Friday, January 9, 2009

Chocolate fingerprints

Christmas has just passed and with it Christmas presents. This year we received a package from my sister-in-law, arriving unopened with the contents intact (thank-you Katherine!). Last year we were not so fortunate: returning home from abroad we found that our packages had been waiting in the housing complex guard office for just a little too long: the boxes were open and all the candy had been eaten up, gummy rats, marshmallow santas and all. Only the licorice string was left, probably too strange for the perpetrators to dare try it. The year before some packages never arrived at all, one in particular didn't surprise me: my mother sent the ridiculous combination of American dollars and a Swedish translation of Chairman Mao poems. Yesterday I learned about a friend's husband who when teaching English in Tangshan had received a package from his parents in the states. Inside the open box were empty chocolate wrappers and photographs of his family, well thumbed through and covered in chocolate fingerprints.

In general most mail gets through to us but it's only when someone says that something is on the way that I'll know to miss it if it doesn't turn up. Whether its the guards in our complex office eating candy out of boredom or the Chinese postal service that causes them to be "lost in transit" is impossible to know. Often my photographic magazines never arrive, only about one a year make it through. Thankfully we have email to communicate with friends and loved ones, but for many years as an itinerant traveller roaming through the provinces of China I would have to rely solely on the international poste restante service.

I must say that this usually worked perfectly. A month or so ahead of time I would tell my family and friends that I would be arriving in say Kunming or Lhasa in six weeks and that they should address a letter to me to the requisite destination's main post office. Upon arriving after a long overland bus ride the first thing I would do was dump my bags at the local cheap dormitory and then high-tail it to the post office. Methods for sorting the mail were different from place to place. Some post offices manned by staff dedicated to the postal service kept the poste restante mail under lock and key, guarding it like a national treasure or repository of deep dark secrets. You had to show your passport to get a letter and you always left both elated but at the same time suspicious that they had withheld a letter from you. Some post offices were warm sanctuaries of humanity where the smiling staff left the boxes of unopened letters cavalierly on the countertop for all and sundry to thumb through. This created a sense of both freedom and - perversely - privacy. At the same time you could see everyone else's mail (for the banana pancake trail is a much beaten one and we all knew each other) and tell a friend "you've got mail! ". Long before such an expression meant something as intangible as a cyber message.

In my experience mail received this way was seldom if ever opened or censored. Seemingly the Chinese government turned a cold shoulder to us flighty backpackers, concentrating all their efforts on the foreigners who were long-term residents in the country. A British friend of mine in the 1980s was once invited to a dance party with Chinese university staff and their spouses. When reciprocating the question of what her occupation in China was her dance partner giddlily answered, "I work at the post office, I'm the one responsible for reading all the foreigner's mail!"

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