On April 16, 1989 my husband and I flew to Beijing where I had taken a job with a women’s magazine. There I first learned of International Women’s Day where it is a big event. And certainly I learned a lot about the life of Chinese women while working as a ‘polisher’ for Women of China English Monthly. I worked with translators (whose English was excellent) who translated articles about women in China’s history, and the women who were taking women into a very different era for China. I then ‘polished’ them to make sure grammar and vocabulary were accurate, but I found the biggest problem was giving a bit of context as when I was given a story about a factory that was now making jewelry for sale. What was newsmaking about that? It was explained that Beijing was now selling consumer goods, like jewelry, that had not been available to the general population before.
The photo above, of me with the Women of China staff, was actually taken at my farewell party in April 1990 – after many amazing adventures.
We arrived just as the events of the Beijing Spring were beginning, and that culminated in the Tianenmen Massacre on June 4.
Like almost the entire international community living in the Friendship Hotel (more like a campus than a hotel) where we were billeted and elsewhere in Beijing, we left the city. We flew out on the day that the People’s Liberation Army entered and declared martial law. We flew to Hong Kong and got in touch with our daughter Betsy who was living in Kenya and nearing the end of her Peace Corps tour. We then flew to Bombay and then Nairobi where we waited for Betsy to meet us and take us on the 6 hour bus trip to her village in the hills.
Betsy gave up the bunk bed to me, and she and Henry slept on the floor. The choo (outhouse) was in the backyard, but she had a ‘sunshower’ arrangement in the house. She was there working on a water project renovating one large water tank and building a new one as well as laying a water line from a spring higher on the hill. While that project was going on she had to carry all her water, just like the other women in t he village. We certainly learned a lot about the lives of Kenyan woman and the new issue of birth control, in a country where men had more than one wife and each wife could have ten children. We also learned how small the world had gotten. In this village of mud huts, in the higher elevations of Kenya they had heard about the attacks in Tianenmen. In our farewell to Munyaka they all gathered at Betsy’s house to ask us questions about China. Betsy ran around serving chai, and a couple of the men told us it was very odd to see Betsy acting like a woman, serving tea, when they were used to her working like a man. Of course, Betsy would say that women worked like horses, doing immense amounts of heavy physical labor, not just planning and organizing. I don’t know if they celebrated International Women’s Day.
After checking with our new friend Leilani who had remained in Beijing we made plans to return. Our house was rented for the year and we really did want to continue in China. Because of the ‘turmoil’ that made so many Foreign Experts (that was our official designation) leave, the government declared that those who had stayed could have a vacation at the important resort, Beidaihe on the Bohai Sea. We were even given soft seats on the train. Of course, we had to be accompanied by our translators, and the staff of the Beijing Friendship Hotel took up posts at the Beidaihe Friendship Hotel – but with a little extra time off for vacation. We could see what seemed to us the odd standardization of the new consumer economy. There were lots of bathing suits for sale, in sizes, but in only one fabric pattern, little white stars on a solid ground. Of course, you could get a red bathing suit, or a blue one.
We were taken on one outing to the place on the seashore where the Greaat Wall of China begins. As we worked out way through the crowds strolling on the wall we were stunned to have Xiao Pan say, “It ‘s nice or us that are so few people are here this year.” Everything is relative, I guess.
During the day we went to the beach or sightseeing with new friends from our Beijing hotel. Muhammed (second from the left) was a polisher for a magazine distributed in Africa. On our final afternoon with Muhammed, and Aftab from Pakistan and a couple of others we had gone exploring, looking for the pavillion overlooking the Sea where Mao Zedong had written some poems. We were a little late getting back for the farewell party and were chastised by Xiao Pan ( far right) who was our translator. “We are having fun, but we are on a tight schedule,” he said sternly. This has become a standard phrase in our household on many occasions.
At the party we each had to provide some entertainment. Ayjay from India did magic tricks but the only thing Henry and I could come up with was the children’s song Two Little Blackbirds Sitting on a Fence.
Back in Beijing we spent time sightseeing on our bicycles with Leilani and other friends. In 1989 it was the best way to see the city. Near the Friendship Hotel was this Uyghur neighborhood where there were great noodle shops. I had to get used to a new idea of what a ‘restaurant’ looked like, but the food was fabulous! The Uyghurs are a minority people living in Xinjiang Province.
There was work, of course, but I only had to be in the Women of China office three mornings a week. I did some of my work at home on my Kaypro computer. Lunches were in the Foreign Experts Dining Hall where the food was good but cheaper than in the hotel’s other restaurants, and there was lots of discussion among the other Foreign experts about what had happened, and what was going to happen, and every thought began with the phrase, “Well, it is very complicated.” Then came a nap, which is granted by the Communist constitution!
After the ‘events’ at Tianenmen Square in June, it was closed to the public until the great 40th Anniversary of the Founding of New China when thousands and thousands of workers in their work units performed dances and there was a great show of fireworks. We Foreign Experts had excellent seats for the show. When Betsy visited in January (she was seeing as much of the world as she could on her way home from Kenya) we took her on the tourist trail, from Tianenmen to the Great Wall. Betsy in in the blue hat, I’m in faux fur and the two others are Peace Corps friends.
Our time in China was growing short. We were granted a vacation in the south of China and requested that Xiao Pan accompany us as translator. This was a typical Chinese arrangement. Xiao Pan had not been able to visit his family in a couple of years and they lived in Suzhou, the Venice of China, just where we wanted to go! We had a wonderful dinner with his family. Papa did all the cooking in the alley on a little charcoal stove, in a way that all international women can applaud, but came in for the final toasts. Suzhou is also the city of many famous gardens, including the Master of the Nets garden. A single courtyard of this garden has been recreated at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC.
Before we left we attended a banquet with my work unit to celebrate International Women’s Day. They could not believe that I had never heard of this international holiday. Everyone had gotten to know Henry pretty well and appreciated the help he gave them, and me. He was named an Honorary Woman, and given an All China Women’s Federation pin to prove it.
Being in China during such an historic year made us wonder if we would ever return to see the changes that we could tell were beginning to take place. And we did! In the spring of 1995 I left for Beijing and my old post at the Women of China English Monthly. And that turned out to be another historic year! The Fourth World Conference of Women organized by the U.N. was held in Beking that September. But that is a whole other story.
On this International Women’s Day I celebrate all the amazing women I met in China, and my own three daughters who have made such a difference in my life and in the life of their own communities.