Archive for August, 2009

Robert’s Appendix

by on Wednesday, August 26th, 2009

Imagine you are in the 1985 Xiamen described in “A Walk in a Chinese Port Town.” You come to an old building of hand-cut granite and a curvy, red roof. Inside there are dark wooden staircases, freshly swept red tile floors, the somewhat dingy look of a typical traditional Chinese building. Then you enter a ward which reminds you of World War I or II movies with European settings. Above the hand-crank hospital beds are mosquito net racks hanging from the ceiling. You approach the one bed with a heater/air-conditioner, a luxury reserved for foreigners and important Chinese. The patient is a tall, gregarious young man with a New Zealand accent. He gestures a lot when he talks, and he looks at you as if his only interest is communicating to you personally.  

Robert’s story

I do arts and crafts at home. I came to China to see if I could pick up some skills here. I’d like to learn Chinese painting, calligraphy, and wood carving.

A traditional medicine shop

A traditional medicine shop

On the boat from Hong Kong I met Michelle, and we spent most of the voyage talking. She said I should come to the university and meet some other artists and some New Zealanders. One of them I knew from my hometown. So within about four days I got to know several people. I also got a big room in the foreign students’ dorm on campus, which is costing me about four kuai a night [four yuan or $1.39].

A few days after I arrived in China, I got horrible stomach pain. I thought I had a stomach bug, and Dean went to the hospital for some Chinese medicine, and I took that. It tasted horrible. I’ve heard that Chinese medicine is usually really effective, but this was not what you take when with an inflamed appendix, you know? I lay there all day and all night. Then I got up and got dressed, and I walked out and met George, the tall American guy.

I said, “Where’s the hospital?”

“There’s a clinic downstairs.”

So we went down, and he told them it was sore, and at that stage I had located the pain down toward my appendix.

George said, “Oh, you’d better go to the hospital.”

We went to the hospital and got in to see a doctor. She put me on a table, and she stretched my leg one way, and she stretched my leg another way, and she said, “Does that hurt?”

“Yeah, that hurts.”

Then she pushed down on my stomach.

Then we went to another doctor—George was translating—and he did exactly the same thing to me. By this time I was getting a lot sorer because that was happening. The doctor gave me a blood test and came out with the results.

He said, “When did it start?” I told him, and he said, “It’s really dangerous the way it is right now. Twenty-four hours is about the limit for this sort of thing. We’re going to operate at two o’clock this afternoon.”

That made twenty-six hours, so I was past their period. George and the doctor took me to a room and he said, “Hop into bed.”

I turned around and said, “Don’t I get any…where’s my pajamas?”

They don’t supply pajamas here. So I hopped into bed with all my clothes on. It was quite funny—you’ve got to have a sense of humor. I’m not sure if they had shot me up with drugs or not.

By two o’clock Dean had come with Ann. So there were about four people from the university, and I was getting wheeled away to the operating room. My head was pretty thick by that time, but I know I was still wearing my street clothes. George and the doctor had shaved my pubic hair, so that area was all clean. I think I was on the drip as well. Yeah, George was the Mobile Drip Carrier as we all went down to the operating room.

I said, “They’re probably going to give me acupuncture, and I’ll be awake the whole time this is going on. Ha ha ha…see you later!”

Sue asked, “When is he coming around?”

“Oh, he’s not coming around. We’re just giving him a local anesthetic.” [Total anesthesia can be very dangerous without the proper technology.]

I got into the operating theater, and it was a fairly normal sort of room with red tile floors just like anywhere else, but there was a proper operating lamp and everything like that. The surgeon, Dr. Li, was the only one who could speak any English. She’d been speaking to me a bit beforehand, and I felt confident in her hands. She made me feel that I had nothing to worry about.

They got me in there and changed me from one bed to another and spread my arms out. I was pretty zonked, so when they tied my arms down I didn’t think anything about it. Then they tied my legs down. I was waiting to go zzzomp into the blackness on gas or something like that. The next thing I felt was a hot line down there, and I realized, “She’s starting to cut—oh, jeeee—it’s started!”

The operation took two hours. I phased in and phased out a couple of times. I may actually have been unconscious. I was pretty delirious during some of it, but I could sometimes—the pain was—I could feel when they were cutting and when it was pulling. I apparently had puss. The appendix had ruptured, and they were lifting and pulling and wiping, and I could feel it, you know. My arms were going up and down urroommurgh.

When I was back in my room, they told me I couldn’t eat or drink any fluid for three days, but I could rinse my mouth out with boiled water. The drip would be my food. I was really thirsty, so that was probably the biggest shock of all—that I couldn’t drink for two days.

Actually, the operation was good in some ways. In the last five or six years I’ve gotten into developing my sensory system and my psyche. The last time I had a big knockout, it closed a lot of my sensitivity down, and it took a long time to come back. Whereas for this operation they gave me the mildest anesthetic they could probably, and it hasn’t affected my system at all. Maybe I went through a bit of pain, but my system wasn’t knocked around by a drug or anything like that. I don’t think I suffered from it in the long run.

In China if someone goes in the hospital, the family looks after the patient. Someone was with me every night after the operation. When I could eat, Mike and Dave and George took turns buying my breakfast and bringing it to me. Michelle did all the lunches, and Ann and Sue did the dinners. George fronted up the 200 kuai [$70] for me so I could pay part of the hospital bill and keep a little money on me, and Mike gave me another 50 kuai [$17]. These guys hardly knew me—hardly anyone knew me—but everyone really helped me. It really blew me away, that’s for sure. I suppose it’s good for everyone here to know that if anyone gets sick, people are prepared to help. George used to come every day and play chess with me or just sit and talk. Bruce and Sue used to come all the way from Gulangyu to see me. People brought me books and magazines and cans of orange drink.

The hospital staff were really good, too. Usually people have to empty their own urine bottles. I told one Chinese guy here that the staff always emptied my urine bottles for me, and he couldn’t believe I got such good service. Dr. Li was just magic for me. She went away for four days, and I really missed her, just because she was so full of life, and every time she came into the room we would both be laughing and joking.

Dean came in one morning and said, “I’m looking for the doctor.” He didn’t know about all the channels you have to go through. It was good for me because following him around gave me something to do. They took a cardiogram and then admitted him.

I was still in pain with my appendectomy wound. If I coughed or laughed it hurt, and if he laughed, it hurt him, too. But unfortunately we both have a sense of humor, and we were keeping score of how often we could make the other person hurt. Every time he made me laugh, I had to stand up because I couldn’t laugh sitting down. I was standing up and sitting down all the time. By the end of the day, if I stretched my leg I could laugh sitting down. That place was crazy for two days.

Early the next morning my heater/air conditioner didn’t work, and neither did Dean’s. There wasn’t enough juice for both air conditioners, I guess. When you turned the overhead light on, it was very faint. By the time it got dark, the hospital staff realized there was something wrong and they’d better fix the electricity. So they brought this guy up. We’d eaten dinner in the dark. We had visitors, and there were about six of us sitting around in the dark talking when the lights came on and the heater went woo woo woo and then BOOM, and the old blaster blew. It blew out three times that night.

That was the only night I got attacked by mosquitoes. For about six hours I lay there slapping myself, slapping my face. I had a mosquito net, but I had never pulled it over me. When I couldn’t sleep I managed to stand up—that was a bit tricky—and untie the net in the dark and spread it out over the bed and then lie down. I thought I had it all together—oh God! And then minutes later EEEE EEEE EEEE. Them bastards. There was a big hole in the net.

Exactly the same thing was happening in Dean’s room at the same time, so the staff came in and pulled the net over him. The next day he checked out. They never did find out what was wrong with him.

My temperature kept going up and down all the time, and there was this big mystery about what was causing the fever. They had said I might get an infection. The first words I heard Dr. Li say when I came out of the operation room were, “Oooo—very much pus! Very smelly, oohey, very stinky!”

Later they said, “If you’ve got an infection on your appendix side, it’s okay, we can fix it. But if you’ve got an infection on your stomach side it will be harder, because we’ll have to find the infection before we can fix it.”

I decided I’d get up and have a look at my wound. It was all healed over on the surface but very swollen at one point. I figured all the pus would have been hard to clean up and it had worked its way to the surface. I rushed down the hall. It was nighttime, and Dr. Li wasn’t there, so I showed it to another doctor, and she said “Woa huaa!” and something in Chinese. I rushed back to bed, and she came in. I was still wagged out.

The doctor lanced the wound and squeezed out all the puss. For the next three days puss was leaking out. I’ve still got a hole there now. I’ve got to have a bath kneeling down. It’s pretty tricky, but until the hole’s healed up I can’t put water on it because all kinds of things grow in the water here. After all that my fever went away.

China must be the cheapest place in the world to get your appendix done. At first Dr. Li had said the whole works would cost me about 250 yuan [$86]. They use a sliding scale. A foreigner is charged between three and ten times as much as a Chinese, depending on the financial position of the foreigner. A few days later she said they had calculated, and it came to 400 yuan [139].

I said, “Oooh!” like it was a bit of a shock to me from 250 yuan.

But she said, “Because you’re a single man with no income I’m going to go and talk to them and see if I can get it reduced. It’s a bit much for a man like yourself.”

The bill finally came to 280 yuan. She said what they’d done is tripled everything except the drug bill, which was the normal price. She said I should come to the hospital to have my dressing changed every couple of days. But they’re not charging me much to change the dressing.

Dr. Li is really, really good, you know. I gave her a bone carving as a present, and today she gave me a little present. She’s a great lady, one of the best people I’ve met in China.

Do I feel I was meant to be here? Well, let’s put it this way. When I first came here I didn’t know anybody, but then I met some people, and in hospital I got to know them better. A lot of people came to see me. People got to know I that I was an artist. It’s just possible that I may be able to get some work here and some good money, which is rare in China.

At least for the moment, this place fits like a glove. In that sense I can say it was all meant to be. If I hadn’t had my appendix out, I might have rushed off again. Now I’m prepared to stick around and see what happens. I’m mixing with some nice people. I’m starting to learn a little of the language, and I’m starting to think, “Yeah, I’d like to learn how to become a survivor in this place.”

A Walk in a Chinese Port Town

by on Wednesday, August 19th, 2009

Xiamen, 1985
Painting a boat in the harbor

Painting a boat in the harbor

You’re standing on the shore near the docks, watching an artist paint the passenger boat which used to go down to Hong Kong but which now serves as hotel and nightclub.

Location of Xiamen

Location of Xiamen

In the nineteenth-century, Westerners called this harbor Amoy. It’s now called Xiamen [pronounced approximately shamen], meaning the “lower gate” to China. The two islands of Xiamen lie in Fujian Province across the strait from Taiwan. It was from here in 1661 that the seventeenth-century pirate-turned-patriot, the Ming loyalist Zheng Chenggong, trained his 990 ships and 25,000 marines and then drove the Dutch out of Taiwan. Later the area was occupied by Japanese pirates.

A walled villa on Gulangyu

A walled villa on Gulangyu

During the Opium Wars, the harbor was taken by the British. The smaller island of Gulangyu became a foreign settlement with consulates from Britain, the United States, Germany, Italy and Japan. Long after the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China established separate governments, Xiamen had to duck gunfire between the two. In the early 1980s the first boat sailed from Shanghai through the Xiamen harbor down to Hong Kong, with everyone on board hoping Taiwan would not start shooting.

A street on Gulangyu

A street on Gulangyu

Nowadays Gulangyu is still closed to all vehicles except hand-drawn carts. From the harbor, you walk up a pedestrian lane past row houses and first-floor shops and then climb the hill to walled Mediterranean-style villas. Many seem abandoned, so you’re surprised to catch sight of freshly-washed laundry or hear someone practicing the piano.  There’s a profusion of evergreen, gingko, eucalyptus and flowering trees. 

On the ferry going to Xiamen proper, you spot a fishing junk sailing in.  From the harbor you walk along the covered sidewalks lining Zhongsan Lu, a main street. You notice the fresh paint on the facades and the new railing which prevents people from piling their bicycles between the sidewalk and the road. Inside the shops, you see that the old wooden cabinets have been replaced with glass ones. Some shops even have air-conditioning and new signs in fractured English. There are more Western products or luxury items like Band-Aids and ground coffee. But small businesses, like repairing shoes and selling sewing notions, still operate out of wooden boxes on the sidewalks. 

A fishing junk in the harbor

A fishing junk in the harbor

A shoe repair stand

A shoe repair stand

You know riding a bike here is not easy, since they may be packed in four and five abreast, often with handlebars overlapping, which can throw a biker off balance. Also, if someone in front hawks loudly, the cyclists duck to avoid the flying spit.

Street with covered sidewalks

Street with covered sidewalks

China/Xiamen/street/bikes/CarolDussereVery near the bicycles are the dilapidated buses for common people and modern minibuses or taxicabs for the rich. There are no private cars, but work units often have a car or van and a driver. The horns on all motorized traffic are loud, shrill and practically constant. As you cross a street, youave to run to avoid a bus careening around the corner.

Garden with poinsettias

Garden with poinsettias

As you turn into Siming Lu and walk toward the university, the sidewalks become an extension of people’s living quarters, which are small and dark. Women squat doing their laundry in basins near the coin-operated cold water taps and hang the clothes on bamboo poles above the sidewalks. Old men sit playing cards or teaching their grandchildren to write the characters, other people repair furniture or knit sweaters with intricate patterns. 

The Guanyin shrine at Nanputuo

The Guanyin shrine at Nanputuo

The sidewalks give way to a road with narrow shoulders. The buildings space out a bit to make room for a garden with a few chickens, a walled factory or business compound, a bit of space, but there is no grass planted, only dust which is regularly raked clean of leaves. In December poinsettia plants near the road tower six, ten, fourteen feet high, above garden walls and well-tended rows of vegetables.Near the university lies Nanputuo, the largest Buddhist monastery in south China. Inside the temple walls there is a fish pond “for liberating living creatures” a second gate and the monastery buildings, which are built into the hillside.

A shrine to household gods

A shrine to household gods

It is a peaceful place, now being spruced up with Overseas Chinese money. During the Cultural Revolution it suffered little because the townspeople and farmers stood in front of the gate to protect their temple from the Red Guards. Among the rocks above the temple–and also outside of town–you see a red cloth door, brush it aside and enter a tiny shrine dedicated to household gods. During the Cultural Revolution these shrines were forbidden, but now people are relatively open about visiting them.  

Granite classroom buildings

Granite classroom buildings

The university gate is two pillars connected with an arch-shaped sign and a metal door which can be locked in times of unrest. Guards sit in a guardhouse watching people coming in and occasionally checking identification cards. The post-revolutionary classroom buildings are made of grayish concrete slabs, but the older ones are elegant structures of hand-cut granite blocks and red roofs.There is a little stream, an artificial pond, flowering hibiscus and rhododendron, roses in January, orchids, palms, eucalyptus and bamboo. Stretches of flat, otherwise unoccupied land are not covered with well-manicured, bourgeois grass, but with obedient rows of post-revolutionary cabbages. 

Attached to some telephone poles and some buildings there are loud speakers which at various times of the day count out exercise routines—yi! er! san! si! wu! liu! qi! ba!—or blare out music, announcements or an English language program. The speakers are not quite in sync, so there is an echo effect. At an outdoor court, students shoot baskets. The three-story dormitories are of red brick, with balconies running the length of the building. At those times of the day when the water has been turned on, the area is full of students fetching water in buckets and hanging out laundry on bamboo poles. The male students stand in their bathing suits, washing themselves and pouring basins of water over their heads. You’ve heard the female students have to shower in the dark, rather smelly shower rooms inside.

A boy's dormitory

A boy's dormitory

At the top of a ridge near the sea is a semicircle of traditional Chinese buildings dating from 1923, when the university was established with money from an Overseas Chinese benefactor who had grown rich on his rubber plantations in Singapore. The buildings overlook one edge of a soccer field, the same field where Zhen Chenggong trained his troops in hand-to-hand combat.


Original university buildings

Original university buildings

Out the back gate, on the other side of the road, is a beautiful sandy beach lined pines. The outlying islands of Taiwan appear in the distance. Often they are quite audible as well, since Taiwan has continued its broadcast of propaganda directed at the People’s Republic, mostly in the form of late-night rock music. About a ten-minute stroll up the beach are the remains of a centuries-old fort, now being reconstructed, with the remains of an ancient cannon pointed at Taiwan.

Beach with Taiwan islands in the distance

Beach with Taiwan islands in the distance

Loudspeaker over vegetables

Loudspeaker over vegetables


On the road beyond the fort, there is a sign in Chinese and English saying, “No foreigners beyond this point.” You glance around and then walk past it where you see an army camp, fields of rice and cabbages with blaring loudspeakers to keep them in line. A man in uniform addresses you as “comrade” and directs you back down the road.

Your walk: Gulangyu, harbor, university and a bit beyond

Your walk: Gulangyu, harbor, university and a bit beyond

Twenty-two years later, you’ve returned for the second time to see how Xiamen, like other coastal cities, has grown and prospered. Despite the glitzy new storefronts and foreign brands, much of the old town has been preserved. Or at least it hasn’t been totally transformed. You know that the gap between rich and poor and between the urban areas and the countryside has grown so wide that it threatens stability. You’re horrified to see someone eating out of a garbage can and to learn that college tuition is no longer free. But you know in a country with such a long history much has changed, but much more has remained the same.

At A Village Wedding

by on Wednesday, August 5th, 2009

Michelle was without question the most dedicated teacher I’d ever met, causing some to label her a missionary of French language and literature. In late 1985, when we were both teaching at Xiamen University, Michelle was hoping eagerly that one of her students would invite her to spend part of New Year’s vacation at her home in a farming village in northern China. I’d never before seen this voluble Frenchwoman as excited as she was when the invitation finally came.

Michelle’s story

It took four days by train. We went “hard seat” [third class] because my students couldn’t have afforded anything else. We had to change in Shanghai and buy tickets for the rest of the journey. Immediately in the railway station I was escorted out of all the noise and confusion into the waiting room for special guests. But I would not leave my students, so they had to find ten seats all together in the special waiting room. We were given tea, and they asked about my ticket. We had no supplement tickets for seats. Of course they wouldn’t let a foreigner stand up all that way or sit on the floor. Since again I wanted us all to have the same treatment, they had to find seats on the train for all of us.

 Most of the students wanted to see Shanghai, so they went out, and just two of us stayed behind, the student who had invited me to the wedding and I. I asked the old man who worked in the waiting room to watch the luggage so we could go out. The girl would never have left the station on her own, even though we had many hours to wait. She’s a village girl, the only one in the village who’s ever been to the university, and her parents had warned her about the big city. So we took a tour of Shanghai together.

When we arrived in the main town near her village in the North, it was a bit embarrassing because another of my students had written to his parents saying I was coming. Since they were well-connected, they assumed I would stay with them, and they came to pick me up from the railway station. I explained that I was invited to the wedding of my student’s brother. I said I would come and stay with them later. So that was okay. 

In the village it was very cold. They had no heat, and it was freezing. But then we also have no heating in the countryside in France. It was cold for me because, as the honored guest, I had to sit and drink tea. I would have preferred to help in the kitchen. But at night I was warm because I had brought my hot water bottle, and I took it to bed with me.

Village grandma and grandson

Village grandma and grandson

The first day a lot of people came to see me. My student was embarrassed when we opened the door and there were two thousand people—everyone in the village—who had come to see me. They were very nice, though.

On the day of the wedding the guests arrived with these red satin cloths of the kind that are sewn on the top of quilts. The guests all brought them, and they were hung on the walls of the room where the marriage would take place and also outside on the clothesline. My student’s father was well-respected and well-liked, so they had many. I said to the girl, “Your brother could set up a shop and sell all these.”

“Oh no, we don’t keep them. When we go to weddings we pass them on.”

Since her mother couldn’t write, she had to memorize the names of the people who brought the cloths. When the sons of those families were married, she had to bring one to each wedding.

The relatives of the groom came together, and as a part of the ceremony they announced how much they were contributing to the marriage expenses.

“Chen Xiaojia pledges ten kuai [10 yuan or $3.33].”

“Chen Lie pledges twenty kuai.”

Even with many members of the clan giving money, the relatives’ contributions were still very small compared with what the father of the groom had to spend on the marriage. The couple had to have everything for their household, and the guests came to inspect. The father complained to me that it cost too much. He wanted to know if it was the same in France.

Also on the day of the wedding, the town crier went all over the village announcing the marriage in a very loud voice. In the old days, the boy’s family went to fetch the bride from her parents’ house in a sedan chair. Now they use the car of the village. This was a modern wedding. The bride wasn’t wearing a red gown and a red veil, just trousers and a red jacket. It was all very simple.

There were about two hundred and fifty guests at the wedding. Tables were set up outside, and all the guests were served a simple meal. Earlier there were many traditional games and jokes. My student told me that at her older brother’s wedding four years earlier there was much more of that. There was no bowing. I think the bowing has been replaced by photographs. You have a photograph taken together, and then you are married. That’s very important, the ceremony of the photographs.

Then the day after the wedding, there was a little party at the home of the girl’s family. She went back to her family, and he went along. Apparently the bride’s people, who hadn’t been the day before to the boy’s place, came to her mother’s. Each family celebrated separately, you see.

Village boys

Village boys

I think modern Chinese weddings reflect what marriage means for the society. Our concept is that when a couple is married, they form an new family. Here it’s not really a new family because the young couple depends much more on their parents. Traditionally, the Chinese couple becomes part of the boy’s family, and the young wife is little more than a servant. Young women won’t accept that now. Now it’s halfway. They don’t really know what it is.

My student’s family’s budget is a little complicated because they have the land for three households, but in fact they work together. With the new system, land has been allocated to the peasants again, but they have to be registered as peasants to get land. The oldest brother is working as a teacher, and the second one is a driver, so they are not peasants. Their wives have the land. One plot is allocated to the wife of the oldest brother, one to the wife of the other married brother, and the third to the father and mother and the three unmarried children who are not yet independent. Most of the work is done by the father on the three plots of land, and the brothers and their wives help from time to time. They told me that usually women don’t work in the fields in that part of China except for something important and short-term, like picking cotton. It’s like our place in France where women work in the courtyard with the hens and the ducks, in the house and in the garden.

In South China—in the regions where you have rice and all those crops that require lots of work—women do most of the work in the fields. But where I was, they have wheat and potatoes and cotton. Plowing is done by the men. Once the crop is planted there is little to do. Later you have to pick the potatoes, but that’s a job of a few days. My student does it when she goes home.

The family is organized around a courtyard. In France it’s similar. My student’s house is a long, long building with three different entrances on the courtyard and each entrance opens to two rooms. One section is for the father and mother, the central one for the young couple and the last one for the other brother. When you have houses arranged around a courtyard like that, people often share a kitchen, although they can also cook in their own place if they like. I saw common kitchens in Beijing too. People get along better than we could imagine with one kitchen for three or four families. The fact that they are used to it already—at least the people from the countryside—perhaps explains how they do it so easily.

My student’s family lives like an extended family because they share meals. The older brother has a little baby, and usually he and his wife do their own cooking, but not always. The cousin and his wife come over often, and other people do too. If it is dinner time, they have an unspoken invitation to dinner. You don’t really know who will be there. People come in and stay a time and just eat there. I couldn’t find out exactly how the customs work. Not everybody can come and eat.

Immediately after the meal, all the neighbors who have no television came over to watch. People are used to this informality. That’s why we often find their actions with us—often as strangers—a bit strange. They feel they don’t need to ask if they can look at your books or sit down and go through your photographs. It’s very natural. A neighbor comes in, “Oh, I’m a little cold,” she takes a blanket and makes herself comfortable without asking first.

In villages it’s mostly family. Even if you are not related, you say, “Well, it’s the cousin of a cousin, so it’s half a cousin.” Perhaps it’s not like that in the States, but in French villages it’s like that—in some remote places like the one I live in, you know? Even if people are not related, they find a way to be, so it’s all family still.

We went around the village, and wherever we went people said, “Oh, where are you going?”

Then you had to answer, “I am going to see my aunt so-and-so.” When we crossed three streets, we met at least fifteen people. Each of them greeted us by asking where we were going. So then I understood that it’s very difficult to switch to our way of not asking questions. To them it’s just natural to ask. Even if they meet people who are surprised at being asked all these questions, it’s a difficult habit to break.

My student is very funny. She speaks perfect putonghua [common Chinese], but at home she immediately switched to the local dialect—immediately—without noticing herself doing it. People tried to teach me some of the local language as well.

I noticed in the countryside that the pressure to have boys is very intense. Country people are now allowed to have just two children, but I met two families that had two girls and a boy. If you have two girls, you try again even if it’s a big risk. [People may lose benefits, have to pay fines or be forced to have an abortion.] In my student’s family the youngest boy was very spoiled, even though the family was very open-minded compared to other people. They had insisted on sending the girl to the university.

The village people were really sympathetic to me as an outsider. You could feel it. I think usually people in the countryside are nicer. The less contact people have had with foreigners, the nicer they are. They are just interested. You can see that with the Hui-An [a Han Chinese minority] girls in Xiamen. The way they stare at you is completely different from the others in town. It’s just curiosity, and it’s all right with them if you stare back. Sometimes in town, people look “aaah!” at foreigners but without wanting to know about us. That’s why we feel it’s so intrusive.

Perhaps because the family knew I was coming and people were told how to behave around me, I had no funny questions like, “Why is your nose that way and why are your eyes that way?” No. I couldn’t believe it. Never questions like, “Why did you buy that? How much did it cost?” They asked about life in the countryside in France. “Do you have cotton? Is it cold in winter? How do people work? Do the women work in the fields? How do they marry?” Intelligent questions that were a sign of real interest in people they think are like themselves. “Well, there are peasants too in France. How do they live there?” Perhaps they could do this because they didn’t have so many ideas already—misconceptions.

In Xiamen people sometimes come to you with a big complex. “Oh, it’s so much better in your country.” You hear that kind of thing. And that makes them quite aggressive and jealous. The questions are always, “Oh, of course in your country you don’t have that. You have running water.”

But the village people didn’t imagine that it was perhaps better in our countries. So because they knew less, they asked questions that were more interesting. It was very funny. People really had a nice attitude. When I said, “Oh no, we have no cotton in our country,” the mother of my student disappeared and then came back in five minutes with a cotton bowl to give to me. I’ll show it to my nephews. They’ll be very interested. They’ve never seen cotton because we don’t have it in France. So I’ll save it.

I had brought a pressure cooker as a wedding present. I gave it to the young bride, and she immediately gave it to her mother-in-law. Well, of course they’ll use it together. It’s not a big problem. I said I could perhaps explain how to use it.

The girl said, “Oh, I wouldn’t dare use it—because I’m not sure—no.” She was a little shy about it.

“Oh, that’s no problem.”

Her husband said, “Oh, yes.” He was very excited about it. So very quickly, sh‑sh-sh-sh-sh, we prepared everything, and then the mother said, “Oh, let’s try, let’s try. You think you could have mantou [steamed buns, a popular breakfast food] or you could…”

There were some directions in Chinese about how to make pork cutlets, so she said, “Oh, this looks very good. What can we do tonight to use it? Pork cutlets, okay.”

So everybody went out and brought what was necessary, and there were ten people standing around preparing things, reading the directions to see how the ingredients should be put in, then putting the cooker on the fire and waiting fifteen minutes.

“Ah, that’s good.”

We opened it, and then everybody had to try. “Good, good, that’s okay.” They were really surprised at the time. “Fifteen minutes, that’s really good.”

You know, the manufacturers should write down directions designed particularly for the Chinese. The mother asked about mantou immediately, as soon as she knew what the pressure cooker could do. Mantou and xifan [rice porridge, another breakfast food].

The mother told me, “When I really want to save time is in the morning. I always have to get up very early to prepare breakfast. I could do things very quickly with that.”

Anyway, we had cutlets. It’s a sign of their open-mindedness that they were so eager to try. I thought first I would bring an electric rice cooker, but my student said, “No, electricity’s too complicated because we usually don’t turn on the electric current. If you forget to shut it off, it’s a problem. We’d better have something simpler.”

She was right. Very simple things are better. They understood it, and they could use it on the coal stove. In the countryside the fire burns all day. So you put the cooker on, and that’s all. If it’s electric you spend more.

In the town that was not very far away—one hour and a half—I saw they were selling lots of pressure cookers, but in this village nobody had seen one. They had washing machines, though.

Last year for Spring Festival the family bought a washing machine. My student had decided not to go home for vacation, but when she received a letter from her family saying they had bought a washing machine, she said, “Oh, I have to go home to see the washing machine.” It’s a very simple one. Cold water. No, it doesn’t spin the water out. It’s adapted to the level of technology they have there. It’s also a mark of prestige. The young bride had to have one too. I think it’s too much to have two of these machines in one courtyard, but it’s a sign of prestige.