Out of sheer curiosity because I knew nothing about it, I went to China in 1988.  It changed my life.  It changed my career to teaching English since this was an excellent way to get to know Chinese people without knowing how to speak Chinese.  It was a time machine into the Third World.  It was a very personal introduction to a very different culture.  It gave me a large number of Chinese friends, and it made me grandmother to 7 Chinese children in 6 families.  And now it has given me a way to preserve forever some of China’s recent history.

I moved to other Asian countries (Taiwan, Macau, Bali, Korea) after 1988, but returned 16 times to China.  With no option for e-mail in those early days, I nurtured the relationships with many letters.  They replied with many letters, describing what they were doing, what they were thinking, what they were dreaming about, where they were going, how they were coping with the fast paced changes in China during the past quarter century.  I was middle-aged when we met.  Now, they are middle-aged, living lives none of them (or probably anyone) would have predicted in 1988.

Since letters have always been precious to me, I saved them.  Now that I’ve reached the age where I need to decide what to do with what I have saved, I worried about their fate.  I knew that the personal histories written through their often poetic and intimate words were stories that deserved a broader audience.

The word, “archive,” had never meant much to me except perhaps for an image of a dark, far-off place for little-known storage.  And then another author who had done extensive research for her books told me about archives used for research, often housed in libraries at universities.   A librarian at a local university recognized immediately that mine was a unique collection for modern Chinese history.  She referred me to Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.

The Hoover Institution at Stanford wants them and is now waiting for my carefully saved letters to arrive.  Along with the letters will go an English print copy of my book published in 2006, “Memoirs of a Middle-aged Hummingbird,” a digital copy of the book translated into Chinese, and photos of the letter writers I’ve saved over the years I’ve been visiting China.  They also welcome any letters from me that my Chinese friends might have saved and would like to add to the archive.

I’m learning more about archives now — the acid free environment where the letters will be kept, the fact that I am donating the letters but still retain ownership of the collection, the protection that will be provided for the proper use of the letters by researchers.

I can’t think of a better place for the letters to me from the friendships I nurtured to remain important and useful long after I’m gone.  In fact, it’s rather fun to speculate who will be reading these letters and books and what they will make of them.


May 26, 2010

How do I make sense of the world? Probably from a mixture of my upbringing, the time I was growing up, and my own personality, I stayed very naive far too long.
I believed that all policemen wanted to help people and were my friend. Except for one very nasty teacher in the second grade, most of my teachers were nice people who lived up to my third grade teacher’s name, Miss Darling. And officials and politicians wanted to make the world better.
The 1960s was a heady, idealistic time. I heeded the words of the organization Zero Population Growth, and the warnings of the book, “The Population Bomb,” and adopted an unwanted child instead of creating yet another American consumer of valuable and limited resources. I did volunteer work or worked for very little money, incorporating into my personal finances the non-profit mentality of the places and causes I worked for. I wrote passionate letters to prevent a pipeline being built in Alaska, the killing of whales, and against hunting. In fact, I worried a lot about the environment.
When I saw fly-encrusted unrefrigerated meat being sold on the streets of China in the early 1990s, I just knew that that couldn’t happen in America where the government protected us from unhealthy meat. When I saw pharmacies in China where remedies for every malady were concocted with secret recipes no one else knew, I knew that that couldn’t happen in America because we were protected by government agencies that tested every drug for years. When I saw rampant corruption in the Third World for myself, I was confident that American politicians behaved better.
I knew that bad things happened. Hadn’t I been born at the time when World War II was raging, my father was a soldier, and Jews were being annihilated? As a young child, I heard about bomb shelters, Cold War, and nuclear bombs that could destroy the world. In fact, when the lights went out all across the East Coast one evening when I was coming home from my first job after college, I was sure we were being attacked by either aliens or Russians.
Nature made more sense to me than human beings. So, when I first heard the words uttered casually by a Stanford University professor during conversation at a faculty dinner, his simple sentence caught my attention. In fact, his sentence is the one that has replayed in my mind more often than any other sentence. I can’t say I really understood it when I first heard it, but I intuitively felt it was correct.
When I eventually learned that the American governmental agencies I so trusted had been poisoning me with chemicals, preservatives, bad food, unhealthy food, dangerous food, as well as being cruel to the animals awaiting slaughter, the professor’s wise pronouncement explained why. When the ridiculously expensive medications that had been so well tested turned out to be lethal, I thought of the professor’s words. When I nervously watched my little cache of retirement money disappear in 2008 as though with a magician’s wand, I could understand why the banks betrayed us and our politicians printed more money to give to them.
And these days, watching the struggling sea creatures in the Gulf slogging through oily guk, stately pelicans enveloped in black death, and babbling BP executives in fancy suits, I think once again of the professor’s wisdom that explains such man-made catastrophes.
The words of Robert B. Betts in his very readable book, “Along the Ramparts of the Tetons,” made excellent sense to me. He suggests writing a list of the achievements of humans. He then points out, “You will also probably find that just the list of achievements you have jotted down is so seemingly impressive it reinforces the natural inclination of our species to regard itself as something special indeed, central and vital to the order of things. But as busy as we have been and as much as we may think we have left a mark, this globe has spun around very nicely without us for five billion years — a disquieting reminder that humans are not one of creation’s irreplaceable components.”
He might well agree with the professor, whose name and face I can’t remember, but whose logic has given me comfort for more than half my lifetime. What did he so easily utter? Simply put, “The big brain experiment is a bust.”

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