Episode 6 of Betrayed: a tale of Christmas spiritual pollution, Series 2 of our ‘‘The Truth Lies in Bedtime Stories, from See Through News‘ podcast
Series 2 of our podcast The Truth Lies In Bedtime Stories takes place over 30 minutes or so on the morning of December 25th 1984, in Beijing.
For best results, start from Episode 1 – The Staircase
In Episode 6, Calum & Robert succeed in teasing out the significance of their chat with Clock and Elvis, while failing to catch a bus.
Next: Episode 7: Dapper Man
If you enjoyed this series, please share it with others, and try our other stories.
- Series 1: The Story of Ganbaatar: the only deep sea navigator in Mongolia
- Series 3: Life on the Edge: Taiwan, China, America and the Moment I Realised Mrs. Wang Was Mostly Guessing What Her Husband Said
Written, Produced & Narrated by SternWriter
Audio Production by Samuel Wain
Betrayed is a podcast by The Truth Lies in Bedtime Stories, from See Through News.
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S3, Episode 6: The Bus Stop
Robert broke off his intense conversation with Calum to peer at the bare plywood square attached with string to the red pole that constituted the bus stop.
While Robert compared the hand-written numbers on the plywood with those scribbled on his scrap of coloured paper, Calum wondered why this particular conversation was bugging them so much.
It was partly, he thought, because it had covered such different ground. The Spiritual Pollution campaign made routine conversation with ordinary Chinese rare, but this one hadn’t followed the usual pattern of a consumer price index questionnaire.
Those kinds of interrogations on the price of this and the cost of that not only quickly became tedious, but they only entrenched their feeling of being outsiders, exotic aliens, performing monkeys. ‘Waiguoren’ Outside Country People.
This lunch-break conversation with two of the liveliest students in the classroom full of 30-something mining engineers, had been their first experience outside the waiguoren bubble.
It felt like they’d been admitted to the reality of 1984 China, granted a glimpse of the lived experience of its billion citizens. What had been blurry had suddenly snapped into sharp focus, but their limited language ability meant they still had to squint hard to understand what it was they were seeing.
Robert had completed his reconnaissance. ‘Yes, this is the right place. Keep an eye out for a 380 or a 388. Ignore any bus that starts with a 4’.
His Mission to Save Christmas responsibilities discharged, Robert carefully tucked their precious directions to the mythical meat market into his overcoat pocket.
He turned back to Calum, and they immediately resumed their forensic reconstruction of last week’s conversation with Clock and Elvis.
They barely registered the stir their arrival had caused among the waiting knot of passengers at the bus stop.
Foreign students quickly got used to being the centre of attention whenever they were out and about in public. They’d tell each other they now knew what it was like to be a mega-celebrity like Madonna or Bono. No matter how many times you may have walked down a road, every time there’d be dozens of Chinese encountering their first ever real-life foreigner.
There wasn’t much entertainment around, no billboards, barely any shops, so it made sense for the locals make the most of the opportunity.
Sure enough, the waiting passengers at the bus stop soon encircled the two laowai, like tourists around street performers.
They examined the laowai up and down, exchanged muttered observations with their neighbours, guilelessly staring until the human exhibits moved on, or something more pressing showed up, like their bus.
But so immersed were Calum and Robert in trying to figure out what Clock and Elvis had been trying to tell them, they may as well have been sitting in one of their bedrooms back at the Foreign Students dorm.
‘I didn’t recognise, and can’t remember, the exact words Clock used’ said Calum ‘but it was pretty obvious from his body language what he meant’.
Robert nodded, his brow furrowed as he tried to remember.
A bus approached. Robert briefly double-checked the bus numbers on his coloured paper, peering over the heads of their disappearing audience, now swarming towards the bus, as it approached the bus stop in a hiss of brakes.
The bus doors opened, revealing its jam-packed interior. All buses in Beijing were always jam-packed. No one got off, yet the waiting passengers, undeterred, began to elbow and jostle their way aboard.
Robert usually enjoyed witnessing this logistical miracle, but instead he turned back to Calum, re-creating a gesture he remembered Clock had made.
He slid an imaginary bolt and pressed the heels of his palms together.
‘What else could that be, but International Sign Language for a locked door and handcuffs?’, he asked.
Calum nodded. ‘Clock was definitely saying he’d been locked up, but I’m sure the point he was trying to make was that he’d been locked up right there. If not in that very classroom, then at least the same building, or at the Coal Mining Institute’.
‘I think so too, and Elvis kept saying ‘qinian, qinian’, even holding up his fingers’, said Robert. ‘Seven years, locked in that building, the same place where he was now laughing and joking with us. Can that really have been what he was telling us?’
‘We both heard him say ‘wenhua dageming’, said Calum, solemnly.
They both fell silent.
One of their audience, a neatly-dressed man with white hair, appeared to wince.
The phrase ‘wenhua dageming’ wasn’t to be found in their Beijing textbooks, but they’d learned it in First Year back in Edinburgh, and knew it meant ‘The Cultural Revolution’.
One of their lecturers had been an impish provocateur, who made a point of teaching them common Communist propaganda terms, like Great Leap Forward, ‘class traitor’, ‘capitalist running dogs’, and ‘Cultural Revolution’.
Robert, who’d committed all these phrases, and how to write them to memory, had spotted ‘wenhua dageming’ a couple of times, remnant propaganda slogans daubed onto obscure back alley walls.
As Wim and his fellow old China Hands at the Foreign Students Dorm had pointed out, the Spiritual Pollution campaign currently hobbling their interactions with ordinary Chinese was an after-shock of the seismic national madness that gripped China from 1966. It was only Mao’s death a decade later that had ended the Cultural Revolution, but its corpse still twitched.
Clock had been the first Chinese person they’d ever heard say the phrase.
By now the bus had rumbled off. All but one of their former audience had somehow insinuated their way aboard.
The remaining passenger was the elegant, white-haired, but not particularly old-looking man. He hadn’t made any effort to board the bus.
He now stood a couple of steps away from Calum and Robert. Unlike the other passengers, already joining him, this man wasn’t staring at them.
He stood, his hands clasped behind his straight back, his eyes raised to the sky, but his head slightly tilted towards them, as if eavesdropping.
He wore the same faded cotton Mao suit as everyone else, but there was something oddly stylish about him – almost dapper.
Calum and Robert, still engrossed in their conversation, were oblivious to him and the rest of their new and growing audience.
Robert was now telling Calum what the older China hands at the Dorm had made of their disturbing conversation with Clock and Elvis.
‘You know Wim’s mate, that other Dutch bloke doing his doctorate on Chinese translations of English Literature?’, Robert was saying. ‘He’s been in China as long as Wim, and they’ve both heard many such stories. They reckoned it was perfectly plausible for Clock to have been incarcerated in that very classroom for years during the Cultural Revolution’.
Most of Calum and Robert’s bus stop audience were briefly distracted by the distant rumble of a bus.
Fascinating though watching the two laowai was, they had places to go, things to do.
It was, after all, December 25th, just a day like any other.
In Part 7, Dapper Man, we learn the identity of the man who chose to miss his bus.