I was 61 years old and the only cyclist from Missouri when 16 of us pedaled for 11 days within mainland China’s borders. Four young adults from California, 84-year-old Jim from Louisiana, an attorney from Detroit and various other women and men instantly became "family." We spoke English, we rode quality bicycles and we would stick together through thick and thin.
Only we who were older recalled reading of China’s revolution and the human tragedies of the ’50s. Missionaries were forced to leave; officials were treated as criminals. Thousands got the "or else" verdict; historians said that blood ran in the streets! Comedian Steve Allen, who lived there in his youth, was one of the first to return - I recommend his book. I write only about the China I saw in 1981, in the Pearl River Delta area - the southeast farming country.
We saw Chinese men and women building roads with pickaxes, shovels and sledgehammers six days a week for the standard wage - the equivalent of $55. In the silk factory, women spend their lives handling the tiny filament as it unwinds from 3-inch-long silkworm cocoons; they did not need to know that they were helping to make silk for people across the globe to wear. They will not recognize silk if they ever see any!
Women gathering mulberry leaves from roadside trees didn’t know, or care, that those leaves feed the silkworms that wrap the cocoons around themselves in 40 days. There is no reason for the working people to know - or see - the "fruit of their looms." As with the road builders, they make the equivalent of $55 a month.
After my first purchase, I knew that, in downtown Canton, nothing would cost enough to require my asking the price! But I didn’t realize that my being there alone was not acceptable to the All China Youth Federation.
The "People’s" money was of little value, and Chinese people were not admitted to Friendship Stores. A man and boy offered hand-size bundles of kindling wood; a fellow weighed up some dried, smoked pan fish for a customer. A happy elderly man would put metal plates on shoe heels to prevent their wearing. Worn-out, patched bicycle inner tubes with many patches and worn tires with boots were displayed. Some people offered small quantities of vegetables from their personal gardens, a woman made repairs on broken umbrellas and much more. This was probably what was meant when American media, said, "China is experimenting with capitalism."
An older woman sold bunches of dirty "rice porcelain" dishes on the street. I paid well for a full set at the Friendship Store. These dirty ones, washed and sorted, were a "giveaway." At 5 p.m. that day the head of the All China Youth Federation stepped up behind me on the street and said, "I carry your bag, Mrs. Gerard" and spoke not another word to me after that.
The day we arrived in China, our trip leader warned: "Do not take food to your rooms; it might attract rats." One morning before 5 a.m. a rat was in our bathroom! It hid in a stack of clean towels; I shook him out, and he climbed the woodwork; I got my camera and took his picture. I trapped him under a blue waste basket and put a weight on it.
After breakfast two women and my roommates got close enough to peek then flew down the hallway screaming! I released the rat, and he sailed out the patio door, the way he came in.