Thursday, January 15, 2009

Bible Running, Part One

Mainland China, 1983


Year of the Boar Decorations, Guangzhou, 1983








Chinese New Year Decorations, Foshan Hotel, 1983







The third day of the Chinese New Year dawned in Hong Kong, and Lynne and I took our heavily laden bags to meet up with our tour. We entered Guangdong Province by taking a boat up the Pearl River. When we disembarked in Guangzhou, we immediately went through customs. All our Chinese Bibles were confiscated, and we were probably scolded very soundly. The customs officers were very vehement about whatever they were saying, but they seemed to be speaking Cantonese, so we didn’t understand a word. They put all our Bibles into two duffle bags and gave us receipts for them. The receipts said we could get our belongings back for $1 US on the day we left the country. We were shaken up to have been caught and scolded at the border, but we smiled and thanked the officials.

Then we spent three whirlwind days touring with our group. We ate at the best restaurants, visited the newly developing Shenzhen Special Economic Development Zone, and went to a silk factory, a jade factory, a collective farm, a village, and parks and other places. Our tour was for three days and two nights. The first night we were in the town of Foshan. It was out in the country, and the only entertainment at night was watching Cantonese opera on the one TV in the lobby of the hotel or walking down to the Friendship Souvenir Department Store where the locals could watch us shop. Lynne was probably the only black person a lot of Chinese people had ever seen in person, and she was tired of getting stared at. To avoid more staring, we just sat in the hotel lobby watching the opera on TV. Eventually, we were the only Americans in the lobby, and our plan backfired because the hotel staff came up from behind and began poking Lynne’s afro. That was worse for her than being stared at, so we decided to catch up with the rest of the tour group at the Friendship Store.

We dashed out of the hotel in such a rush that we went the wrong way and couldn’t find the one road with street lights. We wandered through dark lanes trying to find our hotel or our group, when two police officers loomed out in front of us at the end of a dark alley. We were quite frightened and turned around as fast as we could. The officers herded us all the way to the department store, and then spoke sharply to our guide. The guide lectured us in our room when we got back to the hotel. He told us that since we had a bad record from entering the country with contraband, we needed to be very careful always to stay in sight of him, or something might happen to us. It was a very frightening experience, and we had not been sure we were going to make it out of those dark lanes and alleys.

The next day we stuck to our tour guide like glue. He wasn’t a bad guy, and I don’t think he enjoyed threatening us. He was not a native Cantonese speaker, so we tried speaking some Mandarin to him. We let him know that we were studying Chinese, which was why we had come to China for Chinese New Year. He was flattered, and everything seemed better until that night at our five-star hotel in Guangzhou. As our group was checking in, we ran into some guys who were friends of our Hong Kong hosts. They asked us to coffee and dessert in the lobby during our free time that night. Our group went out to a huge banquet and yet another shopping opportunity. We returned to our rooms at 9:30 with instructions to get packed because we would have an early start the next day. Since Lynne and I had empty luggage without the Bibles, we really didn’t have anything to pack. Our friends from Hong Kong called up to our room a little before 10, and we told them we would be down in a minute. As we were walking out of our room, our tour guide came running up to us, asking where we were going. We said that some guys we had met at the Chinese New Year festivities in Hong Kong were in the lobby waiting to have coffee and dessert with us. We told him we were poor students with no money, so we had no souvenirs to pack, and we were not used to going to bed before 11:00 at night. The tour guide turned to the female security guard who sat with a male compatriot at a security desk by the elevator on our floor. They spoke rapidly for several moments, and the upshot was that the matron escorted us down to the lobby and chaperoned our visit with the men from Hong Kong. She was nice enough to sit two tables away from us at the coffee shop. The guys from Hong Kong were a little freaked out. They had never experienced anything like this. We were scared, too. We asked the guys to phone our Hong Kong hosts and let them know that we had been caught with contraband and were now under surveillance. They promised to do that when they got back to Hong Kong the next morning. The dessert cakes were dry, and the coffee was watery, so we only spent about 30 minutes with our friends. We went back up to our room trailing our duenna behind us. She followed us to our room and waited outside the door until we had latched ourselves in.

9 comments:

Linda McLaughlin said...

Wow, Teresa, I'd have been scared, too. And talk about Big Brother! They watched you all like hawks, didn't they? I'm glad you only got scolded, though.

Linda

Teresa said...

I am glad, too. Now that I have met up with asylees from political and religious persecution in China as clients my translation business here in the States, I realize how fortunate we were to just be tailed and chaperoned.

I know a woman who was in Chinese prison in Guangdong Province in the 70's and 80's. She was shut up in a little room that was too low to stand up straight in. There was a low bench to sit on, but the room was too small for a bed. She was allowed out to stretch her legs twice a week. She was fed a small bowl of rice gruel once a day. Her husband had been scheduled for execution towards the end of the Cultural Revolution. He had escaped, and she was imprisoned for many years. Her husband learned to swim as he was escaping to Macao (he had a floatation device and two others to help him). The husband got to the US, and after Reagan visited China, my friend was released in Reagan's deal to grant favored nation trading status to China in exchange for their releasing political prisoners and improving human rights.

Joannalynne said...

No one poked your Afro?
This is starting to sound like a Mrs. Polifax story...

Teresa said...

We ran before they got their paws on my hair. They were probably going to feel it, too, to compare the texture of African hair, Caucasian hair, and Asian hair. That was how we got turned around escaping from the hotel and couldn't find the one road with street lights. We went out a side door instead of the main entrance.

I guess you can think of me as Mrs. Pollifax, but when this happened I was just 11 months older than you are now; I was definitely NOT a Mrs. Pollifax type.

murat11 said...

...since we had a bad record from entering the country with contraband....

Easy Rider in Guangzhou. Only in print is it amusing: I'm sure the episodes were quite unnerving.

murat11 said...

Having just read your comment to Linda, my comment strikes me as too glib. Persecution of any kind is no laughing matter.

Teresa said...

Actually, Murat, 30 years after the fact, you have to laugh. If you can't laugh in the face of danger, you go crazy. It was scary and exciting, and my parents totally freaked out, but I don't regret the experience or the adventure. I am glad, however, that we were protected by being US citizens...

I have interpreted counseling sessions for victims of torture (and not just victims from China, one time I had a client who was overseas Chinese from Cambodia who had been tortured and left for dead by the Khmer Rouge), and some of the sessions have given me nightmares. The things that people do to their fellow human beings...

I think it is why I have decided that I need to sometimes take a stand at least in a small way.

I do appreciate your comments, Murat, all of them. They are the kind of discussion I hoped to foment when I began writing this blog.

murat11 said...

Odd little coincidence last night. My son was watching "Antiques Road Show" last night on PBS, when over my shoulder I hear stories of going up the Pearl River. The speaker also made mention of the Portuguese influence in the area.

Teresa said...

And then again, maybe it wasn't coincidence...