for Helen Chen and Lu Ming
This past week, a week that included the one-day revival of the film ‘1984’ playing all across the country, a woman in town took her life and a mare in the paddock next to the farm birthed a new foal.
I had not planned to go see a film I knew would scare the wits out of me, but the confluence of birth and death on the same day felt like a message, so since a good friend was going, I went along. I figured neither of us should see it alone.
George Orwell’s bleak vision of a society in thrall to Big Brother, every human instinct controlled and twisted to maintain poverty and war by breaking the bodies, minds and spirits of the people, is a dark fantasy of human depredation and madness. Every muscle in my body clenched as I realized that the story felt familiar – I’d been there, in the actual living reality in China right after the Cultural Revolution, and the year was 1984!
That year Herb had been invited to teach Chemistry in Shanghai, and we went there on a great and scary adventure, two of the first Westerners to be let in. I volunteered to teach English conversation as well, so the University got two for one. A whole generation of trained people had been lost when schools and colleges had shut down during the Troubles, and they were trying to catch up in every way they could.
My job was to engage students in English conversation, but I was given a list of rules: I could not tell the students about America; I could not let them use the library; I could not invite them to my flat, nor loan them books – and so on.
So I asked them about their own lives growing up during the Cultural Revolution, since my job was to get them to talk. I figured that was breaking the rules, if the authorities had thought of it, but I took a chance anyhow. And indeed, unbeknownst to me then, our conversations were being reported by a Party member in our classes.
Only years later did I learn how dangerous those conversations had been, from two of those students who “escaped” to the West and could finally speak openly of our time together in China. They told us they had known they should warn me, but were so desperate for information they took a chance anyway.
My students were in the first graduating class after those revisionist years of intellectual famine, and were brilliant and hungry to learn. And trapped. When I had asked the class about their plans for after graduation they all looked down at the concrete floor of our dingy classroom, silent.
“We get told what to do and where to go – we have no choice,” one finally mumbled.
The regimented hopelessness around me began to wear me down, so I set out on long walks to clear my head, monitors following me at a discreet distance without my knowledge. I longed to pet a dog, play with a cat. Even the birds seemed to have left the skies.
So I requested a trip to the countryside, where we might see plants growing, real live animals. My strange request was granted weeks later in the form of an official trip to the Shanghai Zoo accompanied by a slew of monitors and guides!
Not quite what I’d had in mind.
The Zoo was a nightmare of cages with lackluster creatures surrounded by mobs of noisy people throwing candy wrappers at them through the bars. At the cage of the rare Snow Leopard I had a fit and took flight from the sight of his boredom, Herb running after me and the monitors running after him. I veered off at the Aviary where netted enclosures were large enough for birds to actually fly and flit about, and stopped to breathe.
Then I moved on to the raptors, in much smaller cages, and came to the American Bald Eagle. Her talons were curled around a steel perch, and we stared at each other as if in mutual recognition - two captive Americans in the wrong world. Her eyes fierce, she lifted her great wings until her wingtips touched the concrete barriers on either side, took off from her perch and slammed her great body against the bars separating us. A smattering of feathers landed on my wet cheeks.
I fell apart.
“I can’t breathe!” I screamed, elbowing through the crowds, gasping for breath like a madwoman. Packed together in their dun-colored Mao jackets, people scuttled to get out of my way, staring at the mad foreigner who struggled through the crowds to get out of this horrid place!
Herb followed close behind, the monitors and officials running after him as I made it out the gate and onto the road where I continued running, in search of a farm.
I was essentially having a nervous breakdown. Veering off at a farm, at last, I sank to the grass by the duck pond and reached for the ducks. They, of course, skimmed to the other side of the pond away from my hands, so I ran to the other side of the pond, and they of course skimmed right back again. That was when Herb reached me, and the monitors reached us all.
I got bundled into a waiting taxi, sobbing in Herb’s lap, and brought back to bed in our cold, bleak flat by the University where I lay in a stupor for two days before venturing out again.
When we finally flew back home after our teaching stint was over, I sank to my knees outside the San Francisco airport and kissed American soil.
Like it or not, this is our place, this is where our work is. Yes, it is out of control right now, but it has been out if control for a long, long while though perhaps not quite so visibly as now. We just have not been paying close enough attention.
Nobody ever said this transition would be easy, nor did anyone ever say it would be impossible. We’ve been working towards this moment for a long time, the way a canyon cliff gradually erodes during centuries of winters, water freezing and melting in the cracks in the rocks until suddenly, in a moment of total chaos, the whole cliff gives way and changes the shape of the canyon with a massive rockfall tumbling onto the canyon floor.
We also shall change shape.
I do not know precisely when this will happen, nor how, but I know it must and will happen, because that is the nature of the world.
I ask myself, How do we prepare?
I do not know, but my gut tells me that the people of privilege who are our leaders are quite unreliable and we should not look to them for help – neither the Republicans nor the Democrats. This is not only a political crisis, but a deeply personal one for each of us. We have to change ourselves at the level of our consciousness, no kidding around.
For myself, I am seeking the people we have oppressed and marginalized who know this territory well, and have learned how to survive when the going gets tough. This is who I’ve been hanging out with for a lot of my life, as they’ve always reminded me what life is ultimately all about, being the very wisdom we are all seeking hidden in plain sight.
It is Spring now. The foal, with its tiny body and long, long legs prances in circles around its mother, kicking up little hooves in daily delight in its grassy field.
The birds are nest-building and the grasses are very wild and green here where there has been so much rain.
The moment is now, we are the people and that’s all there is to know.
We can do it each in our own way – but damn it, we have to do it!