Friday, 13 February 2015

All the tea in China

I met my husband at the Vancouver Airport on Canada Day, 1984. He claims the first thing I said to him was "I have a boyfriend."  

That's not exactly how I remember it.

We were taking a course called "Education and Society in China" at East China Normal University in Shanghai,
Downtown Shanghai, 1984
sponsored by the University of Victoria.  Len and I and a guy named Aaron Parker plus a dozen mostly divorced middle aged elementary school teachers were the first students enrolled in this programme. 


China was just recently opening up to tourists.  It was cheap. It was an adventure. It was mind-blowing. It was everything that travel should be.

We arrived in Shanghai in the late afternoon and walked off the plane to blasting humidity that never let up. No one was there to meet us. One lady in our group spoke Mandarin and organized taxis to our dorms. The only vehicles on the streets were buses and trucks and bikes. Thousands of bikes. Even though it was pitch black, no one used headlights. Every now and again a taxi would flash his lights and a bike carrying two or three people would be illuminated before our eyes. There were people everywhere. 
Streets of Shanghai, my roomie
Myrna on right

We arrived at our very basic "international student" dorms and went to bed. Jet-lag and heat had me awake at 5 a.m. I watched a young man in a singlet and shorts doing tai chi under a tree under my window. At 6 a.m. the loudspeakers started and students began their morning exercises. 

Every morning we took courses from elderly Chinese professors, translated by Mr. Ye or the handsome charismatic Charles. 
Group dinner
Afternoons, we went on excursions or wandered the neighbourhood park or took a bus that cost 6 cents downtown to Nanjing Road and the Bund. We swam at the Shanghai International pool or the art deco Jinjiang Club. We danced to Glen Miller at the Peace Hotel. We drank at the International Seaman's Club, a foreigners only bar where imported single malt scotch cost a buck, walking home late at night over sleeping bodies stretched out on the sidewalk. While the Chinese had to wait up to two years to buy a bike, Len with his foreign exchange was allowed to purchase his own bike with which he roamed the city. 
Len, me and Mr. Ye

Everywhere, young people wanted to practice their English. Anytime we stopped to look in a shop window an enormous crowd gathered to stare at us. Women wore summer frocks out of the 1950s with knee high pantyhose or sported misspelled English words on trendy t-shirts ("Naughnty" was my favourite).Every noon hour was a lunchtime nap taken by everyone. Even the simplest of tasks was met with bureaucracy.


Jade Screen Pavilion
In early August several members of our group took a trip to Huangshan, one of China's seven sacred mountains-a place all Chinese are supposed to see before they die. After a ten hour bus ride through rice paddies and picturesque villages, we arrived at the base of the mountain.  Len and Aaron and I opted to stay in the cold cement dorm and climb the mountain the next day while the older ladies took the bus up to the lodge. 

After a breakfast of rice gruel and tea, we started our climb. We had been told we had to be at the top before the thunderstorms struck at noon. We climbed thousands of steps carved into the stone mountain.  Aaron met a girl and stopped at the first lodge. 
Len in the mists of Huangshan

We kept going- past noon, through the thunderstorms that boomed and echoed around us. We climbed beyond the spectacular views, up and up into the clouds, seeing nothing. We took a side path to Celestial Capital Peak with its amazing view, but saw only swirling fog. People posed for pictures anyway. The crowds dwindled to nothing. Eventually it was just the two of us, climbing through the mist. We finally reached a ridge and walked on and on, hoping the guest house would appear.

Five months later, we were married.


Thirty years later, here we are.