A whole chapter about one meal? A fellow named Da Vinci did pretty well with a
painting of a famous supper, capturing the animated expressions of participants. No, I am
not suggesting that my breakfast in China had a similar significance as Leonardo’s The
Last Supper, but I am saying that sometimes the events around a meal are important long
after the menu is forgotten.
I am sure the menu was excellent. If I remember correctly it was served at a hotel
that featured breakfast with the stay, for a price that seemed reasonable to visitors from
North America. The hotel kitchen offered an assortment that ran from quail egg omelets
to just about anything else you could imagine, (Or not).
My two dining partners were Itchy and Dave. Itchy was employed by Monsanto
and worked as a go-between for the company and the farmers, giving the company the
credibility of a local. Dave was in the employ of the Delta Pine and Land Company who
gained notoriety for owning the Terminator Gene, a component bred into plants so that
farmers could not brown bag seed and were forced to buy new seed from the said
company every year. The issue at the time was based on Roundup Ready crops but it
went much deeper when it was determined in American courts. The lines were becoming
blurred between Monsanto and the Delta Land and Pine Company—but that was not the
discussion at the breakfast table, and over subsequent pots of coffee.
The three of us were very nearly the same age, which is unusual for any three
individuals cast together by fate but it was indeed the case with this group. That had a
large impact on our discussion. We talked about our childhood and the things we
remembered, growing up in the 1960s. Not the toys we had but what we remembered of
the news of the day and the things that scared our parents.
Itchy had grown up in China and was now in a promotional role to further the
acceptance of technology from North America. He served as a bridge between the
company and Chinese farmers.
Dave had grown up in the Mississippi Delta in what would now be described as a
right of center, conservative home. In the early 1960s it was thought of as normal.
My contribution to the mix was the perspective of a kid who grew up on the farm
in southern Manitoba.
Itchy told us how difficult things were during the Cultural Revolution. I thought
of the Little Red Book of Chairman Mao and how I had obtained a copy when I was about
12 or 13—just as a sign of being a bit rebellious before I even knew what the book
represented. Like kids of the time drawing swastikas without knowing what it meant or
how hurtful it was to those who had lived through the war.
Itchy told a story about one of his teachers rolling up one of those spring-loaded
maps one day—the map had a picture of Chairman Mao on it.
“The map got out of his hand and rolled up too fast and it caused a small tear in
the picture,” he said. “The teacher immediately went to report the damage to the office,
knowing he would be punished but still reporting the accident.” That Friday a truck came
by and picked up the teacher, putting him on the back of the truck with the others and
drove to the stadium where they were executed.
“We were given time off school to go and watch,” said Itchy. He went on to
explain that it was a regular Friday afternoon activity, a truck would drive through the
streets of his city with prisoners on the back and they would go to the local soccer arena
where the executions would take place. Now Maoism was not something I was reading
about or a story told second-hand—here was a man my age that had lived through this
kind of horror. That hit home, and I did not know what to say, so we continued discussing
the politics of the day.
“I remember my father building the bomb shelter in the basement and stocking it
with food,” said Dave of his childhood on the Gulf. He went on to explain how his father
constructed a room in the basement of their home with concrete walls and how it was
equipped with supplies to last a month, in case of a nuclear war. This at a time when
warfare between the US and Cuba seemed a real threat; many consider this period during
the Cold War to be the closest to a face-off between the US and communism.
I remembered my parents speaking of the danger of war. Glimpses from a
television newscast came to mind—there was only CBC at the time, and a guy named
Earl Cameron who delivered the news before it became known as The National. And my
parents talking of Kennedy and Cuba, but at six or seven you don’t have a true grasp of
the severity of the situation, and maybe you are terrified by people talking about the end
of the world. I remember it was a warm fall day and the leaves had already changed
colour. Funny, what sticks in your mind and surfaces 60 years later.
We continued to talk about what it was like growing up, and Itchy had more
stories about the harshness of the revolution and the conditions that the Chinese people
lived. I have been in a lot of these kinds of discussions where the stories keep growing as
each one has to outdo the previous one and you don’t want to waste your stopper too
early because then there will be nothing to say. I did not get that feeling once in this
conversation. It was between three fellows that fate had thrown together for breakfast and
they had nothing to gain by telling the biggest whopper. They were merely recalling the
conditions of their childhood and comparing how different things were in different
countries at the same time.
My thoughts went back to that Little Red Book I had ordered (before the days of
Amazon) as a teenager and how I had read some of Mao’s quotes and wondered how they
could be considered offensive—they were about equality and making conditions better
for the people. They talked about power for the workers; they seemed innocent enough at
“They did not want the people to have information,” Itchy offered, “They gave
you orders to follow.”
“There was no extension system,” added Dave. “That is why we had so many
problems introducing new technology here. People were not used to having the
information and making a decision.” He went on to explain that this was why his
company needed people like Itchy to be a bridge with the Chinese farmer when things
opened up and agriculture moved closer to a free market system.
“It was also difficult to get information to farmers and the number of farmers,” he
said. When his company came to China the average farm was about 6 mou or half an acre
with little interaction between farmers. It was not like the North American model where a
company would choose an innovator in the community and convince him to try a test plot
or a demonstration site.
“They had no idea of a demonstration site, or trying a sample on their land,” said
Dave, “they do not have a lot of land to divide up or the means to measure a difference in
yield.” To make the difference visible they might have to double the yield of their cotton
crop. I had seen the impact of the communist top down management of agriculture in
Russia when I worked there; farmers were scientifically strong but were not familiar with
the concepts of trying a new product or side-by-side trials. If they were told it worked,
then they would use it.
Itchy changed the focus of his comments:
“The administration was harsh and it did not want to give up control, even with
the death of Chairman Mao and the removal of his inner circle of supporters,” he said.
“You heard reports of the riots in Tiananmen Square but what the world heard was not
what we experienced.” The reports carried in the international media placed the death toll
at 300 students killed in the uprising. Estimates are that it was closer to 3,000 and those
closer to the event say it was likely closer to 30,000.
As a Canadian I could not fathom the number but then I thought back to my first
days in Beijing when Gayle Hanson had taken me on a tour of the city. Tiananmen
Square can accommodate a million people. It is over 100 acres. At the time I wondered,
why would you have an area in the middle of a city that can accommodate that number of
“It is China,” was her response—an explanation I would come to accept over the
next couple of days.
To further clarify, I was told that the square could hold a million protesters but
when the administration had had enough of the party, the ground opened at one end of the
square and the tanks came out of the ground. More than a quarter million soldiers were
brought to the country’s capital. The party was now over and there were some deaths that
were considered collateral damage. There were costs to a revolution and those costs
might come in the tally of human life.
We were finished our breakfast and more than a few cups of coffee—set to head
off in our own directions. Itchy was going to work, telling his story to Chinese farmers.
Dave was getting ready to head back to the US. Gayle Hanson was going to take me to
the ‘Hanongs’—a Chinese market place, and let me try my hand at haggling there.
I could not help but think of how lucky I was. Yes, there was the obvious: being
born to a family in southern Manitoba and not having to deal with the conditions Itchy
had grown up under. I was happy not to have had to sacrifice some of our home to a
bomb shelter because that was viewed necessary. But I also felt happy to have found
myself in a position to share stories with these two fine human beings. Many times it is
through discussion with others that you become more aware of the good things in your
life. I have come to recognize that this act of sharing stories itself—with people I meet on
my travels, is one of these good things.
The real coincidence of this meeting: both Itchy and Dave have kids named Anna
and David, how about that? The best I could do was to add a daughter named Amanda
and a son named Steven.