Reports from four alumni on what it’s like now in Russia, Iran, China, and Guatemala.
By Lisa C. Hayden
My Moscow mornings start late. Even at the winter solstice when it’s coldest and darkest I don’t get out of bed until the sun comes up, around nine. If I’m awakened while it’s dark, I listen for trams: if I hear them rumbling down the tracks past the house where the journalist Listyev was murdered and on to the Old Believer church outside my window, I know without looking at my clock that it’s after six. If I hear silence, I know I have a few more hours to doze under blankets before I hit the snooze button into daylight, wash my hair, drink strong coffee as I get dressed, then head underground into the Metro for my ride to work and another lesson about what makes Russia Russia.
I moved to Moscow in 1992 because I hoped to “get it” about Russia. I wasn’t sure what it was I wanted to “get,” but studying the country for nearly seven years at Penn made me want to understand the dark, aggressive side of Russia’s history. I wanted to see how Russians differed from Americans. And I wanted to compare the Russia I had read about in my favorite novels — War and Peace and Dr. Zhivago — with the Russia I read about in The New York Times.
Living in Moscow from August 1992 through June 1998 gave me more empirical evidence than I expected to receive. I made Russian friends and used my Russian skills daily, which enabled me to determine that “cultural differences” are not a myth. Vodka, for example: Russians rarely use it to make cocktails; they drink it straight to cure colds and anything else that might ail them. And it was widely used to clean car windows one winter when vodka was cheaper than windshield-wiper fluid. I also found that many Russians take pride in the inexplicability of their country: No book or article could begin to explain the Russian situation, they would say. It was Russia’s very darkness and aggression, though, that taught me the most, both about the place I lived and my own life.
Mother Russia gave me Lesson #1 on Life on a dusky-gray December morning in 1992. I was awakened by a knock on my dormitory-room door. At the time, I was the resident director of a Moscow-based language program. As I opened my door, I heard a student’s faint voice pronounce, “This man says I can’t go to class.” His thin index finger pointed at a police captain wearing a steel-blue fur hat and quilted coat.
No one told me for hours what had caused the disturbance that took me from my bed, but the student with the faint voice and thin fingers lived in the same suite as two dead Chinese students. My job description did not include interpret police interrogations, transfer documents to morgue, escort students on fingerprinting excursions at police precinct, and serve meat and kasha lunches to detectives. But that’s how I worked for the days after this double homicide happened to occur where I lived and worked. The crime was palpable: I saw the corpses lying in their beds, under blankets and bedspreads, shattered skulls resting on soft, bloodied feather pillows.
It turned out that the victims had also been clothing traders, and obviously had failed to pay their dues to the local krysha (“roof”) for protection. Though reason told me that whoever had killed them would not think I could identify him, emotion and fear reminded me that the students’ ashes rested in plastic urns in the room next to mine. I could see the urns through the keyhole. And I could feel cold air flowing against my eyeball when I pressed my forehead to the door. For days, I slept with a chef’s knife on my nightstand.
The investigation did have its lighter moments. I was fingerprinted, too, and learned how to patat’ pal’chiki (“roll fingers”), which is what Moscow police call pressing fingertips in a blob of ink and then onto a piece of custom-folded paper with just enough divisions for 10 fingers. And I was invited to take tea with the precinct’s detectives. I did, and when tea turned to vodka, some of Moscow’s finest investigators of crimes against foreigners asked me if I’d ever smoked marijuana. I told them that even our president has smoked it, but that most of us admitted to having inhaled. When I asked why one office in the precinct had a portrait of Nicholas II, another of Dzerzhinsky (founder of the secret police under Lenin that became the KGB), they ameliorated the paradox by giving me the portrait of Nicholas. I would have preferred the irony of a Dzerzhinksy portrait — particularly after the officers reminded me that he was famous for founding orphanages — but it is the last czar’s portrait that hangs in my parents’ house in Maine.
Many people — strangers on airplanes, friends and relatives in the U.S., my parents — ask what drew me to Russia. My interest developed in childhood. The 1972 Olympics and presidential elections inspired me to learn about political parties and ideologies. At the age of nine I could afford to be a liberal Democrat in favor of expanded social programs: I paid no taxes and loved McGovern. When my father — a loyal Republican — said that McGovern might as well be a communist, I knew I needed to learn more about the USSR, a place described as communist in our encyclopedia. My father told me that, though the Soviet government might be bad, people were good everywhere. At the time, I knew and understood nothing about Lenin, Stalin, or gulags.
Penn filled that void with knowledge a decade later. I took a Russian history course taught by Dr. Alexander Riasanovsky, professor (now emeritus) of Slavic languages, then began to study Russian language as a sophomore because there weren’t enough students to fill a section of Swedish. I remember clearly the snowy Friday afternoon when I declared my Russian/Soviet studies major. I had dropped calculus and my dreams of lab work in biochemistry, and my decisions elated me. I went to Murphy’s Tavern to celebrate, and I remember that Spruce Street was covered with two feet of snow when I went home.
My first trip to Russia was in 1983, on a summer language program in Leningrad. Visiting the USSR during the Andropov regime didn’t supply an idyllic summer away from Penn. Certainly, I didn’t know that Soviet and American weapons were on alert, pointed at each other. But I sensed the stultification of the place: Soviets were forbidden to drive foreigners in their cars. Hotel rooms were often bugged, so my friends and I took walks in the park when we wanted to discuss matters of more substance than homework assignments or which of two skirts to wear to the theater. A Russian acquaintance dragged me to the ladies room at the Palace of Youth, saying I had to use it because it was clean. It was. Further, the toilet-paper holders contained neatly-trimmed squares of Pravda. Knowing the street value of Pravda, it was fitting that Le Monde was my source of information on the world outside the USSR. Its articles on the debates within the French Communist Party convinced me that the Soviet censors must have abandoned their study of French after the Revolution in 1917. When I returned home to the United States on July 4, I was sure I would never return to the USSR.
Political events that included Gorbachev, perestroika, and glasnost changed my mind. After receiving my MA in Russian literature from Penn, I moved to Portland, Maine, where I became involved in Portland’s sister-city relationship with Arkhangel’sk. I helped found its high-school exchange program and traveled annually to the Russian North; after my first experiences in the USSR, I was gratified to have a chance to encourage exchange. I enjoyed using my Russian language skills with new friends, talking openly about books that had been forbidden in Russia for decades, and seeing firsthand changes in a country I had studied for so many years. By the end of 1991 I had decided to leave my job in a supermarket chain’s corporate-communications department to move to Russia. When I found a job in Moscow, friends and co-workers here said they admired my courage — then asked why I would subject myself to a year in the former Soviet Union.
I moved in August 1992 and lived in Moscow until June 1998; I held four jobs and several consulting contracts. The work was always stimulating and I made friends I will keep for life. I also lived through several constitutional crises and one bombing of the Russian White House. I came to know that if my hot water was shut off for three weeks of summer “prophylactic” pipe work, I could take a hot bath by heating 16 pots of water. I saw 10 corpses, including the two Chinese students murdered in my dormitory. I’ve come close to being on the other side, too: Two Russian mafiosi held me and a friend captive for a night in a Cuban restaurant. It is plausible that these two Chechen war veterans stopped to make a hit on a lavish-spending biznesman whose portfolio included diamonds and car repair. My American friend and I were freed by two policemen with automatic weapons. It may be that our American passports were more protection for the businessman than his bodyguard’s small pistol.
No Moscow day was easy. I was pushed and shoved daily in the dank, wet-wool-smelling Metro; my telephone went out of service regularly; and I had to stop at several stores a week to purchase adequate groceries. To keep my body free of radiation, I carefully avoided Belarusian milk products — the fattiest, therefore the tastiest, in Moscow. The trials of everyday life pushed me to a level of passive aggression that matched that of those who pushed me, refused to fix my telephone, and yelled at me because I lacked correct change. I began to “get it” about Russia. I had always criticized my Russian friends for taking a pessimistic view of their lives and their country, but I was starting to understand their feelings of powerlessness and hopelessness, both in the political and social spheres. This lack of hope can overshadow the beauty of art and music and friendship. I wondered what Dostoevsky was thinking when he wrote that beauty would save the world.
By the time I saw my last corpse — a man who had been thrown out a car door and dragged down a snowy street a few blocks from the Kremlin — I realized that seeing death had taught me to see the value of my life. The corpses had felt like a burden I would carry forever, but they became a gift. “Russia is a good teacher,” a friend in Maine told me. I began to understand the lessons. Russia is tough love for both Russians and expats. It is the friend you want back in your life, the one who disses you daily. Russia will disrespect, dysfunction, dispassion, and dissatisfy you. And dishonor you. Mother Russia is a strange and perverse parent, staying up all night with you, feverishly throwing at you the raw materials of life, no commentary allowed. Sometimes, she hopes you will survive. If you do, you may learn the meaning of true friendship, and how to find strength when you thought you were at the bottom.
Many of my friends in Moscow think I’ll be back. “Nostalgia,” they say. “You’ll miss it and won’t be able to stay away. You’ll be back in a year, just wait.” I left Russia at the end of June 1998, just before the ruble crashed. At home in Maine, I began to read The New York Times again, this time remembering the places it describes and imagining my friends’ lives. I am grateful that I left before the worst of the crisis, even more grateful I had the freedom to do so. I am also thankful for my new life as a former expat, to be once again an American living in the United States. I spent the summer reading at the beach, the fall on a long road trip through Alaska, California, and the Southwest. I know how fortunate I am to have the opportunity to wind my way through the country I was born in and to which I had longed to return. I will spend much of the Maine winter writing stories about my experiences in Russia.
Do I miss Russia? I miss my Russian friends, many of whom will not often visit the U.S. I miss the Moscow Conservatory’s world-class concerts. I miss speaking Russian and applying what I learned at Penn. But there is no nostalgia. Nostalgia, for me, implies a past that wasn’t parted with properly. Mother Russia and I have parted, though her lessons — each one learned the hard way — will stay with me for the rest of my life. I never thought that I would say that I found my self in Russia, but I think I did. Seeing death and violence so frequently forced me to come to terms with my fragile, mortal world by living every day as though it is my last. For that I shall forever be grateful to Russia.
Lisa C. Hayden, C’85, G’89, email@example.com returned to Portland, Maine from Moscow in June 1998.
“Screw Your Government. But You Are Very Welcome Here.”
By Suzanne Maloney
The first thing that is clear to an outsider about Iran is that nothing is ever clear. Not the air in the pollution-clogged capital of Tehran, not the tortuous political rivalries within its religious government. What you see on the surface, or on CNN, differs vastly from the culture that lies just below. The beauty — and the difficulty — of Iran is all subtlety and contradiction.
I spent two months in Iran last summer, as part of one of the first academic exchanges since 1979. Tehran wasn’t always at the top of my list of vacation destinations. During my master’s-degree work and in four years of professional life, I had traveled extensively in the Middle East and to the Arab countries of the Gulf region. But when I returned to the academic world to begin Ph.D. studies, I decided to focus on Iran, the country whose revolution I had watched on television as a child. Given the animosity that persisted between our governments, the decision was a gamble. My advisers warned that trying to study the politics of Iran would be a losing proposition.
The May 1997 election of Mohammad Khatami changed that. The Iranian people turned out in record numbers to sweep this moderate cleric into the presidency. Although Khatami’s power is limited, his dramatic victory at the polls gave him a powerful mandate, which he undertook by ushering in a liberalization of the country’s cultural policies and recasting the rhetoric of politics inside Iran with talk of civil society.
In January 1998, Khatami went even further, taking on Tehran’s greatest political hot potato — relations with the United States. An astute politician and scholar, he agreed to a CNN interview and beamed his smiling face and respect for Western culture to a worldwide audience, along with an invitation for increased dialogue with the American people.
Two Penn professors, Dr. William L. Hanaway, professor emeritus of Persian studies, and Dr. Brian Spooner, professor of anthropology, heard that invitation and set to work. Both had spent considerable time in Iran before the revolution; now, calling on the friends and contacts made during long careers in the region, they began organizing a program to reintroduce American academics to Iran. The product of their efforts was a language program in Tehran for nine graduate students. Though we went under the auspices of the American Institute for Iranian Studies, the program had the quiet cooperation of both Washington and Tehran. We were the first group to travel to Iran on U.S. government funding in almost 20 years.
However, in some respects, we were visiting an entirely different country than the Iran where so many Americans lived and worked prior to the revolution. Two decades of war, isolation, and dramatic political change had wholly transformed the landscape and wrapped the nation in a mantle of public piety. For women, this is quite literally the case: the law prescribes “modest” dress, which on the streets translates to a long cloak and headscarf so that only the face and hands show. On the flight to Tehran’s Mehrbad Airport, KLM screened The Full Monty, and we watched the quirky British comedy about a male strip-show by steel workers as we tried on our headscarves for the first time. It was the beginning of a summer filled with irony.
The first and greatest surprise about Iran was that this country that had dubbed America “The Great Satan” ecstatically welcomed our small group of Americans. Iranians pride themselves on a culture of courtesy — saying a simple hello or goodbye in Persian can require a half-hour of formalities, and settling a debt as small as a taxi fare involves rituals of generosity and respect. Toward guests from their supposed adversary, this traditional hospitality is heightened by curiosity, speculation about détente, and genuine goodwill toward the U.S.
Despite the official estrangement, Iranians have close ties to America; it seemed that every person we met had studied or worked here, or had a cousin in Los Angeles whom he was dying to visit. American culture thrives there, and a young friend promised that he will one day make a fortune by opening the first Nike Town in Tehran. For the moment, however, actual Americans are still rarities. Iranians, even in the sophisticated environs of Tehran, seemed to derive a giddy thrill from our presence, and we could draw a crowd just by pausing to decipher an advertisement on a wall.
The celebrity treatment didn’t mask the real political differences that are still keenly felt by many Iranians, who harbor misgivings about a half-century of American policies toward their country. Memories of a 1953 CIA-orchestrated coup that cemented the Shah’s dictatorial rule are palpable, as are the scars of the long war with Iraq — when U.S. satellite intelligence helped Saddam Hussein’s missiles strike Iranian targets, while his use of chemical weapons against Iranians (as well as his own population) met with only muted protests from the West. Young Tehranis vividly recall scrambling for shelter when their city came under attack, and every family felt the human toll of a half- million casualties.
Today, the battle is an economic one, and here too American policies exasperate and confound. Despite the gradual warming between the two countries, a full array of sanctions prohibits U.S. citizens and companies from doing business in Iran. These are crippling impediments to an already faltering economy. “Why are they punishing us?” one woman asked me. Though there is a steady traffic of would-be investors from Europe, only the U.S. can provide the capital that Iran needs to fully recover from two decades of political turmoil and economic mismanagement.
Tehran understands this reality as well as Wall Street, and the urgency of the country’s economic problems is a key factor in its political evolution. In the first decade of the revolution, birth control was outlawed, and for a time, Iran’s population expanded more quickly than that of any other nation in the world. Today, those policies have been reversed and billboards extol the benefits of smaller families. Still, the post-revolutionary baby boom means that 800,000 additional workers hit the streets every year, competing for less than half that number of new jobs. Those odds were not lost on Nouraddin, who served me coffee one afternoon at an empty restaurant in one of Tehran’s posh shopping malls. He proudly acknowledged his academic achievements — he was a gold medalist in the international physics Olympics — and then simply shrugged. “And I am working in a coffee shop. This is all that is available. What can we do?”
Despite the hardship, one year after his election Khatami is still beloved — a sort of Teflon mullah — and the challenges he has faced from conservative factions seem only to have enhanced his popularity. The spectrum of political opinions and predictions in Iran is as vibrant as the colors in the carpets for which the country is so justly famous, but on one point they converge. Simply put: Khatami is good. As one man said, “Little by little, more freedom comes.”
More freedom has brought hundreds of new magazines and newspapers, an easing of censorship, and a public debate about politics and religion that is unprecedented in the Gulf region. Still in place are a wide range of other restrictions imposed by the government in the name of Islam — on alcohol, on inter-gender mingling, on Western entertainment. But Tehranis said that the religious police are fewer these days, and the intervals between crackdowns have grown longer. On pragmatic as well as philosophical grounds, segregation of women never approached the standards of the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan, and Iranian women are breaking down barriers every day.
For us American visitors, more freedom had another important consequence, a less stringent interpretation of the rules of hijab, or modest dress. Two months spent in hijab required a huge adjustment, especially as my hair — a mess of red curls that expand with the weather and my moods — did not readily acquiesce to a headscarf. The mosque near where I had been living in London warned that only the biggest, blackest scarves would pass the Islamic Republic’s muster. But on the streets of Tehran, a rainbow of colors and fashions prevailed, and in the parks, teenage girls struck poses in platform heels and expertly flaunted their hardly-hidden hairdos to the thrill of watchful boys.
Nonetheless, hijab remains the law of the land and must be observed in all public places from classrooms to hotel hallways at all times. The dress code was oppressive in the sizzling summer heat, and I had to strain to make out unfamiliar words through the thick cloth over my ears. But it also provided a useful anonymity, an ability to blend into the crowds, however slightly, that I had never had in the Middle East. Liberalization has meant that enforcement varies, so we learned to read our surroundings for clues on the accepted standards. There were occasions where nail polish would constitute a dangerous offense, and others where its absence would signal lack of sophistication. In the most conservative places, such as government ministries or religious shrines, an all-enveloping black veil from head to toe (the chador) was mandatory.
I wore the chador only a handful of times, during interviews I did as part of my doctoral research and on visits to holy shrines in Mashhad, in the far northeast of Iran, and Qom, a renowned center of religious learning just south of Tehran. To our surprise, we were able to travel freely during our stay in Iran, as the Islamic Republic’s officialdom appeared to take little notice of our presence. We willingly braved the frequent full-body searches (an obligatory aspect of travel within a country plagued by violent opposition) and the shuddering old Aeroflot planes that comprise much of Iran Air’s inventory, and set off for the fabled capitals of previous Iranian empires. Isfahan is a glittering mosaic dominated by intricately tiled mosques and riverside teahouses; its predecessor, Shiraz, was once dubbed the city of wine and roses. We visited the ruins of Persepolis, destroyed more than 2,000 years ago by Alexander the Great, and also struck off the beaten path, traveling to cities like Yazd, in the midst of the Iranian desert, that are less well-known but no less spectacular.
But in some ways, it was Tehran — much maligned for its sprawl and blandness — that most surprised me. Having studied in Egypt, I thought I knew what to expect of the capital of a developing Middle Eastern state — a dusty metropolis spanning shantytowns and villas; a larger, poorer version of the sparkling city-states on the Arab side of the Persian Gulf. But perched at the base of the Alborz Mountains, Tehran is more Colorado than Cairo, and even in the slums, its enterprising mayor has made a marvel of city services.
Straining to accommodate the steady flow of rural migrants into an already overcrowded city, Tehran appears to be in the midst of a perpetual construction boom. Everywhere you look, cranes hoist the skeletons of new buildings, as permanent as plasterboard, jostling for space in an already crowded skyline. South Tehran is the heart of the capital, the traditional home to government ministries, the colossal Grand Bazaar (itself the size of a small city), and the shantytowns where the revolution took hold. On the outskirts sits the squat, gaudy shrine that serves as the final resting place of Ayatollah Khomeini, and just beyond is Behesht-e Zahra, the vast cemetery whose acres of stone slabs and cases of childhood mementos mark a generation lost to war.
In the past 20 years, the city has swelled and bulged ever-northward, and as you drive in that direction along Tehran’s main drag — a street reputed to be one of the longest in the world — the light changes and slim willow trees stretch several stories high, gently arching and forming a canopy of pale green. On the mountainside, hikers stop for kebab in Darrake and Darband, where teahouses seem to perch in treetops alongside a stream. All around the city, garlands of twinkling colored lights give the mosques and other public buildings a festive air, and roadside kiosks that resemble photo-processing booths from the 1970s proffer bouquets of vivid flowers.
Iranians understand that two decades of public flag- burnings and revolutionary rhetoric have not served their country well in the court of world opinion, and they are hoping to change this. Go back to America and tell them, they pleaded, tell them what Iran is really like. Of course, nothing is ever truly clear in Iran; it is a country full of juxtaposition and contrast. But for an observer, the effect is like a kaleidoscope, all brilliant colors shifting into place. Ancient Persian culture intermingles with Islamic nationalism; antipathy toward Washington coexists with admiration for Americans. “Screw your government!” a taxi driver shouted joyously as he zoomed across four lanes at breakneck speed. “But you are my daughters. You are very welcome here.”
Suzanne Maloney, C’90, is a research fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.
Chickens and Jeep Cherokees
By Craig Simons
One point two billion people eat, talk, love, play, argue, and work. One billion bicycle bells chime and millions of teahouses are tucked into millions of back alleys. Millions of woks sear hot red peppers and millions of tennis-court-sized farms are fertilized with millions of tons of night soil. Peeling posters of Karl Marx hang beside trendy new e-mail cafes.
In 1996, after graduating from Penn, I moved to China to teach English as a Peace Corps volunteer. I lived in Pengzhou, a city of 70,000 people that sits at the western edge of the fertile Sichuan Basin. Pengzhou is tucked almost into the shadow of wild and empty mountains that rise into Tibet and is only 38 kilometers north of Sichuan’s capital city, Chengdu, with its trendy new Japanese shopping malls, its Kentucky Fried Chicken franchises, and a population density almost nine times greater than New York’s. Pengzhou had only one stop light when I arrived in 1996, which had increased to four by the time I left in 1998. Its tallest building is a 20-story Buddhist pagoda.
Although I have climbed on the Great Wall, marveled at Xi’an’s army of silent terra-cotta warriors, and walked through Hong Kong’s frenetic streets, when I think of China, I think of Pengzhou. I think of teahouses, markets, classrooms, temples, restaurants, and rice paddies. I think of people — two, in particular.
I still don’t know how old Xiao Yun (Little Yun) is. She variously told me that she was 35 and 27. She was always laughing when she told me. Her uncle, Li Da Ge (Big Brother Li) told me she was 22, but that didn’t seem right either. She was too strong to be so young.
After a while, I learned to stop asking and to joke with her, too. “I am tall,” I told her, “because I drink a special American medicine that helps me grow. Each day I drink it I grow taller. If I’m too tall then I drink a medicine that makes me shorter.” For days afterward she asked me to bring her some of the medicine. I’d always forgotten it, but said I’d be sure to remember to bring some later.
Xiao Yun worked in Pengzhou in a two-room white-tiled restaurant that spilled out onto the street in front. She worked from 5:00 A.M. until 7:30 P.M. seven days a week, without taking a day off for months at a time. She prepared baozi, a steamed bread with a meat filling, in the darkness of the early morning. She served customers their breakfasts, usually a baozi and a bowl of rice gruel, for the equivalent of seven cents. I often sat outside her restaurant before teaching a morning class and watched as the city came to life — parents took their children to school, shop lights cut through steam rising from woks, and farmers rode vegetable-laden bicycles to market.
Xiao Yun was always busiest in the mornings. Later in the day she cooked lunches and dinners, cleaned, and cajoled customers into her uncle’s restaurant with her humor and easy smiles. Some days, in the afternoons, she’d fall asleep in a plastic chair. After I got to know her, she invited me to her family’s home in the evenings, at the end of her 14S-hour days, and I’d sit with her and her parents and brother and sister and aunts and uncles and grandparents and talk about America or watch their small TV or play mahjong. There was always food and tea and strong Chinese alcohol.
Like most Chinese, Xiao Yun didn’t own much, and what she had she cared for and used. She wore the same clothing on many days, but it always looked clean, and she always looked good. I never heard her complain. In spite of her long days and her poverty she exuded a friendliness and joy I have rarely encountered anywhere. She, like so much of China, is filled with hope for the future.
The afternoon before I left Pengzhou I saw her, dressed in a new suit and wearing make-up, riding her bicycle to the home of her new, and first, boyfriend. It was the end of July, the restaurant had closed for a week of repairs, and she was enjoying her free time. Trying to hold back tears, I wished her well and promised her that when I returned I’d bring her some American medicine to help her grow taller.
Just up the street from the restaurant where Xiao Yun worked, past Chengdu Teachers College and the Bank of China, is Tian Peng Park. The park, a patch of trees and water in an increasingly concrete city, is where I often met a man I simply called Da Ye (respected grandfather). He would arrive daily at Tian Peng Park carrying two wicker birdcages hung from a four-foot section of bamboo pole. He had seven birds at home that he variously brought to the park so that, as he told me, “they [can] talk to other birds.”
Da Ye had a wonderfully expressive face, and always smiled when he saw me. He would call me over and talk at me. His language was mostly indecipherable. He was a retired farmer and spoke with a strong Sichuan accent that rendered my common-dialect Chinese almost useless, but neither of us minded much.
Like many retired men in Sichuan, Da Ye spent a lot of time at teahouses — drinking, talking with other retired men, enjoying and caring for his birds, reading, and playing long games of cards and mahjong. He was a part of the “old China,” not the country of mobile phones and fast food, but what remains of China’s older traditions and ideas. Da Ye wore the same simple proletarian navy-blue suits that everyone had worn 20 years before, and he enjoyed the same simple pleasures of hot tea and singing birds. At least 80, he walked everywhere. His life stood in stark contrast to the rapidly emerging Chinese world of discotheques and department stores, consumerism and the desire to be different.
The teahouse where I often met Da Ye is tucked into a corner of Tian Peng Park. For two yuan, the equivalent of 25 cents, you get a bottomless cup of jasmine tea and a seat at one of the bamboo chairs ranged around the park’s concrete tables. I often sat there, sipping tea, talking with patrons, and listening to the sounds of singing birds, slapping mahjong tiles, and humming human conversation. Like China’s teahouses, oases of peace and tranquillity in an increasingly fast-paced country, Da Ye was a reminder that time can move more slowly and that sometimes simple pleasures are enough.
The isolation of Sichuan Province in the eighth century prompted the poet Li Bo to say: “It is more difficult to go to Sichuan than to get into heaven.” Not today. Today everything seems to go to Sichuan and so, when a 22-year-old student asked me if I liked a ska band called the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, I was not surprised. My students had seen Titanic and Men in Black, had read Hemingway and Shakespeare, wore suits and ties and bright Western clothing embossed with English words, and could even check out George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm from the school library. So much has changed recently in China that it was often hard to remember I was interacting daily with people who had lived through the Cultural Revolution — a time when being associated with many of the things that my students used routinely would have meant risking serious punishment from an ideologically fervent Red Guard. In all of the bustle of a changing country, it is easy to lose track of the past.
The current Chinese government has made efforts to stem the growing surge of Western culture pouring into its country, but its efforts have been minimally effective. I saw the changes everyday — in the clothes that my students wore and the music they listened to, in broadcasts of MTV and the NBA, and on city streets where new shops sold everything from software to sex toys.
Change was also visible in the classrooms of foreign teachers. In a British-culture class, we discussed the British parliamentary system of government and the importance of freedom of speech and the press to free elections. Although I consciously steered clear of commenting on Chinese politics, even making arguments about why, historically and culturally, England’s political system is democratic, there was an obvious tension in the room. My students, usually talkative and opinionated, did not volunteer to answer my questions or make comments. After the class, when most of the students had left, a girl called me to her desk. “Mr. Simons,” she said, “I think it’s a good way.”
Another class studied Shakespeare’s sonnets. After we had studied a poem, I asked them to write their own. One student wrote this:
For My Hometown Bride
When I buy you roses what you really like
You take them and you look very happy
Then the bridegroom takes you away by bike
It looks everything you are satisfied
All your relatives say you are lucky
But I know it is not your choice you want
Why not to pursue the life you had planned?
Do you think you will become a complaint?
I’m sad but I don’t know what I should say
You choose the bridegroom your parents favor
Take good care of yourself in your life way
I also make a big sweet peach by flour
Take away and share it with your husband
Create the wealth with your husband hand by hand.
China is a land full of fascinating contradictions and complex dissimilarities. It is a land where chickens mingle with Jeep Cherokees and women sitting at country teahouses talk on cellular phones. Living in China, I found its human face.
Craig Simons, C’95, lives in Topsfield, Massachusetts.
Guatemalan Diary: The Women of Madre Tierra
By Susan T. DeLone
Rising out of the field, the Mayan women looked like poppies, blazing red and yellow against a volcanic sky. Rain began to fall as we walked. One by one the women of Madre Tierra stood up to greet us.
Barbara Saquec, their leader, hugged us. “Three years of yearning and planning are satisfied,” she said. Tall by Mayan standards, dignified and soft spoken, she wore the traditional clothes of her people. With a sixth-grade education, she and her husband are forging an organization — Madre Tierra — to help their people survive.
We were from Capacitar, a North American organization based in Watsonville, California, that sends teachers to aid indigenous women in Central America. We were a yoga instructor, a t’ai chi teacher, a psychologist, and a massage therapist. We came to share and to learn.
We followed the women up a dirt path that wound through terraced fields of corn, carrots, beans. From these tiny plots the villagers feed their families. Meals are simple: tortillas for breakfast, a vegetable and beans for lunch and dinner.
The path carried us back in time. Men and boys worked the fields with hoes and handmade implements that seemed centuries old. But we were not walking back to a traditional way of life. Generations of war and terror have wrenched these people into the 20th century.
Half a century of civil war — encouraged by U.S. Cold War policies — have devastated these communities. According to statistics from CONFREGUA, the organization of religious persons in Guatemala, one in 11 Mayans are refugees. One hundred thousand have “disappeared.” A million have fled to Mexico. Another million live, displaced, in the hovels of Guatemala City. Four hundred and forty villages were destroyed. Nine out of 11 girls have been raped.
Yet the women were courteous and warm. They hiked eagerly up the mountainside, chatted cheerfully among themselves. They led us to a compound that housed two families. The rooms had dirt floors. An altar held pictures of the Last Supper. Offerings of fruit, photographs, and incense were scattered on the wooden bureau that served as a shelf.
We gathered together and listened to their stories. The women had risen at 4:00 A.M., walked for two hours down the mountain, then boarded buses that carried them to the meeting place. Now they arranged themselves on benches, spread their skirts, shifted sleeping babies on their hips, and waited.
A widow with silver braids spoke. Red ribbons twined her hair. A delta of fine lines moved like rivulets across her cheekbones. “My husband and I went south to work in the fincas [plantations]. After a while he got sick. There was no medicine, no help … He died two weeks ago, so I came back up here.”
She gazed round the room. “It is not just my story,” she insisted. “It is all our stories.” We listened as her words moved from Mayan to Spanish to English. We moved close together to cushion her pain.
Barbara translated. “People have to go south. We need the work, but conditions are bad. A hundred men live in a room fit for 20. The plantations grow the coffee, raspberries; crops for First World markets.”
“What can we do?” we asked, helpless before the impersonal forces that push against these women.
“Teach us,” they said. “T’ai chi helps us relax. Yoga gives us strength. Joy feeds our spirit, and when we are ill, a healing touch helps.”
I stood in the center of a ragged circle and lifted my arms. I prayed that my 30 years of t’ai chi practice would come out in my fingertips, that I’d have something nourishing to give.
The women lifted their arms, softened before the unseen music. They laughed, and we danced. Concentrating on our breath, we moved in t’ai chi circles, blowing life into the cold damp room.
We demonstrated acupressure points on our own bodies, then massaged each other. The women bent forward, gave us their cramped necks and stiff shoulders.
I held my partner’s head, smelled woodsmoke and corn, rain in her hair. Touching her face, I felt I’d been granted a rare gift, like glimpsing a dolphin rising or an eagle soaring.
The Tao teaches that, in order to understand, you must stand under. In that crowded room, where we spoke alien languages, we heard more deeply the cry of our hearts. We were just women; all of us knew about birth and death, terror and release.
I put my head into my partner’s cupped fingers. She held me tenderly, massaged my eyelids. Old griefs, long buried, rose to the surface — the familiar ache for my dead mother, my children scattered to many places.
Her eyes met mine, unafraid. In her gaze I was no longer a stranger. Pain was common to both of us and as accessible as our love.
They made a fire and gave us sweet black coffee with corn muffins. We ate standing up, gazing out on a muddy courtyard. Children huddled in the doorways playing with string. They wore Western clothes: pants and sweatshirts, rough sweaters and ragged shoes.
One mother squatted in a corner and nursed her baby. In her face — as in many women’s faces — I saw fatigue and pain, grief and upset, but I never saw a mother raise her voice to a child, never saw a baby cry out of fear or neglect.
A spirited life is struggling to stay alive in these Mayan hills. It is a life born in adversity, but one that acknowledges sacred connections. Barbara’s husband, Alejandro Batz, in an earlier conversation, explained:
“We believe the spirits of the dead surround us, that we are part of the earth, air, fire, and water. The sun and moon give us energy. The land gives us hope,” he said. “Reverence for the earth gives us respect for the women. It is the mothers who protect life. That is why we call ourselves Madre Tierra — Mother Earth.”
Weaving ancient beliefs with modern concepts of equality for women, Madre Tierra, headquartered in Guatemala City, is creating a new model. Planning day care, elementary education, and health care, the women come together to answer their peoples’ needs.
Back in Philadelphia, months later, I think about the violence and sadness in my culture. One in five in the U.S. are diagnosed with depression. Children are shooting their parents and each other. As we grow more cut off from family, community, and the earth, we grow more desperate and more barren.
Barbara’s letter is a lush drawing of camellias and pink roses penciled on lined paper. “I hold you in my heart,” she wrote in Spanish. I don’t need a translator for these words. By her actions, she teaches me how to live.
Susan T. deLone, CW’65, is a psychologist and author of Love, Loss & Healing: A Woman’s Guide to Transforming Grief. Since this article was completed, she writes, “The hurricane destroyed that little complex where we met, but the people are safe and living with relatives. Funds are needed for everything.”