Thursday, June 4, 2009

Tienanmen Square in Buffalo, NY

Why is it that humans can always remember where they were in profound moments of sorrow but hardly ever in profound moments of joy?

I can remember ~exactly~ where I was the day John Lennon died, the day my Father died, 9/11, and the day the Space Shuttle Challenger blew up.

Twenty years ago this week, I was standing on the corner of Niagara Falls Boulevard and Sheridan Ave in the middle of a spontaneous show of support for the student protest in Tienanmen Square.

It started like any other day, I guess. We were all on the cusp of graduating High School and I was out with my girlfriends. Kathy's parents had bought her a beater of a car as an early Graduations gift (Freedom!!) and we did what any other teenage girl would do... We went to the Mall. On the way back, we saw a crowd of people gathered on the corner of Nia. Falls & Sheridan hold signs and yelling at the cars as they drove by. Rumor had it during the Cold War that this particular intersection was a "Ground Zero" spot in the event of Nuclear War because it was (and probably still is) the largest intersection in the entire area, making it a logical strike... Want to stop a heart? Cut an artery. To this day, I have no clue how that rumor started but it always scared the crap out of me at night when I'd lie in bed hearing Sting sing "I Hope The Russians Love Their Children Too" through my tinny pocket AM radio. "At least we wouldn't suffer through the aftermath," my Dad would say... Yeah. BIG words of comfort there, Da.

There was something about this crowd that made me beg Kathy to stop the car so we could investigate. Maybe it was the spontaneity of it all... we weren't the only car stopping, but as we got closer, we recognized a few people we knew and we were swept away.

Apparently (I found out years later) a couple college kids smoking bongs in their dorm rooms decided that day that they simply couldn't sit there on their futons and watch their peers (in age if not nationality) die on TV in the name of freedom from oppression without doing ~something~ so they grabbed some cardboard and some markers and drove to the only spot where they knew they could make their thoughts heard to the most traffic.

I remember feeling shy as I approached one of them and asked if I could join in. "Hell yeah!" was the response. I grabbed a sign that probably said "Free China" or "Honk for Tienanmen" or "Liberty and Justice for ALL" and joined in the shouting.... Finally!! Here I was, teetering on the edge of my "adult" life, and I was finally making my own voice heard!

Twenty years ago there were walls coming down all around us. The unnamed, untouchable fears that we grew up with were melting away as the whole world started to realize that we were all one. We all loved our children too and nobody wanted to become a flash-burned shadow on the wall in the wake of a giant mushroom cloud.

The cars drove by and we yelled and they honked back. The Police came to stop us until they read our signs, and told us that we can't ask the cars to honk anymore in case it caused an accident, but that they wouldn't shut us down. Victory!! Score one for the protesters!

Then the newness and excitement of it all wore out for my girlfriends. They were tired and wanted to go home. I told them to go ahead. I'd get a ride later, and that's when I saw them.

A family of five Chinese-Americans came up to me. The father was alive with excitement.

What are you doing?!
We're telling the world that we are with the students in Tienanmen!
Can we tell them too?
Yes! YES! Please!

He turned to his family and they all grabbed signs and started yelling and jumping up and down with the rest of us. Shouting at cars. Waving their arms... Telling the world.

The man turned to me with tears streaming down his face.

Oh, thank you, THANK YOU. I am from China. I... we... we have been watching the news... my friends. My family. We don't know how they are. There is nothing we can do... but this... This...

I don't know. It's hard to describe. I told him not to thank me. I mean, what ~were~ we doing? What did it matter? We were just a bunch of kids. All I know is that none of us felt like we could just watch it on TV anymore with out saying or doing ~something~... no matter how insignificant or meaningless it was.

On the other side of the planet people our age were being slaughtered. We were making a cardboard replica of the replica of the Statue of Liberty that the Chinese students made. They bled in the streets. We ordered a pizza. We couldn't change a thing but oh, how we hoped they could.

Our hearts stopped in unison when "Tankman" stepped out into the street... alone. The grocery bags in his hand could have come from the supermarket down my street in another world. Those students... they could have been us. We could have been them.

In the end, the protest in Tienanmen was crushed... and we went home. To our lives and our futures and our cars and our MTV. Nothing changed and everything changed.

There are over a billion people in China. What we did on that street corner did nothing to affect or change their lives.

But it did do something for the five members of that family...

I guess that will have to be enough.