In 1979, the Youyi Binguan, the Friendship Hotel in Haidian district, was one of the few places in Beijing where foreigners were allowed to live. Nearly all of Beijing’s “Foreign experts” lived there. Coming from San Diego, I was not completely mono-cultural, but still, I met people from parts of the world I’d never met before: Cuba, Albania, Ghana.
But one of the more interesting characters I encountered came from closer to home. Jerry was originally from Berkeley. From a distance, he looked like someone you’d find in a Marin Jacuzzi with a glass of chilled white wine (this was, after all, the late 70s). But if he were still in Marin, he’d probably have been in better shape. Jerry was in his mid thirties, and he looked like a boy who had aged without necessarily having grown up, round face collapsing into creases and lines, skin graying around the eyes and temples, blond hair fading into the same gray. Jerry and his wife and baby son left the United States in 1968, disgusted and frightened by what they saw as the fascist trend in the country during Vietnam. Since then, the family had been back for a few months at a time, but mostly they’d lived abroad. Jerry and his wife had taught English in Denmark, in Greece, Lebanon, Iran, other places I can’t remember.
What did stick in my mind was that Jerry seemed to have spectacularly bad timing. They always seemed to land in a country just in time for it to have a revolution or some sort of violent conflict (Denmark excepted). I think Jerry told me he’d been through five or six revolutions. But Jerry said a lot of strange things. He would casually mention little incidents like: the time he and his son were kidnapped by guerillas in Lebanon and held at machine-gun-point, but it was okay, because they were released twenty-four hours later.
Stuff like this might explain why his son was so weird. Chris was a pudgy, round-cheeked kid who looked so much like Jerry and so little like his mother that we were sure he was Jerry’s clone (the mother, who came to China after Jerry and their son we had figured for a Lindsey Wagner, hippy Earth mother type. Instead she looked disturbingly like Suzanne Pleshette). The kid had trouble making friends, and he was a compulsive liar. Once he was late for dinner, and Jerry started to talk to him, very calmly, like a good Marin dad: “You know, Chris, we’ve talked about this before, you have to take responsibility for yourself -” Chris started to argue. Then Jerry got mad and broke into Farsi and settled the matter.
Once I asked Jerry about train routes through Asia and the Mid-East back to Europe, wanting to know if it was possible for me to do that.
“Oh, sure,” he said. “You can take a train through the Khyber Pass. If you don’t mind the snipers. A friend of mine was killed that way,” he added vaguely.
Jerry often told us how much he loved his time in Iran. “The Iranians are warm and wonderful people,” he would say. “My students were just fantastic. Two of my favorites were taken up into the hills and shot last week.”
During our time in Beijing, the hostage crisis and Iran were favorite topics of conversation among the Foreign Experts in the dining hall. One time Emma, my friend Paul’s mother, got into a terrible argument with another American about Iran and the Shah. Later, as we walked to catch a bus at Building Number One, Emma asked Jerry what he thought.
“The Shah…” he said at length. “No one really understands about the Shah.” He smiled, staring straight ahead. “The thing about the Shah…” He trailed off. Shook his head. Ice crunched under our boots.
“The thing about Jerry,” Emma said after that, “is that you always think he’s going to say something profound, and then he never does.”
Paul and I were nonetheless fascinated by Jerry. We could send each other into paroxysms of giggles just by saying, “the Shah…” To us, he was the perfect example of a Californian abroad, one of us in a way, even if he was lots older and kind of strange. Maybe we were waiting for him to say something profound.
One time, the three of us, Paul, Jerry and I, were walking back to our building after dinner. Paul and I were talking about what it would be like, back in the United States. We passed the mortarless brick will that had only recently appeared and was already collapsing. No one knew why it was there as there didn’t seem to be anything behind it. Maybe it was just a new place to pile bricks. Paul and I talked about how much we were looking forward to going back to school; having had this great experience at our young ages, we would be able to go in there and know what we wanted and be self-motivated and accomplish all sorts of worthwhile and wonderful things.
“No, you won’t,” Jerry said suddenly. “You’re doing all this too young. You’ll go back to school, and all the kids your age will seem so young, and you won’t be able to relate to them, and you’ll sit in your classes, and you won’t respect your professors because most of them have spent all their time in academia and they won’t understand either. You’ll get frustrated and restless, and you won’t finish. You’ll just be a couple of young burnouts.”