Thursday, February 22, 2007

Nixon in China: Nobody said it had to make sense....

This week, at least on NPR, is the 35th anniversary of Nixon's famous 1972 trip to China. That year, the Mandarin was in his second year of the PhD program in Chinese at Indiana University, having completed his military service the year before. The Mandarin can recall several people that week congratulating him on having chosen the right field of study. Now that Nixon (the arch-Red baiter of our time) and his puppeteer Kissinger had "opened China," the sky would be the limit for prescient guys like the Mandarin who had chosen to study the language and culture of Nixon's new best friends.

But there was irony, and irony can sometimes be bitter. That year the Mandarin was half-way through a prized three-year government-sponsored National Defense Language Fellowship (NDFL), paying a princely $2,500 a year. Remember munchkins, this was 1972 and a gallon of gas cost 35¢ and $2.00 at the White Castle would buy you four sliders (small square cheeseburgers), three small fries and two Cokes. Don't ask the Mandarin how he knows this....

Anyway, while Nixon was literally (and the Mandarin means that literally) on the ground in China, with the bruises from all that congratulatory back-slapping still stinging on the Mandarin's 23-year-old back, he got a letter from the government canceling his fellowship eighteen months early. The explanation came later: now that China was our bosom buddy, the Defense Department didn't need so many of us studying that particular potential enemy's lingo. The big winners: students of languages of the next big strategic focus. Arabic you say? Foreshadowing our recent liberation of Iraq? Russian? Farsi? But no. Au contraire, that year's big winners were students of African languages, especially Swahili. Go figure.

Another memorable shot from that trip shows the ebullient Pat Nixon touring something-Maoist-or-other:
Since this is "The Mandarin," here is what the signs say.

Left side: Haidian district of Beijing city, Sijiqing People's Commune, REVOLUTIONARY COMMITTEE.

Right side: Chinese Communist Party, Beijing city Haidian district, SIJIQING COMMUNE COMMITTEE.

Sijiqing 四季青 (literally "four seasons green") is a neighborhood in Beijing's Haidian District, in the northwestern suburbs of the city. In those days, it was a so-called "model commune" and every international visitor was dutifully trooped through it to see Mao's better way. At least until the commune system was abandoned in the 1980s as a colossal failure....

A sharp-eyed reader may also notice a younger Helen Thomas in the right part of the doorway, the only female journalist among the dozens of big-name reporters that accompanied the Nixons on their trip.

The characters on the red sign visible through the opening are the 人民公 part of 人民公社, the Chinese for "People's Commune," in Chairman Mao's own glorious calligraphy. The Mandarin's knees grow weak at the memory.

Ah, boys and girls, those were the good old days....

1 comment:

Blue Girl, Red State said...

You were a prescient lad, weren't you?

I remember the Nixon trip. I was in grade school, but I remember it.

I am just enough younger than you that I paid a buck a gallon from the get-go. In fact, the cheapest gas prices in my lifetime were during the Clinton administration - I paid $.78 a gallon in late 1999 or early 2000.