American Culture

China, Day Six: Wild about Harry

Part six in a series

Wu Tao stands at the front of the bus, microphone in hand, radiating charm.

Wu "Harry" Tao (right) talks with St. Bonaventure professors Carl Case (left) and Darwin King at the Winter Palace in Xi'an.
Wu “Harry” Tao (right) talks with St. Bonaventure
professors Carl Case (left) and Darwin King at the
Winter Palace in Xi’an.

As our group rides around Xi’an, Wu Tao serves as our tourguide. He stands in the bus’s center aisle and regales us with stories about the city’s past. He wears a dark t-shirt with a big numeral “8” on it—which has made him easy to find in a crowd—jeans, a pair of open-toed sandals, and a million-yuan smile.

When he points something out to us and tells us its name, he carefully repeats it and even spells it out for us to ensure we can follow him.

Tao is his given name while Wu is his family name, but Chinese custom puts the family name first, then the given name: Wu Toa.

Like many Chinese, Wu Tao has an American name, too: Harry. “Like Harry Potter,” he says with good-natured amusement. A lot of things appear to amuse him. He smiles freely and chuckles often.

The students are wild about him.

“I just want to go up there and pinch his cheeks,” one of them says.

Harry didn’t get his American name from the fictional British character, though; he got it from his school teacher, a ex-patriot from Toronto who’d come to China to teach English.

“He gave everyone in the class English names to help tell us apart,” Harry explains. In China, there are too many people with the same name—like Wu, for instance—so the teacher doled out America names in order to be able to distinguish his students when he called on them in class. It’s a typical practice throughout.

In college, Harry majored in English and tourism, which landed him in his current job at a state-run tourism agency. It’s a gig he’s been doing for fifteen years. He handles some sixty groups a year.

Between stories about Xi’an, Harry tells us a lot about himself and gives us insights into the lives of ordinary people in China.

Harry lives in a three-bedroom apartment with his wife and four-and-a-half-year-old son, Yoyo. “Like the violinist,” Harry says. Yoyo has an American name, too: Harrison. “Because he is Harry’s son,” Harry explains with another of his chuckles, and his whole face breaks out into another huge smile.

Chinese couples can have one child, although if the parents are, themselves, each single children they can petition the government for a birth certificate to have a second child. They children must be spaced at least four years apart. Having a child illegally means the child won’t have access to the health care or education systems. In the countryside, the government enforced the rule less stringently.

Harry’s parents also live with them. “It is hard to have privacy,” he admits, “but they do so much to help us. So much. That is the nuclear family in China: four grandparents, two parents, one child.”

Harry’s parents take their grandson to kindergarten in the morning, then typically go to the park for exercise. His father will do tai chi while his mother will line dance—an activity involving parasols, far removed from the American version.

Harry’s father will usually bring his pet bird with him in its small cage, and he and other retirees will have birdsong contests.

Harrison will spend the day in kindergarten from 7:45 a.m. until 6:30 p.m., when Harry’s parents will again pick him up. The schedule, including three meals, two snacks, and a nap, is designed specifically with working parents in mind.

As with most American families, Harry and his wife both work. In Xi’an, the eight-hour workday runs from eight a.m. until noon; after a two-hour siesta, workers go back from two p.m. until six.

For school kids beyond kindergarten, the day is similar. They’ll take four classes between eight a.m. and noon, get a two-hour break, and then take two classes between two o’clock and three-fifty. They might have sports or exercises after school.

Middle-school students at dismissal time on a Sunday afternoon
Middle-school students at dismissal time on a
Sunday afternoon

Students aiming for the country’s prestigious colleges will enroll in middle and high school programs that frequently require work on the weekends. Each year, some 7.1 million kids will take college entrance exams—all on the same day across China—and about fifty-five percent pass.

College tuition in Xi’an runs about 2,800 yuans—about $415—plus room and board. Tuition in a big city like Beijing or Shanghai might run anywhere from between five thousand to twenty thousand yuans.

Ping pong is the country’s most popular sport, although soccer is gaining popularity. Basketball is huge, too, in part because of the success of NBA star Yao Ming, the seven-foot, six-inch center for the Houston Rockets, who hails from Shanghai. Basketball is also so popular because most schools have the space to accommodate a basketball court, while the space for a soccer field is tougher to come by.

Politics gets much less attention from people. “Ordinary people don’t care about politics,” Harry says. “Ordinary people care about our food, our clothes, our house, our future.”

Citizens gain the right to vote at sixteen, and they have nine parties to choose from, although the Communist Party is the only one that matters. “Look at [our political system] as one big red flower with eight tiny green leaves on it for decoration,” Harry says.

“Do people vote?” a student asks him.

Harry pauses. Pauses. Pauses.

“We have the right to vote,” he finally says, chuckling, his face breaking out into another of his smiles. “Most people don’t care.”

For all its influence, only one in twenty-four people belong to the Communist Party, giving it a membership of about 68 million.

Party members are not allowed to have any religious affiliation. In China, though, that hardly seems to be a problem. In the shaanxi province, where Xi’an is located,only about 750,000 people belong to a religion, Harry says. The province has about 250,000 Christians, about 150,000 Muslims, and another 350,000 fall into a variety of other sects like Buddhism and Taoism, although Buddhism is the largest organized religion in the rest of the country. “Most have no belief,” Harry says, adding that he and his wife are among them.

He chats freely with the students, answering their questions with politeness and honesty. When someone asks him about free health care for everyone, for instance, Harry shakes his head: “In China, there are too many people. Impossible.”

At one point, he mentions the fact that many young people from the countryside aspire to go into the army after they graduate from school because service guarantees a government job, which is better than farm life. “The People’s Liberation Army has three million soldiers,” he says.

“Three million soldiers to protect one-point-three billion people?” a student asks. “That doesn’t seem like enough.”

“We also have nuclear weapons,” Harry reminds her.

Harry and me outside the Xi'an airport
Harry and me outside the Xi’an airport

Harry remains with us during our entire trip, all the way through the check-in process at the airport as we head off to Beijing. Students stop to get their photo taken with him. I grab one too. He graciously allows us to snap away with our cameras.

“He was so good,” one student says. “He was awesome,” says another. The flock around him like he was one of the Beatles.

“Your trip is so smooth, my job is so easy,” Harry tells us with another of his smiles. “I hope you enjoy rest of your time in my country!”

3 replies »

  1. Good stuff. I’ve never quite understood the tradition of giving English learners English names, and aside from the reason that Harry gave, i’ve heard that it’s part of the “immersion” experience.

    I never managed to learn the real names of all of my students (but at any given time that would have been well over a hundred names) and i wasn’t supposed to use their Korean names anyhow. There were a few classes that i knew all the Korean names; it was nice…and far more effective for getting attention.

    But i won’t lie, it was a lot of fun to give kids names that they might well use throughout their lives. I once had the opportunity to name a whole class. Ike, Tina, Ella, Maceo, Miles, Aretha, George, etc. (i didn’t have the heart to lay Bootsy on any of them) Good times, and a fun class that was. Tina could roll her neck with the best of them, and if i asked “What are you?” they’d all say, “Da Bomb!”

    Bringing back memories, Chris, thanks.

  2. Harry is great. He really enjoys life, I can imagine his job is pretty fun. He has lots of great stories. I remember watching him in action with the baggage check people. We were way over weight with luggage. A little grease of the palms and some of his charm and we were on our way.

  3. I’ve learned more about China in these posts than I ever knew before.

    That is the nuclear family in China: four grandparents, two parents, one child.

    As it should be.

    I didn’t know China still had the one-child per family law. I wondered why the population is so large. But you pointed out the law isn’t stringently enforced in the countryside.

    Lex, those soul, funk and jazz names you assigned were too funny.