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Chinese Lessons: Five Classmates and the Story of the New Chinaby John Pomfret
Warmly Welcome You
At six oclock in the morning of February 3, 1981, I awoke with a start to the sounds of drums, trumpets, and the squawk of a woman telling me in Chinese to “increase vigilance, protect the motherland, and prepare for war!”
This woman would hound me for the next year, her disembodied voice blasting out of a tinny speaker dangling by a wire just far enough from the bottom bunk that I could not disable it with a broom, yet close enough to wreck my mornings. And not just mine. She was Chinas daily national wake-up call, broadcast across the country, with the same clanging music and panicky martial message.
Around me, seven Chinese men, ranging in age from eighteen to mid-thirties, all dressed in blue long-sleeved T-shirts and long johns, rustled out of their cotton bedding. As if on cue, they sent up a chorus of phlegmy hocks. Some spat on the floor; others into white enamel teacups. One by one, they slipped on flip-flops, grabbed their metal washbasins, yanked filthy washrags from a jerry-rigged clothesline stretched across the room, and shuffled off to the public bathroom to elbow out a space at a trough of cold water.
I lolled in bed, slowly unfolding my six-foot-two frame from the chin-to-knees position I had to assume to sleep on a five-foot-ten bed. Above me my bunkmate, Xu Ruiqing, lounged, too. Xu (pronounced shoe) was the eldest in our room, a thirty-two-year-old Communist Party functionary from a little city sixty miles east of Nanjing. His formal title was Secretary of the Communist Party Committee of the Students Majoring in History, Nanjing University, Class of 1982a lot of words that meant he could linger in bed if he wanted, too. Like me and the others in the room, Xu was an undergraduate student, but he had special duties: determining who would get a shot at membership in the ruling Communist Party, and keeping tabs on his fellow students, me included, for any signs of wayward behavior.
I surveyed the room, a dark box with cement floors and dingy whitewashed walls, half the size of my bedroom at my folks apartment in Manhattan. Crammed against the walls were four bunk beds with gunmetal frames and rice-husk mattresses. The lumpy pillows were also stuffed with rice husks that would stab through the thin cotton cover. Our bedrolls, still in heaps, would soon be folded with military precision. Tacked on the walls were snapshots from home, typically the family arrayed solemnly around their most valuable possession, more often than not a clunky radio.
Eight wooden desks were shoved together in the center of the room, each desk matched with a stool. At head-height, my roommates had strung three wire clotheslines. Wet laundry, scabrous underwear, holey T-shirts, and faded Mao jackets drooped from the wires. From my bottom bunk in the purple darkness of early morning, the lines resembled mountain ridges stretching off into the distance.
The whole scene, lit by two naked low-watt bulbs, looked more like a work camp than university student housingThe Grapes of Wrath goes Asian. The only nod to modernity was taped on the wall near my pillow: a picture of New Yorks skyline and the skull and roses of the Grateful Dead.
I had arrived in China in September 1980 after completing my third year at Stanford University. The United States had established diplomatic relations with China only a year earlier, though contacts between the two countries had intensified beginning in 1971, when Henry Kissinger, then the national security adviser, made a secret trip to Beijing as part of President Richard Nixons plan to thaw the decades-old cold war with the Communist nation. The two powers then united in a secret and ultimately successful campaign, involving intelligence sharing and gunrunning to rebels in Afghanistan and other Third World hotspots, with the goal of entombing their shared enemy: the Soviet Union.
Youd never guess it from the bare-bones surroundings of my dorm room, but I considered myself lucky to be in China. Id started to study modern Chinese history and the Chinese language at a time when China was terra incognita. As a twenty-one-year-old American exchange student, I had won a front-row seat at what I thought was going to be the greatest show on Earth: the reemergence of China on the world scene after four decades of self-imposed isolation. Being a student offered opportunities not available to Western diplomats, businessmen, or journalists for the simple reason that the Chinese government didnt much care about us foreign college kids. We could move around more freely, have closer contact with the locals, and, as a result, get a better idea of what it was like to be Chinese.
I had first experienced China through my belly. As a child, Chinese food was one of the first cuisines I was willing to eat outside of hamburgers. I remember, as a nine-year-old during the Vietnam War demonstrations of 1968, hearing students at Columbia University shouting, “Mao, Mao, Chairman Mao!” As I got older, my interest expanded to Chinese history and current events. But I never bought into the notion, then voguish on U.S. campuses, that Mao Zedong had created a worker-peasant paradise in China. My father, a journalist for the New York Times before becoming an executive at the company, had imbued in me early the ideas that government is not to be trusted, and that revolutions inevitably crush their own.
By my junior year at Stanford, I had chosen to major in East Asian Studies and had committed myself to finding a way to get to China. At the time, just a handful of Chinese universities had programs for exchange students, and most of those were summer courses. I wanted to go for a year or more.
Through a friend, I contacted a Chinese-American professor working at Stanfords linear accelerator who agreed to write a letter on my behalf to his former classmate, the dean of the Beijing Languages Institute. My plan was first to study language in Beijing and then apply to a Chinese university. In December 1979, I received a letter from the Peoples Republic, written on rice paper in the curlicued script of a bygone era, with a postage stamp of a monkey-king cavorting on a cloud. “Dear Friend Pomfret, Salutations!” it began and went on to inform me that I would be welcome to begin studies at the institute the following September. I had learned my first lesson in how things were accomplished in the Peoples Republicthrough connections. The same principle applied to getting my Chinese visa. The Chinese consulate in San Francisco had not received notification of my acceptance to the Beijing Languages Institute. I waited for months, exchanging a stack of letters with the school, until my father came to my rescue. A Times editor put him in touch with a Chinese diplomat, Cao Gui
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