Bound to China

On a Cape Cod Beach, an American with deep ties to China realizes that part of him is still there - a part no closed door or military action or news blackout could ever keep out.

DURING the peak of the massive demonstrations last month in Tiananmen Square in China, I found myself on a deserted beach on Cape Cod. At first I wanted to be in China. I'd taught English there in 1986 and 1987. I'd seen people crushed in the iron grip of totalitarianism. Now I wanted to see them rising up and breaking free. I didn't go; I couldn't go. So instead I went to the beach. And later I found the beach to be a more meaningful place for me to experience China's upheaval.

I am married to a Chinese-American, and my wife's father has an older brother still living in Beijing. My wife and I had lived with him and his daughter and her husband for much of our stay there. My father-in-law visits China several times a year to do business.

One morning when newspapers here were reporting an imminent crackdown on the demonstrators, I felt an ache of disquiet - a vague urge to join them - and I called him to ask about the latest procedures for getting a visa to go to China. He said he wasn't sure what the procedure was for people not going with a business invitation, as he always did. Yet, I felt he was volunteering less information than he actually knew. It seemed to me he was being deliberately vague. I pressed him with questions, and he avoided giving me answers.

His brother had been severely persecuted in China throughout the first 25 years of communist domination there. The two brothers had come to the United States in the early 1940s to study. After the war, my father-in-law stayed here, but his brother - holding a bachelor's degree in economics from Wharton School and a master's degree in public administration from Harvard University - returned to China hoping to contribute to the founding of the new nation. But the education he thought would be an asset to China and himself nearly brought about his demise during the Cultural Revolution. I knew all of this, but I didn't think he had anything to fear now, not by my being there, anyway.

On the phone my father-in-law was trying to tell me he was afraid for his brother and his family; he was afraid that if I went to China and somehow got tangled up in trouble that my connection to his brother and his family would be revealed, and that they might suffer as a result. Even if there was no trouble, he said, the neighbors might talk, maybe spread rumors, lies.

If I went to China now, he continued, the family there would not even want me near their home. His attitude disturbed me. It seemed to me that he was speaking as though the door to China had never been opened after the Cultural Revolution, as though the student demonstrations were having an opposite effect, that they were causing the country to become more closed than it has been in the past decade. Any Chinese with foreign contacts might, at some point in time - as during repeated instances in the past - be persecuted again, he said. It could always happen again.

I said I wouldn't go near the family's house, that I would just visit former students and friends. But he said that - true to Chinese custom - the family would be obliged to take me in, regardless of the risk. He became adamant. To his mind, it wasn't important for me to go; it wasn't worth the risk. Then he surprised me when, at last, he told me he prohibited me from going.

The next day my wife and I left our home in upstate New York for a week's vacation in Cape Cod. Our vacation plans had been arranged before the demonstrations in China arose. For weeks I'd looked forward to going. Now, I could almost say I had to be dragged there. Over and over I thought: How can I relax on a beach when China was in turmoil? The contrast seemed absurd. To ignore it, impossible.

Time and again, I had to tell myself I could not go. I had to tell myself I could do nothing but try to forget about going, but that seemed impossible, too. I felt odd, and angry, having my life here bound by the same forces and fears that ruled life in another country on the other side of the globe. I drove hard and fast. I went to Cape Cod; I went feeling I was being put into a kind of exile.

My wife and I spent much of our time on the beach below the Nauset lighthouse in Eastham. It is a long and wide beach on the Atlantic Ocean. And at the time we were there - the week before Memorial Day - the beach was almost empty. There would be a scattering of people and the prattle of their radios at the foot of the long wooden staircase leading down to the shore. My wife and I would walk north, and stretch out on the sand where there were no people, and where the only sound was the eternal wash of the waves sweeping up the shore.

The solitude was restful. And soon I began to look at my situation quite differently and more clearly. The center of gravity of my attention gradually revealed to me the idea that I was, in a way, already with my family and my friends I had wanted to travel to China to see.

The contrast no longer seemed absurd; it seemed appropriate. It seemed right. With so many disparate and contradic tory feelings crowding my mind, I needed solitude and the silence to sort them out. I found the time to concentrate, to see and understand my relationship to what was happening in Tiananmen Square.

I formed a ritual. Each morning I drove to a small shop to buy the newspapers, I read the news about China, then drove to the beach. And on the beach I thought about China. I thought about it harder than I had thought about China ever before. After several days of this - the situation in China growing more and more tense as the students continued to press for freedom and democracy - I felt connected.

In China I not only taught the fundamentals of the English language; I also taught my students about the finer points of life in America. All the thousands of American teachers who have passed through China over the past decade have done much the same with perhaps much more impact than we ever realized.

We arrived with our magazines and newspapers and books and assorted relics of the free world, and more often than not left them there. I gave out a copy of Fox Butterfield's critical book, ``China - Alive in the Bitter Sea'' (which is banned in China), and saw it briefly a year later on a student's desk in a dormitory room, its cover torn and its binding unglued from having been read by so many people ignorant of so much about the country where they lived. The clothes we wore, the ideas we professed, even the strident way most of us walked, gave the Chinese signals of what a life of economic and political freedom could possibly do for them in their own country.

This message was driven home to a group of students one night when I gave a campuswide slide show of American life with an array of photographs of the houses we live in, the cars we drive, the stores we shop in.

When a photograph of a public telephone booth appeared on the screen, I explained to my students that the telecommunications technology made in the US was advanced to the point that anyone could call any other phone in the country and most any other phone in the world from that pay phone, even using a credit card. This amazed everyone in the crowded auditorium, as I knew it would. It was to me, and I think to the students there, a symbol that ties together scientific know-how, material well-being, and intellectual freedom - a machine that was the epitome of a democratic state and its free flow of information.

Pay phones in China are good for only local calls, and connections are often inaudible. Only a handful of private homes have phones. But I also heard a stir in the audience that suggested something other than amazement. By the clicking of their tongues, I could also tell that what they saw disgusted them; China centuries ago had been technologically ahead of the rest of the world. It was as if I'd shamed them. This I did not intend, or expect. Everything I showed them was so much more advanced and better made than what they were accustomed to that one student told me afterward that to have those things in China was ``unimaginable.'' But I wanted them to imagine, and I think after the initial shock of discontent, they did.

The current demonstrations were an expression of imagination and longing on the part of people who felt like those students.

Sitting on that empty beach one golden afternoon as I gazed across the water, the slanting sun glistening on the sea, picking out the grains of sand, fragments of driftwood, stones - isolating them in their own shadows - as I gazed across the water, I realized that my wish to be in China now was a selfish one, a careless impulse. All I could do really was look.

THAT vague urge I'd had earlier was just curiosity. I could have done - or undone - nothing more there now; my job had already been done. I'd given my students all I could. The world I'd help them make had been made. Now I could have helped no one there in their cause. In fact, just my being there could have endangered my Chinese family's and friends' tenuous sense of safety.

Who can tell which way the wind will blow in China, I remembered my father-in-law telling me on the phone. He'd issued a warning. It was only on the beach, alone, that I finally heard it and understood it: I couldn't go there. And it was also on the beach that I saw that just as China was controlling an aspect of my life here, a part of me was in China - a part no closed door or military action or news blackout could ever keep out.

Above my position on the beach, high on the hill, stood the lighthouse. It flashed its guiding beam across the nautical miles to ships unseen sailing far out on the ocean. There I sat, on the very landfall where so much of America got its start (Eastham was founded by the Pilgrims in 1644). And I saw in the minds of my unseen Chinese students a memory of me and all that I showed them - at a time when the political climate was more hospitable - living a kind of second, perhaps eternal, life. Appearing like flashes of light, like my slides.

A part of them is with me, too. I saw that too. I'd touched them and they'd touched me. My will has become theirs. So, too, their hopes and fears have become mine. This essay was written after the declaration of martial law in Beijing, and one day before the People's Liberation Army opened fire on demonstrators.

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