3: A Smoking Panda on the Toilet

After my first night in the Beijing Language Institute (from now on: BLI), I was eagerly awaiting my first day. The entry in my diary of that day (September 14, Sunday) reads: ‘Done some shopping. Met Chris at the airport in the evening’. This is the frugal language of someone more interested in observing than noting all observations down in great detail.

Teacher Bi lived up to his promise of the evening before. He picked me up in the morning to show me around on the campus . . .

It is definitively functional to start with the dining hall, as it was an essential facility to visit that morning. Teacher Bi started our conversation with the question: ‘Have you eaten yet?’ Everybody knows that food plays a central role in Chinese culture, but you don’t really know all its implications, until you spend some time in China. ‘Have you eaten yet?’ is one of the most common ways of saying ‘Hello’ in Chinese. It shows concern for the person addressed. The usual reply is ‘I have eaten’, which ends that (part of) the conversation.

Theoretically you can answer negatively, but that will have consequences. The person who posed the original question may continue the line of questioning by inquiring why you have not eaten yet, or when you intend to eat. . .

Most Chinese who have not yet eaten will still reply positively, because they are from the same culture, and do not want to create a ‘problem’ for the other party. That is the trick. It is not that different from the question ‘How are you?’ in our culture, that we usually reply by ‘I’m fine, thank you’, regardless how we feel.

However, I did feel hungry that morning.

This is, if I may say so myself, a good example of general information about Chinese culture that is woven into all chapters of this book. It is easy enough to learn a few of these ritualistic dialogues by heart to show off your command of Chinese, but you also need to acquire a feeling for the larger context in which these rituals are embedded.

Another great example is the Chinese habit of greeting people they have not seen for a while with the set phrases: ‘You have gained weight’, or the opposite ‘You have lost weight’.

Having a firm body is still generally perceived as positive in China, so the first sentence actually means: ‘I am happy to see you again’. The second phrase does not mean that the speaker is unhappy to see you, but means something like: ‘I regret that we haven’t seen each other for such a long time’. It can even be a mild blame to the listener, which would turn the actual meaning of the greeting into: ‘Why haven’t you come to see me earlier?’

Unfortunately, Westerners have become preoccupied with weight, and having gained weight is not likely to be taken for a compliment. Many Westerners therefore make the mistake of replying the greeting ‘you have gained weight’ with a denial. You shouldn’t; just reply with a smile.

In a similar fashion, you should not react to the greeting ‘you have lost weight’ with ‘thanks’, as it may make the speaker think that having not seen one another for such a long time means nothing to you.

The dining hall served set meals. Examples of each of the choices of the day were exhibited on a table, numbered. I do not recall the number of selections per day, but it must have been at least five, as for some reason, the phrase ‘Number five!’ keeps popping up in my mind, whenever I think of the dining hall of the Beijing Language Institute. Maybe that number was reserved for the most attractive meal, or maybe the set menu with the largest meat content, as I am very much a carnivore.

So the drill was: make sure you have a sufficient stock of meal tickets, scan the table with examples of the set menus available for that meal of that day, line up behind one of the numbered windows and wait for your turn to shout ‘Number X’, where X stands for the set meal of your choice. The various parts of each set meal were already available on huge tables behind the counter, and the server would compose your meal by fishing the components of your selected meal; e.g., a meat ball, some vegetables, a cup of rice, etc. The final step was getting a drink from the beverage counter.

Once you had your food, a new challenge was to scan the dining hall for people of your liking and to see whether there was still space available to join their table. The dining hall was to play a crucial role in the formation of social groups among the foreign students. During the first days, when everybody was new and unfamiliar, you would join your compatriots or classmates. However, after a while, you could discern groups who would share almost all meals together, because they perceived one another as like-minded.

My main problem with these meal tickets was that I kept them in one of my back pockets, and kept forgetting to take them out before washing my trousers. I have found myself forced to dry them carefully on the radiator in our room several times.

. . . we arrived at the back gate. It was not called Back Gate. The Chinese geographical perception is based on the quarters of the compass. The back gate of the Institute was called: West Gate. After a few steps along what again struck me as a country road (I saw fields with crops on both sides), we arrived at the street with the bus stop, crossed it, and entered an area that what was to become my main source of daily necessities for the coming year: the Wudaokou shopping area. . .

The area still exists and has turned into a very lively shopping space (a real shopping center). There are more shops and restaurants, but now most of them are privately operated. There is also a station for Subway line 13, which makes it much easier for current students to hit the town. At least one building of my past is still standing strong: the Wudaokou Workers’ Club. We watched a revolutionary opera there, as I will relate in more detail later. It has been turned into a cinema.


My diary does not include my shopping list of that day . . . I most clearly remember two items: toilet paper and beer.

Toilet paper is undeniably a basic necessity. Later, we would find out that the Chinese students often used any kind of paper available, like used pages from notebooks, old newspapers, etc. We preferred the real thing; however, unproletarian it might have been.

The most unproletarian aspect of the toilet paper I bought that day was its color: pink. If people should shun wearing colored clothes, why then was it OK to wipe ones behind with pink toilet paper? Moreover, the paper was branded ‘Gold Fish’. Branding products was a capitalist habit, but even in the China of 1975, most products were branded. However, many brands seemed to be completely mismatched with the product they were linked to . . .


If you think that the toilet paper was peculiar, wait till you learn about the place in which it was used. Urinals were quite similar to those we were used to in Europe. No problem there. For the more serious toilet activities, called ‘big convenience’ in Chinese, we had to learn to squat. Squatting toilets are known in some places in Europe as well, but for most of us it required some time to get used to doing your big thing squatting.

Moreover, that area of the toilets did not consist of closed rooms, but low walled cubicles. Especially when the taller Westerners like the Dutch, or the Danish, were squatting there, their heads would stick out above the walls of the cubicles. Therefore, an outside observer could guess the stage of their activities by their movements, and above all the color of their faces.

Except the bouts of diarrhea we would suffer after eating in a smaller restaurant, most of us were living on low fiber diets. This caused slow bowel movements and constipation. Defecating often required considerable pushing, which would also push more blood to your face. An early morning visit to the toilet would often show several faces sticking out from the cubicles, and you knew that those with red faces were engaged with the most critical step of the defecation process.

In this respect, no one beat Chris who often took his pipe and his reading matter with him to the toilet. A red face with a smoking pipe can be just a little too much to handle, early in the morning.

Back in my, still single, room, I stowed away the pink toilet paper in a drawer, so I could attend to the other item that I recall having bought that morning: beer. . .

It was produced by one of the older Beijing breweries, Shuanghesheng, but during the Cultural Revolution its name had been changed to Capital Brewery. I guess that was a more proletarian name than the traditional one that refers to the two original founders who would have been branded capitalists, had they been still alive then. The brewery still exists, but its name has changed a few times since. It is now owned by one of the emerging state capitalist companies, Qingdao (Tsingtao) Group, the famous beer from Shandong province, well known outside China as well.

This is another recurrent type of commentary in this book: background information on things Chinese. I don’t do so systematically, but whenever I believe it is useful, I add some geographic, historic, or cultural background, when typical Chinese artefacts or places pop up in the text.

Later that day, I asked to join Teacher Bi back to the airport to welcome Chris. He arrived on the same flight as I had taken one day earlier.

The following Monday morning was a Dutch day. We went to our Embassy, as agreed with Ronald during Chris’ arrival Sunday evening. It was an occasion to take our first long ride on bus 302, all the way back over the Third Ring Road to the Sanlitun Embassy quarter. There was more to see during daytime, but possibly because it was our first time, it seemed like a very long trip. It also was our first experience with the then common practice to give foreigners a seat on the bus. The ticket sellers would often loudly request people to cede a seat to the foreigner. We found this extremely embarrassing, but even if the people who stood up had hard feelings about it, they were very apt in hiding them. . .

The Embassy loaned us bikes, so we could ride back to the Institute. This was undoubtedly a good exercise, and saved us some of the embarrassment of being forced to take away other people’s seats. It also allowed more interaction with the other people on the road.

Many trucks loaded with people, ready to help with the harvest, were passing us and we exchanged friendly greetings with many. That was definitely in sharp contrast with all those evil empire stories. The people were friendly, and were amused to see foreigners riding a bike that was slightly too small. Chris’ pipe also drew attention.

. . . And attention we got plenty of, when his pipe dropped from his mouth, and we had to dismount to pick up the pieces.

BLI organised a number of outings in school buses for the newly arrived students. During that first week we visited the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, Tian An Men Square, and the Temple of Heaven. We also saw a table tennis game and a football match. We were briefed about the dos and don’ts and all kinds of regulations, while students from various other countries kept arriving each day.

This chapter ends with a fascinating anecdote.

The last Sunday of September 1975, I went out for a bike ride on my own. . . A boy of about 12 -13 suddenly appeared from an apple orchard and yelled at me in English: ‘What time is it?’ . . .



If you like this story and would like to read all of it, you are invited to buy the book. Benelux citizens can order a copy, signed if needed, directly with the author. Others can order it at Amazon.


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