Untitled by Chen Yu
Pingpong Diplomacy And Playboy™
Chairman Mao had only been dead four years.
And there I was: In what was touted at the time as the largest city in the world , with a population between 12 and 14 million souls. Communist souls.
The city was brown. Buildings, streets, the air: All brown. Especially the air. Remembering that year, it seems that everything was brown except for the clothes everyone, I mean everyone wore: Drab, baggy, dull blue, green or gray Chairman Mao suits. That's what we called them. Oh, and those Mao caps with the red star on them. I have one. It was given to me by the young man who's the subject of this story.
There were no gleaming skyscrapers, no Gucci billboards, no futuristic buildings like the ones we Americans saw in Jetson cartoons. Cars? Forget it. Millions of bicycles with maddening bells ching-chinging constantly. It made one almost long for the sounds of traffic and horns honking in European or North American cities.
And there I was. Working for that evil evil oil service company Halliburton, subcontracted to the equally evil British Petroleum ( pre-Gulf spill years ). BP was drilling an exploration well in the Yellow Sea, about two hours helicopter flight from Shanghai. Aboard the semi-submersible oil rig, the Bo-Hai 8, we did our jobs.
During the down times on the rig, there was a recreation room with, what else, a pingpong table. Who would have guessed? (Nixon, of course).
One afternoon I was playing pingpong with the radio operator. He was about 22 years old, and the only one of the some 92 Chinese workers I encountered on the rig who was learning English at the time.
So there we were knocking that little white diplomatic ball back and forth when suddenly he grabbed my return volley and stopped the game.
With a mischievous grin on his face he asked me unflinchingly, " You have Prayboy magazine??" ( Yes, "PRayboy") I was stunned. I replied, "No, I don't. But Chairman Mao would not approve of that!!"
Not missing a beat, he screwed up his face in mock anger like the one character in this Chen Yu painting and said, "Chairman Mao is DEAD!! Chairman Mao NOT SEE!! I want PRayboy magazine!!"
I laughed and was utterly amazed. Amazed at how, despite waving Mao's Little Red Book every evening at propaganda meetings aboard the rig, despite the red stars on their caps, despite the decades of ideological brainwashing, despite our diplomatic tiptoeing around certain subject matters at that time, the Communist Party's proletariat workers really wanted Prayboy magazine.
I always brought the latest issue of Architectural Digest with me, and the Chinese workers would look at it and dismiss it as "buhaio", or, loosely transliterated, "no good". Too bourgeois, I suppose. But "Prayboy?"
Well, after all, Chairman Mao was dead.
And he still is!
December 19, 2011
© 2011 R. Burnett Baker