I worried when my son's cherished baseball sailed into the busy Avenue of Eternal Peace, but a dozen Chinese passers-by rushed to retrieve it.
This confirmed my suspicions that, despite occasional outbreaks of politically inspired uproar, China offers the handful of foreign children here a vast safety net, rendering fears of their getting lost, kidnaped or even very badly bruised almost meaningless.
We have been living here with our sons Joe, 6 and Peter, 2, since early September, occupying two nonconnecting rooms in the Peking Hotel with no prospect in sight of any real housing. The situation sends my wife Linda and me, both of us working for American newspapers, into a frustrated rage at least once a week.
Our youngsters, on the other hand, love the setup.
Joe, through some strange chemistry, became an overnight baseball fanatic during a summer visit to the United States. He returned to Peking with his prized plastic bat, a baseball and a dog-eared California Angels game program.
We found that a corner of the Peking Hotel parking lot made an acceptable baseball field, separated from the bustling sidewalk by an iron fence and scraggly hedge. Our games became a minor sensation. Dozens, sometimes as many as 100, Chinese crowded the hedge to watch a clumsy American father chasing ground balls rapped by his son.
Drivers of the long, black Red Flag limousines, the ultimate status symbol here, parked in the outfield and watched us with interest and patience. Fly balls that bounced off their gleaming chrome bumpers were ground-rule doubles.
One Saturday, a few friends joined the game and the spectators became almost unmanageable, crowding around the fence and into the driveway of the hotel. They were kept back by a small detail of soldiers, pistols strapped to their waists, who over several Saturdays had become our most enthusiastic and knowledgeable fans.
TO MY YOUNGER SON PETER, everyone here is a shu-shu , the Chinese work for uncle. The chinese encourage children to use it, or the female equivalent aiyi , auntie, to refer to just about every adult they come in contact with. ni hao, shu-shu ? (How are you, uncle?) Peter says automatically to any of the dozens of room attendants -- all of them male -- found in the hotel.
The chinese are unusually attentive and considerate of all small children, but red-haired Americans like Peter have added novelty value. On an airplane trip to Canton, Peter spent much of the time being bounced on the knees of three distinguished Chinese gentlemen in Mao jackets. One was a doctor and two were scientists.Waiters and waitresses at the hotel dining room stop by Peter's table to inquire after his health, and suggest to his mother that he get a haircut.
One of our fears of hotel living was the restrictions it could put on children, the need to keep them in small rooms without much exercise. Peter counters this by making rounds with a room attendant shu-shu , helping push the fresh-towels cart along or inspecting the dust in a suite being prepared for a guest.
Each time he eventually wanders back, his progress checked by other shu-shus along the way.
THE AMERICAN School in Peking uses makeshift quarters built inside an old automobile garage in back of the U.S. Embassy annex. It has 133 pupils, or "little friends," as the Chinese call them, who study the local language diligently on Tuesday and Thursday each week.
A first language lesson concerns elevator dialogue, for all of the students but Joe are children of embassy staff living in high-rise apartments. Each child learns to say in Chinese what floor he lives on, plus "hold on, my mommy's coming."
A few American children attend local Chinese schools. Instruction is in Chinese but all foreign children are put in classes exclusively for them, so there is little mixing with Chinese children. The essence of Chinese education still comes through, even its unabashed militarism.
"I won an event at our school's athletic games and got to compete in the big city games," the 10-year-old son of an American diplomat told me with excitement. I asked what event. "The grenade throw," he said.
The American School offers a heavy dose of U.S. history and patriotic songs. Chinese politics do not come up but Peking's message seeps through somehow.Joe brought home his art project, a drawing of the Great Wall of China, to which he had devoted much time and enthusiasm.
Some odd shapes near the wall were, he told me, "the Russians attacking on horses." Fighter aircraft clashed somewhat incongruously overhead. Manning the top of the wall were the Chinese, repulsing the invaders with cannon and bow and arrow. "They're the good guys," said Joe.