A Day of Sightseeing

The following article is excerpted from a series of interviews done in San Diego, CA, and Vladivostok, Russia, between 1998-2000.

Planning the Excursion

When the Russian students arrived in San Diego they had many things on their “To Do” list.  Most of those activities and experiences had been accomplished, but on the morning of their last Sunday everyone realized that if they did not get to Los Angeles, there would not be another opportunity.  This was important to them, to actually see one of America’s biggest cultural centers.  As everyone grabbed a bite to eat in Hanni’s Café, the Russians presented their idea of going to Los Angeles to Barshia.

Their plan was in conflict with Barshia’s plan for the day, which included sitting quietly and/or napping at the beach.  Driving to Los Angeles was the last thing she wanted to do.

They pleaded, telling her that Nat had refused and Hanni couldn’t navigate the crisscrossed highways around Los Angeles.  Barshia thought to herself that Hanni would also have some difficulty dealing with the crazy Los Angeles drivers.  No one saw any other alternative.  It was Barshia or no one and “no one” was not an option, even in Barshia’s book. It would be far too unfortunate if the Russians missed out on the opportunity to experience a major American metropolis.

Wang sat in Hanni’s Café carefully listening to everyone’s ideas and going over maps. There would be one extra seat in the van.  The assumption was that Wang would fill it.  She sat with everybody during the discussion, longing to be with the rest of the students and learn about them but knowing that there was something special planned for the Chinese students that day.  Getting to know everyone better was part of her dream now, and this was the only opportunity that everyone would have to make such a trip together.  In her heart she wished to go, but in reality she knew the final decision lay with Mr. Chen.

When all the plans for the day were laid out, Wang, Hanni, and Barshia went to see Mr. Chen to ask permission for Wang to go.  They walked together down the corridor to the suite that housed the Chinese men.  Wang put her hand up to knock, but found that she couldn’t do it. Hanni was frustrated and told her, “You should do as you like.  You should go.  It’s your freedom.”  But Wang could not face Mr. Chen.  She turned to Hanni and said that she should stay since there was not enough room for everyone.

Barshia knocked on the door anyway.

Mr. Chen on the right in San Diego meeting with a member of the business community.

When Mr. Chen answered the door he told them that it was necessary for Wang to stay with the group and reminded Barshia that he was the person responsible for the well being of the Chinese students.

Barshia and Hanni were not prepared for his response.  Barshia quickly became defensive. “I understand responsibility.  I’ve agreed to drive this van and take responsibility for the lives of everyone in it.  This project [the Pacific Rim Park] is based on trust.  We handle dangerous tools and support each other.  Without trust many tasks wouldn’t get done. You should know you can trust me to take care of Wang.”

Hanni spoke up.  “Wang can make her own decisions.  You should let her do what she wants.”

As voices were raised it was difficult for Wang to handle her emotions. Hanni and Barshia were truly concerned about her. Having them defend her rights tilted the balance of her feelings and touched her deeply.  She was uncomfortable knowing that she was the cause of any discord among the people in the project, but there was no alternative for her, no way that she could go against the wishes of Mr. Chen.

Barshia, who was tired to begin with, was not ready to take on Mr. Chen, but she saw no way to back down.  She was stunned by the entire interaction and Hanni was in tears.

The Russian students listened to Mr. Chen’s words from down the hall, as his voice grew louder.  They heard him making it perfectly clear that there was nothing that could be done or said by any of them that would cause him to change his mind.  They wanted to make an appeal on Wang’s behalf but knew it was useless.  They understood that Mr. Chen’s position was difficult and were surprised by the way that Barshia and Hanni had handled things.  They felt a certain sympathy for Mr. Chen’s situation.

Hanni, sometimes called Mama Hanni, in Guadalajara, 2000

Ten years ago the situation for the Russian students would have been the same and they would have had their own political official to deal with.  Professor Moor would have felt a heightened responsibility for his own students.

Despite their understanding of Mr. Chen’s position, Professor Moor and the rest of the Russians still hoped that Mr. Chen would relent in the end.

When Hanni and Barshia returned without Wang, there was no need for explanations.

Up until that morning Lera thought of Barshia as a woman who was “quiet, like a sea without waves, steady like a little mountain.”  On Sunday morning this image was balanced by her volcanic eruption in response to Mr. Chen.

Barshia in the center at the dedication of Pacific Rim Park.

 Onto the Highway

While the day had started badly for Barshia, it didn’t get better.  After her unfortunate and unsuccessful encounter with Mr. Chen, Barshia was in no mood for driving a van to Los Angeles, but it was too late to change plans.  They all climbed in and Barshia headed for the highway.  Traffic was light, a promising, uncommon event.  They headed north for several minutes before Barshia realized that the van was out of gas.

The state police entertained the students by using their police car to push the van off to the side of the road, but everyone felt badly watching Barshia as she drove away in the police car to get a gas canister filled.  They all remembered that she would have preferred to spend the day quietly.  Instead she was in a police car getting gas to restart the van.  Eventually the tank was filled and the van continued to its destination, the Getty Museum.

At the Museum

Inside the museum the group probably appeared to be a curious band. Their purpose was to understand the building itself, not the contents.  They explored the halls and galleries in a most unusual manner, running through the exhibits searching for gardens, yards, and fountains.  Any architectural detail completely captured and absorbed their interest.

There was one other thing that needed to be accomplished while they were in Los Angeles.  Barshia took them to a bookstore known for its selection of architectural books.  This was an opportunity for everyone but it was Nikolai who was most excited.  After numerous conversations with Barshia about Buckminster Fuller and her own geodesic dome, he was going to be able to find one or more of the books that Barshia had suggested to him.

The Ride Home and New Awareness of the  Spirits of the Chinese Students

The ride home that evening was quiet. Everyone was tired.  Alexei Parnyakov relaxed and thought about the past week.

Alexey and Gao meet again in Yantai, 2001

He had worked with Gao every day and observed Wang as she interacted with the group when they were all together.  Although communication was a little difficult with Gao, and he’d had very little time with Wang, he realized that both Gao and Wang were very different from the Chinese he knew in Russia.  They were intelligent, well educated, interesting, passionate, and doing their best to fit into the community.

Wang in Shanghai, 2000

At breakfast, while everyone was caught up in the excitement of planning the trip to Los Angeles, he was aware of Wang sitting there watching everyone with a gentle smile on her face.  She seemed to be quietly experiencing the excitement of the whole group.  It was not anything that she said; it was the way she leaned forward to listen and her engaged expression.  He felt badly for Wang when she, Barshia, and Hanni went to ask Mr. Chen’s permission to go with the group.  He heard the raised voices, but still hoped that things might be worked out.  It was only when Hanni and Barshia returned that he knew for certain that Wang would not be able to come with them.

The day had been wonderful with so much to see, but he couldn’t completely forget about Wang.  He couldn’t help wondering how her day had gone as he reached into his pocket to make sure that he still had the postcards he and Anna had bought for her.  He took them out from his pocket and handed them to Anna knowing that she would be the first one to see Wang.

 And New Insights Into the Spirit of an American Feminist

Up until this Sunday morning in Hanni’s Café, Barshia didn’t fit any of the Russian men’s images of how a woman behaves and what a woman cares about.  They respected her knowledge of architecture and they knew her to be an expert in the area of “ecological architecture.”  They also knew she was willing to work as hard as any man on a construction site.  These were admirable traits, but they had no relationship to any familiar gender model.

As they drove back to the dorms they knew that Barshia had made many sacrifices to take care of them for the day.  This endeared her to the Russian men, particularly Professor Moor.  She was the nurturer for the day, a female stereotype that the Russian men understood.  All of her previous unfeminine behaviors could be more easily accepted once they could be attached to this familiar nurturing identity.

It was a long day for everyone, but the biggest stress had fallen on Barshia and everyone knew it, although she never complained. All of their previous confusions about who she was melted away.  They could finally see her as a woman who just happened to be a skilled contractor and just happened to be quieter than the younger woman in the group.