Beijing, China, 1982: Watching the Giant Awaken

It doesn’t matter whether a cat is white or black, as long as it catches mice” – Deng Xiaoping

Richard Nixon made his famous visit to China in 1972. Historians have called it the “week that changed the world”. China had been in isolation for more than two decades since the Communist takeover. It wasn’t until 1979, however, that full diplomatic recognition occurred. An adventurous English teacher from my college and his wife were able to secure teaching positions in China in 1980 and 81. When Len and Emma Pellettieri returned to San Diego. Len made a special point to pull me aside and tell me that his employers in Beijing were very anxious to recruit American business professors. He said that if I was interested he would arrange an introduction. Fortunately, I had been awarded a sabbatical leave for the 1982-83 academic year. To spend the fall semester in Beijing would work out well for my calendar.

Deng Xiaoping and his predecessors had discovered that revolution is poetry but governing is prose. Marxist/Maoist theory was not filling the rice bowl. I remember Deng’s famous quote, “It doesn’t matter if a cat is black or white as long as it catches mice”. For nearly three decades now, the Chinese economy had not caught any mice. By gradually moving away from a centrally planned economy and opening up to the West by bringing in business and other experts, they were hoping to ignite a stagnant economy. That’s where I came in. The administration at the Beijing Institute of Foreign Trade had asked me to teach a marketing and management class. My students would be bright young teachers who would then in turn teach business subjects elsewhere in China.

For me to claim that I had something to do with the success of the Chinese economy would be like a rooster claiming credit for the rising sun. Having said that, I was there at a highly pivotal moment in their history. The government started allowing private farming of some farm plots. It turned out that those small farms produced more than the large collective farms. They also introduced something called the “responsibility system” which gave bonuses to workers for extra production. They even introduced this system in the dining room at the Friendship Hotel were I stayed. Prior to the responsibility system, it was difficult to get someone to wait on you. One had to hold up the menu and wave it frantically in the air. Once the responsibility system was implemented in the restaurant, three waiters would descend upon you immediately when you sat down.  Someone was counting the number of orders they wrote each day and applying a bonus.  The responsibility system was being introduced throughout the economy and was making a huge difference. The cat began catching mice.


Friendship Hotel 1982 (Yoyi Pinguan)

The Friendship Hotel was a sprawling structure built in the 1950s by the Russians. It definitely looked like something out of the Soviet Era with its exposed plumbing and generally poor quality workmanship. It housed several thousand of us “foreign experts”. Not only teachers were brought in, but advisers of every type from dozens of different countries. There was a large foreign currency store in the lobby. One needed special currency to buy anything there that was imported. This kept the locals out. My allowance was $448 a month. We were paid in FEC which stood for foreign-exchange certificates. Teachers who had been there for a while called it funny money. Fraternization between the foreigners and the locals was not allowed. Any violation would mean that the local was sent to a reeducation camp and the foreigner would be deported. Plenty of socializing went on among the foreigners, however. Cheap Tsingtao and Wuxing beer helped to lubricate the social life. The French teachers from Canada were a lot of fun to hang out with. pict01661.jpg

In looking around in the retail stores, it was easy to see why they wanted to get help with their marketing. Packaging and labeling were poor. Branding didn’t translate well into English. If they wanted to sell products abroad they needed to make some changes. For example, I personally saw flashlight batteries with the brand name White Elephant. I didn’t see it myself, but I heard there was a Great Leap Forward Floor Wax. But the funniest one I heard was Double Happiness Brassieres!China room


My small apartment was clean and comfortable thanks to two maids who made sure I had plenty of hot water for my tea. Although very basic, I learned that my accommodations were downright luxurious compared to people assigned outside Beijing. I met one teacher who had been working in Harbin who had no hot water in her room and was only able to bathe once a week when the staff heated up the water for her. There was a free clinic at the back of the hotel complex. Some hilarious stories were told about the care received. They practiced Western medicine, Chinese herbal medicine, and acupuncture all at the same facility. Three people with the same malady would come out of the clinic with a completely different treatment depending on which doctor they saw. They all seemed to work.PICT0163PICT0154

Every school day, a car and driver would pick me up at the hotel and take me out to the suburbs where the Beijing Institute of Foreign Trade was located. The institution has now been renamed, The University of International Business and Economics. On weekends and holidays, they would take us on tours. We went out to the Great Wall, the Temple of Heaven, the Chinese opera and a special overnight trip to the newly opened Ming Tombs. Most of the cars they drove in those days appeared to be 1950 models. They told me they were made in Shanghai. When I return for a visit in 1995, they picked me up in a brand-new Lexus. They had come a long way in those 13 years.

I was assigned a permanent assistant. His name was Chunguang Ma. He was an assistant professor when I first met him. He had been assigned abroad in the past and his English was excellent. We became good friends over the years. I later arranged for him to have an internship at a high tech business in the San Diego area. Eventually he was promoted to vice president and later arranged for me to be a guest speaker again at the University in 1995. He and His family came to visit me in San Diego in 2008 as well. Prof. Ma sat in the back of my class every day. At times I would get other professors sitting in on my lectures. Prof. Ma warned me that students were a bit lazy. As I got to know them, I found out why. They were the best and brightest from all over China. A committee had decided that they would be teachers. Most of them did not want to be teachers. One young man told me that he wanted to be the manager of an enterprise. I’m sure today he is. But in those days, he was reluctantly doing what the committee had told him to do.

In order to preserve energy in Beijing, the government decreed that buildings were not to be heated until November 15 no matter how cold it got. Coming from San Diego, I nearly froze my bottom off for a few weeks before they turned the heat on. The students were obviously used to the cold. Anyway, they wore caps in the classroom and had so many layers of clothes on that it was difficult to tell the boys from the girls. The Chinese are indeed a hearty lot.  They seemed to love fresh air and would leave the windows open when it was nearly freezing outside. During my lectures, sometimes vapor would come out of my mouth and my fingers would be so cold it was hard for me to hold the chalk. When class ended, I would run down to the faculty office and put my hands on the big hot water kettle they kept there for making tea.

When I returned in 1995, the shabby old buildings were gone and the University was occupying several bright shiny towers. Again, they had come a long way in 13 years.


china flowersPICT0155


The Dani of Baliem Valley: The Stone Age Comes to the 21st Century

By far in my 50 years of travel the most unusual, surreal place I ever visited was the Baliem Valley in West Papua, the easternmost province of Indonesia. Because of its isolation, the Baliem Valley wasn’t discovered until 1938. Explorer Richard Archbold discovered it by accident while flying a seaplane over the region. He saw perfectly manicured fields and knew there must be people there. Because today it is still isolated and unreachable by roads, the Dani people and their neighbors the Yali and the Lani, still show strong evidence of the stone age culture they were living at the time of Archbold’s arrival.pict0008-copy.jpg

All the guidebooks I read said that I needed to speak basic Indonesian in order to survive in the Baliem Valley. I bought some Indonesian language tapes and played them almost constantly for several months as I traveled to and from my teaching job at the college. My primitive Bahasa Indonesia skills were put to a test when I arrived Jayapura, the regional capital. In order to reach the Baliem Valley, one needs to fly over a 10,000 foot mountain range and drop down into the main town of Wamena. The local airline, Merpati, would not let anyone board the flight without a surat jalan, a police travel document. Since they were annexed to Indonesia four decades earlier, there has been an ongoing insurrection in the Papua region. It seems the Papuans have very little in common with their government in Jakarta. Indeed, not long after I visited there, the region was shut down to tourism for several years. Only after they were given greater autonomy was it safe to travel there again. Even today, US government employees are not allowed to visit there.

After a hilarious encounter in primitive Indonesian with a police officer in Jayapura while he pounded out my surat jalan on a manual typewriter, I was ready for the spectacular flight over the mountains. And spectacular it was. I saw the silver river bisecting the Valley and the perfectly manicured fields of the Garden of Eden that Archbold discovered in 1938. Our flight made a preliminary pass over the runway at the Wamena airport. This was to clear all the people and animals off the runway. Once I landed and was waiting for my baggage to be offloaded in the small dilapidated terminal, I realized I was indeed in a surreal world. Standing next to me was a man nonchalantly wearing absolutely nothing except a gourd on his penis. About half the men and boys I saw during my stay were wearing the koteka. The farther you got from the town of Wamena, the more you saw of the gourds. It seemed that village chiefs would wear a longer one. Also I understand that each man had a selection of gourds. He would wear a short curved one when working and a longer one on ceremonial occasions.

The women, on the other hand, were bare breasted especially when one got out of town. Invariably, however, they would cover their backs with a woven bag called a noken. The noken was used to carry many things like produce, pigs and children. Similar to some other cultures, breasts were not considered erotic. The woman’s back was, however. No self respecting Dani woman would leave her back exposed. Two other unusual customs stood out regarding the women. When a woman lost her baby, she would completely cover herself with yellow clay. Even more startling, when a woman lost a family member, she would cut off the end of one of her fingers. Some women I saw had most of their fingers missing. They were proud to show me their mutilated hands. I understand this latter custom has now been banned.

Sweet potatoes were the staple crop and pigs were the main medium of exchange. The Dani were polygamist. Each man had four or five wives working the fields for him. His job was to provide security for the family. The wives had to be purchased using pigs. According to my Dani guide, Joseph, a wife from the north end of the valley cost nine pigs but a wife from the south end of the valley only cost seven pigs. According to one writer, pigs are so valuable women have been known to suckle the piglets so that they can survive. The writer said he saw a baby nursing one breast and a pig on the other. I can’t confirm that.

I found the Dani people to be very warm and friendly throughout my entire time there. A few words of Indonesian and we were instant friends. I hope modern civilization hasn’t changed them too much.If you want to visit a place that is truly different, I highly recommend the Baliem Valley. If you go, let me know how you like it.