Granny's Notes - the writing of Sue Gerard

Bike excursion through China reveals anisolated society

Mr. Wu, our interpreter from Hong Kong, said, "Who wants to go to town after we eat?" I seized the opportunity.

Sixteen of us had bicycled several days on mainland China’s streets and roads but hadn’t brushed elbows with the working masses in their precious leisure hours. Mr. Wu set a fast pace as we walked several blocks from the hotel to where people were sipping pop at open street stands, laughing and chatting in a sort of orange soda pop "happy hour."

China’s borders were closed to foreigners for nearly 30 years. The rest of the world knew little about the lives of China’s 1 billion people, and they knew nothing about the outside world.

Their isolation began with the Communist revolution in 1949 and changed a little in the early ’70s when they admitted competitive pingpong teams from several countries. Chinese players are highly skilled in this favored recreation. Pingpong opened China’s doors for a brief peek. Gradually they prepared for limited tourism; it took two years of negotiations to arrange our bike tour.

Four of us walked fast with Mr. Wu because the stores would close at 9 p.m. sharp. Open storefronts allowed light to spill out to the sidewalk from a single fluorescent tube at the rear of each sales room. The front walls of shops were roll-up doors.

At the bicycle shop, we saw almost nothing in the display case except a bell, a tire, a tube, a chain and, displayed alone, a brand new "made in Taiwan" black bike. The communist country didn’t deal with Taiwan factories; they bought Taiwan bicycles from their Japanese friends!

Streets in every village and city are crowded with old bikes: They’re black, diamond-frame for men heavy, single-speed bikes with fenders and foot-pedal brakes. This was a banner day for two women clerks; they sold four bells to go to the United States! The clock struck 9, the doors came down and the single-bulb intersection light went out. We hunted our way back to the hotel in darkness.

Pre-1949 hotels were hastily modernized when tourism threatened. By 1981, when we were there, buyers, journalists, businessmen, historians, medical tourists and others and many of their wives were hauled from one interesting place to another with no stopping.

They traveled "prepared" streets where smiling faces on huge bulletin boards obscured the poverty and rubble behind. They visited "showcase" shops, factories, museums and historical places.

We slept in the same hotels and ate in the same dining rooms with other tourists and exchanged notes. We had entirely different impressions of China.

Bicyclists, traveling fewer miles, ate at makeshift or local dining rooms at noontime. Buses always shuffled passengers to the best.

Our Chinese drivers ate when we ate, but not in the same room. We often climbed stairs to the third floor of old buildings to get to our noon meal. We decided that they didn’t want local people to know we ate much better food in rooms where tables had snow white cloths and napkins.

We had large platters of food including meat usually chicken, duck or fish and, twice, "pork tenders" which only men ate when I was a kid on the farm. Rice, tea and a tasty green leafy vegetable, similar to Swiss chard, were served at most meals. Fried breakfast eggs were cooled on saucers before being served. The food was somewhat monotonous but was tasty, healthful and well seasoned.

We saw no Chinese people sitting down to eat; they held a small bowl near their faces and sort of scooped their rice in with the chopsticks. More about China another Tuesday.


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