On the tarmac at Newark International Airport, a heat wave makes the August air dance. Inside our Boeing 777, a black flight attendant sings out the standard Chinese greeting. "Ni hao," she chimes, mangling the tones. Nevertheless the passengers, mostly mainland Chinese, seem pleased. When even this American female is trying to speak their language, it reinforces their view that the Middle Kingdom is, once again, the center of the world.
My husband, Norman, and I lived in Beijing for years during the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. On this trip back, we are bringing two reluctant fellow travelers, our teenaged sons, Ben, sixteen, and Sam, thirteen. As usual these days on flights to Beijing, every seat is taken. The Chinese passengers in their knock-off Burberry outfits are more self-assured than the handful who left the mainland during Chairman Mao’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. In the 1970s, the Chinese who traveled abroad were members of official delegations, kept on short leashes, tight schedules and tiny cash allowances.
Foreigners heading to China faced obstacles, too. Beijing rarely issued visas to Americans, but Norman was deemed to be "friendly." His father, Jack Shulman, had been an aide to William Z. Foster, longtime head of the Communist Party USA. In 1965, Jack had gone to Beijing to polish English-language propaganda at Xinhua, the state-run New China News Agency. To the Chinese, it was natural for a son to join his father. Filial piety, however, wasn’t Norman’s motivating factor. The Vietnam War was. At twenty-two, he was looking for an interesting place to dodge the draft.
In 1966, his journey from New York City to Beijing would take days. The United States had no diplomatic relations with China. To obtain a visa, Norman had to fly to London. From there, the only air route to mainland China was a twice-monthly Pakistan International Airlines flight to Canton, now known as Guangzhou. PIA normally refueled twice en route, in Karachi and Dhaka. At the time, India was at war with Pakistan, so Norman’s flight was rerouted through Colombo, Sri Lanka. When his flight finally landed in Canton, he was a jet-lagged wreck. But the arrival of a foreigner was a rare chance to feast at government expense. Hungry local officials insisted on feeding him a ten-course banquet, after which they bundled him aboard a three-hour flight to Beijing.
Forty years later, Continental Airlines flight 89 takes thirteen hours. With the Cold War over, it zips across the Arctic Circle and the former Soviet Union. Our tickets are a bargain, too, 80 percent less expensive in real terms than when I first went to China in 1972. The Middle Kingdom is still on the other side of the world, but it’s no longer far away.
Ben and Sam spent their earliest years in Beijing. They were born during my six-year posting as China correspondent for the Toronto Globe and Mail. Sam was one when we moved back to Canada in 1994. He remembers nothing. Ben, who was four, has fragmented memories. He recalls making little cakes from Play-Doh with Nanny Ma. He remembers wandering into the kitchen to sit on Cook Mu’s lap.
In 2003, the year severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, broke out in Beijing (and Toronto), Norman and I figured the Great Wall might not be too crowded. After the all-clear, we took the boys back for the grand tour. Along with the Wall, we visited the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven, the terra cotta warriors in Xi’an, the Shanghai Bund and the Yangtze River. We picked grapes in Kashgar and sledded down sand dunes in the Gobi Desert.
Now, when I propose a holiday in Beijing, my sons both groan. Ben would rather hang out in Toronto with his girlfriend, Tash, and go mountain biking with friends. Sam prefers to play road hockey and chat on MSN. The boys grow markedly unenthusiastic when I mention I also plan to hire a Chinese tutor in Beijing so they can start each day with private Mandarin lessons.
"Um, do I have to go?" Sam asks politely, hoping good manners will get him off the hook.
"Yes," I say.
"Why do I have to go?" Ben asks belligerently, hoping attitude will get him off the hook.
"Because," I reply enigmatically, "I need you."
First U.S. edition
Copyright © 2007 Jan Wong
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First published in Canada as Beijing Confidential by Doubleday Canada, a division of Random House of Canada Limited in 2007.