It’s not what I wanted it to be. It’s just what it was. It was different. It was better. It was home. It was being home and being safe without ever realizing I wasn’t safe before.
It’s in retrospect that I see that I wasn’t safe because I was in China, and China, for a guy like me is unsafe. It wasn’t safe to think my thoughts. It wasn’t safe to speak what I spoke and it definitely wasn’t safe to teach what I taught. I taught it anyway because I believe everybody has a right, a “higher” right, than that recognized by a country or a constitution, to know the truth. I think of this right as being one imprinted in the hearts of men by God above.
The truth is good but it’s better when it’s bad; Mao killed millions, “your government is listening” and “you’re actually adopted” are some of the best because they’re real. Lies are easy to buy. That’s part of why they’re told. The truth hurts and it’s only in embracing that pain that there’s freedom from being found out, freedom from looking over my shoulder, freedom from “who’s going to walk around that corner?” It’s when I don’t have that freedom that I don’t sleep at night. It’s when I’m up wondering “who’s going to find out what?”
At the same time, my discovery in China was that just because I wasn’t lying didn’t mean I could rest easy. My last two weeks were rather uneasy but I didn’t know it at the time. I didn’t know I was uneasy in China until I wasn’t in China anymore. Once I was in Hong Kong, across the border, is when I breathed deeper than I had breathed before. I was suddenly aware of not just how stifled I had been, but how fearful I had become. I was afraid I was going to be found out. I was afraid I was going to get caught doing what I was supposed to be doing, doing what China didn’t want me doing, doing what I did. I was afraid I was going to be undone, locked up and unsung.
When, earlier, I had talked to the US Consulate about my first employer not honoring our contract and what my recourse was, I was told I had none. I was told ties were so unfriendly between our two countries that not only could the Consulate not help with contracts, they couldn’t help with apprehension; I could get caught and the most the Consulate could do was call the authorities and say “Are you aware you have a US citizen in custody?” From there, there was nothing more they could do. That should have been a warning. That should have been a caution. Instead it was something I shunned. My thinking was “Justice will prevail” not “Justice will most assuredly fail.”
I had those same thoughts, that same naive optimism, when in Beijing on Chang’an Avenue near Tiananmen Square, I stopped and asked a cop where it was that Tank Man stood. I showed him the photo and asked “Here?” At first he said in Mandarin a lot of what I didn’t understand. Then, he stopped and in English said “No” before pointing and saying “There.” It didn’t strike me as strange. After all, I could always play the “ignorant but well meaning tourist card”, I thought. My friend Dennis thought differently and he told me as much. “Are you nuts? That’s just stupid! That’s not brave. That’s foolhardy. That’s asking for trouble.”
Now that I’m home and safe, now that I’ve escaped before being caught, I can see that Dennis was right. I didn’t know how much trouble I was asking for. I didn’t know that during my last two weeks in China, the truth was I living with an undercurrent of fear that lasted until I arrived at LAX and walked right through the door. I didn’t realize how bad it had been not being home or how uneasy I was being away from LA until I got back to the States to see how much better this is than that was. I didn’t know that despite meeting some warm and humble people, China is no place I’d ever care to see again. As evident as that is, it wasn’t obvious until I arrived back in the States and it wasn’t something I had any right to say until I had done it, lived it and walked it with my own two feet.
The fact is, there are all kinds of things I think I know that I don’t know anything about. Rather than this world being good or bad or big or small or wonderful or unruly, this world is what it is and by witnessing it firsthand, I get to go beyond what someone else got and claim my experience as my own. How would I know that as wonderful as the States are, Shenzhen might be worse but Shanghai might be better? And how would I know I sincerely hope to never have to find out?