An Englishman in the People’s Republic, Part 1

Xiamen beach with Taiwan islands in the distance

In 1986 I interviewed Tom, an English student of Chinese who had studied in Fudan University in Shanghai before coming to Fujian Province to Xiamen University. He also stayed in Taiwan for a while, which had the same customs and the same language as Xiamen and was even visible across the strait from us. Tom is a pleasant, out-going fellow–tall and thin and very British-looking.

Tom’s story

One of my favorite things is to go round chatting up girls in shops. Some of the girls are very open. In Hong Kong and Taiwan they’ll tease you, and that’s great. Once I was with Tom in a disco in Taipei. It was on the sixth floor, above supermarket, an enormous area with large, very comfortable armchairs and a big dance floor. We’d been there all night dancing with friends, and I’d been talking for a couple of hours with the two girls who were seated next to me. They said they didn’t work or have any prospects. They tried to make money whenever they could at odd jobs. They came to the disco regularly because it was cheap for girls to get in.

When the lights came on, they said, “Oh!” and they sort of shrank back.

“What’s the matter?”

“Your nose is so big!”

“Yeah, so it is. So what?”

“If you kiss a girl, how do you manage?  Surely your nose would hit hers straight on.”

I was in hysterics at this point. I thought this was really funny. “No problem, I can assure you.”

Gary yelled from the other side of the table, “Ni yao shi shi kan ma?” [Do you want to try and find out?]

At this point they burst into laughter, but they were also really serious. “If you try to kiss a girl straight on, then your nose will hit her. You’ve also got high cheekbones. If you try to kiss her with your head turned to one side, won’t you hit her cheekbones?”

“No, no. It’s no problem whatsoever.”

I thought it was quite naive and quite sweet of them to be so concerned for me. Most Taiwanese girls of sixteen, seventeen, and eighteen are about as mature as European thirteen-year-olds. When they’re twenty-five they’re much more mature than Europeans.

There’s a lot of sexual repression in the People’s Republic. I just went down to Hainan Island with two other foreign students. One was a Japanese girl who was just lying there on the beach with her eyes closed. A man walked around and just circled around her, watching her. For over half an hour he couldn’t take his eyes off her. So I went over and said, “What are you looking at?  She’s not an animal in the zoo. Go away.” Another time we were sitting on the beach and there were guys looking with their tongues practically hanging out. They don’t have sex, and they get all worked up. These calendars on sale now with these scantily-clad Western women are just like pornography as far as the Chinese are concerned. I think they’re horrible.

I lived with a Chinese roommate for a year. In a year I never saw him naked once.  But if it was hot, I wandered around the room naked. Once right after I first came, I’d had a shower, and I was just sitting reading a book with a towel around me—and one of the British girls came in and we had coffee and talked. After she left he said, “How could you sit there talking to a girl like that?”  In Shanghai, even in the summer, Chinese girls wearing short-sleeved shirts would cover up with a cardigan before they’d answer a knock at the door.

At the moment according to the marriage laws, a man has to be twenty-four and a woman twenty-one to get married. I know they ignore the law in the countryside. Sexual repression is forced on people by the fact that so many people live together. You can’t be alone. You can’t masturbate, you can’t have sex because everyone’s around watching. If you have a girlfriend or a boyfriend, it’s expected that this is the person you’ll marry. That’s for life. It’s assumed that everyone will pair off. It’s not okay for you to say, “I don’t want to get married,” particularly if you’re a woman.

One summer night in Shanghai I was walking in the park. It was about twelve-thirty, one o’clock. I came across a couple having sex. I was really shocked, but when I told my roommate, he didn’t find it surprising. He’s from Shanghai. He said a lot of parents will provide contraception for their children—people of twenty-five or twenty-six who can’t afford to get married—and they will go out and leave them alone with their sweethearts. “Right. We’re going out now.”

It sounds incredibly liberal for China. I was stunned, but apparently it does happen. People’s attitudes are getting more and more open. The China Daily—or maybe it was the [Hong Kong] South China Morning Post—just had a poll in Beijing that they compared with an earlier poll. Apparently five years ago 85% thought premarital sex was bad. Now 64% think it’s bad. That’s a big change in attitude. At the cinema the other night I saw a film that included wife-swapping and husband-swapping in a small village. You would never have seen that two years ago.

Oh, no, adultery is not illegal for normal people, just party members. Maybe you’ve broken society’s law, but not a legal point. But if you’re a communist party member, yes. I’ve heard the adultery rate is very high here. The party does everything possible to discourage divorce. Social workers come and try to patch things up. Street committee members come to visit you and tell you how bad it would be for you to divorce because of the social repercussions. You’d have to be a very strong woman to get divorced.

I don’t think the government is deliberately trying to keep married couples apart by giving them jobs in different places. It’s just a matter of expediency. Sending people off to Tibet or Qinghai is not a nice thing to do, but they feel someone has got to go. This kind of thinking seems to be left over from the Cultural Revolution when people were sent off somewhere else or sent out to the countryside. But it’s a very, very harsh system. Sometimes it can be used deliberately. A work unit might take a particular dislike to someone and send him or her off. There’s a man in my work unit who works in the students’ office. He and his wife just got back together after two years. It’s taken two years of battling the authorities, and they still haven’t got accommodations. His leader doesn’t like him. They’re always fighting.

I have a Chinese friend studying in England. He and his wife got married in Inner Mongolia where they met. He got back to Beijing easily, but she couldn’t get out. When she had the chance to go to Guangzhou, she took it. There’s not much of a chance that they will get together in Beijing in the foreseeable future, and Guangzhou is better than Mongolia. He’s in England now, anyway.

It was strange that people kept asking me why Bruce went back to New Zealand. “Well, he wants to see Sue.”  Fair enough.

“You mean he spent all that money just to go and see his wife?” Because they accept situations like that, it was really unacceptable to them that we don’t.

China must be a sociologist’s dream. You could have a field day here looking at the pressures people are under—the sexual repression, the oppression of state control, the social pressures of living in a supposedly very moral society. Officially, of course, there are no psychological problems in China. But I’ve seen a lot of crazy people here. Living under so much stress much have an effect, but it’s not acknowledged. There’s nothing you can do about it.

Here life is a struggle. I don’t like it, but I can understand it. You walk down the street, and you’ve got all these people coming towards you. I’ve seen TV pictures showing how people give each other wide berth when they’re walking down Oxford Street in London. Here people just bump into each other. I push in front of people too. You have to. That’s the thing. You’re riding on your bike. Someone stops immediately in front of you, and you go right through them. It happens every day. Life is a struggle. It’s a struggle getting tickets for a movie or a concert, it’s a struggle and a fight to get tickets for planes or buses, to get a hotel room, to get food in a restaurant. You’re constantly fighting people. That has a bad effect on your disposition. We’re under a lot less stress than people living here constantly, their whole lives. The strain must be horrible.

In Shanghai I was never on my own. Privacy doesn’t exist. Therefore you never have a private moment to relax and calm down. I think we get more upset about not having time to ourselves than the Chinese do because we’re used to it and we miss it. I went traveling a lot, which meant that my roommate had the room to himself. He loved it. He always said he liked to be on his own occasionally, but he never had the opportunity.

Three years ago the foreign students’ dorm at Fudan University was like a prison. Now it’s even more like a prison because the foreign students are in their own ghetto, with high fences and barbed-wire all around and a guard patrolling at night. At the front gate of the compound the guards know all the foreign students. There are three buildings you have to pass through with guards and people at the door of each one. The first one is like a control point for the other two. Even if another foreigner tried to walk in, they would know it wasn’t a resident, and they would stop the person. You have to register. The gates are closed at 10:00 or 10:30. If you come back late, you have to knock on the door.

Our Chinese roommates had a meeting every Friday afternoon with the foreign students’ office. My roommate told me they just discussed general things, and politics, but what we were doing would come up as well. Some of the foreign students had their desks searched and their rooms searched while they were away. Phone calls were monitored. Contact with Chinese students was kept to a minimum. They were only allowed to visit you in your room between two and five in the afternoon. I don’t think I had a Chinese visitor the whole year I was there. It was just too much trouble. People who came more than two or three times received visits from the public security bureau [police]. They were asked, “Why are you visiting foreigners?”

When we were in Shanghai, people did not ask us to their houses. It was such an unusual thing to have a foreign visitor that everyone would know about it and you would get into trouble. Just after we left in August, 1983, they had the Spiritual Pollution Campaign. I know from people who were there at the time that seven or eight thousand people were rounded up from off the street. They just disappeared. People were very worried. It was two or three weeks of madness. People wearing foreign clothes or listening to foreign music were beaten up. Everyone was criticized. People were still very careful, though presumably it was worse in 1979 right after the Cultural Revolution.

I don’t think they have the technology to bug rooms or that they know how to do it. They know what we think. The Chinese authorities would have to be really very stupid not to know. It’s just that they don’t want us to contaminate the masses with our ideas. I think that if you’re going to invite people to your country there should be an exchange of views and opinions. If you don’t want foreigners here, fine. If you’re inviting foreign students to come and they’re paying so much money, it’s a bit much to keep such tight control over them. What annoys me now with the mail is the cheek of it. They examine the parcels you get and you have to pay a fee of eight mao [24 cents] for the customs inspection. If they want to inspect my mail, I shouldn’t have to pay for it.

What you don’t realize probably—oh, maybe you do—is how much you’ve been contaminated. When I went back to England I found I’m very Chinese in a lot of the things I do. If we go for a meal, I’m always pouring beer for people and making sure everyone’s got enough to eat. The way I deal with people is suddenly much more important than it was. I sometimes find myself thinking, “What can I get out of this person?”  Chinese relationships seemed to be based more on making connections, thinking of what can be gained from a relationship, maybe subconsciously. I’m sure that’s had its effect on me. I think about how a person could be helpful to me. I hate it when I ask someone, “How much did you pay for this?”  But it won’t stop until I leave.

The Chinese don’t talk about the weather like we do, but then the British are obsessed with the weather. The Chinese say, “Oh, it’s nice weather,” but it’s not a topic of conversation. They also talk about nothing or about little things. It does seem to take longer for Chinese friendships to sprout up. I’m sure Chinese friends don’t usually know each other as well as we do. It might be changing now, but it seems to me that a lot of people lie incessantly. It’s a sort of protective device so people won’t know the truth about them. There’s a feeling that “that’s my business and I don’t want anyone to know about it, even my best friend. It could be used against me later.”

I don’t know how much of the distrust comes from the Cultural Revolution and how much from a long tradition of gossip. Certainly you find out about the long tradition of gossip if you read Xiao Hong—she was a writer in the 1930’s—who wrote scathingly about the peasants. She felt that the peasants should stand up for themselves and that the gossip and being interested in other people’s affairs was one of the things that kept them down and kept the landlords in control. She described how, when someone committed suicide or there was a hanging, everyone would come rushing out to see. They’d be appalled by the sight, but something would still drive them on. The same thing happened here at Xiamen University when that student hanged himself a few weeks ago. People came out and looked at his body, which was left hanging for several hours before the police came.

The Cultural Revolution must have heightened a traditional reluctance to talk about personal things. You talk about nothing things, and you lie like hell. I have a friend who’s going to the West who’s going to have real problems with that. He’ll say, “Hi. This is Tom. He’s studying brain surgery at the university.”  I mean, anything that comes into his head. I’m sure lots of people do that. I know the head of the waiban [foreign affairs, the minders] has looked me straight in the eye and lied knowingly several times. I can’t cope with it. It’s not done in our society. You might tell a few stories, exaggerate a bit. What’s happened in my case is that I’ve become an excellent liar.

The waiban says, “Where have you been?”

“Seeing friends — Walking around town.”  I don’t want them to know what I’ve been doing. I don’t lie to foreigners, but you get caught up in the same game. I feel bad about saying some of the things I’ve said, mainly to the waiban, but not really.

I go to the station. “Can I have a ticket to…”

“Sorry, sold out.”

“Oh, please, you don’t understand. My parents are meeting me there with my medicine, and if I don’t get there I’ll be really sick.”  You just expand a bit as you go along. Or, “Oh, if I don’t get there I’ll lose so much money!  Could you please help me—could you go and look?”

I’ve been quite happy here on both trips. Now I’m getting ready to go somewhere else, maybe Japan. The last five years of my life have been devoted to China and sinology, but I think taking a job in China would drive me mad. There are numerous things that drive you mad—the interference with your private life, the meddling in your friendships with Chinese, the intolerance of your culture and you as a person. I don’t hate it. I’ve really enjoyed my time here. But my culture is different and I don’t want to become Chinese or live in a Chinese culture. There’s a three track system: one for Chinese, one for Overseas Chinese, and one for foreigners. It gets to me, though it used to be much worse. It used to be that you couldn’t walk into a hotel with a Chinese friend. Now it’s all right if the Chinese is dressed okay. It’s a strange place.