Photo by Mona Mehas

China 1987

Mona Mehas

During my undergraduate studies, I fell in love with a professor. Neil’s smile opened the world for me, and I believed he felt the same way. When he was invited to teach English in China for a semester, he jumped at the chance. A dozen students accompanied him, but I had a daughter at home, so my visit was limited to Spring Break. It was my first trip on a plane, a sixteen-hour flight on a huge Japan Airlines jet from Cincinnati to Hong Kong. I was sure it would fall out of the sky; it was so big. What became known as the Tiananmen Square Massacre was still two years in the making. I didn’t follow Chinese politics, so I knew nothing about what was going on in that country; I barely knew the names of the leaders. I went because I missed my lover. He and his students stayed at a university in Zhejiang Province on the southeastern coast of China.

That monstrosity of a plane stayed in the sky. I spent the night in a hotel near the airport in Hong Kong and walked outside the next morning, taking in the sights of laundry hanging from balconies and smells of restaurants as they opened. I didn’t wander far and returned to the airport in plenty of time due to my unique situation.

I hadn’t had time to get my Visa, but I was armed with my passport and a letter from the minister of Zhejiang Province, inviting me, as the ‘spouse’ of a highly regarded professor, to enter mainland China. I floated on a cloud of love until I realized the people at the gate didn’t know what to do with me. Waiting in line as they argued over me, I was terrified I would not be allowed to board the plane. What would I do if I were stranded in Hong Kong? I had no money to get home. Luckily, the letter pulled its weight, and I boarded a small puddle-jumper. My second time on a plane and I held my breath as I viewed the ground below as a patchwork quilt.

As we landed in Hangzhou, a black car pulled up. Two men in black suits got out and set up a table with a flag at each end — one for China, the other for the province. One of the men escorted the minister from the car to a chair. The other man ushered me to the table, where the minister stamped my passport, and I became legal.

Neil had garnered transportation from the university and met me upon landing in Hangzhou. He quietly directed my attention to the bombs concealed off to the side. Tarps mostly covered them, but the wind had blown up part of the coverings. I didn’t care; I was in his arms in the back seat of the car.

The drive from the airport to the university was breathtaking. The road was lined with bamboo forests all the way; everywhere I looked was green. When we reached the outskirts of the city, it changed to gray. The buildings and streets all appeared gray with the people adding splashes of color. All around Hangzhou, new buildings were being erected. Men walked from one section to another on bamboo scaffolding. They took it down and built it up again as needed.

We had a thermos of hot water outside our door every morning for tea. There were no forks. I had a crash course in using chopsticks. Our rooms had toilet paper, but we rarely found it anyplace else. All this time I fell deeper in love with Neil, but he pulled away.

Since it was spring break, we spent a lot of time visiting tourist spots, but even just walking around Hangzhou with Neil was a vacation for me. There were open markets everywhere to buy street food. We took long walks through the bamboo forests during the day and along West Lake at night. It was a romantic place to be with your lover.

Pedicabs were a terrific way to get around town, especially if one wanted to exchange money. We often traded our foreign money for the local currency so ours would stretch further. It benefitted the Chinese people too because they could shop in certain stores. It was a win-win situation if you knew what you were doing. With Neil and our guide, a young man named Shay, trading money added intrigue and nuance to a night out.

The most disturbing thing I saw was glassed-in signage at every busy street corner. In 1987 Hangzhou, only employees of the Communist Party or dignitaries were allowed to own vehicles. They employed men to drive for them. A traffic director no one paid attention to was in the center of busy street corners. Only pedestrians and bicyclists sometimes obeyed his commands. He stood on a pedestal in a structure that resembled a phone booth, blowing a whistle. If people got in the way of the vehicles, drivers laid on their horns until walkers and bicyclists moved or they were hit. Either way, the cars continued. The signs under glass were photographs of people mangled by such ‘accidents’ because they hadn’t heeded the traffic director or the incessant honking. Crossing a street was taking my life in my hands. I held onto Neil ever tighter.

Although the accommodations for Americans were adequate, the dorms for the Chinese students left a lot to be desired. We toured the facilities after a heavy rain. Most students slept six or eight in a room with bunk beds stacked to the ceiling. There was no air conditioning, and the doors were standing wide open. Some ate all their meals in the communal cafeteria; others brought in stoves and placed them in the hallways outside their rooms, thus sharing cooking duties.

Women sewed clothing under tents on street corners. Using a photo of a skirt from a magazine, I bought fabric and took it to the ‘sewing factory.’ I showed the man in charge the picture. He measured me and told me when my item would be ready. When I came back, I had a skirt that fit me perfectly.

We witnessed men digging ditches and hauling manure and women cutting grass on their hands and knees with scissors. Elder men shopped for the family dinner in open-air markets. A live, squawking duck or chicken hung from their bicycle handlebars in a plastic bag. The aura of love I’d experienced when I first arrived was starting to wane.

We flew to Beijing and spent one night at the university there. This was a welcome break as Neil was beginning to tire of Hangzhou. Beijing was a much larger city and more accustomed to foreign visitors. The university was more modern, and so were the student rooms. Our guide, Shay, was excited for the trip as it was his first time on an airplane.

Many steps on the Great Wall were a foot high. The walkway was wide enough for horses to pull a wagon in most places. On one side of the wall was China; on the other, Mongolia. I had a photo of myself astride a camel on the Mongolia side, but it’s long gone. I wish I’d had someone take a picture of Neil kissing me on the steps. The karst mountains were magnificent, shooting straight up into the sky.

At that time, there was a gift shop and restaurant at the base of the Great Wall. In the shop, I purchased a white jacket with red chop marks which I believe said something about the Great Wall. For lunch, we looked at what other people were eating and if it looked good, pointed, and ordered. There was also a restroom with public facilities like we were used to, with one minor difference. If you wanted toilet paper, you had to pay ten cents. Of course, everyone paid and got three squares.

We strolled through Beijing with a guidebook, from one street to the next, one market or restaurant to another. Public restrooms were simple pit toilets with open holes in the ground to squat over. The room contained a round trough in the center with flowing water for washing.

Neil and I attended a dinner with Beijing University officials where they served Peking Duck. I must admit, I’m not a fan. It was nice to be at the table with dignitaries as Neil’s ‘spouse,’ and I was excited to try it. Leading up to the main dish were several appetizers made of duck, prepared in various ways with different spices and sauces, and they were quite good. Each time I tasted one, I sometimes wondered aloud if that was the Peking Duck, bringing laughter from our hosts. Finally, the last dish arrived, and it tasted like fried duck fat. I’m not sure what the official Peking Duck is supposed to be, but I’ll pass.

In Beijing, we roamed most of the restricted parts of the Forbidden City. A movie came out in 1987, called The Last Emperor, based on the true story of the last emperor of China, Pu Yi. I watched the movie several times upon returning home. Seeing the sweeping vistas of China and the places I visited made me look back with longing. It was such a magical time for me, and that movie brought back all the warm feelings.

We stood on the steps before the palace leading up to the throne and visited the summer palace depicted in the movie. I was enthralled by the immensity of it all. On another day, we tried to see the Chairman Mao mausoleum. We couldn’t get close because of the hordes of people standing in line to glimpse the glass case in which Mao Zedong’s body was preserved. I couldn’t imagine one of our presidents lying in a state like that back home.

The number of street markets in Beijing was at least double what I’d seen in Hangzhou, especially around the university and the Forbidden City. One such market was my favorite. I am sure I grew to love boiled peanuts from the peanut man outside Beijing University. I watched a documentary about China later; I’m certain his smiling face was in the opening credits.

By the time Neil and I took a bus to the museum at Xi’an to see the terracotta soldiers, he was drifting away from me. Created during the Qin dynasty, the soldiers and artifacts dated back to 240210 BCE. The guardian animal statues along the winding road leading to the museum couldn’t protect me from the sorrow in my future. I bought a replica, about six inches tall, of a kneeling soldier. Guarding everything were the ever-present Chinese soldiers with rifles.

On another day, we took a train to Shanghai, a lovely, more metropolitan town. Someone had told us that if we were hungry for American food, we should visit the Peace Hotel in downtown Shanghai. It was mid-afternoon, with only a few people in the restaurant, but they had a bluegrass band. The food was good — your standard American fare of baked chicken, mashed potatoes, and broccoli — but a Chinese band playing and singing bluegrass music in English? What a treat!

Afterward, we walked along the water, watching a junk boat slowly pass. The wizened sailor at the helm had a cormorant, a bird he used to catch fish. We stood and watched him for as long as we could, then, at dusk, we got on another train back to Hangzhou.

Neil wasn’t the same; I sensed his boredom.

Time and history moved on. A year later, another student fell in love with Neil. I guess he loved her too because he left me, breaking my heart.

The student uprisings broke parts of China. I have read that it’s dangerous for young people in China to learn and talk about those events today. It’s equally difficult for instructors there to teach it as a part of their history. Unfortunately, history tends to repeat itself, especially the bad parts. According to, China controls its internet and has censored more than 3,000 words regarding the events at Tiananmen Square in 1989.

No matter what we are going through in the United States, we are not approaching that level. Yet. 

Great Wall Jacket and other souvenirs

Photos by Mona Mehas

Mona Mehas (she, her) writes poetry and prose from the perspective of a retired disabled teacher in Indiana, USA. A Pushcart nominee, her work has appeared in over 70 journals, anthologies, and online museums. Two of her poems received first-place honors in the 2023 Poetry Society of Indiana fall contest. Mona’s chapbook, Questions I Didn’t Know I’d Asked, is available from LJMcD Communications and Amazon. Her second book is forthcoming in July 2024. She is finishing edits on her first novel and will soon query agents.

X: @Patienc77732097