On June 4, 1989, I was in Japan. That year, I had been diligently learning Japanese pronunciations for Chinese characters and memorizing [subject]-time-place-object-verb sentence patterns. The Chinese democracy movement, the call for transparent and clean governance, and the military crackdown came to me filtered through Japanese television because CNN was not yet global. Only after the fact would I learn about the two month build-up to the sight of tanks grinding through the Beijing streets. It took me years to understand the significance of Shenzhen reforms to inspiring the movement as well as how the crackdown unmade many of the political reforms, culminating in the 1992 Southern Tour, when Deng Xiaoping announced that economic liberalization would continue. Political liberalization would emerge piecemeal and in unexpected places, but no longer with the hopeful momentum of the early 80s.
Nevertheless, over the past years, I have noticed that my knowledge of events has been less important than the nitty gritty of everyday life in transforming June 4 into a meaningful symbol.
On Saturday, for example, I went to a coffee shop, where a man was lying on the ground, hands clawed, some kind of froth at his mouth, trembling. Two guards stood and another man sat, watching. I asked if an ambulance had been called. They answered, yes and I went into the coffee shop. Over twenty minutes later when I came out to look for someone, the man was still on the ground and no help to be seen. This time, I dialed 120 and connected with a dispatcher, asking a former student to explain what was happening. This decision disturbed the watchers who explained that the man was a thief and that he had faked a seizure when the guards had caught him. Moreover, according to the guards he frequently came by and stole things. The guards seemed less concerned about the man then they did about being seen not taking care of him. They stopped me from taking a picture and, when help did finally arrive, they kept repeating, “There’s nothing to see,” and pushed people away.
I left the coffee shop, came home, jumped online, and saw blog posts and articles on June 4, which caused me to make sense of the incident in larger, cultural terms. “China is a place where dissatisfaction with the regime or petty thievery can cost a human life,” I thought, “therefore people tend to be cynical and to ignore the suffering of strangers.” The coffee shop incident also allowed me to hear Chinese leaders repeating to other world leaders and journalists, “There’s nothing to be seen.” Consequently, my anger at the coffee shop guards grew into a nightlong bout of “what the fuck am I doing in China?” These were not happy or useful thoughts. Instead, as the anger cooled, I realized that I had argued with the guards about what should be done and our different values (them bad, me good). In retrospect, however, what is clear is that in actual practice our values were the same — we became increasingly angry with each other rather than wiping the froth at the man’s mouth or placing a pillow under his head.
This was not the first time that my sense of outrage has led me to fight with others rather than to comfort a suffering being. Consequently, June 4 this year, I listened to Pema Chodron‘s teaching on Shantideva’s The Way of the Bodhisattva in hope that by working with and through my anger, I will achieve something of the revolutionary patience necessary to change the world:
The hostile multitudes are vast as space –
What chance is there that all should be subdued?
Let but this angry mind be overthrown
And every foe is then and there destroyed.