China, has been a long-time victim of imperialistic practices that a fierce nationalism represents a useful reaction, but I thought China had gone too far. So, in a speech at the closing ceremony for the students, I talked about how we are all the same, and then, I took a needle in order to cut myself to show that my blood was red just like everyone else’s. I didn’t really cut myself, but I hope I proved my point.