Over the last four decades, China has arguably developed faster than any country on the planet. Life here has changed by an almost unquantifiable measure, to the point where it's hard for new expats to even imagine what their brave predecessors of yesteryear saw and experienced. Here, an Old China Hand shares her story of what life was truly like for an expat in China in the 1980s.
I first came to China in 1982 as one of the very first batches of foreign teachers allowed into the country during those times. I had long dreamed of visiting, but access was restricted to a tightly controlled system of tour groups and an elite band of ''foreign experts’' who managed to find work as editors or translators in one of the many government-led work units.
At this time, China and the West were like two giant craft docking in deep space, tentatively reengaging after the long isolation of the Cultural Revolution and the Gang of Four period. As a very young ESL teacher, I got here by a sheer stroke of luck when I saw an advertisement for a teaching job with an Australian college. This college had been invited to work in China after winning an inter-government contract to supply ESL support to the Number 2 Foreign Language Institute in Beijing. I applied and, to my utter astonishment, landed the job.
On arriving at Beijing Capital Airport, I noticed it had all the cordial charm of Ellis Island. While Chinese border officials are these days encouraged to be vaguely welcoming (you can even rate their performance with emoji-like electronic buttons), after smiling at the border guard and unleashing my single word of Chinese, ''xie xie”, she bestowed me a look that would have scared a stone lion.
Playing the Tourist
Sightseeing in Beijing was a mixture of good and bad. Except for the demolition of the Beijing city walls, which had happened decades before in the 1950s, most of the old Ming dynasty structures remained in place and in tact. All the old hutong neighbourhoods, the vast majority of which have since been destroyed, still stood, but many of the temples and historic houses open to tourists today were off limits, having been converted to offices, factories and work units in the 60s.
With a dog-eared guidebook in hand (there were, of course, no smart phones at the time), I would wonder around Beijing’s streets, wrapped up in my enormous army-issue coat, peeking through official-looking gateways while trying to imagine the wealthy families that once lived in the stately mansions.
Tourists, both foreign and Chinese, were so rare in those days that visiting the officially-open monuments was also a completely different experience. I vividly remember my first trip to the Forbidden City, when I stood alone in the courtyard in front of the Hall of Celestial Harmony. The same thing happened at the Temple of Heaven when my father came to visit. I still treasure a photo of him standing in front of the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest, alone except for a couple of passers-by in the background. It would be all but impossible to get that shot today.
Work and Integration
My students, who were all adult scientists being prepared for placements in Australia, were wildly keen to learn. They had excellent written English but had literally never had a conversation with a native speaker, so were cripplingly embarrassed and under-practiced. Through the class monitor, I presented my solution: I would take lunch with a different group of four students each day so they could practice talking and listening.
A fine idea, the class monitor said, but lunch with all 20 students would surely be more efficient. I obstinately insisted that I wanted to meet with just four at a time in order to allow them the attention they needed to have a proper conversation. But the class monitor's objections did not relent; it would be embarrassing for the students; some would use words the others didn’t know; I would get too tired and fall ill. I refused to listen, and finally I put my foot down: I would have the first of these intimate lunches the next day.
When lunchtime of the next day came, the three oldest students and the monitor appeared, stoney-faced, at my desk. Anguished, they explained that what I wanted was impossible and I needed to drop the entire idea. I was so young and green that I had allowed my enthusiasm for my work to blind me to the political reality at play. In those days, unmonitored contact between foreigners and Chinese nationals was not permissible, according to the government.
Looking back, I can’t believe I was so bone-headed and naive. I did, however, eventually form some wonderfully rewarding friendships with a few of my students, in spite of the barriers to contact.
Learning the Language
Despite the almost absolute immersion, with no English signs around the city and very few English speakers, I found myself struggling to learn Chinese. Private schools and language centers didn't exist, and freelance tutoring and even casual cross-cultural friendships were of course forbidden under the “no unmonitored contact” rule.
To make matters worse, there were no pinyin-based English-Chinese dictionaries. The first was published in 1996, many years after I left, much to my annoyance. Although I wasn’t in China long enough to really master the language at the time anyway, I was disappointed by how little I’d learnt.
Like pretty much everyone else in Beijing at the time, my main mode of transportation was my bicycle. I’d heard that the subway existed, but it appeared on none of my paper maps, I never conclusively identified a single station, and the system was off-limits to foreigners, anyway.
There were no private cars at the time, and the occasional cars you might see on the roads were all the property of work units. The Chinese citizens employed by these work units would hustle to gain access to these vehicles for their private errands, with their efforts culminating just before winter each year at cabbage harvesting time.
In those days, the average Beijinger got through the winter on a diet of cabbages, which were stored in vast mounds under stairwells, behind apartments or in purpose-dug pits. By the time winter took hold, every kind of conveyance could be seen groaning under the weight of several hundred heads of bai cai.
One day, our school’s smart new Toyota was unavailable because of a ''mechanical problem.’' It returned a week later, littered with cabbage leaves and sporting a distinctive organic smell that lingered in the upholstery until spring.
Looking Back Today
Although I only spent 14 months in Beijing in the 1980s, the experience I had at the time it changed me forever. My fascination with China has never waned, until it finally drew me back in 2004.
Today, the city is different is almost every way. The tourist attractions are packed, locals and foreigners are free to fraternise, and public transport is far-reaching, varied and efficient.
I’m please to say, however, that some old habits die hard. I can’t help but smile when I turn a corner in one of Beijing’s last remaining hutong neighbourhoods and find myself confronted with a colossal pile of cabbage. The Colonel may have brought KFC to China in 1987, but cabbage remains king.
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Keywords: China in the 1980s
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