The Chinese Twilight Zone

Chinese Twilight Zone


This next installment is another collection of memories. I was only 7 years old when this took place. I remember a great many things in great detail, and others are just impressions.


My family traveled a great deal when I was young. Our trips would last between three and four weeks. Although the trips were usually very luxurious, my mom was insistent we went everywhere, regardless of the comforts available.


The focus of this trip was China. The Mexican nuclear family of four living in Palos Verdes was going to communist China in 1983. I do not know how long the trip took to plan, but let us remember that this was the time before cell phones, before computers, before fax machines!!!! Everything that had to be organized had to be done over the phone, by wire or translated. Very often we had to depend on diplomatic channels to make arrangements.


Roll Call:

  • Alejandro Luna Sr. My father was 6’4” and probably around 325 pounds. He was a mountain of a human. He was extraordinarily well dressed with a violent temper and deeply bigoted tendencies.
  • Susana Luna. My mother stood at a perfect 5’6” and had a beautiful athletic body. In my youth, my mother was never out of high heels and dressed to impeccably. She was fascinated by traveling and learning about all people from other cultures.
  • Alejandro Luna Jr. He was 9 years old and I would assume about my mother’s height. At the time he was a bit chubby with thick black hair and dark caramel eyes. He had huge dimples and enjoyed bossing me around.
  • Jorge Luna. 7 years old and shorter then my brother. I had green/hazel eyes with blonde/light brown curly hair. I was cute in an awkward way and was a total momma’s boy.


First stop: Beijing

We flew first class all the way to China! It turns out that through the work of my mom and our amazing travel agent we received a diplomatic pickup. That’s right, we did not stay at a hotel. We stayed in diplomatic housing that was part of the Forbidden City. To put this in perspective, we were staying in a huge palace where each of us had a separate wing!!! No joke.


Picture the luxury of Hidden Dragon Crouching Tiger and then put an awkward gayish Mexican boy staying in a palace in his own wing with seven or eight rooms to himself! That happened.


Dinner you ask……a full diplomatic affair with heads of state and a 10 or 12-course dinner. Everything about where we were staying was from another world. My entire family was in awe!!

You might be asking yourself, how was my family even admitted into China when it was closed off to tourism at the time. That’s when the Mexican part of us really helped. Mexico had a long-standing relationship with Russia (and therefore China) because of its communist roots. Getting visas… se puede!


So this part all seems incredible, but let’s remember that we were strangers in a foreign land. There were no hotels for foreigners available in those times. We began our tour, led by a private guide in a large black diplomatic car. In a sea of pedestrians and old bicycles, we were moving in a luxury automobile.


I remember looking out the window and seeing widespread poverty the likes of which I had never seen in Mexico. Admittedly I grew up in privilege in Mexico City, but real poverty was everywhere in Mexico. And still I had not ever seen anything like that.


Children had slits in their pants so that they could squat and defecate on the street. Many children were mostly naked and beyond filthy and malnourished. The sheer amount of people was overwhelming. The shantytowns and hovels that people called homes were in makeshift spaces covering most of the landscape. It was shocking and deeply tragic.


I remember going into the Forbidden City to tour. Almost no one was inside. The riches of the palaces were overwhelming, especially in comparison to poverty just meters away. One room after another was filled with treasures from fairy tales.


Slowly a small crowd began to circulate my family. We did not notice at first but after an hour or so of our guided tour, we noticed Chinese people circling us like modern paparazzi. More intriguing then the forbidden city to the Chinese was my family. I can only describe people’s expressions when they saw my father like a young boy seeing Jaba the Hut. Complete disbelief. How did such a human exist?


I clearly remember in a courtyard of the palace; a middle-aged Chinese man had circled my father for a long time. He had measured his words. He approached delicately and in a thick accent but with confidence, he asked, “How are you so fat?”.


OMFG!!! He poked the bear in the cage. Before he could react, my mom swept him aside and moved my family out of the courtyard swiftly.


After a few days in Beijing, where it was unclear whether we were sightseeing or whether we were on display for the masses, we went to see the Terracotta Warriors. This was a magical opportunity! They were still in the original burial site and not even completely excavated. It was incredible. Thousands of them in a row. Identical, covered in dust and lit by miners’ lamps!


Apart from the warriors, it was my brother’s turn and me to be the main attraction. My preadolescent brother was chubby and almost every Chinese passing woman would pinch his cheeks. Within a few days of being in China, my brother had developed a reflex response to swap away people’s hands trying to pinch his dimples and cheeks.


I on the hand had a multitude of people pulling and ripping out my hair. It must be that not very many people in communist China had seen blonde curly hair. We assumed they thought it was a wig or something. It’s a strange experience to feel like people can’t believe you’re really real. And it’s even weirder than the social norm there even permitted them to think they could touch me! I mean seriously, who goes up to a foreign child and rips out their hair?!


Our time in Beijing was pretty amazing. It was the stuff that old movies were made off: there was almost no tourism, no hotels, tons of culture, two totally different worlds colliding.


We went to see the Terra Cotta Warriors, inside of caves. Thousands of them! It was breathtaking. To me, they seemed like millions of huge toys to play with. My family was awestruck.


Our trip continued to Wei Lin to go and see Pandas. I saw no Pandas!! I got strep throat and was confined to our gross like hostel accommodations. There was one hotel in town, because of the Pandas. The carpet resembled a horrible murder scene, the towels with deeply stained and so threadbare that all of them had big holes. The rest is a blur, just boiling hot teas and a fever that would not quit. My mom turned into Dr. Quinn Medicine woman and saw me through.


Perhaps in an unconscious jealous thrust, he also fell ill, but not until we arrived in Shanghai. Perhaps it was one of our meals where we politely declined the delicacy of roasted field mice at one of the best restaurants in town. The food was rough.


My dad was so ill we ended up having to go to a doctor’s office: it resembled a haunted surgical wing that had been abused by a mental institution. No joke, the walls were splattered with blood and dirt crusted into the grey-green tile. As we waited, the nurses circled my mom, my brother and me. Like wolves stalking their prey. I have no memory of my dad being seen by the doctor, but I remember the moment one of the nurses tried to take me from my mom.


The nurse repeatedly told my mom how fortunate she was to have two children, and to make it even better, two boys!! She begged my mom in broken English to leave me with her for a few months. She assured my mom she would take the very best care of me. Despite her broken English, I understood the proposal; I have never held my mother harder; I tied my arms and legs around hers hiding in the folds of her large skirt. I was truly petrified.


On our way out of China, we stopped in Hong Kong for a few days of relaxation and sightseeing. The luxury of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel and Hong Kong was an alarming contrast to the two weeks we spent in Mainland China. It was almost impossible to comprehend how a place so close was soo different.


This story, this collection of memories, has always stuck with me. There are many more, but they would be boring and mundane. And yet, it was the little parts of that trip that never left my mind. Other than being in Arica, I had never seen a culture so different. Government oppression and poverty were rampant. The amalgamation of wealth in specific places was incomprehensible. There was a sadness to the entire trip; an emotional deprivation that permeated everyone and everything.


I’m sad to say I have not had the opportunity to return to Mainland China since that trip. From what I see it’s vastly different. The modernization looks amazing and terrifying. I wonder how a trip now would shift my consciousness about this place and about how we each think we fit into the world around us.


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