Our bicycles had gears, water bottles and tire pumps; they
were bright and lightweight, and our warning bells made a
different sound. Everywhere we went, Chinese people stared at us
because of light colored skin and the strange language we spoke.
Only the older people had seen foreigners because China was
closed for more than 30 years. No tourists, buyers,
reporters not even relatives were admitted from
1949 until the 1970s. The people heard no newscasts, elected no
officials, owned no cars or trucks and worked six days every week
for a "standard" monthly wage equivalent to $55. It was
a primitive country with no electric fans, no cash registers, no
telephones, no private flush toilets, no international
relationships, no places of worship.
They were 1 billion workers one-fourth of the
world’s population wearing faded uniforms and having
very little to amuse themselves. They were hauled to and from
factories in old buses or in "stand-up" stock trucks.
They were peaceful, law-abiding people and their lives
were at stake if they got out of line. Motor vehicles were
trucks, buses and, in big cities, an occasional taxicab; most
were manufactured more than 30 years before I bicycled there. It
took as long for a family to save to buy a bike as it takes for
us to save for a car. Even then they couldn’t make the
purchase without a committee’s "proof-of-need
approval." Many bikes carried two or three persons; others
were used to haul heavy loads of hay, huge baskets of manure,
five bales of cotton and seven empty 50-gallon metal barrels.
There was also a strange device that served the purpose of a
pickup truck. It looked like a large lawn mower with trailer
attached. The driver, holding the long steering mechanism, drove
while sitting on the trailer.
Tum was just one of 1 billion Chinese people when I visited
with her in 1981. I guessed her age to be 17, but who knows? She
was carrying two baskets of moist sand on the ends of a bamboo
pole supported across her shoulders. I watched a middle-aged
woman weigh Tum’s load; it weighed 128 pounds. She climbed
from street level to a construction site where the hotel backed
up to a rock hill. Up, up, up she went in long, slow steps to the
second level, the third and the fourth. Back she hurried for
Tum smiled as I spoke to her and, on another trip to the top,
I followed to see her dump the load. We smiled again as she
trotted back down while I was still climbing. I rested while
contemplating Tum’s future. Later I asked our interpreter,
"Will Tum make more money than the woman who weighed her
"Will she trade jobs with the girl who opens orange soda
pop bottles for tourists?"
"No. Once she’s trained for a job she’ll likely
do that as long as she lives."
I suddenly wished I could hide her in my bicycle box and bring
her back to our farm forever.
The interpreter and I waited till Tum ended her long day of
carrying loads that I could not have even lifted. Tum picked up a
package as she checked out. It was tourist laundry, which
she’d wash, dry and iron to return the next morning for some
extra coins to buy "pretty things for her mother."
Tum is now nearly 40 and still carrying moist sand. I hope she
knows she has an admirer in America.