Continuing my 1985 diary of a trip to China
Cheryl and Elspeth leave early; they’ve got a soft sleeper on the train to Kunming. They’re going to spend a few days in Dali (the site of the stone forest) and then meet me in Kunming when I come back from Tibet.
Meet up with Agnetha, a Swedish girl who is also going to Lhasa tomorrow. She is small and fragile looking and has white blonde hair. She has hitched to China all the way from Sweden and has never had any trouble, on account of the fact she is the owner of a very large knife. We agree to share a taxi to the airport tomorrow. Arrange to eat with her and a friend of hers – if he’s well; he’s been to the dentist.
So she arrives a couple of hours later with Benny a stocky, genial guy from San Francisco, who is wearing a hat made out of black and white dog fur. He looks like Davy Crockett. We go to the Cheng Du restaurant, and I’m all ready for the inevitable mayo las, and general disappointment, but the waitress is lovely, the service is quick and the food is great. That’s how it is in China; you get wound up, and wound up, and wound up, and then just when you’re ready to let rip, everything is marvellous and you fall in love with the place all over again.
Benny is funny and earnest and views the entire world with a kind of enthusiastic wonder. He tells us about an acupuncture teacher he had back home in the US who had just come over from Shanghai. ‘Man he was really like a Martian. I mean, he couldn’t help staring at everything and he was really puzzled about our shoes. One day he asked us, “Where do you guys go to get them mended when they break?”’ He couldn’t understand that, in America, people own more than one pair of shoes, and they can buy a new pair whenever they want. Can you believe it? ’
Then Benny tells us about his trip to the dentist. ‘Man I had to go. I had this abcess you know, and when he saw me on his doorstep he went white. The place was some kind of timewarp; that chair – have you seen Marathon Man? Laurence Olivier would have been right at home strapping Dustin Hoffman to that one. And you know what? He told me to go away. But the pain was so bad I wasn’t going anywhere, and he was a dentist, wasn’t he? I mean he couldn’t practise if he didn’t know anything? Right?’
Agnetha and I exchange looks and say nothing. I’m not sure if I had ten abcesses I’d go to any old dentist in this part of the country. But neither of us want to say anything. We want to know what happened.
Benny looks at us earnestly. His hat, which is just a high circle of fur, is tilted dangerously far back on his head. ‘You know why he was so scared? He just didn’t want the responsibility if it all went wrong. But I insisted, cause, boy I was in pain. And I was bigger than him so I when I sat down in that goddam chair he couldn’t exactly throw me out. So he washed my neck and face with alcohol, swathed me in sheets and then rubbed my gums with something that made them go completely numb. And then, he put this sheet over my face, with a hole over my mouth.
‘Man that was awful. I could just see my nose. I could feel him digging into my gum and pulling something stringy out – and I’m telling you, there was no pain at all – but it felt really weird not to see what was going on.’
This is intriguing. We spend quite a while talking about this amazing way of rubbing on anaesthetic, and what the ‘stringy thing’ could be. Whatever; Benny is certainly over his abcess.
After the meal, the three of us go to the English corner in the park opposite the hotel. Every Tuesday and Saturday evening Chinese people, who want to improve their English, go there to speak to each other. As soon as we arrive we are each surrounded by a deep circle of people. My lot are headed by an old guy who was baptised by missionaries before the Chinese revolution and who is very proud of it. Now he works in a construction office.
They soon get on to the subject of marriage, girlfriends, boyfriends and parents. You can’t get married in China until you are 27 if you are a man, or 25 if you are a woman. Before that, courting is strictly limited and viewed very seriously. If you start going out with someone it is taken for granted that you will marry them. Parents, too, seem to have much greater control than they do in the west. The family stays together, the old are looked after and the young are watched over – to what a westerner would find an unbearable level. There is no social security and a lot of ‘underemployment’ (in communist China, there is no such thing as unemployment). As one lad put it, ‘Our parents have the money.’
Someone asks me if, in England, husbands are henpecked. ‘I don’t think so, particularly,’ I say. ‘What about husbands in China, are they henpecked?’
‘Yes!’ comes a heartfelt chorus.
One lad near me is dressed in a pretend tweed coat and a polo-necked sweater. He says he works for the government as an economist, and asks me very diffidently, ‘Do you know David Niven?’ He’s just seen the Guns of Navarone and is very impressed. When I tell him I like David Niven too, he says, boldly, ‘My favourite film star is Zero, Zero Seven.’ And then he adds, ‘My favourite pop group is The Beatles. Have you heard of them?’
Back to my room. An American couple from Boston have taken over Cheryl and Elspeth’s beds. They too are hacked off with the eternal ‘mayo’. The man has a beard and says that, on trains, people have lifted up his jeans to see if he has hairy legs.