(The picture is from Ningbo University taken in 1987. I am standing with the class of teachers of English who were also my students. Ms. Xing and Mr. Fang, mentioned in this story, are the two teachers standing to the right of me.)
With the Olympics gearing up in Beijing, I am reminded of China where I lived for eight months in 1987, newly married. The Chinese didn’t approve of unmarried American couples living and teaching together, so we were married at the Courthouse in Knoxville prior to leaving for Ningbo University to accept teaching jobs. The day we got married, my friend, Annie, threw a party for us at the Budget Inns of America where we stayed for one night. In magic marker, she scribbled on a piece of cardboard: “Just Married: Because ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find!’”
We celebrated late into the night. Our dachshund, Rudy, was even part of the festivities and appears in nearly all the wedding pictures. He was the frolicking theatre house dog. The whole thing plus rings plus motel cost around $103.00 dollars. I was very happy to have a Flannery O’Connor-themed wedding, because we were going to China. Good-bye Knoxville, Tennessee!
But in China, I was the classic dumb American teaching English at Ningbo University on the East China Sea. It makes me squirm to relive one particular memory that I have kept to myself for two decades now, but enough of this “saving face” – a term I learned quickly during our eight months of teaching in China.
Prior to China, we were college graduates from the University of Tennessee with no job prospects whatsoever. I had an MFA in Playwriting, and Kiffen had a BA in Psychology. Why not escape Big Orange Country and see the world? The International Department at UT was willing to send us, and we wanted adventure before we had to settle down and get serious about our lives. But it took six months for our travel visas from China to clear, and the waiting was agony, living with my parents, working temp jobs at Gulf Oil, SAAB, and Architectural Design Concepts. My father would say, “China? Why China? It’s a black hole! They can’t even send your visas. The Chinese clearly don’t have their act together. Get a new game plan, kids!”
It only made me more determined than ever to go – I didn’t want to be the newly married couple that had once planned to go to China. But during the long wait on our visas, it would have made sense for me to read about China. Maybe even learn that the Cultural Revolution wasn’t some kind of artistic movement? But why bother? I was too busy submitting terrible plays to contests across the country, announcing our impending jobs in the Far East.
I had this kind of bizarre Isak Dineson vision that I would somehow parallel her “Out of Africa” experience with my own “Out of China.” The previous ten years had all been Knoxville, but no longer would I be stuck at a job at Apple Tree, a bookstore filled with potpourri, Windham Hill music, and designer teddy bears like “Chef Bernais,” “Scarlet O’Beara,” and “Rhett Beartler.” I would not be performing Jean Kerr’s LUNCH HOUR at the Knoxville Dinner Theatre for old people eating soggy green beans with fat back and warmed-over roast beef.
I was going to make something of my life even though I didn’t know a single fact about China except that Nixon went there in 1972, and we would be paid in Chinese money. These were dual currency days which meant every bit of “renmenbi” (“people’s yuan”) that we earned had to be spent in China.
We arrived in Ningbo in January of 1987 by way of Hong Kong. Walking the streets of Hong Kong where everything was in English and Chinese, I felt reassured, but the day we arrived in Hangzhou on our way to Ningbo, we drove in a taxi through a sea of bicyclers in Mao suits, and every single shop sign was all CHINESE. I had a sinking feeling that I had carried this plan too far. The taxi driver honked nonstop, but nobody paid any attention. I tried to imagine Isak Dineson arriving in Africa in 1914 and how terrified she must have been. Surely I could summon up courage in 1987. I had her book of letters with me for strength and good luck.
At this brand new university, there were only freshman because it had just opened in the fall of 1986, funded by a Hong Kong shipper who wanted to be in good graces when Hong Kong became part of China. Kiffen taught the engineering students and gave them names like Picasso, Shakespeare, and Tolstoy. Lincoln and Washington were best friends who loved to play basketball.
Most of the students called us “Mr. and Mrs. Kiffen,” and although I tried to get them to call me “Ms. Kerry,” the majority would not, and our surname “Madden-Lunsford” was impossibly long for them to pronounce, so I was mostly “Mrs. Kiffen.”
I had the good fortune to have the English majors, and my students chose their own names from literature. A shy girl said, “I am Helen after the brave girl in Jane Eyre,” and her best friend said, “And I am Jenny after the courageous girl in ‘Love Story.’” I loved these students immediately, and together we put on plays, created an English Language newspaper, started English corner – all of that was fine and the teaching helped me forget I was surrounded by rice fields cut off from the world.
But my downfall came with the Chinese teachers of English, who were also my students. My class was held during their naptime. Everyone naps after lunch in China, but that was taken away from the teachers when I arrived to teach them “Conversational English” three days a week. I was given a book with “conversational” chapter headings and ordered to teach from it. The chapters were all about subjects designed to spark “heated debates” and “very interesting discussions.”
One chapter was about Emily Dickinson and whether it was better to be a “nobody” or a “somebody” in China. The overall consensus was that it was better to be a “nobody” because “a somebody perhaps can attract too much attention,” but it was the chapter called “Revolution” that became my defining oeuvre in stupidity.
“Revolution” was the title of chapter one, so I began with that on my first day. I had been teaching the freshman for several weeks, but now I had to face the teachers. I made Kiffen come with me because I was terrified. The lyrics to the Beatles’ song, “Revolution,” were included in the chapter, and so we discussed revolutions, and they wanted to know about “hippies.” I played the Beatles for them and tried to think of what to say about revolutions. The teachers looked sleepy and yawned a lot.
Tense and worried over failure, I talked fast trying to sum up the 1960s and the meaning of revolution. I could see them trying to follow me, but I just kept going faster and faster talking about Vietnam, flower power, and who knows what else? But I ended with a crowning glory by saying, “Actually, revolutions are passé. They don’t happen anymore.”
The look that crossed my new husband’s face was one of horror, incredulity, and amusement, and I knew I had quite possibly said the dumbest thing ever to a class of Chinese teachers who’d lived through something called “The Cultural Revolution.” (I made a mental note to look it up.)
It was a British teacher, Patrick Tilbury, who was also teaching at Ningbo, who gave me a crash course on the history of the Cultural Revolution that night, and I apologized during the next class meeting – my own kind of “self-criticism” that so many Chinese intellectuals and artists had to endure during the Cultural Revolution when the young teenaged Red Guards terrorized cities, and professors were sent to the countryside to be “re-educated” by doing manual labor.
A book called LIFE AND DEATH IN SHANGHAI by Nien Cheng was excerpted in TIME or NEWSWEEK later that year, and as I read her story, the shame of that day just intensified, but I loved the book.
The class got a bit better or at least we had “heated debates” and “very interesting discussions.” I showed them the only two English movies available: “Kramer Vs. Kramer” and “Amadeus.” I fell in love with these movies in an irrational way – maybe because they were the only English movies around. I wanted the Chinese teachers to be deeply moved and changed by them. But Ms. Xing, after viewing “Kramer Vs. Kramer,” said matter-of-factly, “All Americans get the divorce. Perhaps you will too, Mrs. Kiffen. It is most likely, do you not think? You are young now, but perhaps in five or ten years? American women like their boyfriends too much.”
I defended my new marriage, but she just smiled and would not be dissuaded. Later, though, Ms. Xing told me that when she was in labor at a bus stop about to have her daughter, her husband proceeded to read her verses from Chairman Mao’s Red Book to give her courage and stamina. Her laughter told me she thought he was a very silly man.
When I showed the teachers “Amadeus,” Mr. Fang slipped out before the movie was over but announced upon leaving, “I prefer murder mysteries so perhaps Mrs. Kiffen, you could introduce us to the great murder mysteries of literature.”
I used to tell people that we spent our first year of marriage in China, but it was actually eight months. Professor Qiu Ke’an, a frail and serene Shakespearian scholar and translator, who survived the Cultural Revolution, actually liked our teaching and wanted us to stay longer.
Kiffen loved China and picked up the local Ningbo dialect easily. He was more than happy to stay in a country where it was like being famous and crowds gathered to hear us talk or strangers fell in step with the unwavering question: “May I practice my English with you?”
But I wanted to get home so our lives could begin in New York or LA or Chicago. (We hadn’t decided where yet, but they were waiting for us somewhere.) I missed overhearing conversations and bread and yogurt and cheese. I missed my privacy and autonomy, because no matter what we did – a late night walk in the rice fields or a trip by bike into town or teaching theatre drew comment: “Perhaps you walked very late last night, Mr. and Mrs. Kiffen” or “Perhaps you are too tired from your bike ride, Mr. and Mrs. Kiffen” or “Perhaps, it is not your job to teach ‘play acting’ but rather ‘Intensive English.’”
The night we were invited to stay another year, we all got drunk on rice wine at a teacher banquet (Professor Qiu did not) and sang “Auld Lang Syne,” the hit song of every gathering during those eight months. I agreed to stay, flattered, but then, later and sober, it dawned on me that staying would mean a whole year more. At the age of 25, that seemed like eternity. I stared out the classroom windows at the rice fields surrounding Ningbo University, a water buffalo frolicking in the fields like some giant Labrador retriever, and I started to cry.
We used the money we’d made and bought tickets on the Trans-Siberian Railroad. We traveled from Beijing to Berlin and during those ten days on the train, I wondered if I had failed China. Should we have stayed? Isak Dineson didn’t pack up after eight months. I thought of Ms. Lee, a lovely woman, whose piano was stolen during the Cultural Revolution and finally given back only in 1987.
I thought of Professor Qiu asking us to please stay and teaching us about Moon doorways and of his translations of Shakespeare. I thought of the intense crowds and how they’d stick babies through bus windows, fighting to get a seat. I thought of the time we’d brought home a live chicken from the street market that Kiffen killed in the bathroom so he could make baked chicken. I thought of my freshman English students performing plays on the stage of the chemistry lab platform, giant insects flying in from the rice fields. I thought of the two bottles of creamy milk and two bottles of thick Ningbo beer delivered every day by the foreign guest-house workers. I thought of the Bourgeois Liberalism Campaign while we were there and the forced Saturday classes in Marxism for the students and army training.
Before we left, I was invited to do a voice-over for an infomercial called: “Ningbo – City of New Vigor” to invite foreign investment. It took five hours to record, stopping and starting all over again. Mr. Fang, the one who loved mysteries, was my director. “Perhaps you can try to sound very enthusiastic. You have a beautiful and very clear speaking voice.” I did my best, and I actually enjoyed my day with Mr. Fang, who said, as we parted, “Please invite your friends to invest in Ningbo: City of new vigor.” I said I would try.
Now China has become a country of “new vigor,” and probably one I wouldn’t recognize. But mostly, I think of standing before a class of Chinese teachers, who had lived and suffered during the Cultural Revolution. The day I apologized, they only said, “It was a very difficult time in China.” From the looks on their faces, I knew not to ask more. I had learned at least that much.
Kerry Madden is the author of the Maggie Valley Trilogy: GENTLE'S HOLLER, LOUISIANA'S SONG, and JESSIE'S MOUNTAIN. Her website is: www.kerrymadden.com