When I moved to China I had big dreams of being arrested by Communist soldiers just for being an American Christian. They would tie me to a wooden chair in a gray, dingy room and demand that I say bad things about God and George Bush. I would squint at them through swollen, purple eyelids and with my best Clint Eastwood grin break into a chorus of “God Bless America.” Then (cue music) B.A. Baracus would smash the black van through the block wall and the A-Team would shoot all of the Communist soldiers (in the feet of course), pull me to into the van, crash through another wall and drive off into the sunset leaving a room full of angry, hopping bad guys shaking their fists and shouting Chinese (prime-time approved) obscenities.
Ok, I threw in the A-team for dramatic, blogging effect but suffice it to say my expectations of China (especially Communist China) were painted and tainted by both incomplete, historical facts, and action packed, Hollywood fiction. Walking through Chinese customs the first time was nerve-wrenching. I braced myself for the trip to the back room for questioning and light torture. I resolved in my mind to go peacefully as long as they did not harm my family. I handed the uniformed “soldier” our passports . . . heart pounding . . . sweating profusely. He opened each one carefully, studied the pictures and looked back at each of us . . . one by one. This is the moment. Will this Communist let us in to Communist China or send us to a Communist re-education camp? I’ll never forget what he said . . . “thank you.” He returned our passports and motioned for us to move on. It was only then that I noticed the “please rate my service” buttons on his desk. I pressed “very satisfied”.
“Arise, all people of the world, to topple Imperialist America!
To topple Soviet revisionism! To topple the reactionary parties
of all nations!” (Chinese poster, 1969)
bold text corresponds to blackened characters
Last week I made a quick trip back to the States. Checking in at the Beijing airport I noticed an older Chinese woman. I know she was Chinese because she jumped in front of the entire line . . . and she spoke Chinese (I have finely tuned skills of deduction). It was obvious that she was not accustomed to airport protocol and I assumed (right or wrong) that this was her first trip to America. I could only imagine what she was dreaming of and I pondered what facts and fiction had painted and tainted those dreams. She had obviously lived through the Cultural Revolution, a time when America was projected as enemy number one and a vicious, Imperialist threat seeking to overthrow the world and destroy the noble values that her generation was dying to uphold. She had also lived in a China where, for many, the highest aspiration has been a new life in a Western nation. Was she anxious? Nervous? Excited? Afraid? Did she have the Communist Party A-Team on speed dial?
I didn’t see her again until we landed in Chicago where I made the rookie mistake of using the restroom before getting in the customs line. When I came out the end of the line was in Iowa. Armed police officers were moving everyone to the back by loudly and bluntly insisting,
“Everyone move to the back of the line. This is not the line. Please move to the back of the line quickly. The back of the line is no longer in Illinois. It’s in Iowa. Please go there now!”
Everyone settled in for the long march and immediately began striking up conversations with total strangers so we could vent about the rude police and the long line. Then the police (still armed) returned and began yelling again,
“Visitors! Any non-U.S. passport holders, please come with us. There is another line for non-U.S. passport holders only.”
We were jealous and continued venting.
One at a time they herded foreign passport families and marched them away. That’s when I saw the Chinese woman from the airport. She was completely dazed and confused, as was the rest of her family. The officers approached and asked to see their passports. When they didn’t respond the officers grabbed the passports from their hands and said “come with us.” They were even more confused. (I could tell because I have mastered the “I have no idea what you are saying” look over five years in China [and I have finely tuned skills of deduction]). I jumped in to help and told them in Chinese, “You can go with them.” They were obviously still confused so I repeated myself, “You can go with them.” And so they did.
It wasn’t until later that I had time to process the whole scene through her eyes. This poor woman understood nothing that was happening. All she saw was people being pushed to the end of a long line by loud, demanding “soldiers” (with guns). Then the “soldiers” singled her and her family out, looked at their papers and said, “come with us!” which sounded like “flooby shooby doopie poo!” until a big white guy with a thick American accent said, “you can go with them.” It sounds like a scene from Schindler’s List. What was she thinking at that very moment? Back room? Interrogation? Light torture? “Is this Imperialist shipping us to an Imperialist re-education camp?” And so went her first twenty minutes in America.
Honestly . . . that was more of what I thought China might be like. I’m hoping the customs agents were nice to her and that she got a chance to rate their service.
Three statements and I’ll shut up.
1. The gap between assumption and reality is often broader than it need be.
2. Seeing yourself through the eyes of the people you are looking at (no matter how Communist) . . . couldn’t hurt.
3. Little, old Chinese lady: If you ever stumble across this blog and you have learned to read English (or use Google translate) I just want you to know that I am truly sorry for not being more reassuring about where you were going and I hope that once you got in you enjoyed my country as much as I have enjoyed yours. God bless America. God bless China.