In 1983, I was lucky enough to get a student exchange scholarship from St. Mary’s University to Shandong teachers university in Jinan. Arriving in Jinan we were housed off campus with a handful of foreign professors. Classes would also be off campus, they obviously did not want their students corrupted by our influence. We were met the next day by our two teachers and by two assigned “friends” who would also come to our building rather than us having to bother to go to the campus. All extra curricular activities would also be either off campus or by ourselves. The exception for me was basketball: I linked up with some guys who knew English and played on school grounds. It wasn’t forbidden to be there but frowned upon, as we were a bad influence. Got student ID picture taken at a local shop. The next week they had a blown up version of it framed in the window, only they had touched it up, giving my shirt new colours for some reason and making my lips bright, bright red.
One thing hard to describe was the attention we would get, most Chinese had never seen a white person and it was not uncommon to have a group of 10 to 20 of them follow me into a store to watch me buy toilet paper, etc. If we stopped in downtown Jinan it would create a crowd along the lines that Tom Cruise might get if he showed up at Portage and Main… naked. Small villages would come to a grinding halt with a hundred or more silent spectators watching you wait for a train.
Travel at that time was almost exclusively by train. The movie Wall Street came out around that time and Sheens character says that he would like to ride a motorcycle along the Great Wall. We had a great laugh at that since it was common to be driving along a “highway” and be blocked by a farmer who had dumped a giant load of peanuts, or other crop, right on the road, stopping traffic for the afternoon. Long trips, more than a couple hours, were usually out of the question, just getting gas required special ration tickets, and knowledge of where unmarked gas stations were located.
During Chinese New Year I was in the Shanghai railway station which was handling around 400,000 people a day or so. I was in a giant hallway with a couple thousand of them when I see another white person, the first in 2 days. We are too jammed together to make any progress toward each other, plus she may speak German for all I know. The flow of people ends up taking me right to her. I say hi and it turns out she was also from St. Mary’s university on an exchange and knew one of the professors in my building in Jinan. Small world.
Good booze was hard to find at that time. Getting your hands on foreign stuff was impossible, even decent local beer was unobtainable usually. But during a trip to Xian buried soldiers we stop in a store that has the usual selection of swill, except on the top shelf …where, glowing like the briefcase in Pulp Fiction, there were about 20 bottles of Chivas Regal for about $5 each. How they got there is still a mystery.
Traveling during Chinese New Year was special, with millions of people using the train. In my car which had seating for 110 there was about 200 people. My booth made for 5 people had 10, including 2 little girls that stayed on the table for 2 days. Rather than try to get to the bathroom the father would hold them out the window to take a whiz…while moving. Stopping in a place called Xining I was pick pocketed of my passport and money, during my wait for money to be wired I witnessed a public parade of prisoners on their way to be executed.
In order to get to Tibet you had to travel on a road with an elevation of around 17,000 ft. (Mt McKinley is around 18,000 ft. ) The foreigners all had altitude sickness and the bus carburetor had to be adjusted due to the thin air. On the way back I got on the back of a truck that was carrying yak skins with a slot made for 10 of us to lay in for a 20 hour trip in February, in the Himalayas.
Before it was time to leave I had met the girl that had been assigned to be a friend of next years students. She was very forward for a Chinese girl at that time and walked into my room one day and closed the door, just to talk but still a no-no. The staff noticed and after she left she was banned from the building, dropped as a “friend” for next year and assigned a boyfriend by the school staff.
Returning around 2002 I was truly amazed at the changes made. No longer just grey and brown plain buildings filled with generally pissed off and frustrated people, they had embraced western culture for good or bad depending on how you look at it. One thing that was a little disappointing was the lack of attention, no one cared about seeing a foreigner, including the staff at my old university. Where once I could have walked into the presidents office, I was now ignored and basically brushed off when I asked the whereabouts of my old teachers. Kind of missed the old days.