20 The Men in Green

After May Day, the air in Beijing warms up rapidly. It is clearly noted in my diary, as I am not a summer person. This was accompanied with a number of changes. The rapid greening of nature was definitely a positive one, but less so were the mosquitoes that seemed to appear out of nowhere.

As mosquitoes could transmit encephalitis, we were offered an encephalitis shot we on June 1, 1976. It was made available to us on a voluntary basis. Even then, the school would not want to force foreign students to be injected with unfamiliar substances against their will.

Fortunately, we were not troubled much by mosquitoes in our school. A few years later I was living on the campus of Peking University with its idyllic ponds that changed into breeding grounds of mosquitoes from late spring. You had to sleep under a mosquito net then to get some sleep.

Wuminhu

Talking about Peking University . . .

. . . We were invited (read: summoned) to meet the Ambassador on Sunday, June 3, 1976. He had received an important notice for us from the Chinese Ministry of Education. . .

The message turned out to be an invitation to move on to Peking University to ‘study Chinese’ there. Officially, the Beijing Language Institute was a transitory school, to train foreign students to the level at which they would be able to follow courses at a regular university.

In our case, as we had only a couple of months left in Beijing, the idea of moving all our belongings to a new dormitory in another university, though quite close to our school, sounded uninviting.

We believed it was one of those indirect Chinese messages, telling the Dutch Ministry of Education that they were pleased with the exchange of students so far, and that they intended to take it to the next level. Later, we learned that the Chinese government had already decided to send a couple of students, future diplomats, to The Netherlands to study Dutch. That meant that a real exchange program would start and although Chris and I were already studying Chinese in China, doing so in a genuine university would look even better. . .

Neither of us was eager to make that move, so we declined. The Ambassador seemed to understand, but asked us to at least give it a thought. We told him we would, of course. Anyway, I would spend two bouts in Peking University during later years anyway.

First it was time for a military adventure. One of the venues not yet covered by our many school outings was anything military. People in those typical green uniforms could be seen everywhere, but we had not yet entered any military organization.

. . . Early in the morning of Thursday, June 8, 1976, we boarded a school bus once more. It would drive in the direction of Tianjin, the port city close to Beijing, but stop somewhere in between these two cities, at a place called Qingxian.

poster-china-1975

During the Introduction we learned that this infantry division had been formed in 1937, during the war against Japan. After the capitulation of Japan, it had continued to fight in the civil war between the Communists and the Nationalists. . .

After 1949, the division had not had much time to rest, as it was sent to participate in the first four campaigns of the Korean War during the early 1950s. . .

It was a typical Chinese military unit. It was not only a group of fighters, but formed a small society by itself. It cultivated its own fruits and vegetables and raised its own pigs and cows, achieving almost complete autonomy from the outside world. We visited a small bean curd workshop, where soybeans were processed into bean curd and soybean juice.

. . .We were offered to sample the fresh soybean juice, the leftover of bean curd making that many Chinese regard as a refreshing drink. A few Western students dared to savor the whitish liquid. Two of them barfed the stuff out immediately, together with the military lunch we had enjoyed earlier. It was an acquired taste, and they clearly had not acquired it yet. . .

This expression of self-sufficiency was not simply a thing of the Cultural Revolution. It had its roots in the symbiotic relationship between the Chinese army and the Communist Party. After 1949, the army even established huge farms that ranked among the most modern of the nation. Self-sufficiency is part of the DNA of the Chinese military. . .

The idea was transferred to other work units as well (after all, the term ‘unit (danwei)’ is a military concept). The Beijing Language Institute, e.g., grew fruit trees on campus, which was the school’s humble attempt to be a productive unit of society. . .

The entries in my diary for the remainder of June show the appearance of a Pakistani student: Isar. He was one of those students from a developing country sent to China to study science, in his case medical science. His family had more or less designated him to study medicine, but he himself was dreaming of joining Pakistan Airlines as soon as possible, flying around the world as a purser. Although Isar was a Muslim, he drank alcohol as we did, which sometimes got him into trouble with the other Pakistani students.

BLI had more Pakistani students. Through Isar I also got to know an officer of the Pakistani army, who had been assigned to learn Chinese, to become a liaison officer.

Isar was gregarious, and liberal. Unlike several of the African students we used to hang out with, he did his fair share of picking up tabs in restaurants and bars. I had a broad interest in foreign cultures and was set on in getting the most out of my stay in China, not only in learning about the country itself, but also from the contacts with representatives of such a variety of cultures.

Eating out in China was not a problem for Muslims.

. . . , a new restaurant had enriched our dining options: the Xinjiang Restaurant. Xinjiang is a so-called Autonomous Region, located in China’s far west. It is like a province, but as it is mainly inhabited by non-Han nationalities. . .

The main nationality of Xinjiang are the Uighurs, a Turkish people, most of whom were Muslims. Years later, I learned from an officer of the Turkish Embassy in Beijing that Uighurs visiting the Turkish Embassy can have a sensible conversation with the Turkish diplomats, while each side is speaking its own language. I could never confirm this story through personal observation, but it can be true. Perhaps it is like Dutch and Germans trying to converse in their respective language. We believe that we understand 80%, while in reality it is at most 60%.

All major administrative regions of China have representations in Beijing, which function as de facto embassies. In a large autocratically administered country like China, local governments have so many issues they need to coordinate with the policies of the national government, that it is worth to investment in a permanent representation in the capital.

Such an organization will regularly receive guests from the home region, to discuss policy matters with counterparts in central ministries. These people need to be put up, and it makes sense that their local ‘embassy’ books hotel space. . .

Once we had learned about it from Ronald, after he had checked it out with his cronies of the ‘Second Secretary Luncheon Club’, we followed his advice and it was love at first sight. . .

It immediately replaced the Chengdu Restaurant as our favorite eatery. My friends and I were carnivores and meat is an important ingredient in Xinjiang cuisine. The restaurant served the best mutton we had ever tasted.

Some familiar people started to leave. We joined Ronald and few other members of the Embassy staff to the Capital Airport to bid farewell to the Ambassador and his wife on Tuesday, June 22, 1976. It reminded me of the fact that I would be in the same position less than 2 months from that day.

But I first took a dive in the Ming Tombs Reservoir.

. . . The last Sunday of June, Ronald and Sarah picked me up for dip in the Ming Tombs Reservoir. It was a man made reservoir named after its proximity to the Ming Tombs. Chris declined the invitation. I assume he could swim, but I guess that walking around in swimming trunks did not agree with his self-image as a future diplomat.

At that time, swimming in the reservoir was still allowed. It is forbidden now, probably because so little water is left that one can hardly swim anyway. When we arrived, I was surprised to see quite a few Chinese there already, mainly young people, enjoying a swim on that hot Sunday.

In an earlier chapter, I noted that it was interesting to see Chinese women wearing skirts during the National Day celebrations. By then we had already grown used the unisex dressing style. This little difference between male and female dressing was continued when the temperatures rose. The female Chinese students were all wearing baggy trousers and short sleeve shirts, like their male counterparts, again with minor differences that you needed to learn to note, and appreciate. . .

MingTombReservoir

Now I was confronted with a group of several young Chinese women in bathing suits. Bikinis were obviously out of the question, but even to see them swim and walk around in tight bathing suits was a rare sight for me. They were accompanied by an equal number of young men in swimming trunks and their interaction struck me as quite natural, as if it was a daily routine for them. They could have been the offspring of what then constituted the ruling elite. The very fact that they had reached the reservoir indicates that they probably also had access to some kind of private transportation. . .

That Sunday was almost like one we could spend in any outdoor swimming pool on a hot summer day in Europe. People coming out with food and drinks, changing into their swimming suits, and spend the day swimming, eating, drinking, frolicking and chatting, in random order. I felt so relaxed that I forgot that the sun and I were not close friends.

. . . Back in my dorm, my roommate Wang showed his surprise (he rarely did show his emotions), when confronted with the red color of my face, arms and back.

Interestingly, when you get burned like that, you seem to be less troubled by the heat in the room. By that time, the rooms had become little ovens, and sleeping had become problematic for most North-Europeans. However, I remember clearly that the room actually felt comfortable, as if my body was giving off heat to the air, rather than the other way round. I slept remarkably well that night. . .

Heat would be a major ingredient of each of our final days in Beijing.

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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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