Ten years ago, phones in Beijing were few and far between. So when a friend - whose name it probably isn't politically safe to mention - appeared unannounced at my room on a Saturday morning, I was unprepared, but not surprised.
He was the principal at my American alma mater's sister school in China. He was a coarse man, a peasant who had worked his way up the Communist Party ladder, through what Draconian measures I cared not consider. Still, as he sat spitting shells from the sunflower seeds I had offered him into my wastebasket, sputtering the explanation for his visit in his heavy Sichuan accent, I had to admire the gap-toothed man's raw energy.
The principal insisted I attend Sports Day that morning. As an informal ambassador, I was on call for official events at his school. In a fit of enthusiasm he leapt up and led me forcibly from my room.
Along with telephones, variation in attire was still uncommon in Beijing. Most citizens wore the ubiquitous blue Mao jacket of the Communist revolution. My American friends and I had all bought blue Mao jackets too - as an ironic joke. Halfway to the school, I realized, with chagrin, that I was wearing mine.
Communist marches blared over the loudspeakers. My friend ushered me onto a stage overlooking the playing field, to a row of chairs occupied by school officials. All were clad in blue Mao suits.
On my right, I received a clandestine nod from the assistant principal. Cosmopolitan and cultured, she had lived abroad, and her talented son, whom I knew well, was studying in America.
On my left, the principal dragged me to my feet again as the Sports Day processional commenced.
With the precision of a military review, squads of students goose-stepped past in formation, heads cocked toward us. Mimicking the row of Mao-suited cadres on stage, I applauded politely.
The scene evoked images of Mao's rallies in Tiananmen Square, and I became acutely uncomfortable. My irreverent salute to irony had, ironically, backfired. The humor in my Mao jacket was gone. With every swish of its sleeves as I applauded this ceremony of social control, I valorized the Communist agenda.
Standing stiffly at attention as China's national anthem blasted and a great red flag ascended up the flagpole, I faced a severe moral choice: step down from the stage now and remain an American patriot, or stay and legitimize Chinese totalitarianism. Taking off my Mao jacket wasn't an option. I had nothing on underneath.
But then, a glance at the assistant principal inspired a small epiphany. The choice I had devised was a luxurious one, that only an outsider, overburdened with unusual liberty, could entertain. For the assistant principal there was no choice. I knew her to be a lover of freedom. But her effectiveness in encouraging that freedom within severely constrained circumstances required lip service to the status quo. The alternative was banishment.
My inadvertent cultural cross-dressing had revealed a Chinese perspective, and with it my moral choice changed. The dilemma was no longer whether or not to give face to my hosts in public. Rather, it was how best to undermine the excesses of their system later, in private.
* Trevor Corson is executive editor of Harvard China Review, a quarterly jointly published by the Harvard China Forum and the Cambridge China Institute, in Cambridge, Mass.