THE BUG IN THE LIGHT FIXTURE COULDN’T FLY
It had taken a few days, but we were learning the rules of life in China during the Cultural Revolution although they frequently didn’t make any sense to us. We were cautious, actually on guard at all times. Any critical conversation was reserved for moments when we might be walking alone for a bit of exercise, hopefully out of the hearing of whomever was following us.
Although, on occasion we used the conditions we knew existed to our own advantage. We all knew there were listening devices hidden somewhere in our rooms. We’d been warned of this condition before we left home. I found the one in my bedroom the first night when I turned on the lights. There in a vintage frosted glass-domed light fixture in the middle of the ceiling of my bedroom a little black listening device showed up quite clearly. The occasion when I used knowledge of this device to my own advantage concerned the one thin ragged towel and washcloth allotted me that had not been changed for four nights. While I didn’t expect the big fluffy bath towels I enjoy at home, I did feel it was time for a fresh dry replacement of what I had been using. Having whispered to Marge earlier in the evening that I needed her help, after dinner I led her to my room and stood her directly under the light fixture. Directing my words upward to the little black supposedly hidden device, which Marge could see clearly, I announced loudly, “Can you believe it Marge. They are trying so hard to do everything as nicely as possible for us, yet they only give me one thin little bath towel that hasn’t been changed for four days and is getting mildew.”
“I’ve had the same problem,” she replied, grasping the role I’d intended her to play.
We kept up idle conversation about the day’s work at the carpet fair, checking our watches to time the expected results of our experiment. Within four minutes the door burst open and a young attendant tore into the room. Two large clean towels and two washcloths were rushed wordlessly into my bathroom, the limp remnants of the previous four days disappearing with the retreating attendant.
Dinner conversation was guarded too. We were all convinced that we were exposed to ears other than those of employees who supposedly spoke no English at all. We talked about the carpets and the Fair. We discussed how the stir fried vegetables at this meal deferred from the ones at the previous meal — a different cut of the carrots, broccoli instead of cabbage, an unfamiliar mushroom.
Observations about guests at other tables were allowed. We noted the lowering level of the contents of the Nescafe jar always sitting on one table, or the bottle of red wine that went down by only an inch per meal at another.
Of particular interest to us was the destiny of a tiny almost valueless coin that rested in a glass dish on our table three meals a day. Evidently one of us had dropped the coin unknowingly the first day. Or they thought one of us had. So there it sat, every meal, as dependable as the late night visits of Comrade Sung.
Our last night in Tientsin someone finally braved the issue and asked the elderly white-coated waiter who spoke some English from pre-1949 days when he’d worked in an English-speaking home and had served us every meal. He explained that the little coin would be kept for six months. If no one claimed it by then the coin would be put into the employee’s fund.
We’d been warned of such situations. There were tales from returning Europeans of being chased down a train station platform by a hotel employee waving torn panty hose or a beaten up discarded bra that had been retrieved from a hotel room waste basket. Or less embarrassingly one report concerned having a bus halted until a bicyclist brought some rumpled papers found under a desk. It really was quite impossible to throw away anything short of banana skins or tangerine peels, without finding them neatly folded on top of the dresser the next day.
Kathleen Fetner, Technical Advisor and Friend