It didn’t take long to establish the fact that the relationship that I had walked into with the school in Chongqing that was bringing us in to set up an elite “International” department was rather unique and special, to say the least. Apart from the ceremonies that had the usual speeches and toasts and the usual expected words like “cooperation”, “long term relationships”, “honor”, I did not fully understand the location itself nor the historic place that it was. My assistant brought me up to speed very quickly when an official asked for a meeting.
The school that had welcomed me was actually situated on the grounds (or vis versa) of the tiny museum that formed the street front facade stretching in each direction going up a hill and down a hill. The other side of the road seemed to be a park with fencing running all the way up and down the hill. Walking up the hill 100 yards brought me across the street from guards in gatehouses and a brick drive that wound up a bit of a wooded hill and disappeared in behind the hill as it wound around the hill. This was the Communist Party headquarters for Chongqing and the second most powerful seat of the Communist Party outside of the Central Committee Headquarters in Beijing. The elite of the Communist Chinese world met behind these fences in some immense and beautifully crafted buildings reminiscent of the Forbidden City of historic renown. Convenient for the children of this elite was the location of our school just across and down from their parents seat of power.
But back to my assistants eye opening description of the grounds, the school, the museum, the old building just to the side of the entrance from the street and past the tank traps and guarded gates of our school. That old building still houses the printing press used by Chou Enlai (Zhou Enlai) when he produced the newspaper of the revolution of the 1930’s. This was the center of the retreat at the western end of the Japanese invasion. It was here that many hid. My office was dug out of the cliffs overhanging the Jialing River as it coursed down to Jai Fang Bei in central Chongqing where it met the Yangtze. This confluence was where the Japanese slaughtered over 600,000 Chinese. And it was here that I sat behind a desk in a cave previously occupied by Chou Enlai (Zhou Enlai himself. Yikes, I was at the center of a major part of the history and development of what is today the Peoples Republic of China.
What has just been described is a history lovers paradise and for me this was kid in the candy store, exciting and cool. I wandered everywhere that I could and often without my driver, translator or assistant. That would drive them nuts but I loved being able to do it. The side alleyways that led to houses where the common folks lived was a trip into many years ago and many centuries past. I enjoyed the surprise of the old folks who rarely ever saw a white person and most assuredly never walking unaccompanied down the dusty streets into “no foreigner land”. A regular routine was going to a noodle restaurant which had tables right on the street and which was very popular at lunch time with nearly every table occupied by loud groups of older folks who always seemed to settle down when I came and tried to get a place to sit. I would just point at what someone else was eating and didn’t converse with anyone, just watched as they watched me. After a few weeks the novelty seemed to wear off and nobody paid much attention to me. By this time I was ordering in Mandarin and saying a few words that always brought a smile. Yes, I was butchering the language so badly that they held back the laughter. Its called manners.
A defining moment came not from these encounters but in the form of a phone call from the English Principal of one of our schools in another part of China and a request that I come quickly; there was a serious issue that only I could address. I flew out that evening and came face to face with a cutural no no created by a well meaning newbie to China. He had asked that his students bring items associated with the Japanese occupation which they were studying as part of a unit of world history. No students showed up for school the next day. Now that is really significant in a school with 2800 students. A Ghost town is what I would compare my former booming school to that next morning when I pulled up with my Principal and our resident translator. It would appear that this was the second day of a boycott of the school over an “inappropriate and insensitive” request by the foreigner. I was looking forward to meeting an ancient fellow who always stood inside the gate of the school and welcomed the student with a smile which was always greeted by the students with a hurried little bow or wave or a word. Seemed to be your typical Grandfather. Boy was I wrong. Ben, the name that I had given him over the few years that we had been a factor in that school, was apparently an honored survivor of those days and had meet with Mao way back. He was in his 90’s but was energetic and spry with an infectious grin. He also ran the place. He wasn’t just the greeter of children, he was a hero to this city, province, nation. In the past he would always smile at me and give me the little hands together nod. I always gave him a small bow in reciprocity as an honor to a senior. We liked each other. I was summoned to a meeting with school officials to put things right. Sitting at the side of the room was Ben away from the action. The Minister of Education for the Province was sitting at the table, the Mayor was there (this City had 8 million people in it – we were the elite school) my translator was there and my seat was across the table from the Minister (a lady). We had green tea, which I thought was a good sign. I gave the expected welcome and shut up and listened. In the minds of the folks at the table a great injury had been done and had to be rectified appropriately. This wasn’t a mere tongue lashing in a mannerly Chinese way it was an indicator of a severe cultural betrayal and hurt to the Chinese people. We were in deep doo doo. I asked my translator not to say a word until the Minister had finished what she had to say and asked for a quick two sentence summary. All the while keeping my eyes in a respectful manner on the Minister of Education who I knew from ceremonies and a dinner or two that we had shared.
I gave much thought to crafting an answer that would be appropriate penance for this hurt and did what I thought best. The teacher was to be replaced and there was going to be a real scramble to make that happen and to put someone from another school into the position. I had the perfect guy in mind. When I had finished my supplications and the translation was given there was dead silence for minutes and I wondered how badly I had blown it. The surprising response came not from the Minister but from Ben, my friend, who summarized what had gone on, what was expected and the fact that he considered me to be an honorable man and one who cared deeply for the children. He stated that he had been a careful observer of the respect that I had shown during the raising of the flag, the playing of the Chinese national anthem and all ceremonies that he had seen me in attendance . The fact that I had flown many hours to get there and handle the situation myself spoke to my willingness to do what was right. He appreciated all that and as he rose he gave instruction to all in the room as to what would be acceptable and urged us all to do the best that we could in training those in our charge. When he turned to leave, all in the room rose and stood in respect. We handled it and moved on.
It was Ben who answered my questions about the relationship between China and Japan. He summarized it for me in two words, “One day…”.
War is inevitable and is culturally defined as being a necessary answer to the rape of Nanjing, Chongqing and the defilement of the nation and its pride from many years ago. I would suggest that America get out of the way or China will be merciless. Our ally must eventually face the music that it created alone.