SAN DIEGO — In summer, most people in China--both men and women--wear white shirts and dark blue or gray pants. Our group of 44 senior citizens looked like a flock of exotic tropical birds dropped in their midst. We had been warned that the climate in China in August is hot, and that we should be prepared with all-cotton, wash-and-wear clothing. To most of us, that translated into plaid shirts and blouses in bright shades of blue, red and yellow, and cotton slacks, often also in bright colors.
We were Elderhostel pioneers. Elderhostel, an educational program for men and women 60 or more years of age, has participants in colleges in all 50 states, 10 Canadian provinces and 25 foreign countries. This was the first Elderhostel trip to the People's Republic of China; meeting the Chinese people as a student rather than as a tourist was a rare opportunity.
In Peking, where our plane landed, our colorful clothing occasioned only a few stares. Peking is on a well-trodden tourist path. It was quite a different story when we arrived at our first college destination in Shijiazhuong.
Leaving the railroad station, we walked a block to the main street, where we were to meet our college bus. No bus. One of our guides set off to find out what had happened, but we had no need to feel neglected. In our short walk, a crowd of at least 100 people had gathered. It swelled to twice that number when we stopped at the side of the street and put down our luggage. If we had come from another planet on a space ship, the local people couldn't have been more amazed.
At first, they stayed on the opposite side of the street, but gradually they edged closer, and soon we were surrounded. One Elderhosteler passed around pictures of his grandchildren. A young man with a sketchy knowledge of English became a hero by asking questions and translating our answers. Who were we? Why were we here? By the time the bus came half an hour later, they all had many tales to tell their relatives about the strange, gray-haired Westerners in plaid shirts that they had seen and talked to down on Main Street.
Our three-week college program, first at Shijiazhuong and later at Chengde Teachers College, dealt with many aspects of China, past and present. How different from reading books!
Our morning lectures on ancient history came alive when we visited palaces and temples built in the 7th Century. Lectures on medicine and education were followed by observation of acupuncture in a hospital and an English class at the local upper-middle school.
Modern history and politics became real when our professor described his tumultuous life as a teen-ager during the Cultural Revolution. Chinese music was demonstrated by 10 musicians who explained their traditional instruments and played a concert for us.
We practiced our conversational Chinese whenever we visited the "open markets" that provide a place for local farmers and craftsmen to sell their vegetables, fruit and straw mats. "Niehow!" (hello) we would say to the small children. They would collapse in giggles--evidently our accent left much to be desired.
As we visited factories, collective farms, a nursery school and a wushu (gymnastics) performance, we found that the Chinese people were as interested in learning about us as we were interested in learning about them. One question many of us were asked was, "How much money do your children send you each month?" They could hardly believe it when we said that, in America, the cash flow was more likely to be in the opposite direction.
Our final meal in Chengde was a formal farewell banquet, attended by all the college dignitaries and officials from the provincial education commission and the foreign service office. They proposed toasts with White Wall wine to peace, to pleasant journeys, to health, to long life. Each toast was followed by the Chinese word "Gombei!" which means "bottoms up." The toasts proposed by the Plaid Shirt Gang were equally enthusiastic.
To the people of China, our best wishes for peace, for your happiness and prosperity, and for achievement of all your dreams. Gombei!