Is it still possible to have a unique experience, one that you cannot have anywhere else? Or has the world become thoroughly homogenised? Sometimes it seems so. Wherever you go, it is the same experience, over and over again. A European city centre, a restored historical village, a hotel room, a museum, food, coffee, beer – in one place after another they seem eerily the same. Should tourism begin on Mars, it too would have the same experience.
I beg to differ. It is the unexpected moments that are unique, moments that can easily pass you by in the myriad events of everyday. To see them, you need a peripheral vision, a seeing out of the corner of your eye; or, as I prefer, a relaxing of the shoulders, a slowing of the breath and an easing of the mind so that you can catch them before they pass.
We had been talking about a possible trip to Suzhou, a little up the road from Shanghai. She was keen to show me around the fabled town, with its canals and boats and cuisine. Indeed, beautiful girls come from Suzhou … or so goes one of the sayings.
As a neophyte to matters Chinese, I asked: ‘what time suits you best?’
‘How about Friday morning?’ She said.
‘Excellent’, I said. ‘Where shall we meet?’
‘I’ll meet you by Mao’s statue – the big white one at the front gates – at 9.00 am’. She said it as though it was the normal suggestion in the world.
Student party meeting
Over a simple lunch of long noodles, two students and I sat talking. Spring it was, after the first rains of spring in a cool Beijing. They had wanted to take me to a kosher dining hall, provided for the Chinese Muslim students. It had the reputation for good quality clean food. We had lined up to order our dishes and I tried to read the menu on the wall above. Some characters I could recognise, some not. They translated where necessary while we waited our turn. Soon enough, the dishes were ready, announced on the loudspeaker. We picked up our bowls, found some seats and slurped away.
The dapper student looked at his watch and made to move.
‘Excuse me’, he said. ‘I need to go to a student party’.
‘A party’, I said, thinking it was one of the regular student parties that happened with extraordinary frequency. ‘At lunchtime?’
‘No’, he said. ‘It’s the student branch party meeting. I am the secretary’.
It hit me: ‘Are you a member of the student branch of the communist party?’ He had not struck me as a typical member, but then what is a typical party member?
He smiled. ‘Yes, and I am the secretary, so I need to be at the meeting’.
Intrigued, I began to ask students about party membership. At an afternoon gathering some weeks later, we discussed reasons for joining the party. Some said it was for a better job, others because a grandparent was a member and had influenced them deeply, and others because they felt they could contribute on their own small way to the collective good.
‘What about young pioneers?’ I asked.
‘We have that in the schools’, a young woman said. ‘It is a mark of honour to be invited to join the young pioneers. It may be for academic achievement or for sport or even for some service’.
‘Were any of you members?’ I asked.
Nearly all of them nodded.
‘Do you have young pioneers in your country?’ Said the young woman.
Of course, every country should have such an organisation.
A slightly older student, of about 30, had finally realised her dream to come to Australia and spend a year of study here. She spent a good deal of the time travelling and a little less on her study.
In one of our many discussions, she said:
‘When I was six years old, my grandmother said to me that I should have my feet bound, just like her. I was really frightened and lay awake at night’.
‘She must have been born before the communist revolution’, I said.
‘Yes’, she said. ‘But she was very traditional in her attitudes’.
I had thought that such a practice had been abolished with the communist revolutionary victory of 1949. Perhaps not in the minds of some.
She continued: ‘During the revolutionary war, women used to fight in the Red Army. They would have natural feet and cut their hair. When one of them was captured by the Guomindang nationalist forces, she would be shot immediately. They assumed that if she had natural feet, she was a communist. The practice of foot-binding goes back to the Qing emperors. Since they were Manchu nationality, they made the majority Han women bind their feet as a sign of subjection – or at least those of the upper class. It became a custom.’
‘Did your grandmother ever make moves to bind your feet?’ I asked.
‘No’, she said. ‘But it really frightened me, since children are supposed to show deep respect for grandparents’.
Another young woman and I were walking past a student dormitory, where washing hung in the windows.
‘How many students share a dormitory?’ I asked.
‘Six to eight for undergraduates’, she said. ‘Four for masters and two for doctoral students’.
‘Does anyone have a single room?’ I asked.
She laughed. ‘No, we all share’.
A little later we had eaten in a dining hall and were on our way out.
‘I usually eat there’, she said. ‘The food is cheap but freshly cooked’
‘Who else eats in a dining hall?’ I asked.
‘Everyone’, she said. ‘Students, professors, gardeners, maintenance workers …’.
She paused for a moment and said: ‘That may be socialism! I guess we have it in ways we do not realise’.