It was March 2011, and Beijing was on high alert with stern-faced police and soldiers every 20 feet or so. I was there with a group of Edison State Community College study abroad students. Our seminars prior to the tour had involved hearing from native Chinese who were in the U.S. as students or as faculty and administrators at an area university.
We had been having lessons in Mandarin, but the focus was primarily on Chinese culture, minus the politics.
Our first city was Beijing. When we reached Tiananmen Square, I naively asked the tour guide to tell us about the massacre that occurred there on June 4, 1989, in which unarmed pro-democracy demonstrators were killed. He looked down and put a finger across his sealed lips.
My response to his action was, “Please tell us about the massacre. We’d really like to know.”
He said simply, “Not allowed. Lose license as tour guide.”
It was the Arab Spring in March of 2011, with reverberations beyond the Middle East. China’s relationships with these countries had been viewed as essential by political leaders, and there was a good deal of uncertainty about how the “troubles” there might impact China.
As Americans we were dismayed because we felt the tension, Further, we were accustomed to seeking the opinions of news commentators and moment-by-moment descriptions by reporters who were on the ground in places such as Saudi Arabia, Syria, Lebanon, Kuwait, and Libya. Internet service was cut off by Chinese officials, and news channels were silenced.
This month is the 25th anniversary of the massacre, and more Chinese are willing to express their opinions, even as journalists have been detained and attempts have been made by the government to shut down protests.
The trip to China in 2011 was the most troublesome of the tours that we had been arranging at the college since 2004 — and the most expensive. Visas were required, and because one of our group had indicated he was bi-polar, that created a delay for the group in getting the visas. Then there were the U.S. State Department warnings about the laws in China, the severe punishment for breaking those laws, and the inability of the American Embassy in China to help tourists who found themselves in trouble.
Additionally, the travel abroad nurse whom I consulted recommended strongly that I get a series of vaccinations as well as an identification bracelet to indicate that I am allergic to erythromycin. Her son had experienced medical problems there following a traffic accident, so she was concerned that I take precautionary measures.
A friend who is my height had indicated that with my blue eyes, blonde hair and height, I might be an object of attention. In her six weeks of travel in China, she had been referred to as a blonde giant. A few times groups of Chinese men would just stare at me, and one day a woman about my age pulled up my long skirt to show her friend how white I am. At least that’s what I assumed she was doing.
On another day on the tour, a friend and I were tired of museums and just wanted to go back to the hotel. No taxis would pick us up. I suddenly knew how African Americans feel when taxi drivers refuse to stop for them.
So China was a real example of culture shock for me even though I had wanted to go since I was a child at the Central Baptist Church in Cumberland where annually we collected the Lottie Moon Christmas offering for missionary work in China.
On my tour in 2011 we visited three cities: Beijing, Xian and Shanghai, and each was radically different from peasant women sweeping streets with handmade brooms in Beijing to the high-rise office buildings in Shanghai juxtaposed with street people cooking over open fires a few blocks away.
The terra cotta soldiers, their mounts and chariots (as of 2007, there were 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots and 520 horses that had been unearthed) that were buried outside of Xian to assist the first emperor of China after his death took my breath away. They were first unearthed on March 29, 1974, by farmers who were digging a water well. I stood in line at the museum store to meet the sole surviving farmer, buy a book and get his autograph for my oldest son, Lance.
When the bus on which we were riding, built for persons in the 4-feet and 5-feet-tall range, took us within view of the Great Wall, I gasped. I anticipated that I would be impressed, yet I had no idea of how astonished I would be. I saw only a small fragment of the wall, because in its entirety it is 13,171 miles long and contrary to popular lore, according to NASA, cannot be seen from space by the naked eye.
On the flight from Shanghai, we stopped in Tokyo, and the very large two-decker plane in which we were traveling was suddenly filled with persons fleeing the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, the largest nuclear incident since the Chernobyl disaster.
Would I return to China? No. Am I glad I went? Yes.
The world is large, and in our lifetimes we can only experience very small parts of it. Each part has the potential to enhance our understanding that in the larger scheme of things, we are less than a tiny grain of sand with fractions of a second of life. Our finite place in the universe also reinforces my sense that we are responsible for making a positive difference during the brief time we are allotted. I learned this many years ago from my parents and from my years in a host of programs at the Central Baptist Church.
Send comments or suggestions to: firstname.lastname@example.org.