Letters from China

Letter Number 5

Jan. 12, 1963

A Year Ends! A Year Begins!

(The friends who have helped me with this "New Year" letter are Israel and Elsie Epstein, formerly of New York, writers and editors in Peking; Sidney Rittenberg formerly of Charleston, S.C., Pale Alto and Yenan, now in radio work in Peking and father of three beautiful little girls; Rewi Alley, famous New Zealand author and cooperator, my neighbour here; Talitha Gerlach, for many years with the YWCA in the U.S. and China and Gerald Tannebaum of Baltimore, both now with the China Welfare Institute, Shanghai; and two other Americans, Joan Hinton, working on a big livestock farm outside Sian, and Shirley Wood, college teacher and mother of six in Kaifeng.)

In China, 1962 was the year when they got "over the hump" in harvests, in consumer goods and in the general economy, when people in all areas began to feel not merely recovery but the sense of a coming upsurge. Other friends will tell about it below. In the world, the main events were three at the year's end: the Cuban Crisis and the Sino-Indian Conflict and the beginning of the Great communist Debate.

1) In Cuba, Castro emerged as the world's MAN OF THE YEAR, for his courage and clarity in defending the rights of small nations. Most of my American friends missed this; they saw an alleged nuclear war-threat that was barely escaped. To us the threat seemed phony, a nuclear blackmail by Kennedy. The missiles, both in their installation and in the manner of withdrawal, seemed an injury to Cuba by confusing her Latin American support. The deal of the two K's ignored Cuba's existence as a Revolution and even as a nation. Castro, in his November First television speech, restored the dignity of his nation and therewith of the world's people. Even in faraway Nepal, a monarchy, Castro was applauded when he demanded that any "inspection" be equal, for American bases as well as Cuban bases. Castro became a world figure for his defense of the equal sovereignty of little nations.

The Sino-Indian Border Conflict was ended for the time by the collapse of the Indian armies and the incredible Chinese announcement of a Cease-Fire-Withdrawal, in the moment of full victory, back to the positions of Nov. 7, 1959, before the fighting began, with an additional withdrawal of 20 kilometers for armed patrols behind the "line of control". The West pours arms into India, encouraging her to a long, long war. Peking called on India for a negotiated border, and called on the Afro~Asian nations to help. This posed the question: Whither India?

3) The Great Communist Debate came into the open Dec. 15 when China, four times attacked by four European Party Congresses, climaxed by a fifth time by Khrushchov in the Supreme Soviet, finally made a public reply Dec. 15. The technique is important; the Peking People's Daily filled a page and a half on Dec. 14 with 38 attacks against China, made in the Prague Congress, and left these for 24 hours without reply for the readers to think over. Then came the editorial: "Workers of All Countries, Unite to Oppose Our Common Enemy!" and it was clear that an open worldwide debate had begun. Two weeks later the paper gave a page to Togliatti's attack on China and published a lengthy reply. So far the argument deals with basic principles not with personalities.

* * *

All these struggles of worldwide importance took sharp form in late 1962 and will develop further in 1963.

1) Peace has not returned to the Caribbean. Kennedy rides high, for his nuclear blackmail won! The first victim of the Cuban crisis, say cynical Britons, is MacMillan. for at Nassau Kennedy, as a London paper said, "pushed Britain into the mud and made her pay for the mud"; the U.S. press openly disdains her as a second class power. American spokesmen gloat that a "firm policy pays"; they may try it next on Berlin. Yet--on the other side of earth, the people of a little half-nation, South Viet Nam, organized in a "Liberation Front", won a spectacular victory against Americans and the Ngo Dinh Diem armed forces just as 1963 began, bringing down several helicopters in an open battle not very far from Saigon. If the South Vietnamese ever heard of "nuclear blackmail", they figure it doesn't apply to them.

2) Peking's action on the border rallied wide support from Afro-Asian nations. Six nations met in Colombo seek peace. Their precise views vary but all unite on two things: a) that China and India should meet to negotiate their border; b) that the West should not be allowed to turn India into an armed Western base. As 1963 opened two high dignitaries came to Peking to discuss these matters. Mrs. Bandaranaike, the world's only woman prime minister, came from Ceylon to present the views of six nations; Vice-Premier Subandrio of Indonesia came separately to assist the lady and also to put in his own word for another Bandung Conference to strengthen Afro-Asian nations in their general anti-imperialist mutual help. So, out of the Sine-Indian border conflict, wider Afro-Asian unities may flower.

3) The Great Debate brings peril and also hope. If it is conducted by dictation and name-calling, it may confuse and splinter the world's progressive forces; this is already a dangerous trend. But if it concentrates on basic principles, and especially if it leads to another international conference of the world's Communist Parties, as Chinese propose, it will clarify issues that need clarification and illumine man's road to progress and world peace. With the multiplicity of socialist countries and revolutionary movements, differences are bound to arise and are nothing to be feared. The urgent problem now is to learn how to discuss them and settle them in a comradely way, on the basis of the common goals and the real lessons of world events -- as a normal routine method.

A Chinese leader told me: "The whole world now goes to school, the lessons are hard ones and people have to study them because they are needed for mankind's progress. If so many people study very hard, they should come up with fundamental answers."

The People's Daily called 1962 "a year woven of struggles and victories". 1963, I think, will see more of the same.



Israel Epstein

At this beginning of 1963, People's China may well say, in the famous words of Mark Twain, that her obituary notices were greatly exaggerated! The would-be mourners (or celebrants) at her wake found a coming-of-age party instead. The past year has been one of health and vigor. Here I shall deal with the economy.

First, agriculture. 1959, 1960 and 1961 saw the most widespread natural calamities in memory. But they were memorable, too, as years in which the People's Communes, with their built-in large-scale mutual help, prevented the kind of starvation seen even in "normal" years under Chiang Kai-shek's and earlier governments. Despite the very serious difficulties, or rather because of the way the test was met, this new form of organization matured and took deeper root in the hearts of the people. Rapidly improving their functioning in the time of trial, the communes produced a 1962 harvest that not only provided ample grain for the people but allowed for substantial increases in livestock (and consequently the protein diet). Now there is added emphasis on cotton and other industrial crops, and on the technical modernization of agriculture. It is instructive to see how the prophets of disaster have fallen victims to their own propaganda. Chiang Kai-shek last year sent nine batches of infiltrators to land or parachute secretly in the southern coastal area, and start guerrilla warfare there. They had been assured that they would be warmly welcomed by the people. And so they were. All 170 or so, picked "leaders" and "commanders" equipped with the appropriate ranks and American-supplied paraphernalia, were killed or captured within from two hours to two days of their arrival. The job was done by commune farmers of the people's militia, acting by themselves or alongside regular troops. This news is offered, free of copyright, to Mr. Joseph Alsop and all others who have stated so often, in the recent past, that only a match is needed to "kindle the flames of rural revolt" in China.

Second, industry. The results of the tremendous increases of 1958-60, which saw the completion in three years of most of the targets set for the 1958-63 Five-Year Plan, have been consolidated as a basis for further advance. Essential consumers' goods, after temporary shortages due to lack of agricultural raw materials and the pressure of constantly rising purchasing power, are now more broadly available than ever before, in villages as well as cities. As for heavy industry, it is now geared mainly to the chief job at hand, the modernization of farming. Last year saw considerable growth in both the supply of, and the manufacturing facilities for, chemical fertilizers, irrigation pumps, tractors and the special steels for making all parts of tractors and other farm equipment, petroleum and the machinery for drilling and refining, etc. Mechanization of agriculture is still in an early stage, considering China's immense needs. But facts such as the 20,000 tractors now working in the single northeastern province of Heilungkiang show the distance already covered.

Taking the economy as a whole, every sector was affected by adverse circumstances in 1959-61. Difficulties in agriculture had their effect on light industry. Heavy industry was additionally unfavourably affected by its previous dependence for many vital parts and equipment on import contracts, which proved unreliable. The years 1961-62 were devoted to adjustment and filling out, meaning a concentration on top-priority needs and the attainment of the needed variety and quality to give the economy an independent base for further growth. Thanks to the efforts of workers, engineers and scientists, this base now exists to an unprecedented extent. As for modern know-how, China has created her own considerable force of college trained engineers; 290,000 graduated in the entice 22 since 1949 as compared to only 32,000 in the entire 22 years of the Chiang Kai-shek regime. Given normal crops, which are the basis of everything, one can expect to see further developments along the line of the great leap forward before too long, on a truly firm foundation. And the main job of industry, at present, is to do its part in securing such crops.

It is not my purpose here to wander outside the economy; but since the economy, like everything else, is built by human beings and depends on their spirit, a word needs to be said about this. Everywhere in China one meets exultant confidence in revolutionary socialism. This is reflected in the sphere of spiritual production, books, films and plays. These are better than ever. In internal themes, the concentration is on memories of indomitable revolutionary struggles (such as the novel Red Crag about the valiant fight of political prisoners in the U.S.-Chiang Kai-shek death camp in Chungking, which has sold two million copies), and on the new, socialist life in the countryside (the very popular, very fine films Second Sister Li and Locust Village being outstanding examples). Socialist transformations continue. In this regard, Tibet is now catching up with the rest of the country. Having completed its democratic reform (land reform), it is now holding the first elections for its own local and regional people's congresses, and thus attaining the organizational as well as material basis for socialist advance in step with all other parts of this great land.

China knows her past, her present and her aims for the future. She is determined never to return to the first, proud of the second, and confidently moving toward the third.

Talitha Gerlach

Momentarily we seem a little further from the brink! ... In making appointments people add: "If we are still here!" ... What a note on which to end the year! Several friends in capitalist lands include such comments in their letters. Others say:--I paraphrase: "The U.S.S.R. showed concern for peace, the U.S.A. drew back from nuclear holocaust, the Cuban people unite on Castro's 'Five Points' and can now go ahead and build their country."

But seriously! Has Kennedy given up his plan to throttle the Cuban Revolution, the first socialist country in the Western Hemisphere, to prevent similar revolutions in other Latin American lands? Far from it! So we must see clearly that the imperialism of the U.S.A. is the key threat to world peace, and must base our work for peace on this fact.

On this side of the world we are sharply conscious of the war-pressures from Washington: the U.S. stubbornness in its hold on Laos, the U.S. forces in Thailand, the U.S.-directed war against the people of South Viet Nam, the U.S. constant support of reactionary governments, Chiang Kai-shek in China's Taiwan, and now the U.S. involvement in India too.

By contrast we see how sanely and brilliantly the Chinese People's Republic works for Peace. Especially just now in the Sino-Indian border dispute. Attacked by India, China defended her borders, but kept repeating her demand to settle by negotiation. Victorious in battle, she did not press her gains but announced a Cease-Fire and Withdrawal, again and again urging friendly negotiations and disengagement of troops. Nehru delays, refuses a clear reply, yet takes time to consult with the American and British military. Do the Indian people realize that now the U.S.A., with her foot inside the door will push in ruthlessly and call the military, political and economic plays? We believe they will, in time.

An ominous picture for the end of 1962? Yes, but the hope is predominant. The peoples of Latin America seethe with struggle for Cuba and for themselves, and no threats or blockades by the U.S.A. can turn that tide. The peoples of Asia and Africa support China's peaceful offers, while India's rulers--no longer "un-aligned"--become isolated as they slip into Washington's pocket. It becomes clear that in all these three continents, the peoples will go ahead faster in 1963 on the business of liberating their countries and building a better life for themselves and thus a better world for all mankind. Their struggles are part of the struggle for world peace; they are, indeed, its reliable vanguard.

So I may close appropriately with: Happy New Year to you in 1963!

Joan Hinton

We happened to be sitting in the steam heated guest house at Yenan when we first heard the poem. A clear bright autumn moon had just poked up over the eastern pagoda hill, making the electric lights shining from the hill-scattered caves look like so many stars. We had been standing there in the courtyard watching it all for sometime, listening to the night, listening to all the ordinary evening sounds of such an unordinary place, feeling ourselves so incomprehensibly small compared to the meaning of its past, when coming back into the warm room, we turned on the radio to hear your voice saying, "Yesterday you were the chief of a small green island...." We think this poem of yours is excellent because it so precisely catches the essence of the situation ... and of course hearing it in Yenan, cradle of the victory of China's revolution, gave it a very special significance.

As for life here on the Sian farm, things are certainly on the move these days. In line with the directives of the tenth plenary session of the Chinese CP central committee this whole huge country is going in for agriculture in an unprecedented way--our farm of course included. Hundreds of healthy, laughing, enthusiastic students have come from the city to join in our production. New Chinese-made tractors and farm machinery of all kinds are on the way. Bulldozers have been leveling the fields day and night preparing them for irrigation while our farm trucks have been put on special duty hauling bricks for new buildings to house our rapidly increasing population of both dairy cows and people. The new thing this year is the stress on technical improvement. The peasants throughout the country, having completed the job of organizing their collective economy, a job which culminated in the consolidation of the people's communes, are now turning to the job of mechanization, of finally and completely liberating themselves from the back-breaking toil that was old China. The whole of the country's industry is being geared to support them in this task. On our farm, people everywhere are thinking up all possible means of mechanizing, especially in those parts of the farm work which require heavy manual labor.

As for me, in line with all this, I am working again on that continuous flow automatic milk pasteurizer which I started in 1958. The main purpose of the machine is to lighten the burden of our dairy workers who now have to dump thousands of pounds of milk a day through our present pasteurizer by hand. We had to stop working on the machine in 1958 because it was so difficult to get parts, but now conditions are much, much better. I can just go to the city and buy all sorts of things I couldn't get before.

As I hunt around for parts, I get a chance to see quite a bit of the city too. It is really amazing how much food there is these days. Literally mountains of Chinese cabbage lie piled on the sidewalks, while meat is sold all over the city and the butcher shops are lined with neat fresh carcasses. There are fruit stands everywhere, selling not only local apples and pears, but oranges and tangerines too, sent up from the south.

As to what the people are thinking, all over the farm and among the workers in the machine shop where I work, there is constant talk about the international situation. What has struck me most about it all has been that even after India's large-scale invasion of China's border areas, the people everywhere have been much more concerned about the defense of Cuba than about anything else.

One day when I was in the city with my ten-year-old son, taking him to a dental appointment, he suddenly cried out "Look! Look at the parade!" and sure enough, down the street came people marching four abreast all with white caps on their heads. The white caps are worn by the "Hui" people in Sian, a minority nationality of the Mohammedan religion who used to be discriminated against in old China, much as the West discriminates against Jewish people. As they came closer we realized they were demonstrating in support of Cuba. Old men with long thin beards, young people of all ages and description, while scattered through their ranks were all their children, marching erect and earnestly, carrying flags with slogans, and shouting "Long Live Castro! Cuba Yes! Yankees No! U.S. imperialism, hands off Cuba!" By the time we got out of the dental hospital, the streets were jammed with marchers--all traffic had come to a standstill. There were brigades representing factories, office workers, handicraft cooperatives, and many many groups of housewives, some even pushing baby carriages as they shouted, "Down with U.S. imperialism! Yankees go home!" We had to walk all the way to the outskirts of the city before we could get a bus back and even then we had to wait an hour before one finally came through. As we walked along the country road from the bus stop back to our farm, again we saw people everywhere. These were commune members going home. "Been watching the parade?" we asked. "No, not watching but marching, demonstrating our support for Cuba," they said.

It had become quite dark by this time. Before long, all the people having branched off here and there to their various villages, we were left alone. As the two of us walked on, I couldn't help marvelling at these people. Only a few days before, India had attacked China all along the whole Sino-Indian border, yet the people here were out demonstrating not against India, but in defense of Cuba! My son suddenly turned to me asking, "But why do their friends take their weapons away?" What could I say? That night as we walked those fifteen li home together, I told him in detail the stories of the Chinese and Cuban revolutions. I tried my best to show him that it's the struggles of the people, not weapons, which in the end determine the outcome of history. I think he understood.

As to the feeling among the people here, the workers, the cadres, all the people on our farm strongly believe the road of capitulation to the aggressors is the road to war. World peace may only be maintained on the basis of the dignity, equality, and rights of all nations big or small. As for India, the people are indignant and disgusted at all the hullabaloo and war hysteria being whipped up over there. It is obvious to everyone that the Sino-Indian boundary question is not the kind that should be solved by any means other than friendly negotiation. But if India's rulers bring Western arms into play and make themselves the instrument of Western imperialist attack against China, as they are doing, China will certainly continue to take all necessary steps in self-defense. This too is good for peace. The people here show only the deepest sympathy and friendship for the Indian people. They don't want to fight India. They think it is stupid for Asians to fight Asians for the sole benefit of U.S. monopoly capital and the Indian big bourgeoisie. They are doing everything in their power to promote the peaceful settlement of the boundary dispute through mutual discussions in a way that would be fair and acceptable to both sides. There is no hysteria here, nor is there any fear. The people's minds and energies are occupied with the colossal creative problem of the modernization of China's agriculture, with the immediate task of preparing the conditions for an exceptionally good harvest next year.


(The Poem mentioned is the last stanza of some verses contributed. by Anna Louise Strong to the "Support Cuba Poetry Evening" in Peking, and read over the Peking Radio November 1, 1962.)

You were the chief
Of a small, green island,
Leader of not quite
Seven million people.
Today for you
The millions march in China
And in a hundred tongues
They hail your name.
Today you are the Voice
Of the Three Continents,
The Thunder of History
Down the Ages,
The fighting SHOUT
Of men against Aggressors,
In all times and lands,
For the RIGHTS.

Shirley Wood

I love the autumn and winter in Honan, once the weather clears. We've had a wet autumn, which no one grudged, for the sake of the wheat next spring, but it's troublesome with the mucky roads and the washing in the house and the cold wet wind down your neck. Now it's over though and the thick snow was the first early snow in so many years. Now the bare, clear sunshine is back and only a thin yellow leaf or two left on the trees except where they stand by a wall in the sunshine, and clusters of bitter yellow berries hanging like cherries from the round grey branches of the chinaberry trees, where the slaty, long-tailed Chinese bluejays crowd in winter to feed. Now it's only the yellow earth, with maybe the flat green furrows of wheat stretching across it, and the grey or red brick houses and the trees like pen-and-ink drawings against the white blue sky, and in the mornings the frost like thin crystal lying in the low places and on the north slope of the roofs. The town has a lovely smell in winter that I've missed in the hard years, but now it is back again--the smell of the stalls. the roasting sweet potatoes, the chestnuts and peanuts and the steam coming onto the street from the cauldron of fat mutton on the stove behind the doors of the little restaurants. The roasted breads and fried breads and filled buns and dumplings--sweet, salt or meaty, just nice to look at as you hurry down the street wondering if you should spend five cents and where.

No one is planting vegetables now, except a bit of early spinach for the spring, because they are so much trouble and plenty and cheap in the stalls. Even the wheat is just to keep the garden green-looking for the winter. Next spring the seed-peddlers and the man with the sets of pansies and wallflowers and roots of canna and dahlias and rosebushes will be swamped as soon as they get in the gate of our compound, if they get so far through the streets. The young folk seem busy with other things, but the children and old folk love to play with the flowers, and wherever you see a particularly fine bit of garden, there's sure to be an old man in the family. With all our old professors there's talk every spring between the bungalows about how to grow oleanders and who has a fine new chrysanthemum they'll exchange sets of for a bit of mint and did you know that in old Chinese the hickory tree and the day lily represent the father and mother in health and isn't it a chance that a winged hickory seed should have blown among my day lilies and grown there, and can I spare a day lily root next spring? I don't know how, but it seems that now we've caught our breath we're one jump farther on from where we were when we stopped jumping.

* * *

I'm amazed at the way things have come on the market. I was wondering what I'd do about a sweater for Limin, and with the food shortage just comfortably over I thought it would be a few years before we could get good wool. But we got in a lot this autumn, nice and soft and the ration of industrial tickets dropped from fifteen the pound to three, so I've got the knitting to do and maybe enough over for a scarf.

A year ago you had to have a letter of introduction to buy a washbasin or an aluminum pot. Now people are fussy about the patterns on the washbasins and enamel cups and they want something heavier than the pots which were made thin so the aluminum would go round, so the shelves that were padded with empty boxes for show a year ago are filled with pretty, shiny pots and basins and other things and the city department of commerce is worried because their stocks don't move. Used to be that if you wanted to buy something like water glasses you had to be at a store when they arrived and take what you could get for pattern and quality, but now people are getting awfully choosy and looking at the price, I remember the day when you grabbed two and asked the sales girl, "How much do I owe you?"

In our plains wind, a straw hat or umbrella isn't much use in wet weather unless you're going southward, but with the drought we haven't had to worry much about raincoats during the school season. Now it's over, and I have five in school and only three raincoats and my old cape between them and the wet autumn we've had with a fine early snow has put us at our wits' end to keep them dry. Their papa tramped the town up and down last September without finding a child's raincoat, but last Tuesday after I'd been to the dentist I bought a nice heavy plastic one for Ann, with a hood and schoolbag, dark blue with little flowers pressed into it. Only ten yuan. And the stores were so full of things--more variety than we'd had even before the hard years.

Working girls are buying silk kerchiefs and country farmers can get their velours hats. That was rather funny--a couple of years ago the farmers got tired of wearing cotton padded winter caps, and started buying corduroy ones, round-blocked with thick velours ear-flaps, very posh-looking and warm with the flaps down and velours round the back of your neck when the north wind blew. Stocks were sold out before December, and since then every time you went shopping you'd see farmers coming in asking if the store had any velours hats. Well, now there's enough and to spare.

Rewi Alley

Rulers of the world's richest
state, look over their income
reckoning how best to spend in
the coming year; shall it be

on rockets to the moon, space
ships, or more napalm burning
of Vietnamese villagers;
blockade, subversion, against Cuba; looting
a prostrate South Korea; planting
new bases in a re-armed Japan
or putting new spy satellites
into orbit; pouring new billions
to ensure India help for an
invasion of China; paying to build
new bases up the Amazon to keep
Brazil's poor, poorer, or for
a nice new nuclear base in Paraguay?

Then of course, a lot of cash
can be spent on meeting CIA
budgets in Laos, Thailand, Malaya
to say nothing of the millions
that can be spent in Africa,
Latin America; the forty billion
needed to plaster armed men
all around the globe, in the air
and under the sea.

Quite a few dollars, too
are needed to provide
cushy corners for party plugs
hangers on of the shiny, plastic
Kennedy Dynasty; then there
are new fascists to be nurtured;
decision made which of the dictators
to be paid in full, which
can be bargained with.

In all, a wide selection;
you pay your money, they
make their choice; you, the
pitiful taxpayers of this
twentieth century whose
Struggle finances all.

Peking, Nov. 20th, 1962

Sidney Rittenberg

Here in Peking, my hard-working wife, Yu-Lin, and I found months ago that evening snack bars have popped up all over the city, where working people coming off shift or out of theatres can buy piquant noodles from Szechuan, grill-it-yourself mutton from Inner Mongolia. white duck-meat rolls from the famous Peking Duckery. etc.--all for the equivalent of about two bits in U.S. money.

Yes, "every day in every way, things get better and better." Though, strange to say, that isn't what you hear most talked about--it's Cuba. The whole country is in the midst of a ten-day celebration, in which seven hundred million Asians take their collective hat off to seven million Americans (in the broad and original sense of the word), who have looked the Paper Tiger of Wall Street straight in his nuclear teeth, and by their magnificent courage and unity saved their country from invasion.

I remember one November afternoon when Yu-Lin and I, hurrying across town to a friend's house, ran into column after column of Peking people moving out onto the streets. "Listen," said Yu-Lin. "Slogans in Spanish." And she was right--"Cuba Si, Yankee No" shouted the marching young people, workers and women's groups. "Cuba Si, Yankee No" had entered the Chinese language, just as the Cuban partisan songs blaring out from streetside loudspeakers entered the repertoire of popular Chinese music.

We spied a girl we knew with a huge portrait of Castro in her hands, and I engaged her in "provocative" conversation. "Do you think Kennedy will start throwing H-Bombs over Cuba?" I asked. "They're bluffing," she said. "They're not ready for anything big--probably not even ready to invade Cuba, with the Cubans so firm." "But some people say," I persisted, "the only choice is between backing down and a thermo-nuclear holocaust." "Some people," was the answer, "think that struggling against war means increasing the possibility of war. We think that by sticking together and struggling against the war makers we can avoid a new world war." This was some time before the famous People's Daily editorial-- of December 15, entitled, "Workers of All Countries, Unite to Oppose Our Common Enemy!" (In English in Peking Review, Dec. 21.)

* * *

And back in our apartment, not long ago, the following little drama was enacted. I call it, "Out of the Mouths of Babes..."

Scene: Our home. Myself and 5-year-old daughter, "Little Pusher", just home from kindergarten, sitting cross-legged on a Ming table (dating from Columbus-was-a-pup days), looking at the full spread portrait of Fidel Castro on the cover of her mother's Youth of China magazine.

Me: "Do you know who that is?"

LP: (Loftily) "Who doesn't know who that is!"

Me: "Well, who is it?"

LP: "It's Ca-ss-te-lo."

Me: "And who is he?"

LP: (Patiently) "He's the Chairman Mao of Cuba."

Me: "And what is Cuba?"

LP: "It's a little country of brave people..."

Me: "Where?"

LP: "..."

Me: "Don't you know where Cuba is?"

LP: (Humiliated silence)

Me: "Cuba's right next to the United States, don't you know that?" (A nod in response.) "It's an island, darling -- the whole country is just one island. Do you know what an island is?" (Vigorous head-shake, business of raising head and placing turned-up nose in position to receive new knowledge.) "Well, an island is .. ."

And that's how our child found out about islands.