Rosemary Mahoney describes land and people with a novelist's eye


November 04, 1990|By Alice Steinbach

She lives in staid, old Roland Park, but when Rosemary Mahoney opens the door to her small, sun-splashed apartment, it's as though a trade wind from the Far East had carried a small, exotic piece of China to this traditional Baltimore neighborhood.

The walls are lined with beautiful Chinese scrolls and a delicate, painted fan; a songbird trills out from its perch in an ornate, Oriental bird cage; a figured porcelain vase sits on an unadorned wooden table; and everywhere there's an Oriental air of sparse beauty and the harmony of simplicity.

There's an air of the serene about Ms. Mahoney, too. At least until the subject of last week's New York Times Book Review comes up. Then her measured, lilting voice takes on a current of excitement. Of course, Ms. Mahoney, 29, has good reason to be excited. Her first book, "The Early Arrival of Dreams" -- which is a non-fiction account of a year she spent teaching in China -- is reviewed right there on page 15 by renowned China scholar Orville Schell. And it's a rave review.

Not bad for her first time out. Particularly since Ms. Mahoney considers herself a fiction writer. Her credentials in that area are impressive: undergraduate degree from Harvard (class of '83), where she won the Charles E. Norman Prize for Creative Writing; master's in fine arts from the Johns Hopkins Writing Program, 1984; and in 1985, an invitation to return for one year to the Hopkins' Writing Seminars as a teacher.

But then in 1986, after following what seemed a straight academic path toward a writing career, Ms. Mahoney floundered a bit. The Hopkins teaching job was over, and not knowing what to do next, she returned to her hometown of Boston and took a "terrible job counting money because I didn't know what else to do."

In what she describes as "an act of desperation," she applied to be an exchange teacher in a program between Radcliffe College and Hangzhou University in the People's Republic of China. She didn't expect anything to come of it. "I thought, 'They're never going to accept me because I don't know the first thing about China, I don't speak Chinese and there are a million other people who can do this better than I can.' "

To her surprise, she was selected as one of two women tparticipate in the program.

She left for China in 1987, a 26-year-old woman with a year'worth of teaching experience and an appetite for adventure. After all, living abroad in unusual circumstances was not new to her. "When I was a senior in high school,

I went to Ireland to study Irish Gaelic. And after one semester at Trinity College, I went way out to the west coast of Ireland and rented a little house by myself." She laughs. "When I think about that now, I think, 'Wasn't I courageous?' I was only 17, had my own house way out in the wilderness where all my friends were very old people. My best friend was 73 years old."

So who could have predicted the anxiety Ms. Mahoney felt following her arrival in Hangzhou, a city of about 2 million people located 100 miles south of Shanghai.

"My first thought was, 'Oh, what have I done? What have I gotten myself into?' " recalls Ms. Mahoney, a slight smile playing over her expressive face.

She recounts some first impressions of China:

* "When you hear that China is overcrowded, that's an understatement. I was shocked at the number of people. Even in the rural areas. I was also shocked at the poverty and at the living conditions."

* "China was not at all what I expected it to be. I had an image of China as a very quaint and mysterious and peaceful place. Well, it's quaint and mysterious in some respects, but not in the ways I had thought. The people are mysterious. They don't often tell you what they feel."

* "The first thing the Chinese ask you when they meet you is: 'How much money do you make?' It's a legitimate question to ask in China."

* "In my life I have never suffered from the cold as much as I suffered there. There were times when, if I'd been out all day, I actually found myself thinking, 'I might die from this.' Because there's no place you can go to get warm. There's no central heating in Hangzhou, except in the international hotels. My students wore their gloves and coats and hats to class. Sometimes I wore two coats and big boots."

But Rosemary Mahoney's initial ambivalence about what she had gotten herself into gradually gave way to a genuine love for her students and for the Chinese people in general.

She found her students "very polite, very respectful but a little bit distant. But as time progressed, we got very casual with each other -- which is a great accomplishment. After a while, the students would come to my room to visit me, one by one, and that was the time they would be most honest with me. And I think they loved the opportunity to say what they were really feeling. They said things to me that they wouldn't have said to another Chinese person. And it was an opportunity for me to really learn about their lives."

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