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Two women

Long tables, in a vast room in the provincial Guest House in Guangzhou (Canton), dotted with lines of covered teacups. A Chinese traditional painting entirely covers one wall. Poised above the speaker's table, the cold arc lights wait for the TV crew. It's a Saturday afternoon in March and Women's Day in China. We foreign women working in China are the guests of honor at the party - an occasion that recognizes women's rights, women's issues, and women's struggles in China, in the United States, in England, in Africa, or anywhere.

Smiling, offering her hand, Ms. Loong, a member of the Guangdong Province Women's Cooperative, greets my interpreter and me at the door. She speaks no English, I know no Mandarin or Cantonese. But she has a warm face, tough and kind and marked with the many paths her life has traveled. She leads us to a table, offers us tea, oranges, sweets. I do a quick scan of the room, recognizing an American woman who is attached to the US consulate; an Irish teacher from South China Teachers College; an Indian woman who is a student at Zheng San (Sun Yat Sen) University; the wife of a German doctor lecturing at our university.

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''Doctor DeMille teaches English literature to our students at Jinan University,'' my interpreter is saying to Ms. Loong.

Ms. Loong smiles widely.

''She's honored and happy to meet an American woman doctor,'' my interpreter translates.

I've been in China long enough to know that doctors-philosophical rank above doctors-medical. I relish the honor, nod, and smile too.

Ms. Loong, I discover, has been on the women's scene since the Liberation in 1949. She teaches in a middle school, has been a member of the Women's Cooperative since its origin, is very active in the pursuit of day-care centers and the equal admissions of women into the universities and the professions.

''My father sold my eldest sister as a concubine before the Liberation,'' Ms. Loong says, frowning quickly, forgetting to smile. She adds as quickly: ''I have two daughters. The eldest is a doctor; the youngest is an interpreter for the China Travel Service.''

''I have daughters too,'' I say. ''Our eldest is a doctoral student in Boston , another is a lawyer. But that is the new generation. In my generation, women were also 'sold.' We were told to devote ourselves to our husbands and our families. I became a doctor only after my children were grown. Now my daughters don't worry about whether they will marry, but whether to marry, whether to have a family.''

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We smile together, recognizing and allowing the gaps in the generations. I scrutinize that weathered face: Clearly this is a woman who has lived and worked in difficulty. I, in my American relative ease and comfort, can't begin to compare physical hardships. And I'm already acquainted with the lives of my Chinese neighbors, whom I watch from the windows of my apartment in the faculty complex, firing the charcoal stove for dinner; dragging the tub into the yard for the laundry; lugging heavy stones, one at a time, to build the wall that keeps the neighbor's chickens from eating the heads from their marigolds.

But I still want to tell Ms. Loong something, my thoughts encouraged by the vision of all these women, all educated, most professional, and myself among their number (never in my wildest dreams, at 23 and mother of two babies, could I have imagined sitting in China, in this room). I still want to tell Ms. Loong about American women's struggles with poverty, with prejudice, with themselves - needing to reverse the image in their heads of professional practice emanating mainly from males in three-piece dark blue suits.

But Ms. Loong knows nothing of three-piece dark blue suits or of the caveats to my generation about the consequences of neglecting breadmaking, breast-feeding, the PTA, or femininity. Her images are baby girls left on hillsides to perish; young virgins sold as prostitutes; wives legally beaten.

My interpreter nudges me. ''Ms. Loong is telling me about the modernized day-care center,'' she says, ''recently opened in the silk factory.'' She also wants me to know that women in China now account for about half of all the university admissions and half of the graduate programs as well. She is describing family-planning clinics and smiling impishly as she describes her new son-in-law's experiences with housework and baby-tending.

My son-in-law does the dishes, I think. He also cooks, and so does my husband. Possibly this generation differs in not expecting their wives to be grateful.

Yes, in both of our countries, women have won gains, won a measure of justice.

I select a pastry, nibbling the edges until I reach the too-sweet center.

Ms. Loong smiles at me again, her strong hands clasp an orange, briskly she strips off the peel.

''We have more in common than you think,'' I blurt, remembering the 30 years since my high school graduation in '49 - of battles and skirmishes, retreats and big and little victories, thinking of those mind-bound, house-bound years before I found the courage and the money to go back to school. And in these same 30 years, Ms. Loong has been teaching, speaking out, encouraging her daughters, as I did, to be more. Enemies within and without, but I am here on this Women's Day in China. Ms. Loong is here too.

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