Big in Changchun!
I was crying in public (2nd time), sick, at an airline counter with a feverish kid. Needing to leave a frigid northern city, & they F -ed up our reservation. No one spoke English. SOS call to student and the line was busy. No plane seats for us, sick kid or no.
Suddenly, concerned and gentle eyes. Square face, black v-neck sweater, a guardian angel of a G-man in his 50s–and somehow I knew he was, from the first instant, but how??! the 6 guys identically dressed behind him with similar briefcases?? what do Party bigs carry??–loomed above us at the counter: “Is there some way I can help you?” he asks, in perfect kindest English.
More tears, soothing v-neck interventions, a lucky flight delay (smog in Beijing) and $600 later (refunded today), we were saved. Homeward bound.
Talking at the departure gate, the boys’ old-style People’s Liberation Army winter hats (the current weird China-tourist-souvenir fad) spur him to recall that those were the hats they wore when he was 11 in 1966, the year the Cultural Revolution began. (I feel vaguely panicked at the semiotics, the potential ideological echo, the kids may be broadcasting wearing these hats.)
His father was a poor farmer, “so I was a poor farmer.” I shush the boys to listen, hoping for a long recollection, but the G-man’s not a talker. All he’ll say is the universities were closed. “When they opened them again, I took the test and entered university.” He’d rather talk about America — New Jersey! He’s been to 25 U.S. states. His sister lives in South Carolina. How do the boys pursue their education here? he asks. Why was I in Changchun? (Motor City, home to China’s automotive plants, and several gigantic universities.)
“You’re a businessman?” the kids say.
“What makes you think so?” he answers, bemused. “I’m a servant of the public. I’m with the government.”
And not that a t-shirt would show, because we’re layered up, as if for skiing. But Kenny recognizes, in a whisper to me, it’s a good thing he’s not wearing his kitschy-wry-making-fun-of-Mao t-shirt that I have, against his opposition, banned within China as inappropriate.
Students arriving for one lecture
It was my first lecture tour that took us to Changchun, up in Jilin province where it’s 10 degrees F, near Korea, and they eat this delicious soup made with meat and sour fermented cabbage. I experienced my 15 minutes of fame, as students rushed the stage for photos, and to cop my PowerPoints off the PC. When I gave prizes to a few volunteers who helped during a writing exercise–journalism textbooks donated at home, shipped here by Fulbright–others in the audience swarmed, fought to handle & admire them. English books aren’t only costly, they’re almost impossible to find.
Our (kind, generous) hosts, professors of media, were surprised to learn we don’t have (aside from CSPAN, I suppose–I tried to explain that!!) an official, state media. Surprised at how deep the newspaper crisis is, as China’s print readership (like India’s) is still growing, with new readers rising in waves of rising income, education & literacy.
Student questions: “What do you think of our lack of youth freedom?” “How can I get real information for my stories?” “Do you believe in advertorials masquerading as news?” (not quite in those words)
Our host, professor Bao
Pu Yi, the last emperor, born in unimaginable continent-sucking wealth in the Forbidden City, lived here, too, in his 30s and 40. After the Japanese invasion during WW2, Changchun was a war-time capital of Japan’s Manchukuo state. Pu Yi lived here much lower on the foodchain, as a Japanese ‘puppet’ ruler.
The last emperor
After Hiroshima & Nagasaki, Pu Yi tried fleeing to Russia, but was captured & imprisoned.
Pu Yi's prison uniform
Quite a book-end to the Imperial dynasties’ glories. The Chinese eventually pardonned his treason; he ended his life as a Beijing gardener, happy, at least in a few pictures. Here’s his bike.