WE DO EVERYTHING BACKWARDS
This was an early version of Shangri-La. I went to the library and checked out James Hilton’s Lost Horizon and spent the whole night in my room, under a cover, reading it. Dawn was breaking when I finished. Back in class we continued with “Peach Blossom Spring.” The villagers were surprised by the fisherman’s arrival but were pleased to converse with him. They tell him that their ancestors fled tyrants centuries before; and they have been hidden from the world of wars and suffering and know nothing of the outside world; nor do they wish to rejoin it. The fisherman is treated by the farmers as an honored guest, and is feasted with all the fruits of their harvest and their finest wine.
When the fisherman describes to them the violent and turbulent world he comes from, they shake their heads and sigh. For several days, he lives among them, spellbound by their good will and guileless ways. He watches in admiration, as the people follow neither kings nor calendars but only the natural rhythm of nature. He senses a happiness and contentment among the villagers that does not exist in the outside.
Excited by his discovery, the fisherman requests permission to leave. The villagers allow him to go, asking that he not spread word of their existence. The fisherman leaves, but despite his promise, he carefully marks his route and reports what he saw to officials. The officials quickly enlist others to return with him but to his amazement his markings have mysteriously disappeared and, try as he might, the fisherman can never again find Peach Blossom Spring. All subsequent attempts to find the valley have ended in failure. If I could convince Stevenson, we could get a Jeep and look for Peach Blossom Spring. I couldn’t wait until I saw him to tell him about my plan.
We all need dreams, and that was mine. In the meantime, aside from formal classes, we had to attend Chinese functions three evenings a week. We had many choices-Chinese films, Sing-Song cabarets, teahouses, or Chinese operas. I went to my first movie with Su Fung, Mae Chu and two of their male friends.
The Chinese films were dreadful and it took real perseverance to sit through them for two or three hours. Actors overacted and overdramatized. When they cried, it wasn’t simple tears they shed; it was wailing and hollering and falling to the floor, and rolling into a ball in a fetal position, and pounding the floor with closed fists. Actors didn’t walk; they floated. They didn’t die simple deaths; they stretched the agony into twenty-minute scenes in which actors and actresses miraculously came to life only to die again, and not once or twice, but perhaps a half dozen times. Staging was totally without ingenuity. Two actors talking and shot close up may have an open vista for a background, with a snow-capped mountain range in the far distance, and in the next shot they are in the studio and the background is a white sheet on a wall. To make things worse, the director didn’t bother to have the creases taken out of the sheet.
The Sing-Song cabaret I didn’t mind, for my friend Roger in Tsingtao had taught me the finer intricacies of the show. Still, they were enjoyable only for the first ten minutes. Like in Tsingtao, the singers were always women accompanied by classical Chinese music, which was mainly one-string violins and gongs. The female vocalists were highly skilled. The audience, always well dressed, sat around tiny tables drinking pots of tea, eating sunflower seeds. After several sessions I was still unable to understand a single word they sang, but I did develop a liking for tea and a dislike for sunflower seeds.
Chinese students at the university were not friendly. They looked upon foreigners with suspicion. Aside from Su Fung and Mae Chu I was able to befriend a few older male students. Chinese women for the most part kept their ground and were unapproachable. I had the feeling they wanted to be friendly, but they appeared too afraid to do so. As a result, they became defensive, and even vindictive. I tried to be nice to them but always felt slighted. Nevertheless, they were lovely, and very feminine. I loved their narrow bodies and slender limbs. Their hands were fine and delicate. Asian women had charm, but the most striking thing about them was their eyes. When a Western man falls in Jove with an Asian woman, I think it’s because of their eyes. I never tired of looking at their eyes. Ming-Lee had lovely eyes. They were as striking as any Oriental eyes that I had seen. It was the first thing I noticed about her.
When my Chinese became more proficient I was able to engage in more conversations with the students, and at these times women could be drawn into the circle. They became more argumentative than the men. I could feel a revolution brewing in all of them. One Chinese woman student who irked me was Lee Ann. She had a chip on her shoulder and was ready to attack me for the most trivial thing. Her English was excellent, for she grew up in London where her parents were in the Chinese foreign service. When the war ended, they returned to Peking. She obviously didn’t want to be in Peking, but now that she was, she defended her position vehemently. She was a cad, a snob, and what we in the Marines call “a spoiled brat.” Nevertheless I liked her. I liked her for her arrogance, and with her I knew where I stood, at the opposite pole. I could depend upon her being straightforward. You may not like them, but these are the most dependable people, no beating around the bush with them.
Lee Ann was a revolutionary at heart, but the country was still run by the Kuomintang, and one had to be cautious. Chinese women, who for centuries groaned under the weight of the male-dominated Confucian doctrine, nurtured promises that generated from the revolutionary movement. I couldn’t escape Lee Ann’s wrath on this subject. She was quick to bring up British colonial relationships with China, especially with Chinese women. The Opium Wars were hashed and rehashed every chance she found to bring them up. It took a great deal of effort for me, burning the midnight oil, reading up on the subject, to prepare myself to meet her head-on the next day. Her pet peeve regarded the employment contracts British males had to sign before they took up their new posts in the Far East. Essentially these contracts stated that British men were not allowed to marry Chinese women, nor were they allowed to have Chinese women living with them. They could not even take Chinese women as guests into their messes. Lee Ann constantly reminded me about the sign at the entrance of the Bund in Shanghai, the promenade where all the foreigners gathered before the war, which read: CHINESE AND DOGS NOT ALLOWED.
Not all the students were as sophisticated as Lee Ann. To most of them I was a novelty. If l had rolled up my sleeves for any reason, they wanted to touch the hair on my arms. Often, when they thought I wasn’t looking, they made funny gestures with their fingers, indicating my long nose, and would laugh about it. With these students, conversations were usually a waste of time. I learned nothing from them.
I never tired of sitting in the teahouses conversing with them. Once they got to know me, they besieged me with endless questions. At first I thought they were being facetious, but I soon realized they were dead serious. One student asked, “In the West, why do you do everything backwards?”
“Backwards! Like what?” I asked.
“You read a book from the wrong end first.”
I couldn’t argue this point. Chinese were writing books long before the Egyptians were using cuneiform. Which then was the right way to begin a book? I had to pass. To have said otherwise I would have made a fool of myself. The front of a book to us is the back of the book to them.
Another student asked: “How can you tell one foreigner from another? You all look alike.”
So all Westerners look alike. That was interesting. How many times has it been said in the West that all Asians look alike? Before I came to China, I couldn’t tell Chinese apart from Japanese. Now I could. It was queer to find myself on the opposite side of the fence. There were other questions I couldn’t answer either, like why do we put titles-Mr., Miss, and Mrs.- before names rather than after them, and why do we make excuses when we really mean no? “My father has a shop,” one girl said, “and every time a foreigner comes in and admires something, and then changes his mind, he says, ‘I’ll be back.’ Why does he have to lie and say he’ll be back when he doesn’t mean it.” I never thought about it before, and I couldn’t answer her.