Duluthians in a changing China

Confucius, China's most influential philosopher, once said, "Wherever you go, go with all your heart." His wisdom was heeded by two Duluthians who, separated by 60 years, each visited Confucius' homeland and have vivid tales to tell. ******* In J...

Bob Olson
While serving in China, Bob Olson stayed in a vacated school for girls. These two Chinese houseboys, Lou and Chan, worked there. To Bob, they were like little brothers. Submitted photo

Confucius, China's most influential philosopher, once said, "Wherever you go, go with all your heart."

His wisdom was heeded by two Duluthians who, separated by 60 years, each visited Confucius' homeland and have vivid tales to tell.


In July 1946, the U.S.S. General Breckenridge followed an American submarine up the mine-laden Yangzi River and docked in Shanghai.

World War II was over, and America, fresh from the victory, was a newly emboldened nation. China, after years of military occupation by Japan, was being torn in two.


The Communists of China regularly attacked the Nationalist government, and the outcome of their clashes was anything but certain.

The Marines came to help the Nationalists.

The ship's officers disembarked in Shanghai and the officer of the deck stood guard by the gangplank.

The rest of the crew -- the grunts -- weren't allowed to go ashore.

Onboard, 16-year-old Bob Olson and three of his shipmates waited for darkness to fall.

Once it was dark, they quietly stole across the deck and slid down the oil-coated cable that tethered the ship to the dock.

They hid in an alley and changed into clean clothes. Then they headed off to see the town.

Bob had grown up in Duluth, another port town, but the Shanghai waterfront on a hot July night was a dazzlingly different world: crowded, exotic and exciting.


On the streets, rickshaws and bicycle rickshaws zigzagged between pedestrians. Cars were a rarity.

The four young American men were glad to feel land underfoot.

In khaki uniforms, they stood out as they threaded their way through the crowds of men, women and children, most of whom were clothed in floor-length garments or draped traditionally in long pieces of fabric. Some carried loads on their heads, others shouldered wooden yokes from which hung heavy containers, Bob remembers.

Bob and his companions had been given no cultural sensitivity or language training while on their way to China.

They were treated graciously; and, adds Bob, "American money was well received."

They spent the night wandering around the city, stopping at honky tonks and exploring.

When the four young servicemen returned to the river the next day, they had no way to board the ship and stood helplessly on the dock, scratching their heads.

The officer of the deck was surprised.


"Boy, oh boy, now I've seen everything -- you guys are something else." He rolled his eyes and shouted, "OK, come on up."

Docked near and floating past the powerful ship were numerous sampans, the flat-bottom wooden boats that were a mainstay on the Yangzi in the 1940s.

Sampan captains quickly learned to keep clear of the General Breckenridge, because her crew sank any that came too close with a high-pressure fire hose.

It is telling that this rough use of American might was essentially left unchallenged.

"I didn't think it was right," Bob recalls.

The Americans weighed anchor and traveled north to Tanku.

Bob and most of the Marines unloaded and traveled by land to Tangshan, a major hub of the Chinese coal industry. There Bob was a rifleman with an assault platoon.

Their unit was assigned to protect coal production and transportation from attacks by the Communists.


They guarded the power stations that provided electricity for the mine pumps that kept water out where 5,000 men toiled.

They also guarded the coal trains, standing in them and sometimes on top of them, as well as protecting the tracks and bridges used by the coal trains.

The Americans stayed in a vacated Japanese school for girls. Two Chinese houseboys, Lou and Chan, worked there. To Bob, they were like little brothers.

Years later, when Bob served in the Korean War and fought against Chinese soldiers, he wondered sadly if the two houseboys might have been among the men he fought in battle.

Bob has fond memories of China. In addition to Tangshan, he served in Peking (Beijing) and elsewhere. His unit left China at the end of May 1947.

Has he ever gone back? No -- but he would like to.


Sixty-two years later, on Feb. 13, 2009, another young man from Duluth was bound for China. Zac White had graduated from St. John's University in 2008 and had studied in China for one semester.


Now he was aboard a crowded aircraft, a Maryknoll volunteer, winging his way to Hong Kong.

He and four Roman Catholic workers were going to China to teach English.

He was greeted at the airport and was brought to a Maryknoll building in historic Hong Kong.

There he met the four other volunteers: Charles Duffy, 78; Mary Jane DiFiore, 62; John Berning, 23; and Kevin DiPalma.

Over the course of a week, they were prepared for the next leg of their journey -- Zhangjing, the second largest city in Guangdong, a province noteworthy for the presence of foreign manufacturing companies and, like the rest of mainland China, the absence of foreign clergy.

In mainland China, Zac said, all clergy must be approved by the Chinese authorities.

In Zhangjing, Zac and three of the other volunteers worked as English-language teachers at the Zhangjing Normal School, a college for teachers.

The college was located in the section of Zhanjiang known as Chikan.


Another section of town, Xiashan, was where one could find the foreign district; Chikan, by contrast, was wholly Chinese.

As a result, Zac and his fellow teachers stood out as the only foreigners in Chikan. It didn't hurt, Zac adds, that one of the volunteers, John, was 6-foot-4 and had dark blonde hair.

One time, Zac and John were walking to Wal-Mart, and two little kids between 7 and 10 years of age spied them.

"The kids yelled, 'Hello,' and when we answered 'Hello,' they ran." Then the children, suspended between fear and fascination, tried to touch the foreigners. When they succeeded, "they got super scared and ran away," Zac remembers, laughing.

Zac noticed that the Chinese made a distinction between Americans, whom they embraced, and American policy, which they sometimes found objectionable.

Zac also came to appreciate that, for the Chinese, having contact with a foreigner in their country was the only way some of them would ever meet foreigners, because most would never be allowed to go abroad, even if they were talented.

His best student, whose English was excellent and who longed to travel, acknowledged that she would probably never step outside the borders of China because her middle-class parents weren't rich or politically powerful. Everyone in China is required to carry an ID card, Zac said, but relatively few are given the privilege of obtaining a passport and traveling abroad.

Zac was surprised when his students sometimes said that they were going to attend a brother's or sister's birthday party.

"What about the one-child policy?" he wondered. Answer: the policy only applies to urban couples, although it is sometimes enforced in villages.

After six months, Zac was reassigned to the city of Jilin in the province of the same name in far northern China. He left China July 19.

Would he like to go back? "Absolutely," he said with a big smile.

Patra Sevastiades last covered the Northland circa the Korean War for the Budgeteer. She loves language and can be reached via .

Zac White
More than six decades after Bob Olson was stationed in China, another Northlander, recent college graduate Zac White <i>(right)</i>, also experienced the vast nation. He is pictured here with a friend. Submitted photo

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