In my third year at McGill University in Montreal, a much older, married classmate suggested the two of us go to China during our summer vacation. I was 19; she was probably all of 25. When we applied for visas, she, a white Australian, was turned down and I was approved. It was my first lesson in Chinese apartheid.
As a third-generation Canadian, I didn’t speak Chinese and dreaded going alone. But the lure was too great. In 1972, China was radical-chic, at least to an idealistic university student in Montreal. Against a backdrop of protests against US involvement in the Vietnam War, Beijing was a beacon of hope.
In that era, Hong Kong was the gateway to China. My father, a Montreal restaurateur, had mysterious contacts in the British colony. To my surprise, an entire “patriotic” network enveloped me—I was met at Kaitak Airport, deposited at the Golden Gate Hotel in Kowloon and taken shopping at a fluorescent-lit emporium that, in an unwitting harbinger of global commerce, only sold things Made in China. I spent $15 on two pairs of black cloth shoes, two pairs of baggy gray trousers and three plaid blouses. I figured the best way to see China was undercover, as a Chinese. (I had no idea I had purchased “export-quality” clothing, the cut and fabric of which would instantly identify me as someone from the outside.)
It was June 1, 1972—exactly 100 days after President Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China. The 7 a.m. train from Hong Kong deposited me at the border. As I walked over the small footbridge to Shenzhen, wearing my new mainland outfit, I heard the strains of revolutionary opera blasting over the loudspeakers. Above my head the five-star red flag fluttered in the hot breeze. I stared in awe at the tall, handsome People’s Liberation Army sentry, thinking: my first Communist! Another equally tall and handsome PLA border guard checked my passport and politely waved me through. (I didn’t yet know these soldiers were chosen in part for their looks and height.)
Sipping a glass of jasmine tea in the railway waiting room, I watched women in straw hats, trimmed with black, curtain-like flounces, working in the fields. Then I boarded the train for Canton. Bai, the young woman who met me, was about my age, and had round pink cheeks and glossy braids she tossed briskly over her shoulders. She looked as though she had popped out of a propaganda poster.
More lessons in Chinese apartheid ensued. As I was racially Chinese, I was presumed to have an innate ability to read, write and speak the language of the motherland. So Bai didn’t know English, and the designated hotel where she deposited me, the Canton Overseas Chinese Hotel, was also unilingually Chinese, including the menus. I didn’t mind, at least not until the third time I mistakenly ordered pig esophagus for lunch.
Inside the Stalinist-style sandstone hotel, the class-struggle décor consisted of golden quotations from Chairman Mao. The lobby teemed with compatriots from Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia, who lounged around in flowered polyester pantsuits and solid-gold jewelry, picking their teeth and shouting to one another in village dialects. Had I been classified a foreigner, I would have been charged twice as much for a room in an “international” hotel, which offered luxuries like interpreters, English menus and rooms with windows. The interior designer at the Overseas Chinese Hotel had chosen the prison-cell look for my tiny room: whitewashed walls, quite a few mice and no windows. He or she had solved the ventilation problem by cutting a big hole high in the wall separating me from the next room, which meant I could listen to every shout and snore from the adjacent family.
Bai rarely accompanied me. Each morning, she ensured I got into the right car. Then she would instruct the driver to take me to such tourist destinations as the Canton Trade Fair. (It looked like a clearance sale at an army and navy surplus store.)
At the Canton Zoo, I struck up a conversation of sorts with a 22-year-old worker with high cheekbones and finely shaped eyes. We talked mostly in sign language. When he fingered his worn denim jacket, it meant he was a worker. What kind? He went through the motion of driving a car, then fixing an imaginary engine. An auto mechanic!
For my part, I told him, yes, TOLD him, he must be happy in the workers’ paradise. I mimed happiness, pointing at my big grin, and then at him. He shook his head and turned down his mouth in a Chaplinesque expression of sadness. He thrust out his hands and made me feel the calluses. Then he rubbed the fingers of one hand together in that universal commercial gesture that means money. He shook his head, which meant the pay was crap.
I was stunned—how could a worker in China be unhappy? I thought this was the dictatorship of the proletariat. I couldn’t exactly say that in Chinese, so I tried to pantomime a happy worker, pretending to repair a piece of machinery, all the while smiling broadly.
The young mechanic thought I was crazy. He pulled a small pass from his pocket. It stated where he was from (Guangxi province) and where he was authorized to travel (Canton.) It specified he could stay two weeks and the purpose: visiting relatives from overseas. Slowly I understood—he could not travel freely in his own country.
When I told him I was from “Jia na da,” he wanted to go there. Again, I was shocked. Why would anyone here want to go to a CAPITALIST country? I had been in China exactly four days, so I was an expert. I told him, in my fractured Chinese, that China was way better than Canada. On cue, a line of singing schoolchildren marched past. He looked dubious. We agreed to go rowing the next day.
The next morning, Bai tracked me down in the hotel dining room and told me, beaming, that I was going to visit Chairman Mao’s school. My face fell. I tried to explain I was going rowing with a member of the proletariat. I pulled my arms back and forth. She couldn’t figure out what on earth I was talking about, so I pulled her outside where my friend from the zoo was waiting.
The change in Bai was startling. The sweetness was gone. She looked older and meaner. She shouted at him. His neck flushed as he pulled out his travel pass. She snatched it from him, examined it and frowned. Then she barked something at him, and he slunk away.
Later, I walked through Mao's school in a daze. Why couldn't I go rowing with a Chinese? What had I done wrong? What had he done wrong? I felt like crying at the ugliness I'd just witnessed, at the humiliation of my new friend. For the next few weeks, I continued to tour China alone, increasingly perplexed by and somewhat paranoid about the authorities, but still entranced and captivated by the strange, new society I was witnessing. After weeks of pestering Guide Bai to find me someone, anyone, who would teach me Chinese, I was suddenly told I could stay and study in China. Exactly where remained a mystery until one day I was dropped off at the gates of Peking University. I became the first Canadian to study there in the Cultural Revolution.
It was the first step in my Long March from Mao to now. I stayed a year at Peking University, learning fluent Mandarin, digging ditches, harvesting wheat and working in a machine-tool factory. It being the silly 70s, McGill University gave me full credit for that year of hard labor, and I graduated on time. I immediately returned to Peking University to study Chinese history, the next step in a journey that would ultimately take me back to Beijing as a foreign correspondent where I chronicled, among other events, China's rise as a global market economy, the struggle for human rights and the 1989 massacre at Tiananmen Square.
For more information on Jan Wong, her personal website can be viewed at: www.janwong.ca