A Christmas journey of rediscovery

It was strange, almost surreal to take off from a gray, subzero Beijing on Christmas and land in semitropical Los Angeles earlier the same day.

Maybe it was the long, sleepless flight or the phenomenon of traveling back in time after spending nearly a decade in the Far East that placed me in a dreamlike state.

LA's rush of colors, ads, and voices was overwhelming compared with the Spartan life and subdued hues of Chinese communism.

A plan to take a short trip to the other side of the world had landed me in Beijing in the spring of 1989, in the center of then-festive student protests for freedom and democracy. China seemed to be at a great crossroads in history, and I could not pull myself away from the drama. Yet I jumped at the chance when the Monitor invited me back to revisit America last year.

It's strange what catches your eye when you've been gone for so long. At an airport newsstand, my gaze kept straying to the bright-orange wrapping of the peanut butter cups. I'd been a madman about Reese's since I was a kid, and they were the last thing I bought when I left the United States. Now, the American dollars in my pocket seemed like play money, and my mental abacus had to calculate the Chinese price of the chocolates.

Fueled by 16 Reese's, I glanced at the American papers banned in China, and my head started spinning with all the choices. It's common for China's state-run newspapers to carry identical articles and photos, so the explosion of headlines - many criticizing the president - stunned me for a moment.

In China, the Communist Party stands sentinel like an all-seeing Big Brother over the people and press, but here it seems it is the paparazzi that has begun peering into every nook and cranny of public and private lives.

It was hard to concentrate with the babble of Texan, Georgian, and Californian voices around me. I felt like a foreigner in a language lab gone haywire with variants of American English until something startled me: For the first time in years, I could understand every word of every conversation. These were my compatriots in all their variety; a wave of American nostalgia washed over me.

When I left the US, I'd thought of myself as a New Yorker, and unconsciously assigned the rest of the country to a hazy American hinterland. Traveling across the world, I thought I'd become a global citizen, but I was beginning to realize I'd actually evolved into an American.

Watching fellow travelers carrying Christmas gifts and greeting strangers made me feel connected to everyone ... until I passed through airport security.

"Please open your laptop and start it up!" said a guard.

"Why in the world does she want us to turn on our computers?" I asked a fellow "detainee."

"It could be a bomb," he replied in a tone that suggested anyone but an idiot should know that explosives are commonly disguised as computers.

A high-speed newsreel of the Oklahoma City bombing, the Waco showdown, and the rise of armed "patriot" militias flashed across a screen in my mind. America, a nation of 270 million, owns 200 million guns. My paranoia only faded as my family greeted me in Arizona.

OUR reunion, along with the steady stimulus of sights and sounds American, made it seem I had crossed huge swaths of time and space, but it was just after nightfall on Christmas. Driving through desert suburbs, where houses, palm trees, and even cactuses pulse with Christmas lights amid scattered Nativity scenes, I felt like a toddler on his first trip to Disneyland.

I'd grown used to seeing the same lights in cheap Chinese discos or Communist Party pageants, and I'd heard some were produced by forced prison labor for export. But as the lights twinkled here in their innocence, they formed a bridge to my earliest memories of Christmas, and reconnected me with my American life.

I had the notion America was like a video that would freeze-frame until I returned, but the shock of change hit me everywhere. A niece who'd been only three feet tall now showed me her latest tattoo; a nephew once terrified of Darth Vader was a master of cyberspace and wore cut-off black gloves.

At the mall, there were so many youths wearing earrings, nose rings, lip rings, and potato-sack-sized jeans that I wondered for a moment if alien tribes on Rollerblades had invaded America. And if suburbia has changed so much, what must New York be like?

China's newspapers focus on capitalism's blights, and I half expected to see an army of New York's proletarian have-nots marching on Wall Street. Instead of a city under siege, it seemed an entire constellation of twinkling stars had descended on New York.

By day, Manhattan is a massive museum of architecture where centuries-old churches stand near glass towers of light. Here, the chapel doors are open.

Most of Beijing's churches were built before the Communist takeover in 1949 and are usually locked up tighter than a prison. Although some open on Christmas, plainclothes police often question would-be attendees and circulate among the congregation.

New York seems more traditional, safe, and sparkling, but it's puzzling. There are more panhandlers in one of the world's richest cities than in Beijing. And Manhattan's new order will never approach Beijing's age-old safety: China executes more people each year than the rest of the world combined, and the sense of security there is like a fog that never lifts.

A mischievous sense of freedom hit me here when I realized I could make phone calls without wondering if anyone was monitoring them.

DURING my American "retro-tour," part of me kept returning to China to compare peoples and histories. When I retraced Boston's Freedom Trail, few people I met made any connection between the symbols of 1776 and the reality of America's lifestyles, newspapers, and its government today.

America's revolutionaries, seen in marble monuments and musty history books, seem to have become men of stone and outdated words for many Americans. Yet those rebels came to life for me in a curious way half a world away. Watching the Chinese Army open fire on pro-democracy protesters in Beijing in 1989 was terrifying, and my first instinct was to run. Yet I was transfixed by the courage of the Beijing citizens who formed human barricades to try to stop tanks from reaching student demonstrators holding out at Tiananmen.

The American revolutionaries and China's pacifist rebels, although separated by centuries and continents, both wanted a greater voice in their government, the freedom to speak their minds, and the right to map out their own futures. Today, freedom is so entwined in the fabric of American life that many of us seem blind to it. Our freedom is a global beacon that attracts thousands of China's educated elite every year. Chinese students were at nearly every stop of my American tour, including the ferry to the Statue of Liberty.

As the boat chugged toward the gigantic icon, I noticed the small replicas for sale were stamped "Made in China."

The first casualty of the Chinese tanks that converged on Tiananmen had been the Goddess of Democracy, whose resemblance to the Statue of Liberty infuriated China's leaders. Our sculpture was a gift from the admiring French a century after our revolution, and I began wondering: Does history repeat itself? Will the US ever send a new Goddess of Democracy to Beijing to congratulate the Chinese people?

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