Friendships Built in China and Cultural Revolution Memories

The following is a continuation of what I have started to write the last several blog posts. You see, I’ve been going through my old notes of my teaching experience in China.  It has nothing to do with Kazakhstan or human trafficking but if you read towards the end you can see how inhumane man can be against man.

Back in the 1980s when I lived in Harbin, the Chinese people were very aware that in order to build up their society, they must have good friendships with the western world.  Even though their customs are different from ours, they are trying to change rapidly.  One sign I had noticed in keeping with that theme was:  “Do Well in Sanitation – Build up Socialist Civilization.”  That was a case where the authorities were strongly advocating a new, no-spitting policy. They fined people who were caught spitting in public.

My job description as an English teacher in China was to build friendships while China kept building apartment complexes with red brick and bamboo poles.  The men would bring their heavy burdens to the top of six story buildings singing together in rhythm to lighten the load.  There would be teams of eight men who would haul heavy beams of cement while the leader would call out commands of which way to walk and when to stop together.  The bamboo poles were propped up on the sides of buildings to catch falling bricks OR men.  The piles of cement bags were either brought in by mule and cart or by truck. The men would work their way down the six stories of building by cementing the sides and securing the balconies.

Such hard, manual labor, I hope these men were paid well for their long hours in the hot sun under such conditions…but that was back in the 1980s. I hope working conditions have improved.

Like I mentioned earlier, my job was to build up relationships with the Chinese people at my university. I met some very fine people like Lu Bin.  She was responsible for finding me at the Beijing Intl. airport and taking me to Harbin by train.  Her father’s name was Mr. Lu. They invited me to their place to enjoy eating jiaozi which is like a meat dumpling.  To eat this delicacy, it must be dipped in soy sauce and vinegar.  Yes it is considered among the Chinese a great social activity, perhaps comparable to our pizza parties.

Sadly, at the age of 10, my new friend Lu Bin had been separated from her intellectual parents and was not reunited with them until ten years later.  The stories I heard about the Cultural Revolution started sounding the same.  With each sad story I learned from each different family, it spoke volumes of the lunacy that the whole country of China underwent from 1966-76.  As a result, Lu Bin, lost out on a chance for a good education.  She knew little English while I knew as little Chinese. We got along great!

Lu Feng, Lu Bin’s brother was younger than her so he was not affected by the Cultural Revolution.  Fortunately he was able to learn English and went to Canada to study.  For the time I was in China teaching English I enjoyed being with my highly motivated students.  They worked hard for me because they wanted to pass the national examination that would determine who would get to go abroad for more study. Many of my university students were older and were doctors, teachers and managers of factories.

To pass the time when we weren’t teaching, my teammate Rich would give tours of the city of Harbin.  He was totally absorbed in the history of the city and showed us the sites, even to where the old foreigners graveyard was outside the city limits of Harbin. A few of the gravestone markers had porcelain pictures of the deceased still in tact.  Most of the faces, however, had been chipped away by vandals during the Cultural Revolution.  About in the 1960s the prestigious grave stones and their coffins were moved from the center of Harbin to the countryside.

Back 85 years from this present date, Harbin was living in the heyday of the White Russians who had fled Russia after the 1917 revolution.  They made a lot of money in the timber business and as a result, many of the Russian made buildings were well built and are still standing in Harbin today (at least that was true 25 years ago).  Some of the places that Rich liked to take us on his tour were several Russian Orthodox churches still in existence. One church had only a handful of the original Russians who had lived in Harbin in the 1920s and 1930s.  The Meatov brothers from Poland still regularly attended services with the chanting of the liturgy from the main priest.

At the time I lived in Harbin, there was only ONE Protestant church still open and known as the “Three-Self Church.” Though splitting at the seams because so many attended this service, it was tightly controlled by the communist government.  The architecture reminded me of an old German or Norwegian Lutheran church. In the old days it perhaps seated about 200 people, but when I went to visit it there were seats up the stairs in the balcony and main floor, all to overflowing.  I would guess that 600 people attended a Sunday morning service because people sat outside the windows of the church or sat in the basement or fellowship hall.  Oh for such fervency of faith that the Americans should have with their well manicured and coifed churches. The people recited the Apostles creed together and even sang “Holy, Holy, Holy” in Chinese.  Imagine MY thrill to hear something so familiar yet in a different tongue.

Another onion-domed church situated close to the market was a landmark in Harbin. It had been closed soon after it had been built in the early 1920s and used as a warehouse instead. I had been told that the acoustics were great and on some rare occasions, Rich was able to get inside the old church and go to the top.  The front entrance was bricked up and blocked with “stuff.”  Maybe things have changed from 25 years ago, maybe this particular church is in use for its original purpose of worship. I’d like to think so. Someone from Harbin, China will have to let me know if there are any Chinese who read this blog. One other church was used as a light industry factory to make clothes. Yes, many changes have taken place since the Russians dominated the area.

Finally, I got to know several of the Chinese who had English names…they each had interesting stories.  Shiela told me that during the Cultural Revolution, her parents had been separated and set to work in the countryside in different provinces.  She was only four years old at the time and was taken care of by her 6 year old brother.  She remembers crying every day for two years. Her family had since been restored together and they each had high positions in their city.

Not only did the intellectuals suffer during the Cultural Revolution, but the artists did as well.  Stephen had been sent out to the countryside to be re-educated for about four years. Stephen painted a portrait of me because he wanted to practice painting western noses (they are considered BIG compared to their Asian noses).  The sign of beauty for a Chinese woman is to have big eyes, small nose and small mouth. I suppose Stephen tried to compliment me with that same prescriptive look.

I heard many troubling stories about the Cultural Revolution, but maybe most of today’s Chinese students don’t know this sad era in their most recent history.  I’m wondering what the Kazakh students know of their history.  What do American students know of theirs?

Stay tuned for more about my adventures in China!

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