American life set on new course by Nixon’s visit to China
BEIJING – Every afternoon, just after the lunch break, we gathered in the music hall of Fangcaodi Primary School. The teacher handed out a sheet of songs, mimeographed on plasticine paper. We stood straight as a stick and sang Chinese songs with soulful tunes and – no other way to put it – communist propaganda lyrics.
“We are all snipers. Each bullet annihilates an enemy.”
“We are grateful to dear Chairman Mao for building our beautiful school.”
“Worker, Farmer, Soldier, Unite and Rise!”
It was the fall of 1979 and I was 11 years old. Three months earlier, I sat at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh, watching the Pirates begin a run that would end in a World Series victory that I would miss. I was a suburban kid who just wanted to hang out with my friends.
Suddenly, I found myself in the belly of what was still called, at home, “red China”. Although I didn’t realize the importance of it at first, we were one of the first American families to move to China in the months following the normalization of relations with the United States.
For that, I had Richard Nixon to thank.
Nixon visited Mao Zedong in Beijing 50 years ago this week when they were both leading their respective nations. Nixon called it “the week that changed the world”. Seven years later, on January 1, 1979, this meeting echoed in irrevocable history when their successors, President Jimmy Carter and Deputy Prime Minister Deng Xiaoping, formally established diplomatic relations.
Deng was not yet the “supreme leader” of China. But his new project — starting something called “reform and opening up” that would help infuse capitalism into the communist system — was part of the reason I ended up in China at age 11.
When China opened up to Americans, young people rushed to teach English there. But aside from being native speakers, few had language teaching qualifications. So to teach its teachers to teach English after years of isolation, the Chinese Ministry of Education recruited language teachers like my parents, linguists at the University of Pittsburgh.
And so it was that in mid-July 1979, we joined the first wave of American families to settle in China. My parents were dubbed “foreign experts” and were appointed to one-year positions at the No. 1 Foreign Language Institute in Beijing.
We were put up at the Friendship Hotel, a sprawling complex in then-bucolic northwest Beijing that had been built in the 1950s to house Soviet advisers. It was a miniature city, with barbers, a butcher, a cinema and a huge swimming pool with a 10 meter diving board. We had most of the place running.
One day, in the “international club” of the compound, where my parents were drinking Wuxing beer with their friends, a rumor spread. Chinese television was going to broadcast its first American show, and the club was the only public place in the compound with a television set.
The following week, we all gathered around a small screen. The credits rolled. It was “The Man From Atlantis,” a forgettable sci-fi show starring Patrick Duffy, later of “Dallas.” It’s hard to convey today, in our on-demand world, how thrilled we, a handful of American children, were at the rare connection to home.
Most of the Chinese people we met – from my teachers in Fangcaodi to my parents’ colleagues to random workers I befriended after learning to speak their language – were fascinated by America and knew little of its citizens. They liked to hear about baseball, McDonald’s (which would come 12 years later), and something that amazed everyone in this bike culture: most Americans had their own cars.
However, not everyone was captivated by the United States – or, at least, by its leadership. After all, China had just experienced the traumatic Cultural Revolution and had been conditioned to view Americans as the “hounds” of bourgeois capitalism.
Across Beijing then stood red billboards documenting various iterations of “Mao Zhuxi sixiang” – “Chairman Mao’s Thought”. We were with a Chinese colleague of my parents and passed by such a sign being erected. It was bright red and still empty.
The coworker pointed at him, looked at my parents, and joked, “Jimmy Carter thought.”
To me today, China in 1979 looks like a distant film montage spinning in my head.
I imagine old men on street corners selling roasted sunflower seeds in burlap sacks – snacks that tasted faintly of the burning charcoal whose smell filled the wintry air. I imagine young women selling penny popsicles from icebox handcarts. I imagine my school, where children from divergent cultures – Burma, Bangladesh, Uganda, Rhodesia, even North Korea – learned music, mathematics and art in Chinese and could only interact and play if we learned the language . We did it, and fast.
I imagine our epic, tightly supervised rail journey across China in February 1980 – from Beijing to Sichuan in the west, before boarding a boat east on the Yangtze River. We met town after town people who had never seen Westerners before – let alone Westerners who spoke Chinese with a Beijing accent.
They gathered around us in droves, looking at us and smiling, always ready to engage and – when they learned we shared a language – talking to us about themselves. They stabbed me with questions, usually about the little instamatic camera I was carrying. If I got a Chinese tone wrong, they corrected me instantly; I may have been a stranger, but I was still a child after all. I learned as much from these conversations as from my lessons in Beijing.
These images were crushed in my mind by images of a new China – a modern China, a rapidly changing China, a complex global presence that touches almost every corner of human existence.
So many years later, here’s what I want to tell you about life in China at this more pivotal moment in history than we thought: For me, it shaped what it meant to be an American.
Before humans could access the world on the phones in our pockets, it was rare to see your country both inside and out, especially from the perspective of a culture so eager to s ‘to hire. This perspective, given to me as a child by so many Chinese remembered and forgotten, is something I carry with me.
My travels through China that year and the people I met also gave me insight into how to listen. Men and women who wanted to know more about my American life also told me about their Chinese life. And even though I knew I was going through and living a life in drastically different circumstances, the language I suddenly shared with them made me realize that they weren’t just people to be seen, but people to hear – and, by extension, to work to understand. This is what brought me back to China years later.
On Sunday, 43 years after moving to Beijing as a child and two decades after living here as a journalist, I covered the closing ceremony of the Winter Olympics. For two weeks I moved around the COVID “bubble” with the places I loved just out of reach. I had dinner a block from my old school but couldn’t take my co-workers to see it. I smelled Beijing’s winter air and didn’t smell coal. I was sad, but I was okay with that too. That China is gone and the complex nation that replaced it is just as exciting, if not more so.
I still have the pulp pages of those songs from long ago that tried to indoctrinate me. They remind me of something my mother told me a long time ago: As important as it is to get to know a culture and respect its customs when you live there, you also have to leave behind something precious. behind you. In this way, people who ponder the question “What does an American look like?” could use you as an example – for good reason. China has become my testing ground for this.
And all of this, oddly enough, is why I – and, I would bet, other American children I knew here so long ago – owe an unlikely debt of gratitude to Richard Nixon, who 50 years this week helped open the door.
Ted Anthony, director of new storytelling and newsroom innovation for The Associated Press, is the AP’s former Asia-Pacific news director. He lived in Beijing as a child in 1979-80 and as a journalist from 2001-2004. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/anthonyted