Drive-in Theaters in the States vs movie-going in 80s China

My neighbors recently took their five children to a drive-in in San Jose to watch the movie, “Sing.” I asked them how they liked it and they said it was great. I suggested to my husband that we go there with our kids as I’d  never been to a drive-in theater and always had a romantic idea about it. But my husband was not keen on the idea as he thought it would be hard to watch a movie in such a place. He and I would probably fall asleep in the car (we both could use more sleep, with the kids climbing up to our bed every night and sleeping with their limbs spread out)…not to mention that it was pretty cold at night these days. So in the end, we watched the movie in a small theater in Cupertino. It was fun and the kids loved the pig wearing a sparkly golden hoodie.

When I was little, still living on a state farm called Red Harbor, watching a movie was celebrated like a holiday. To this day, I have a vivid memory of it.

Red Harbor didn’t have a theater, so we watched movies on the Headquarters’ basketball court. Of course, there weren’t any seats there so you had to bring your own.

On the movie day, you could smell something like a war in the air. Though the movie wouldn’t start until seven or eight, by three the basketball court already saw its first batch of visitors—grandmas, grandpas, those who didn’t have to work or go to school. They brought with them wicker chairs, stools, straw mats, bamboo fans, thermos, mugs, tea pots, slippers, food and snacks, and of course, their tottering, whimpering grandchildren, occupying the center space facing the imagined movie screen. Seeing how well equipped they were, you’d think they might as well bring their beds.

These grandmas and grandpas didn’t take space just for themselves; they also marked territory for families and friends who had asked them to. So after they settled, you saw stools, mats, and other objects lying around, marking their borders.

By the time my friends and I got off school and ran to the court at four thirty, half the court had been taken. We hadn’t even gone home! When I said it “had been taken,” it was not that it was full of people, but full of stools, chairs, benches, mats and odd stuff such as pillows, a piece of clothing, even stacked bricks, all with a name attached; on the ground were all kinds of markings and writings in chalk or charcoal.

By six, most people had arrived. The basketball court was as crowded and noisy as a honeycomb full of bees. Some people were quarreling because of a border dispute, each surrounded and cheered on by bored bystanders.

As if to play up the drama, the vendors chanted in their local dialects.

“Twenty cents a bag! My sunflower seeds are crispy and tasty!”

“Plums, apricots, fresh dates! The yellow ones are very yellow, the red ones are very red. Come and try!”

“Honeydew! Golden-skinned honeydew! Don’t pay if it’s not sweet.”

“Tea eggs! Big tea eggs! Very big tea eggs!”

The movie didn’t arrive until eight, a delay that neither surprised nor saddened us. We watched a team of people set up the projector and secure the big canvas screen.

With a silver light tube illuminating the screen and the projector creaking, the movie started.

A breeze came and the screen fluttered.

Babies felt asleep against their mothers’ chests.

Grandmas and grandpas poured tea into their mugs and sipped it.

A dog barked but soon whimpered—someone had thrown a stone at it.

I felt asleep before the movie ended. When I woke up, I was on my father’s back, and we were on our way home.

Dry leaves crunched under our feet, sounding as if coming from the center of the earth.

High in the sky, millions of stars twinkled.

“Did you like the movie?” My father asked me when he saw that I was awake.

“Yes,” I mumbled, before plummeting back into a sweet dream.

(Do you know that more than 90% of drive-in theaters in the U.S. have disappeared?)

Featured image: Freetown Christiania, Copenhagen

Author: Fan Wu

Fan Wu grew up on a state-run farm in southern China. After college, she received a scholarship from Stanford University to come to the United States. Her two novels are February Flowers, translated into eight languages, and Beautiful as Yesterday, praised by Amy Tan as “a story with intelligence, insight, and heart.” For more, please visit www.fanwuwrites.com

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