The spy who came into the cold


The title dates us a bit, to be precise a play on John Le Carré’s Cold War novel and a 1965 movie with Richard Burton and Claire Bloom, The Spy Who Came In From the Cold. I am no “spy” but, associated with the global staff of the Institute of Cultural Affairs, we were a letter placement different from the CIA. 

A human development outfit, we saw the cultural dynamic in the social process as the key to any substantive change. We kept an eye on the sensation, emotion, cognition, and action of folks we were in dialogue with, so the accusation of being a spy for the CIA, for the depth of our endeavors and the global network width and breath, we were suspected of being under clandestine support and mission.

“Spy” may or may not be a figment of outsiders’ imagination, and for sure it was not a role we shied away from. An economist turned industrialist high on Imelda Marcos’ entourage was convinced of my double identity that I suspect he carried that to his grave. When Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos finally had to hightail it out of Malacañang Palace during the People Power days in ’86, the colleague turned to me and bluntly said: “You guys did not come through with what you promised!” I was not surprised.

When I moved to China four years ago, and decided to permanently stay the remaining years of my life in Zhongguo, having invested time and assets on a dwelling in Manchuria, in Shenbei, a suburb of Shenyang in Liaoning, a northeast province of China, for the next 17 years remaining of my projected and intended existence, the charge of “spying” has been aired more than once. C’est la vie! Here we go again.

I am not concerned in this reflection on the art or the craft of “spying” as Joe Race at NMC and his fertile imagination, which he shares with students in English classes, does a better job at that than I do. Let me tell you about the Cold.

The characterization of weather in Dong Bei (northeast) China at SAU when I first got here was that we had two weeks of spring, two months of summer, two days of autumn, and the rest is Cold Winter! It is clearly an exaggeration, but poetically a truthful one.

A month from now will be when the Lunar New Year kicks off the spring festival right down dead winter when I will still be bundled up in muffs and muffler. Or, hibernate indoors, save that the calories drown in cholesterol. 

I remember in Chile when I was invited to dinner “for two days,” a euphemistic but accurate reference to continuous dining and drinking. Well, New Year in China is similarly observed in some quarters, though it is still largely a family affair, and since sticking a red Mao (¥100) into a red envelope for the children is a widely exercised practice, expenditures on the bai jiu (white sorghum wine that’s vodka-like) and a puritanical current administration, has got the strings disciplined at the purse.

The elders in the Liu family are 80 and 76 years of age, grandpa legally blind, so he walks around with dark glasses. They reside in the Huanggu district in Shenyang, on a fourth floor apartment built when elevators were not yet in vogue. (Buildings no taller than six floors still do not have elevators, though new elevator-less dwellings like our new apartment are now only four stories high.) 

Two years ago, I joined my host family in the purchase of the apartment and my share was a seventh of the cost. The place is on the first floor that makes it easy on the old knees. I get one of three bedrooms. The 100 sq. m. front and back gardens keeps Lady Liu busy with her flowers and vegetables.

I got a quiet place to write. Across the gated community south is SAU and north is the Puhe River that attracts urban picnickers in the summer. A parkway will delight Mr. Liu and other elder’s legs and canes. He will make new friends as employment discourages anyone over 45 years of age not to apply! China’s new living standard rose dramatically in the last two decades; life expectancy rose as well so he shall have ample company to watch the summer sun ebb in the west. 

It snowed intermittently last week. My language class finishes at 7:30pm when it is already very dark and the three office folks, none over 25, walk me to my place “to make sure I get home safe.” The pathways were clear yesterday, warm enough that the snow that fell during the day did not remain on the ground. This morning I woke up to white.

Times like this is when the cold is most instructive. My rheumatoid arthritis is no stranger to arm, finger, and leg joints; squatting has since progressed to a chore, and rising back up simply on the strength of one’s knees is next to impossible. More telling was at a masseuse. Pressure points on the neck, wrists, elbows, and knees were uncomfortable but tolerable. When it came down to the calf, it was evident that the old wagon had worn out its warranty with no appeal. I hit the ceiling. Muscle and bone aches have come to roost for good.

Welcome to the cold!

Jaime R. Vergara | Special to the Saipan Tribune
Jaime Vergara previously taught at SVES in the CNMI. A peripatetic pedagogue, he last taught in China but makes Honolulu, Shenyang, and Saipan home. He can be reached at

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