Breaking down the walls

A Walla Walla Valley artist gets a view of China form the inside as a temporary expat.


Living in a communist country is eye opening, especially one so different from Walla Walla.

Not that long ago, I would have never imagined it possible to be able to live and work in the Peoples Republic of China.

My wife Kathryn and I have been here now for two months. She works for Honeywell International, an avionics company, and was asked to go to China to train employees there in her expertise: email for pilots.

She had to work to get me to come along on the three-month assignment; I hate flying.

For weeks we were never sure we would get acceptance to work in China. Once we arrived there were more hoops, including a full physical exam, complete with blood draw, EKG, chest X-rays and bone exam.

But living here gives one a whole different perspective on living back in the Walla Walla Valley — some things quite pleasant and others, well, just different.

Our day is your night. We viewed the Olympics on Central China TV, where the focus was on Chinese athletes.

There is no Bill O’Reilly, and even CNN is broadcast out of Hong Kong with a British accent.

The lack of American news is almost refreshing, especially right now during the presidential politics and the reports of gun violence.

Our driver in Shanghai is 35, and I was trying to talk to him about the news regarding the recent shooting in the Colorado theater. He said he has never seen a gun. I told him I owned three.

His jaw dropped.

“Three!?” he said, while making a hand sign in the shape of a pistol.

Last weekend we hiked along the Great Wall and walked through the Forbidden City in Beijing. Our Chinese hosts insist on taking us everywhere and want to impress us with their country.

At the behest of our driver we met his wife, mother, grandfather and daughter in their narrow four-room apartment. His daughter “Kitty” — most young Chinese have an extra American name — waved a U.S. flag and greeted us in the parking lot.

We were treated to Cokes. Then Kitty performed a complicated piano piece and she showed us her ‘A’ grades in English studies. I sketched a portrait of her on the spot for a thank-you. She looked at it and smiled proudly.

I have been playing basketball in Shanghai at a Hoop Park outdoors and recently played in Beijing in a half-badminton, half-basketball indoor court. The guys are mostly young and play very aggressive but very clean ball.

Basketball has a language of its own and is culture leveling. I have been able to get a little closer to the average person here talking to the guys during the breaks in play, while getting much needed exercise.

Kathryn comes home to the Marriott apartment and works-out there. She misses the step aerobics classes with Laura Lee Cummins at the YMCA.

While Kathryn is at work I have been the domestic and have been painting several images of Chinese markets, canals and temples we’ve visited. I’ve also completed a couple of commissions for patrons in Walla Walla.

I expected China to be more closed and secretive, with possibly a feeling of being watched all the time. Although there are cameras everywhere, the younger generation play down and don’t even say the word “communist.”

In Shanghai, high-rise buildings are being constructed everywhere. There is an amazing amount of growth, the skyline is unending.

We had a 16-course dinner with our hosts from Honeywell and we talked a little history. But once I mentioned Tiananmen Square, the youngest person raised his finger to his mouth and said, “Be careful Jeff, we don’t mention June 4th in China.”

In another conversation weeks later, we were asked to compare our views of China growing up in America and our views of China now. I related images of mass gatherings of green-uniform-clad people waving Mao’s the Red Book. Our hosts frowned and reprimanded me by saying this

“Jeff, you must think and realize … the period of Mao’s history in China is only a pin-prick in a timeline of thousands of years.”

He was right.

On the other hand, during our gasp at the engineering feat of the Great Wall, we noticed massive Chinese lettering on the mountain next to the wall. I asked what they meant.

“Oh,” Zhong Yi (James) told me, “those say be respectful of Mao.”

Jeffrey Hill is a fourth-generation Walla Walla Valley resident and widely known painter and sculptor.


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