Sub-machine guns, green army outfits, and sheer terror were my memories of landing in mainland China several years ago.
So unnerved was I, that I forgot my computer at the terminal and only remembered hours later in my hotel. Lost without my computer, I had to turn around, face my fear and return to the place that had terrified me into forgetting it in the first place.
Arriving back at the dreaded airport, I looked for the “Lost and Found,” or Chinese equivalent. My computer was not held behind the information counter as it might have been in North America, but had made its way to the head of the police headquarters in the terminal.
Shaking in my sneakers, I entered the room alone… I stood across the desk from 5 soldiers.
Four were standing behind a heavy set soldier hunched over a cold steel desk with my computer open in front of him and a glare in his eye. His eyes pierced right through me and there was no hint of a smile or welcome of any sort. He had full access to my files; I had never bothered to lock my computer because I didn’t have anything to hide.
Thank heavens for me I am about as much threat to national security as Winnie the Poo or Barney, so they begrudgingly returned me the computer and let me go free.
As I traveled through the city in the days to follow, I observed that one was never allowed to forget the military police presence. The officials even made life size statues of military police and placed them in public areas just in case one had the audacity to forget.
I wasn’t going to let a little thing like sub-machine guns and steel desks taint my exploration of a beautiful country and intriguing people that I had never seen before. The sun was shining so I decided to take one of my epic walks, one of my walks where I am going no where in particular, but just out to discover.
I must admit I didn’t stray as far as I would have in other countries, because after all, Mainland China was Mainland China, and I may be adventurous, but not totally bereft of common sense. I would visit ‘customary’ tourist places and veer off the beaten path by a couple streets ‘this way and that,’ and a ‘little here and a little there.’
People were walking and riding bicycles in dresses, suits and much to my surprise, they still often wore their Chairman Mao (Mao Tse Tung) outfits. Everyone was staring at me, I was staring at everyone ~ no one could take their eyes off each other.
It was on this walk that I met the Game Changers.
Groups of (four) men were clustered around tables playing Mahjong, while others sat on benches chatting. This scene was quite normal really except for one thing that almost all of the men seemed to have brought with them…. little song birds in wooden cages.
Imagine about a hundred Chairman Mao uniformed men carrying little song birds in tiny wooden cages which, upon arrival to the park, they would suspend in the trees to blow softly in the wind. Their little chirps and songs would harmonize and rise to the heavens as one.
Chairman Mao Tse-tung (Mao Zedong) had tried to order the obliteration of the sparrow during his reign because of the amount of grain he felt they consumed. He told his citizens to go outside and continue to clap their hands so that the birds never landed and died from exhaustion.
Now, a little over a decade following the death of Chairman Mao, and only several after the Tiananmen Square Massacre, the juxtaposition of the tiny song birds, gray uniformed men, the intense military presence on every street corner I walked, thoroughly astounded me.
I did enter the park and although we couldn’t speak (probably a combination of language barriers and fear), they smiled and nodded for me to come watch their game of Mahjong a little closer…. but not too close.
Even with, or perhaps because of, a constant threat of reprimand, living through massacres and tyranny, these men found beauty in the simple pleasure of a delicate song bird and the sweet songs that they sing.