We’ve come a long way since 1985, when Israeli travelers I met in China had to hide their “real” passports from local authorities and most Chinese I met had never left their home province, let alone crossed a national border. The China Daily recently reported that, on September 25, Chinese tourists will visit Israel for the first time without special business visas.
I hope Israel’s new guests find friends around Jerusalem and the Dead Sea, which top their itinerary. I know I was never lonely during the year I spent roaming the People’s Republic with a manual typewriter and three changes of clothing. Besides billions of Chinese for company, I encountered a small army of other “foreign ghosts” traveling, like me, without tour guides or coach buses. In our dorm-style accommodations and in the streets, train stations and open-air markets, they were hard to miss.
Just a few of my fellow backpackers were Israelis. I was lucky enough in Lhasa, Tibet, to become fast friends with one of them, a dry-witted anthropologist from Netanya named Dina Heimann. Our decision to travel together after a planned rendez-vous with her brother, Eli, embroiled me in her life, and Israeli culture, in ways I never would have expected.
Known then as now for inveterate wanderlust, Israelis in the 1980s could enter China only if they held second passports from nations officially recognized by Beijing. Their country’s only diplomatic presence in “China” at the time (Taiwan aside), was a consul in British-ruled Hong Kong, Reuven Merhav. Merhav did as much as anyone in those years to normalize relations between the two countries. (Agricultural tech transfer was involved, but also weaponry.)
Despite running high-level, back-channel negotiations, Merhav showed compassion and an avuncular concern for Dina, her family and, by extension, me, after a tragedy on the Mainland: Dina’s brother Eli died of illness in the country’s remote northwestern reaches while she awaited him in Lhasa. When Dina learned the news a week later, farther south, she promptly fell ill herself, with hepatitis, requiring six weeks in Yunnan Province hospitals. (She recounted the ordeal in her book, Sabras on the Silk Road, so far only available in Hebrew.)
I had never been to Israel at that point, nor harbored any interest in it. Central Jersey was my “homeland.” But, bunking in with Dina in spartan hospital rooms, watching while mysterious IVs dripped into her for hours at a stretch, I began to get acquainted with this other haven for the Jews. We daydreamed to Dina’s cassettes of music by Arik Einstein and other Israeli folkies, and I tried to imagine this place she described, where Jews were not just suburban professionals but also bus drivers, janitors, and presidents.
Moving with Dina from village infirmary to county seat to the province’s main infectious diseases hospital in Kunming, I also got my first glimpses of sabra toughness – not so much physical (she was a wreck) as mental. When Dina resisted the local Public Security Bureau’s demand to hand over her New Zealand passport, it fell to me to translate her adamant refusal into Chinese, even as I pleaded with her in English—meek American rule—follower that I was—to just go along. “They might figure out I’m not really from New Zealand,” she explained in a hiss to her naive sidekick. Duh.
She next had to resist, despite her weak condition and again with me as docile mouthpiece, the Kunming hospital’s demands for payment upfront, even as Heimann kin abroad were still maneuvering frantically to get the money wired through China’s byzantine banking system. Dina’s distraught parents, meanwhile, were working from Israel to get Eli’s body transferred from a distant Qinghai Province army base. Sadly, they found themselves at the mercy of a Beijing bureaucracy determined to milk them for as much foreign currency as possible. ($10,000 eventually changed hands.) For Dina and me, only the compassionate care of faithful, stammering Dr. Cai tempered the harshness of these encounters with official China.
I learned a little more about the world—and an Israeli’s place in it—when we sought assistance from the New Zealand embassy in Beijing. Embassy staff flatly refused to get involved, on the grounds that Dina wasn’t a real “New Zealand national.” True help came only from across the border in Hong Kong, where Merhav monitored the situation at a remove and pulled every string he could to get both Dina and her brother home.
So you can imagine the relief we felt, after six weeks in hospitals with concrete floors and open-air corridors, when we entered Israel’s modern consular offices in a sleek Hong Kong tower and encountered our white knight, the tall and tailored Merhav. Eli’s remains were still in China (and would be for months) but his smelly, untouched backpack forlornly awaited us in an office storeroom. Along with his clothes, dusty from truckbed travel, it contained spoiled food and the camera holding his last photographs. Looking from me to Dina to the backpack, Merhav breathed deep, pulled off his suit jacket, and tackled it right along with us.
When I left China for good a few months later, I flew directly to Israel and almost stayed there. I returned in the end to my own country but never lost my affinity for that small country that sometimes runs like a big, fractious family. Dina Heimann today is an Israeli authority on Asia, touring, writing and lecturing in Hebrew and English. She’s married to a Chinese man who practices massage and herbal therapy in Netanya, where they live with two baby daughters and where my family and I have visited them several times.
Oh, and she speaks passable Chinese now, whereas I can barely muster a word.
(Hat tip: Rebecca Frankel, Moment‘s former managing editor, now editing and blogging at Foreign Policy Magazine.)
Photo by imagesbykim.