The Hut at the End of the World

Places can hold space for greater understanding between countries and people, or to confrontation. Examples of both occurred in the same region, Hainan Province, the smallest of the provinces of the People’s Republic of China, known during the Qing dynasty as “End of Earth”, because it was so far from the country’s capital.

On April 1, 2001, an incident occurred in the South China Sea, one of the most strategically vital areas in the world, between a Chinese and a North American plane. The incident threatened to lead to war between China and the United States, just 10 weeks after George W. Bush’s inauguration as President of the United States.

That day, a North American EP-3 spy plane was operating near Hainan when it was intercepted by two Chinese J-8 military fighter jets. As a result of the collision of a Chinese aircraft with an American aircraft, one of the Chinese pilots died and the EP-3 was forced to make an emergency landing in Hainan. 24 members of the crew of the North American plane were detained and questioned by the Chinese authorities.

The crew of the North American plane (21 men and 3 women) were not released until 10 days later, when the United States delivered a letter explaining what happened to the Chinese authorities. The letter was called “of the two sorrows” as the Americans refused to apologize to the Chinese authorities for what happened. The letter said the United States was “sorry” for the death of Wang Wei, the Chinese pilot, and was also “sorry” that the plane had entered Chinese airspace.

The incident ended when the EP-3 aircraft was returned, fully disarmed, to the American authorities on a Russian Antonov An-124 aircraft. The Chinese sent a bill of $ 34,567.89 as payment for the disarmament and shipment of the EP-3 aircraft, and for the meals and accommodation of its crew. It was President George W. Bush’s first foreign policy crisis.

Unlike the disastrous incident in Hainan, another encounter took place in that same province, one that fostered friendship and understanding across culture lines. The event was narrated by Paula McDonald in a short story titled “Waltz at the End of Earth” (Travelers’ Tales: China). Paula, along with Joanne Turner, were two young North American professionals who were in China surveying the rain forests of southern China. They had arrived in Hainan after more than 18 hours of traveling by bus through inhospitable mountainous terrain and long ferry trips.

They eventually reached a roadside shack like many others that are a mix of home, mini restaurant, and zoo, a frequent combination in China. When the friends signaled that they wanted to eat, the owner of the place, an 80-year-old woman and her granddaughter brought them a rabbit accompanied by some vegetables and several cups of tea, in the overwhelming heat.

Soon after, the granddaughter went to do other tasks and only the old woman was left with the two young North Americans. The old woman then began to speak in very simple English and told her story. Before the Cultural Revolution in China, during which intellectuals had been savagely persecuted, the old woman had been a teacher, the daughter of diplomats and highly educated.

After the communists’ victory in China, the woman had been sent into exile to the remote island of Hainan, where she had survived under very precarious conditions. She then related the privileged life she had as a child. One of those memories was how, on one occasion, she had attended a great dance in Hong Kong where there were many English couples. The old woman heard a waltz for the first time, and saw couples dancing elegantly, arousing her enthusiasm and admiration. It made her wish that one day she could also dance a waltz like those young English women.

They continued talking and when Paula asked her if she regretted anything from her past, the old woman replied that the only thing she regretted was that she had never learned to dance a waltz. Now China had changed, she was an old woman with almost no strength and had no hope of doing so now. With a generous spirit, the young North American asked her if she did not want to dance a waltz now, in that place, while she begged God to remember one.

She suddenly remembered Blue Danube, and, taking the old woman by the hand, made her dance, stumbling at first and then more easily, while humming the chords of Strauss’s famous waltz. Suddenly, the old woman was transformed again into a young woman full of energy and, for a few moments, she forgot about the dramatic daily reality that she lived in Hainan. The happy face of the old Chinese woman was the best payment Paula had for her generous initiative. That encounter demonstrates how language and cultural barriers can be overcome by the essential goodness in people. The photo of Paula and the old woman today hangs proudly in the young American’s office.

Dr. Cesar Chelala is a co-winner of the 1979 Overseas Press Club of America award for the article “Missing or Disappeared in Argentina: The Desperate Search for Thousands of Abducted Victims.”