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The International Writers Magazine: History

The Summer of '78 - As the Door Opened to China - My Visit to Hong Kong & How I Was Not Able to Visit Mainland China
• Maria Ausherman

As the daughter of a world-renowned Dutch Reformed Church minister who is one of the top experts on global public health issues, American foreign policy always intrigues me.
Hong Kong

 Not content to become an adversarial lawyer specializing in immigration policy loopholes and reforms because I do not agree with customary procedures, my earliest internships at the beginning of my career revolved around ministry to needy people from other countries as distant as Taiwan, Hong Kong, Mexico and even Holland and England. After being congratulated by Al Poppen, the administer in charge of overseas work from his office at the Upper West Side Church World Service headquarters at 475 Riverside Drive, I happily packed one of my two new yellow suitcases I received for my high school graduation from my aunt, Rosa Harthman, and travelled to JFK Airport from my home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina where I was a Geography Major at the University of North Carolina.

What began as an efficient one-day excursion ended up being a three-day delay at a Queens, New York airport motel not too far from the plane that supposedly needed wing repair.  Rather than allowing us to spend our waiting time as New York City tourists, all of the passengers were forced to stay cooped up inside the motel without any access to the outside world.  I had to share a large bed with a young Chinese woman who spoke no English not unlike Ishmael and Queequeg in an early chapter of Moby Dick.   

Between badly prepared meals at the large convention room, I practiced my field hockey drills and ran up and down the fire escape stairs since I had just become a Varsity player of the UNC-CH Women’s Field Hockey Team.  During each meal at the motel, members of the airline crew stood behind a podium and tried to convince us that the plane was almost ready for boarding.  When I was finally able to find a phone that worked, I contacted my parents about the ordeal only to learn from them that the plane to Hong Kong already had been included in a small, one-paragraph article within the New York Times – an event that today would receive more accurate coverage with a headline like “Americans Held Hostage for Three Days at JFK Airport.”

Since I was young, optimistic, and ambitious, I did not argue as much as the other mistreated passengers and quickly brushed away the rather frightening incident from my mind when I reached the Hong Kong airport and was warmly greeted by my supervisor, Reverend Wendell Karsen, and his son, Steve.  Many photographs document my summer of 1978 spent in Hong Kong.  One shows the corner of my brand new yellow suitcase opened on top of a large wooden dresser in my room at the British YMCA in Victoria Peak.  The dresser stands in front of an open window lined with wispy cotton floral curtains overlooking a built-in swimming pool, and beyond that, the South China Sea, and furthest in the distance along the horizon, Chinese-owned Kowloon.

For one week at the Victoria Peak YMCA, the other three teachers and I daily met with Reverend Karsen to prepare all of our lessons, and in our spare time, I enjoyed time to myself running at dawn before work and then after work, walking more leisurely throughout the city.  During sunrise I could see elderly men and women quietly practicing the deliberately slow tai-chi movements on flat roof-tops along the hillside, and rolling up their metal doors that protected their glass storefronts showcasing their products for sale. In the late afternoons, my favorite destination was an aviary where pedestrians could wander while carrying their pet birds in wooden cages.  Our field trips as a group included the viewing of a Malaysia vs. Hong Kong pro-soccer game in Happy Valley, a dumpling supper in a floating docked-boat restaurant, a tour of the tall new towers where upper middle-class families lived in comfortable one-room apartments and cooked in outdoor hallways, and a luncheon inside the impressive,first-in-the-world, two-storied McDonalds  where customers were prone to save their paper cups as keepsakes.

After our week of preparation and orientation, a ferry took us to Lantau Island – now the site of Hong Kong’s newest airport – where we would teach at a secluded beachside boarding school next to a juevenile detention center.  Everyday I ran a few miles with my field hockey stick as I had been instructed to do by my college field hockey coach, Dolly Hunter.  During my runs, I viewed Vietnamese boat people who never touched the ground during my entire two-month stay.  Sometimes I invited my female high school students to join me, but they all politely declined and explained they preferred to study and complete homework instead.

Passing the state exams was always on everybody’s mind.  No one wanted to fail because an “F” could seal their fates as poorly paid factory workers, and often students who failed committed suicide.  I was astonished to learn that every one of my students hoped to attend universities in England, Canada, or the United States.  It saddened me that when I asked them what would happen if they left their families and friends behind, they just shrugged and smiled.

That entire summer I tried my best to let my students know that I believed their country was wonderful and worthy of being treasured rather than neglected.  I loved the small pagoda Buddhist and Confucius pagoda temples dotting the wooded hillsides near waterfalls where hikers could stop and pray.  I enjoyed playing soccer with very skillful participants on a grassy field next to the calm saltwater of the bay where we lived and worked.  I appreciated travelling occasionally to the small town at the southern tip of the island that could only be approached by giving a coin to a strong elderly woman who would then pull a thick rope to make our small flat wooden boat reach the opposite shore of the inland stream each time we had to cross it to be on our way.

Leaving the island left us all holding back tears of sadness because we knew we would never see each other again.  The night before our departure from Lantau Island, the high school students gave me a surprise birthday party by drawing a cake on the blackboard.  We enjoyed potato chips, orange slices and hot tea between John Travolta imitations of Saturday Night Live disco dances, martial arts demonstrations, and the handing out of achievement certificates. After parting our ways, I spent the last two very rainy days inside the Kowloon YMCA.  My scheduled train tour through mainland China had been cancelled due to an unexpected typhoon.  Although my window of opportunity to see the mainland in its most pristine condition during the Open Door policy was forever lost, I looked forward to my return home where I could reconnect with my family and friends, and continue my studies.
- end-
© Maria Ausherman January 2012

A teacher for over twenty years, Maria Ausherman is the author of The Photographic Legacy of Frances Benjamin Johnston (Gainesville, University Press of Florida, 2009) and the co-author of Georgia O’Keeffe’s Hawaii (Maui, Koa Books, 2011).  She has helped to restore three historic homes, and occasionally, she volunteers at the Morris Jumel mansion.  

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