BEIJING – Every afternoon, right after our midday break, we’d gather in the music room of Fangkaudi Primary School. The teacher was handing out a sheet of hymns, printed on pulp paper. We’d stand, jump straight, and sing Chinese songs to exciting rhythms—there’s no other way to express it—the words of Communist propaganda.
“We are all crack shots. Every bullet kills an enemy.”
“We thank Chairman Mao for building our beautiful school.”
“Worker, farmer, soldier – unite and rise!”
It was the fall of 1979, and I was eleven three months earlier, sitting at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh, watching the Pirates begin a run that ended with a world championship win that I would have missed. I was a suburban kid who just wanted to hang out with my friends.
Suddenly I found myself in the belly of what was still, back home, called “Red China.” Although I didn’t realize the importance of this at first, we were one of the first American families to move to China in the months after normalizing relations with the United States.
For this, I had Richard Nixon to thank.
Nixon visited Mao Zedong in Beijing this week 50 years ago, when they both led their countries. Nixon called it “the week that changed the world.” Seven years later, on January 1, 1979, that meeting reverberated in irreversible history when their successors, President Jimmy Carter and then Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping, formally established diplomatic relations.
Deng was not yet the “supreme leader” of China. But his new venture – launching something called “Reform and Opening” that would help infuse capitalism into the communist system – was part of the reason I arrived in China at the age of eleven.
When China opened up to the Americans, the young people there rushed to teach English. But other than being native speakers, few had qualifications in teaching the language. To teach her teachers to teach English after years of isolation, the Chinese Ministry of Education has recruited language teachers like my father, linguists at the University of Pittsburgh.
And so in mid-July 1979 we joined the first wave of American families to move to China. My parents were called “foreign experts” and were appointed to positions for one year at Beijing Institute of Foreign Languages No. 1.
We were installed in the Friendship Hotel, a sprawling complex in then-rustic northwest Beijing that was built in the 1950s to house Soviet advisors. It was a miniature city, filled with barbers, a butcher, a movie theater and a huge swimming pool with a 10-meter diving platform. We had run most of the place.
One day, in the “International Club” of the pool, where my parents were drinking Wuxing Beer with their friends, a rumor spread. Chinese television was to broadcast its first American show, and the club was the only public venue in the complex with a TV set.
The following week we all gathered around a small screen. Credits rolled. It was “The Man From Atlantis,” a forgotten sci-fi show starring Patrick Duffy, later from “Dallas.” It’s hard to convey today, in our on-demand world, how happy we are to have a handful of American children on the rare call home.
Most of the Chinese we met—from my Fangcaodi teachers to my parents’ classmates to the random workers I befriended after learning to speak their language—were fascinated by America and knew very little of its citizens. They loved hearing about baseball, about McDonald’s (coming 12 years later) and about something that amazed everyone in this bike culture: Most Americans have their own cars.
Not everyone was fascinated by the United States, though—or at least with its leadership. After all, China had just lived through the shocking Cultural Revolution and was conditioned to see Americans as bourgeois capitalist “running dogs”.
All over Beijing there were red billboards documenting various iterations of “Mao Zhuxi sixiang” – “Chairman Mao’s Thought.” We were with a Chinese colleague of my parents and passed such a sign while erecting it. It was bright red and still empty.
The colleague pointed this out, looked at my parents and said sarcastically, “Think Jimmy Carter.”
To me today, China in 1979 feels like a montage of a distant movie playing in my head.
I imagine old men on street corners selling roasted sunflower seeds from burlap sacks—snacks that taste as fuzzy as the burning coals whose scent fills the winter air. I imagine young women selling mini lollipops from ice cream carts. I imagine my school, where children from different cultures – Burma, Bangladesh, Uganda, Rhodesia, even North Korea – were taught music, math, and art in Chinese and could only interact and play if we learned the language. We did, and quickly.
I imagine our epic, strictly supervised rail journey through China in February 1980—all the way from Beijing to Sichuan, west, before we boarded a boat back east of the Yangtze. We’ve come across town after town people who had never seen Westerners before—not to mention Westerners who speak Beijing-accented Chinese.
They would gather around us in droves, watching and smiling, always ready to engage, and when they learned we share a language – they tell us about themselves. They would fill me in with questions, usually about the tiny instant camera I was carrying. If I make a mistake in the Chinese tone, they will correct me immediately; I may have been an alien, but I was still a child, after all. I learned as much from those conversations as I did from my lessons in Beijing.
These images have been replaced in my mind by images of a new China – modern China, fast-moving China, a complex global presence that touches every corner of human existence.
Many years later, this is what I want to tell you about living in China at that most pivotal moment of what we have realized in history: to me, it shaped what it means to be an American.
Before humans could access the world with the phones in our pockets, it was rare to see your country from the inside looking out and the outside looking inward — especially from the point of view of a culture so eager to share. This perspective, given to me as a child by many Chinese who both remember and forget, is something I carry with me.
My travels through China that year, and the people I met, also gave me insight into how to listen. Men and women who wanted to know about my American life also told me about their lives in China. And though I knew I was crossing and living a life in very different circumstances, the language I shared with them suddenly made me realize that they were not just people to see, but people to hear—and, by extension, to work on to understand. Which brought me back to China years later.
On Sunday, 43 years after moving to Beijing as a child, and after two decades of living here as a journalist, I covered the closing ceremony of the Winter Olympics. For two weeks, I’ve been moving around the COVID “bubble” with places I’ve loved out of reach. I had dinner a block away from my old school but couldn’t take my classmates to see it. I smelled the winter air in Beijing and felt no whiff of coal, I was sad, but I was also OK with that, for China is gone, and the complex nation that replaced it is just as exciting, if not more so.
I still have the front pages of those old songs that tried to teach me. They remind me of something my mother told me a long time ago: It is important to learn about a culture and respect its customs. When you live there, you should leave something valuable behind too. In this way, people think of the question “What is an American like?” He might use you as an example – for the right reason. China has become my land to prove it.
And all of that, oddly enough, is why I—and I bet, other American kids I’ve known here a long time—owe an unexpected gratitude to Richard Nixon, who this week helped open the door 50 years ago.
Ted Anthony, director of new storytelling and newsroom innovation at The Associated Press, is the former director of Asia Pacific news at The Associated Press. He lived in Beijing as a child in 1979-80 and as a journalist from 2001-2004. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/anthonyted