Deep Impressions (Chapter 4)

The irony of friendship is that we often only miss it when we are separated. (Image: Susan Ruel)
The irony of friendship is that we often only miss it when we are separated. (Image: Susan Ruel)

Deep Impressions, from the novel The Shanghai Friendship Store (Chapter 4), introduces some Chinese college students (circa 1982) who exemplify their nation’s next generation of scholars. From the Beijing collegians who launched the historic May 4th Movement of 1919 to those who took part (and, in some cases, gave their lives) in pro-democracy demonstrations on Tiananmen Square in 1989, young members of the intellectual elite played an outsized role in China’s history and its openings to the West during the 20th century.

Before Jimmy Carter left Shanghai, we Americans were invited to meet him at the U.S. Consulate. Once a wealthy merchant’s mansion, the setting seemed too formal for a cookout to fete a former president, with hot dogs and chips flown in from Hong Kong. Out of office for several years, Carter arrived wearing jeans, but the other guests dressed for success. Agatha Summers Wang, an elderly woman from Cincinnati who’d been in Shanghai since World War I, was trotted out to meet him.

In fact, Agatha Wang was no longer an American. Under an Act of Congress long since rescinded, she’d lost her citizenship by marrying a Chinese in 1917. Now, she was petitioning to get it back, and the ex-president pledged to do what he could on her behalf.

The U.S. Consul introduced Agatha, a wizened octogenarian who smelled faintly of cat waste. She told her life story to Carter and the assembled guests and took questions from a few Western reporters, including Feldman, Beijing bureau chief for International Press. I’d arranged to work part-time for Feldman as IP’s secret Shanghai stringer and was psyched about seeing him in action.

On January 31, 1979, Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping and President Jimmy Carter sign historic diplomatic agreements between the United States and China. (Image: The Carter Center)

On January 31, 1979, Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping and President Jimmy Carter sign historic diplomatic agreements between the United States and China. (Image: The Carter Center)

Beaming at news photographers, Agatha recalled that she was past 70 when thrown in prison during the Cultural Revolution. During that hellish period, her only link with the outside world was a swatch of color that appeared outside her window each morning. Her grandson flew a kite so she’d know she wasn’t forgotten. Agatha’s husband, forced to do menial work to atone for the counter-revolutionary crime of being a Western-educated physician, died of torture and tuberculosis.

Agatha now lived alone with her cat Didi (“Little Brother”) in a small, unheated room. Clothed shabbily, with a lined, weather-beaten face, she was indistinguishable from elderly Chinese ladies whom age had also robbed of their raven hair and smooth complexions. The highlight of Agatha’s life now was getting peanut butter and other trappings of home from the Shanghai Friendship Store.

A speech to remember

Her speech was a mixture of English and Chinese, but Agatha really couldn’t speak English well anymore. She survived on a paltry state pension for her work as a teacher decades ago.

“It’s much fun to be international!” she said, adding with childish candor: “I was thankful to come to a place without terrible superstition!”

“What do you mean by ‘superstition,’ Mrs. Wang?” Feldman asked.

“Organized religion! Chinese are sensible not to set store by nonsense,” she explained. “And I was thankful to get away from race prejudice. In my day, Negroes were treated just appalling!”

“What about how Africans are treated here in China?” Feldman followed up. “And how foreigners like you were treated during the Cultural Revolution?”

“I don’t hate Chinese for what they did. Hate is not in my dictionary! They rehabilitated my husband last year and placed his ashes in Martyrs’ Memorial. They gave a few hundred renminbi for compensation,” Agatha responded.

Secret Service agents scanned the small gathering as if to protect the former president from mortal danger. Already I realized that Shanghai was one of the safest, least eventful huge cities on earth. Unbelievably, its streets emptied out almost completely by 9 p.m.

A balding, middle-aged American in a summer suit stood near me in a corner of the large drawing-room. He introduced himself as Whitaker, the Consulate’s public affairs officer, and asked what brought me to China.  I said I’d taken time out from grad school in Iowa to teach at a Shanghai university.

“There are two kinds of ‘foreign experts,’ ” Whitaker responded, clearly delivering a set speech. “Some make the most of it, and others just complain and retreat into isolation.” He then threw back his head and laughed, as if this remark were uproariously funny. His gleaming smile reminded me of the actor Jack Nicholson.

The U.S. Consulate General Shanghai. (Image: U.S. Consulate General in Shanghai)

The U.S. Consulate General Shanghai. (Image: U.S. Consulate General in Shanghai)

Whitaker suggested that I take the Foreign Service exam that winter, and I resolved to start reading newsweeklies and reviewing U.S. diplomatic history. Exam prep would keep me busy during the long, dull evenings that could lie ahead. And it couldn’t hurt to explore yet another career path, in case my clandestine reporting gig with Feldman didn’t work out.

Whitaker went on to describe how tough the Foreign Service exam was and how easily he’d passed it. His career so far had been spent careening from Africa to Hong Kong to Western Europe and now Shanghai. He spoke fluent Spanish and passable Japanese. “I read The New York Times from cover to cover every Sunday,” he said proudly.

Once my classes began, Whitaker said, the students and I would be welcome at screenings of classic films like The Maltese Falcon and To Have and Have Not.  “The catch is, you’ll have to watch them here at the Consulate. Copyright laws require that these movies be shown on U.S. property,” he added.

We discovered that we’d both gone to Yale. He confided that he knew how to get full scholarships to our alma mater for my best Chinese students.

When eyes meet

In a far corner, some African medical students huddled together drinking a beer. I wondered why they’d been invited — then felt glad to spot the same African who’d asked me to dance at the hotel bar I’d recently visited with Feldman. Shocked that the young student bore such an uncanny resemblance to my ex-boyfriend, Lou Gichuke (a Kenyan grad student back in Iowa — and the real reason I’d fled to China), I’d refused to dance with him and immediately regretted it.

Each time I glanced across the room, my eyes met his. I felt sure he could detect my self-consciousness, so I tried to seem oblivious. I’d had lots of practice acting this way around Lou Gichuke after he dumped me.

In a far corner, some African medical students huddled together drinking a beer. (Image: via pixabay / CC0 1.0)

In a far corner, some African medical students huddled together drinking a beer. (Image: via pixabay / CC0 1.0)

Piped-in Dixieland jazz played while we ate. That’s when I finally met Lorraine, an American “expert” I’d been hearing about. Lorraine, a scraggly-haired woman about my mother’s age (who bore her no other resemblance), was the only guest besides Carter himself to show up in a casual dress. Her baggy shorts exposed pasty, blue-veined legs. Her thin T-shirt called attention to her sagging cleavage. But far from staying shyly in the background, Lorraine seized the moment and went into convulsive dance, flailing her arms with abandon to the rollicking strains of an early Louis Armstrong recording.

Whitaker seemed less than charmed by her performance — perhaps because of the urgent, non-verbal signals he was getting from the Consul’s wife.

He tapped Lorraine’s shoulder and deftly introduced me to her as “Heppie — short for Hepzibah — an ABD grad student at University of Iowa who’s originally from Providence.”

Whitaker said Lorraine was an Ohioan (a “Buckeye,” he called her) who’d spent the previous year teaching in the “central Chinese city of Luoyang.”

“Rhode Island?” Lorraine said. “That place is a zoo. I’ve never met anyone from there who wasn’t perverted. They’re all sadomasochists or child molesters. My ex-husband was from Rhode Island…”

Lorraine then revealed her chief purpose in coming to China: to get an affordable facelift before going home when the school year ended.

I left Lorraine in Whitaker’s capable, diplomatic hands and drifted off. I wanted a chance to chat discreetly with Feldman once more before he returned to Beijing. And maybe I could devise some way to speak to the African? Looming straight ahead, the visiting President was munching potato chips. Trying to impress Feldman, I addressed Carter too unceremoniously: “I’ve only been here a short while, Mr. President, but I’ve noticed that we Americans are kept away from the Chinese as much as possible.”

“Yes, I’ve heard, and we’re trying to do something about that,” he said.

If you haven’t yet done so, please read:

ChinaSusan Ruel “has worked on the international desks of the Associated Press and United Press International and reported for UPI from Shanghai, San Francisco, and Washington. A former journalism professor, she co-authored two French books on U.S. media history. A Fulbright scholar in West Africa, she has served as an editorial consultant for the United Nations in New York and Nigeria. Since 2005, she has been writing and editing for healthcare non-profits in New York.”

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