Years ago, when actor John Goodman and his Louisiana-born wife set up housekeeping in a mansion in New Orleans, Times-Picayune café society columnist Betty Guillaud wrote about them and their new digs so often that locals started driving by to gawk. The TV and movie star called the editor to complain, but he was growling up the wrong tree: Our high-brow leader had not seen even one episode of “Roseanne” and completely failed to grasp the problem. John … who?
I got to thinking about that the other day while traveling in China with a food writers’ group. Why don’t celebrities enjoy being gawked at? I just loved it, for 10 days feeling famous and flattered in this big country where very few women measure up to 5 feet, 9 inches; really old folks like me mostly stay at home; and few people with heads of snowy white hair are seen on the streets.
I got wide grins, high-fives, thumbs-ups, and couldn’t count the times cute young Chinese girls sidled up and politely asked to pose alongside me — this venerable wonder from the western world — while their boyfriends snapped our portrait. How old are you, they invariably asked, and the answer — 76 — got gasps of astonishment. Older Chinese women just wanted to touch fingertips.
When I walked outside a store to survey the street scene, two young men hastily wiped clean a table and some chairs under a canopy along the pavement and insisted that I rest my old bones There seven or eight twentysomethings joined me for about an hour and a half of conversation with a reasonably English-fluent young woman translating for the rest. “You are great!” she told me, beaming.
Twenty-seven years ago I had also attracted attention on a first visit to China, that time just because not many people there had seen an American at all. Now, I thought while packing for the trip, they will be used to us in all our guises, and that was true in Beijing. But we left the capital for a mountainous region not yet visited in great numbers by Americans and Europeans, whose primary destinations are Shanghai, Suzhou, Hangzhou, the beautiful Li River scenery of the south, and an exit to Asia through Hong Kong. Our visit to the monasteries, temples, grottos and pagodas of Datong, Pingyao, Taiyuan and the city built into the Mianshan Mountains was breaking new ground for foreigners, although the area was filled with Chinese travelers.
I found that I was glad to see them out and about; they wouldn’t have had the money in ‘84 or during my two subsequent visits. I was also glad to hear that life expectancy is now into the mid 70s, and it was easy to observe that people are healthier than in years past. Young people are taller and more robust, thanks to better nutrition, and one guide explained that babies are being given milk, which has not traditionally been part of the Chinese diet. Another guide told us that she and her husband are saving up to buy an apartment for their son and his fiancee; girls don’t always move in with their husband’s families these days.
If I were a travel writer I’d also be telling you about the super highways that are being constructed across the Chinese countryside or the miles and miles of high-rise apartment buildings built for young couples and folks moving into the cities and towns from rural areas. That despite the industrial smog Beijing is as lively and prosperous-looking as New York or Chicago, streets lined with high-end stores stocked with goods with world famous labels, and trendy neighborhoods where artists of all kinds gather to make and sell their fanciful creations.
Were I a political writer I’d report that while my roommate and I were watching CNN in our luxurious hotel room, the television screen went black twice: once when Chinese dissidents were being discussed and another time when the Dali Lama was the subject.
But this column is mostly about me, isn’t it? I do realize, though, that I’ve got to start coming down from my celebrity high, begin feeling ordinary again. Darn it!
Bettye Anding is a former editor of the Living Section, for which she wrote Silver Threads until her retirement. Email her at email@example.com.