This week I’m wearing my 16-year-old T-shirt that was issued to the those of
us who bicycled in southern China in 1981. It has a big red star and the
symbol of a bicyclist on the front. The back of the shirt has a row of large
Chinese characters, which, they say, spell a warning to truck drivers to
“please drive carefully.” Since there were no privately owned cars, we had
the roads pretty much to ourselves except for other cyclists and those
government vehicles that resembled our trucks made in the 1930s.
I met and “talked” with many people. I’d roll a handkerchief to make a
jumping mouse, and they called him “La O Shu.” The children and many adults
gathered near whenever he came out of my pocket; they’d squeal “Do it again”
when he jumped. Then I’d give some adult a yellow sheet of paper with sketches
titled, “How to Make a Mouse.” Many people appeared at roadside after they
saw our faster cyclists pass.
In shops I sometimes left my card because it had a sketch of a potter. That’s
why a young woman wrote to ask me to if I’d be her teacher so she could learn
more English. She spoke only Chinese in the shop where I bought an abacus. I
copied the address she gave me, but there was no answer. Perhaps my Chinese
characters were not accurate enough for their letter carriers.
Others I met may count me as “friend” because we smiled and pointed and used
gestures to convey a message. One Sunday I asked a man where I could buy a hat
like the one he was wearing. He gave me his hat and would not accept money. He
even refused the Missouri corncob pipe I had taken for just such an occasion.
A dentist left his patient and came to talk. I wanted to buy an unusual basket
like the one which hung outside, over the sidewalk. It was bamboo, and he
pantomimed that it had been used to carry ducklings to market. He got a long
pole and brought it down from the canopy over the sidewalk. It was dirty with
street crud that accumulated for years, but he insisted on washing it. I
pointed and said, “You should take care of the patient.” He shook his head
to say, “She’s enjoying this encounter.” The dentist set the basket over a
floor drain and splashed water on it to clean it. He finally bounced the
basket on the concrete floor to shake off the excess water and smiled broadly
saying, in Chinese of course, “I’m glad for you to have this basket. It
wasn’t doing anybody any good, and it’s a joy to give it to you.” He waved
the money away but looked at the corncob pipe, longingly. When he handed it
back, his eyes said, “I’m not permitted to accept it.”
We had been told to take only inexpensive gifts such as balloons and pencils.
I took samples of Missouri clay and corncob pipes. A friend had sent six
handmade wooden bracelets for me to give to Chinese women, but none would
accept one. On our last night our Chinese leaders accepted bracelets and pipes
for their wives and families.
Now it’s July 1997, and huge, modern, boisterous Hong Kong has been handed
over for Chinese leaders to rule. What will this mean to the clerk who was
learning English, the man who gave me the hat off his head, the dentist? Will
they make more than $55 a month? Will they have a two-day weekend? Will they
have as many children as they want? We’ll see!
I won’t have answers, but next Tuesday I’ll tell you more about the China I
saw when touring on a bicycle.