John Paton

Wu Ningkun




INT: But...

TB: You couldn't really get a straight answer. I mean, you know, you'd have banquet after banquet; they didn't seem to know what to do but feed us, for the most part, right?, although they did take us various places. And you'd try to engage in conversation with an interpreter, and even very innocuous questions, like, "Oh, well, you know, which city do you like in China, which city do you prefer?" - something stupid but, "Oh," he says, "I like all cities in China." Or... you know, "The bread seems to taste a little sweeter." "Chinese people like sweet things," and you know, they'd smile, but I just had vibes, you know, like, "Hey, come on, talk a little bit."

INT: Yes...

TB: They all couldn't be nicer, but of course it's a symbolic kind of thing, everybody's on their best behavior, right? And I mean, I had a little mai-tai bout, so to speak - this is a kind of strong wine, right? - and, you know, this army guy'd raise his glass to me, and I'd raise the glass to him and we'd go like this, right?, and we'd do this like six times. I mean, I have no idea how I got back to the hotel that night, OK? But the next day I see him at another banquet, right?, after this, you know, and I raise my glass to him, he raises his glass to me, toast, and then, you know, he looks at me like he'd never seen me before, and this kind of thing.

INT: What about the American press - when did this become a sort of media event in the United States?

TB: Well...

INT: They were with you, weren't they, from early on?

TB: Yes, they were. They were sending back... Let's see - there were a couple of NBC guys, there was a fellow named... I've forgotten his name... John Roderick, I believe, who had been in China even back in the Forties, I think; and they were sending out dispatches, but so were we, but we had no idea that it was being such a big thing back home - you know, it was like our little odyssey. And when we got back, we were just astonished at the attention that we were getting.

INT: When did you realize that this wasn't just simply a matter of friendly Chinese inviting Americans back to China, but that you were all part of some big political thing?

TB: Well, that was pretty obvious right from the beginning, that this was obviously... you know, I mean, our leader would say things like, "Now we don't want any clenched fists, we don't want any peace sign, we don't want you to call them 'Chinamen'," and... we rather got the idea that we should be on our best behavior. Of course, Cowan - that's the long-haired fellow - he kept wanting, you know, his picture on Life and kept kind of pushing these guys who didn't take him too seriously after a while. And then the other guy, Tannyhill was just kind of spacey a little bit. And we'd leave one hotel and... sometimes they'd just leave dirty underwear or (Laughs) various things right in the middle of the hotel, you know, and off they'd go, and pretty soon here come the Chinese, carried it all back to them. And just crazy kind of things. I think a lot of it was just disorienting.

INT: Did you sort of start to feel that you were... did you feel annoyed that you were being sort of used as pawns?

TB: I myself didn't, because... I just got so many things out of it at that particular moment and later, especially seeing what real table was like, especially seeing what it was like in a place like China, and consequently afterwards I began going all over the world, which I wouldn't have done had I not taken this trip, I think. So I didn't feel used. I did feel kind of pressured all the time. I was so conscious of being a professor at school and thinking that these dispatches that I'd write for the Times would be as I actually ... gave them to people in Moscow or Tokyo, and wanted them to be good. And also, I felt that I was using people. You ask me whether I felt used - I felt I was constantly using people in my role as a reporter, because I wanted to put down exactly how these people were thinking and feeling and their problems, and so I'd be having a conversation and meanwhile I'm listening to the one behind me, and then if this conversation isn't getting me any place, or if I've used that conversation, I'd move over and I would take little scraps of notes wherever I could get them. And...

INT: No Americans had been to China for 20 years, so did you feel like you had this responsibility of ambassadors representing the United States to China?

TB: I felt I had the responsibility with regard to the written word, and I felt that, OK, I'm not going to do anything stupid, right? I remember just going... as we were all going to see Zhou Enlai, I remember our leader wanted to get in step... just going up the steps, he wanted to get in step with the Chinese guy who was accompanying him, who was taking us, right? So, you know, that's how intense he was about not doing anything untoward. And Tannyhill - I mean, he'd wear farmer brown overalls or you know, he's going in to see Zhou Enlai in a T-shirt or something - it just... you know, it just didn't seem right.

INT: You actually don't make it sound like much fun - it sounds like...

TB: No, I mean, I wish I could make it more fun, but for us... and I'm not just speaking for myself: we all felt this burden... maybe it's because we were a symbolic group, you know, and... But I mean, we were... right from the very beginning it didn't look like any reporters were going to get in there, so my God, they're offering me $200, $400, $2,000: "Write for Newsweek, write for Time, write for the US..." you know, anything. And meanwhile they're... and a lot of it is just "OK." And then I've never been good with cameras, and tape recorders even worse, and so I was good with notes and I had little notes, like on napkins or anything, and I had a cellophane bag that I'm carrying around. Really quite strange, but this cellophane bag I valued more than anything in the world, but I knew if I left it in a bus, it was safer than in any bank vault. When people actually begin to cry because they can't get what they want to eat, or when they begin to break out in shingles... You know, I never felt in danger, I never felt... I thought, you know, maybe the rooms were bugged (like here?), you know. And at 1.30 at night I might have to try to get to Moscow, I might have to get to Tokyo; they'd be calling me. One night I'd spent like two, two and a half hours writing something. They called me and I said, "Oh, I've got good stuff for you." They said, "No, we..." I was a day behind, OK?... "No, we want something new today." And so, my God, you know, it's like 12 o'clock at night or whatever and I've got to start all over again, and... you know, I just... Of course, I guess I was too serious about it all, but it seemed like a responsibility.

(Request to adjust position in seat)

INT: Last question, really. When you got back, were you asked to go and brief Nixon or Kissinger or anyone like that?

TB: No, but Steenhofen, our leader, went to see Nixon, and I think they started the conversation with Nixon saying, "Well, we have to talk about something. How much is a ping pong ball?" And I must say that later we went to the Rose Garden, when the Chinese came on their reciprocal trip the next year, and Nixon was very nice, greeted the Chinese, and then he started to walk aw, and one of our players said, "Hey, don't you want to say hello to the US team?" "Oh," he says, "I didn't know you were there." Yeah, I mean...

INT: That wouldn't have gone down well.

TB: No, that didn't go down very well.

INT: And just one last thing. You went to China, you played the Chinese. How was the game, how did you get on?

TB: (Overlap) Well, they're incredibly better than we are, and they, very nicely, I think, beat us six matches to five matches. And sometimes the dumping got to be ridiculous. The Chinese have always had this problem of dumping, because they're just very good and they've got this slogan: "Friendship first, competition second", so they've got to dump some matches. And when they dump some matches, that's no good either, because you know, it's too patronizing. So... But it was OK with us, it was all all right. We were pleased to learn something from them - just exactly what, I don't know, but they learned something from us too - just exactly what, I don't know either, but it was all friendship first, competition second. They're so much better at table tennis; they tried to show us a few things, you know.

INT: Well, you got to meet some Chinese and they got to meet some Europeans (Overlap) and Americans.

TB: (Overlap) Yeah, that's right; everybody can learn something from everybody else, I think was the line that they used, which is probably true.

INT: That's a good way to end. Thanks, thanks very much.