After an idyllic few days in Hangzhou during our Chinese New Year getaway vacation in 1988, the Far Outliers boarded a train for Nanjing, sitting on hard-class seats. We had decided to bypass Shanghai, which was dealing with a cholera outbreak. But throngs of people were heading in that direction anyway. The crowd on the way to the wickets and platform was so closely packed that we were afraid our two-year-old daughter might fall and get trampled.
We arrived in Nanjing that evening and found rooms at a somewhat dilapidated grand hotel a short taxi ride from the train station. The weather was foggy and rainy and the streets were snowy and wet, so instead of walking the city the next morning, we killed time in the warmth and luxury of the Jinling Hotel, trying not to spend any dollars. For lunch, we walked down the street to a place specializing in Mongolian hotpot (lit. ‘firepot’, 火鍋 or 火锅 huoguo), where we could spend renminbi.
Although the hotel complex overlooked the Yangtze River, thick fog prevented us from ever seeing either the river or the bridge. However, we did spend a lot of time listening to languages from all over the world in the sprawling lobby. One lady we chatted with challenged us to identify the language she was speaking with her friends. Her intonation sounded Scandinavian, but I couldn’t recognize any Germanic cognates, so I correctly guessed Finnish. She was sure I had relied on nonlinguistic clues.
As soon as we had arrived in Nanjing, we had booked soft-class sleeper tickets to
Jingdezhen for the following day, then sent a telegram to our friends awaiting us there. They were fellow teachers at Sunwen College in Zhongshan City in Guangdong Province, who had provided me with a Chinese-character telegram template into which I was to write the day and time of our arrival. The telegram worked fine. I felt sorry for the clerk who had to translate each character into a 4-digit Chinese telegraph code for transmission, but she had probably memorized most of the codes for times and well-used place names.
Jingdezhen in 1988 (pictured above) was a muddy, gray, dilapidated industrial city without any tourist hotels that we noticed, despite its long-standing fame for producing some of the finest porcelain in China. It gave us a feel for what life was like away from the coastal cities and a bit off the beaten track. Our friends had arranged for us to stay at a guesthouse for visiting delegations and they gave us a walking tour of their hometown. Among the things that struck me as we walked past storefronts were tinsmiths that repaired pots and pans, and television vendors offering video games on black-and-white sets. But there were also a large number of porcelain shops as well as street vendors selling “factory seconds,” from whom we bought several small vases and tea sets with hand-painted designs.
Among the highlights of our visit was the chance to share lunch and xiuxi (‘rest time’) in the home of one set of parents near the city hospital where they worked, and dinner in the home of the other set at the edge of town across the river. The father, who had only seen Americans on Korean battlefields, was overcome with emotion when recounting his experiences. Only my youngest uncle served in the Korean War—as a sailor aboard a submarine tender. (All my older uncles, except the eldest, served in World War II, but only one served in the Pacific.)