I was in downtown Dunhuang, Gansu province, when I met Mr Zhao. My friends and I were trying to work out how the dot that represented us on a “map” fit in with our surroundings, when an old man came up and said “The night market it that way.” He spoke in clear English – something I would not have expected from his appearance. He was short and wiry and wrinkled, wearing loose clothes and a cloth cap. He looked like a peasant grandfather, the kindly type who smile a lot.
As it turned out, Mr Zhao was nothing like I initially assumed. We talked for quite some time, in a mix of English and Mandarin. Near the beginning of our conversation he asked if any of us spoke German – and seemed disappointed that we didn’t. As we chatted I began to ask questions, and as pieces of his story began to emerge, things began to make sense.
He is originally from Tianjin, and later studied at the Foreign Languages University in Beijing where he majored in German. He asked at which school I had studied in Beijing; when I told him BLCU, he said that it was a good school for language. Mr Zhao became fluent in German, and later taught himself English. He said that with the similarities in vocabulary (especially root words, even though the conjugation is different) it wasn’t very hard. Impressive, no?! Frequently as we talked he would ask for clarification on the pronunciation of an English word, or ask me how to say a Chinese word in English. The more he talked, the less halting he became.
After graduating in Beijing, he was sent to work in Wuhan. I mentioned that a good friend of mine is from Wuhan (hi Bruce!) but I got the impression that Mr Zhao was not a big fan of the place. This was back when the Party assigned each person to a job – with little or no regard for the person’s preferences for either location or occupation. I’ve heard stories of married couples being assigned jobs in different provinces and thereafter seeing each other only once or twice a year. One of my teachers at university in Beijing told us she had been a teacher for thirty years, a job she was assigned and didn’t want – and that she had hated it for the first ten years. Even 15 or 20 years ago the Party would assign jobs to graduates; they could choose not to accept the position, but would then be liable for any tuition costs the government had paid on their behalf. When Mr Zhao graduated, however, refusing the assigned job wasn’t an option.
After Mr Zhao spent some years working in Wuhan, the changes of “Reform and Opening Up” created opportunities to do different things – the chance to choose. He chose to come to Dunhuang, to work with researchers at the Mogao Caves. This must have been shortly before the caves were listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. He spent a lot of time translating research materials from German into Chinese. When German or Austrian tourists came to visit the caves, he would act as their guide. He also spent time in Xinjiang province working with a group of researchers investigating caves and documents discovered there.
Later, Mr Zhao and his wife opened a foreign language bookstore in downtown Dunhuang. They had books in Chinese, English, German and French. Most concerned the Mogao Caves and other Dunhuang attractions. Ten years ago the rent for the store got too high, so they closed it. Now they have a stall at the night market, where they still sell a small selection of books in multiple languages, along with postcards and small trinkets. In Mr Zhao’s opinion this line of work comes with a big benefit – the opportunity to continue practising English, and on occassion, the German he clearly loves. In fact, over the past 12 years Mr Zhao has visited Germany three times. A German family he met in Dunhuang invited him to visit their home town, and went through the process of producing an official invitation letter so Mr Zhao could get a visa to go there.
Mr Zhao said he likes Australians. He recalls with great fondness a group of 5 or 6 older ladies from Australia who visited his bookstore ten years ago. He enjoyed talking with them, and was delighted to receive a gift from them following their return to Australia. They sent him a warm jacket, and a chef’s outfit for his wife. He also recounted a story about a group of young Australians who visited his stall in the night market two years ago, and who were less friendly and slightly rude to him. But this wasn’t enough to outweigh the good opinion built by the women he’d met years earlier, and hopefully our own conversation added to the good column!
Toward the end of our conversation I asked about his family. It’s very common to ask a person over 30 if they have a child (as an introduction to further conversation) but I am always wary when I do this. While having a child is the expected norm in China, there are so many different paths a life can take – whether by deliberate choice or just because it happens that way – and I fear inadvertantly adding to the hurt a person may already carry. There has never been a problem, but it feels like a time bomb, and one day I’m going to put my foot in it. If there is tragedy in Mr Zhao’s story, however, he didn’t show it. He has a daughter, living in Dunhuang, and when I asked if he has a grandchild his face split into the biggest smile I’d seen from him. “Yes, 1 and a half years old. A granddaughter.”
I puzzled over his likely age for quite some time, especially considering how young his granddaughter is. Eventually I decided he is probably about 60, and therefore would have entered university in the late 70s after a crash course in the schooling he missed over the previous decade. To me this makes his proficiency in language(s) even more impressive, and a sign of great intellect.