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How to Officially Forget

More than two decades later, a return visit to Tiananmen Square finds it scrubbed clean—just as it was immediately following the Incident. Except now there is thick smog, and ghosts. In contemporary Beijing, the past is like Kentucky Fried Chicken: unavoidable.

Guillaume Grasset, Macau, 2008. Courtesy the artist.

It’s cold in Kentucky. The little lick near my home has a thin skin of ice covering the trickling water beneath. I press the ice with my boot. I hear a pleasing crack and crunch as the delicate frozen sheet breaks and the cool, dirty water begins to pool around my boot. I am very sorry about this.

Alex, a young Chinese woman, wants to know about Tiananmen Square. More specifically, about the students murdered in 1989.

We are cleaning up a banquet room in a glitzy Marriott in Nanchang, one of those small towns of five million that dot the interior of China, but Alex is from Hong Kong. I can tell by the stylish glasses. Places like Hong Kong and Singapore, tiny international explosions of capital with great restaurants, breed a certain kind of wispy fashion-model cool in their middle-class denizens. Alex has an internal hipness that comes from being the spice in a cultural stir-fry. You would never mistake her for mainland Chinese.

Anyway, Alex and I are snacking on the remains of some fantastic fried noodles and about 30 other dishes that had been sent over by the provincial government. Or, to be precise, dishes the provincial government had our group of educators from Kentucky purchase from a restaurant. The group has gone to sleep except for Alex and me and a bottle of clear alcohol that is slightly more lethal than makeup remover. Alex, despite weighing 90 pounds soaking wet, appears unaffected by the alcohol.

“I’m very interested in history,” she says.

Is 1989 history? It never occurred to me that walking in Tiananmen Square a few months after the Incident constituted some kind of historical tour. The Incident seemed just a fact of being in China. I knew no other China to compare it to.

Xiao Ying and I spent most of our time talking about poetry and not kissing.

I tell Alex what I know as an eyewitness to—nothing, really—an eyewitness to the heavy absence of anything in Tiananmen Square a few months after the tanks were sent in to kill a bunch of kids who were merely occupying a public space. There were no blood stains. No broken cement. Whatever wound the Incident created was patched up quickly.

Weeks after the Incident I walked Tiananmen Square for the first time. Families were out flying kites. Children called to me: “Hello, Coca-Cola! Hello!” Shifty men in long coats and blue Mao caps whispered: “Change money?” There was a special currency for foreigners then—the only currency that could be used to buy Western goods and be exchanged for U.S. dollars. The goal of this was to keep the regular Chinese people at home: Their money was no good in the rest of the world. If you didn’t get ripped off, the street exchange rate was much better than at the banks. I usually risked it and changed money on the street because it was just too embarrassing to use foreigner money. I was a student and I wanted to fit in, as far as that was possible for a skinny white kid attempting his first beard.

I queued up to shuffle past pickled Mao in his mausoleum. The mausoleum let out near a Kentucky Fried Chicken that had recently opened and was going gangbusters. Mao’s unsmiling portrait, painted in more animated times (though not happy ones, it seems), hung as it still hangs on Tiananmen Gate. And that’s Tiananmen Square—a large space, unoccupied by anything but threat and repressed memory.

I started to tell Alex about my friend Xiao Ying.

“I had a friend who was there...”

But what to say? All those years ago Xiao Ying and I spent most of our time talking about poetry and not kissing.

 

Xiao Ying’s husband was a set designer. He painted one wall of their tiny apartment with a landscape: rolling green hills, blue sky, a small white town with a chapel, a flock of birds in the top corner. The landscape was painted at the head of the conjugal bed I was so jealous of. The bed itself took up one half of their living space. The rest of the room held a pleather couch, a large entertainment center with a new TV/VCR combo, and a glass table. The kitchen and bathroom were outside in a small alleyway and shared by other families.

My sense of my own history is spatial. Place is paramount in my memory; where I was contains the who and what. The rough brick walls of their Beijing home hold the long afternoons I spent there. The afternoons contain the friendship with Xiao Ying. It was a friendship that was flecked with romance—the romance of being a foreigner abroad, of finding a kindred spirit so far away—and it was also a friendship, of which I have had one or two, wherein I felt an ephemeral lightness at being completely understood and at ease.

She was also beautiful.

 

The Nanchang Marriott is a gold art-deco-fresco-festooned, sky-scraping, needle-shaped bit of snazz that appears to be about 10 percent full. Outside, Nanchang is lit up with a trillion LCD lights. Every new high-rise—there are maybe a hundred—is outlined in blue, red, or green LCD running lights. The bridges over the Gan River spew chasing rainbows of purple-green-orange neon. In front of the Marriott there is a large, sparkling ball of light stuck on a pinnacle of orange steel that I believe commemorates the Disco Revolution. The city seems as if it has been designed by a committee of stoner parvenus who dreamed it up during an off night at the Pink Floyd laser show.

“Really? You knew someone who was in Tiananmen Square?” Alex asks.

“Well,” I say, “even as my friend was running from the army, back through the maze of Beijing alleyways to her home, she didn’t believe that they would hurt her or her friends. They were all just students. My friend was an aspiring filmmaker. She couldn’t believe it. That’s what I remember most. The shock of it. When she realized that her classmate, a guy they called Monkey, got shot in the butt by an actual bullet, she could no longer hold on to the hope that the army was just playing around, couldn’t possibly use real bullets...”

 

A strong wind in the bare, thin trees sounds like an ocean above. Standing still in these woods, I feel like a mussel clinging to a tidal flat as the waves crash and pull. All around is swirling motion: dead leaves, sticks, frantic squirrels. The crack and tumble of a large branch crashing to the ground. The cold river soaking my boots. I think: The world is just so fucking large and I am goddamn small.

 

Most of Beijing’s alleyway residences have been destroyed. These alleyways, called hutongs, were a kind of communal maze. Shared bathrooms and kitchens were placed throughout the maze with the bent logic of a thousand years of evolution. Gates and walls built in ages past curled like vestigial tails in dark corners of the maze.

Since I was here last, China has changed. Basically, it has stuff now. Stuff: pantyhose and carpets and North Face jackets and cars—millions of cars—and purses and plugs and rubber timing belts of all sizes, piles and piles of just plain stuff.

To sit in Xiao Ying’s room in the hutong was to inhabit a space that was first occupied 3,000 years ago in the Zhou Dynasty. Was the uneven brick in the entrance originally part of the courtyard of some ancient official? To get to her room, I remember stepping through an impressive gate, about ten feet high and topped with a curved tile roof. The ever-open gate included a brass knocker in the shape of a dragon, turned black with coal grime. Didn’t it? Memory plays tricks, and I think I may be incorporating a childhood image of Scrooge’s strange door-knocker in an old version of A Christmas Carol into my memories of Xiao Ying. To find her was impossible without seeming to turn left 20 times before turning right. Wandering roads that become alleys that become nothing more than a wobbly cement path between two high brick walls topped with broken glass. The paths were barely large enough to squeeze past the gawkers who looked aghast at the sight of a foreigner in such a place—a mile and a millennium away from Tiananmen Square.

What did she think when I found her there, a complete stranger, and knocked on her door?

I happen to know, because she sent me a poem about it: She was surprised and curious. I looked like a child to her, albeit one with colorful, melancholy eyes, a sparse red beard, and a constant, goofy laugh.

I handed Xiao Ying a letter from a mutual friend, a teacher from the college I was attending. The letter said something like: “This is an American student. Please take care of him.” This friend of mine had known Xiao Ying in art school. But Xiao Ying didn’t seem to remember her. I kept repeating my friend’s name, Wang Yu Ping, in hopes that it would ring a bell.

“Wang Yu Ping!” I said.

“Wang Yu Ping?” she said.

We could have gone on for hours.

It seemed natural to do in China that which I would never do in America—show up unannounced at a stranger’s door with nothing but a letter of introduction and an imperfect grasp of the local language. This was not long ago but there were no cell phones in China, few individual phones at all, no internet, no e-mail. When I traveled to Beijing, I went like a scrappy boy in a Dickens novel, grasping a letter of introduction and full of hope.

So what Xiao Ying did was take me to a movie. That’s where she was going anyway, to meet her husband. He, a tall, mop-haired man with thick glasses, was perplexed but friendly. He spoke with a pleasing Beijing growl, every sentence ending in “rrrrrrrr.”

The movie theater was packed with young art students and urban intellectuals. Xiao Ying said this was to be a French movie, one of the few allowed to be screened. She bought me watermelon seeds—an impossible food. There is a crack and suck motion to the eating of watermelon seeds that I couldn’t get the hang of.

The lights went down. The seeds cracked. The movie started. The audience watched three seconds of the movie, grumbled, and headed for the exits.

What three seconds could be so horrible that it would cause a mass stampede out of the theater? The three seconds that told you this was not to be a rare screening of a foreign film. Instead, a Chinese-made propaganda film flickered to life. They had been duped.

Xiao Ying and her husband watched the government-approved movie with me because they didn’t know what else to do. They bought me six candied hawthorn berries on a stick. I did my best to politely chew the candied haw while we watched a film about a young girl from the countryside who is lured to Shenzhen, the free-trade zone next to Hong Kong, by the promise of easy money. Instead of earning riches, she gets trapped in the maws of the capitalist system. She becomes a slave in a high-gated factory and is abused by an evil boss.

In other words, this film was eerily prescient about what would actually happen to much of the country over the next 20 years. In one way or another, most of China would travel to Shenzhen or a place like it and spend long unfair hours laboring to produce the world’s most useless junk, cheapest clothes, and fanciest gadgets.

Back in 1990 the Chinese government-approved film was a cautionary tale about staying put. Sticking with the old values. Having the sense to not be distracted by the shiny baubles and freedom of the West. The protagonist should have stayed home with her parents and taken care of them in their old age. This was a movie, in other words, for the students who had just protested the government months before and paid for it with their lives, with jail time, with bullets lodged in their flesh, scarred over but still there.

 

Twenty-some years later, I’m on a junket to China with other educators from Kentucky and I am waiting for my moment to slip away from the group and find Xiao Ying. We are in Beijing, though the pollution is so thick it is hard to tell. We are in a nightmare of gray fog and traffic. Trucks beep from out of the muck and automated voices announce, “Please pay attention! The truck is backing up!” but I have no clue where it is backing up from, left, right, in front of me or behind, and so it is difficult to pay attention. I am in Beijing again, after many years; years during which I lost track of Xiao Ying. I have the notion that just being there, in the general area of Xiao Ying’s home, will reel her back through the years and that her memory will become corporeal and there she will be in front of me. But the hutong is mostly gone. It has been replaced with a giant hotel-bank-and-mall monstrosity that squats upon the ground of the old hutong like a beast squashing an elaborate insect maze.

A few of the old alleyways are left, though, and I wander them waiting for Xiao Ying to appear. The place doesn’t feel right. Too many cars squeezing through the old alleys, for one thing. The thought, in 1990, that someone besides a government official would ever personally own a Buick would have been laughable. Today I am nearly taken out by drivers unconcerned about pedestrians on roads barely wide enough to earn the name of road. Many of the old hutong gates have iron bars, locks, and guards—residents only. The thin streets are all lined with “loaf of bread” vans—squat little vehicles that fit between 5 and 25 people.

In the romantic version of this I see Xiao Ying around the corner, call to her, embrace her, re-live the past after 20 years, fuss with a Chinese-English dictionary, trade poems, watch movies. What would she look like now? She would be well into middle age and no longer the tall, striking presence she once was. She would no longer favor fake leather jackets and big sunglasses. Would her teeming brain have quieted? Settled into well-worn pathways? Her poems turned tame and inert with age?

She promised me. She promised that someday we would be old and we would meet again and we would be friends again, just the same as before, with no intervening change but the crawl of years. But her hutong is barely there. Where once there were paths and alleys there are now barred gates, new hotels, and some kind of horrible Tawainese tourist trap that consists of stalls with young men selling gross things on sticks: wriggling scorpions, gooey cuttlefish, batter-fried mice.

 

Xiao Ying and I walked across Tiananmen Square arguing about words. I claimed I understood what she was talking about. She knew I didn’t, and the idea was important, so instead of flying a kite or taking pictures or standing in awe at the size of the flat sea of concrete, we were flipping the pages of our little red book: the Chinese-English, English-Chinese dictionary. She was talking about Steven Spielberg and I agreed that The Color Purple was melodramatic but that’s not what she meant. By the time we were nearing the KFC on the south end of the square, she was frustrated with my attempts at understanding. It is the only time I remember that we didn’t both believe that we understood each other completely.

Cut to 20 years later. Midday brings a diffuse light to the pollution in Tiananmen Square, like the entire city is behind frosted glass. There are groups of tourists taking pictures of—something—there really isn’t much to see but a few feet of the square and other wanderers in the smog. If you flew a kite now, it would be lost in the gunk. There could be a revolution on one end of the square and people at the other end would never know it. I turn around, unsure of my direction.

Perhaps you think I’m being hyperbolic. Perhaps you can’t believe that one can be lost in a polluted fog in Tiananmen Square, rudderless, alone—and it’s true that my memory may have enhanced the fog slightly. But I assure you, the simple fact is that breathing in Beijing on that day consisted of more than just good old oxygen. My lungs enjoyed bits of the Gobi desert and specks of Buick exhaust and fine chunks of coal. As I struck out across the concrete nothingness, I was reminded, perversely, of the Star Trek crew going back in time in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. I half expected a ticking clock to whizz past me in the gloom. And as I neared the KFC at the south end of the fog-curtained square, I thought I might stumble into Xiao Ying and a younger me walking together all those years ago. I would have listened again to our conversation. I would have hovered over the past version of us and whispered:

Montage. I think the word we are looking for is montage.”

 

The deer crunch the frozen leaves as they scamper through the hollow. They speak to me with switches of their white tails. I am glad when they go. I like to be alone in the woods. To be still. To listen. This affinity for solitude has become more pronounced with age. My memories feel weighty and burdensome. Walking in the woods makes them feel lighter. Sets them free to wander. I wonder, how can a person stand to be 80 or 90 years old? If I live that long, what accretion of lost love will dog me then? I will be mad with melancholy.

 

I rented The Color Purple at a fancy hotel that would begrudgingly release its forbidden VHS titles to foreigners with a passport, visa, and a large holding fee. I carried this precious cargo to Xiao Ying and we spent afternoons dissecting the latest Hollywood offerings. This hotel also had a little bookstore just for foreigners. In amongst the tourist picture-books was a recent volume called The Truth About Tiananmen Square, and although I never bought the book, I remember its pages well. This book, in English, was the official story about the rebellious students who went crazy one summer. There were graphic pictures of PLA soldiers with their guts leaking out of their torn uniforms, covered in gray dust, seemingly torn apart by rabid protesters as if the protesters were nothing more than feasting, cannibalistic zombies. They wanted readers to believe that a group of unarmed occupiers could rip soldiers apart with their fingernails while at the same time PLA tanks were crushing them and bullets were flying.

From the foreigner hotel, I rode my bicycle through the bicycle-choked streets of Beijing to see my poet in her little home with the dream vista painted on the wall over the bed and I tried to imagine her wanting to kill something. She wrote about the autumn wind, about being in her small room alone, about closing her eyes and seeing the sun dangling from her ceiling (even then, the sun was a rare sight in a polluted Beijing winter). We were the best of friends and I was in love with her in some kind of strangely chaste but achingly complete way—for years afterward, I wrote poems about her as a kind of dirty angel with sharp, bony wings that scraped me awake at night. They weren’t great poems, but they reflected the fact that I felt her presence at all times, for years, until at some point she faded away. Just like the Incident. But now, she’s back. In my head anyway. Merely occupying a space there.

 

The city of Nanchang was the birthplace of the People’s Liberation Army. On Aug. 1, 1927, the PLA occupied the city. This action is called either an uprising, an insurrection, a rebellion, or a mutiny, depending upon how you look at it. How you look at is entirely dependent upon where you are, how you grew up, and whom you are talking to. “August First Square” in Nanchang is the second-largest square in China but is of limited appeal to anyone without an interest in the history of the People’s Liberation Army. Instead of stopping here, the tour bus releases our group in the shopping district.

The shopping district feels like the launching pad for all of the junk in the world—from ziggurats of thick plastic bags to remote-controlled helicopters to underwear in small sizes to tea to shoes to toothpaste with odd brand names like “Darkie”—cheap and crappy merchandise peddled in bulk quantities in an enormous indoor bazaar. Only Americans with our American notions of what communism ought to be see any irony in this paean to the junk that greases the money wheels of the world growing next to the birthplace of Chinese communism. I guess it’s neat to have the beginning and the end of an idea physically placed so near to each other, but as a non-shopper the place tires me. It’s too frenetic, and I can’t process the capitalist energy into some bit of insight or information that makes it all mean something.

I am nearly taken out by three young KFC delivery men on bicycles. I imagine the obit: “RIP Jonathan Gourlay: He traveled from Colonel Sanders’s birthplace only to be run over by a fried-chicken delivery bike...”

I suppose the sight of Colonel Sanders emblazoned on the heat-trapping plastic carrier strapped to the back of a bicycle weaving through traffic in Nanchang should cause me to sigh in wonder, “The world is flat.” But at the moment, the world seems like an engine of meaningless juxtaposition.

Although I am the best Chinese speaker in our group, I do not speak haggle and so am of limited use to my fellow educators. They wander off and buy pearls for a song. I sit on the curb and watch a car salesman and two scantily clad girls hawk the latest Chinese-made vans.

I have the notion that just being there, in the general area of Xiao Ying’s home, will reel her back through the years and that her memory will become corporeal and there she will be in front of me.

Since I was here last, China has changed. Basically, it has stuff now. Stuff: pantyhose and carpets and North Face jackets and cars—millions of cars—and purses and plugs and rubber timing belts of all sizes and toys (poorly formed Lego rip-offs, metallic military tanks, plastic white girls with flowing blond hair) and piles and piles of just plain stuff. All this cheap, colorful capitalist whiz-bang, and yet the government hasn’t changed a bit. It is still a government that jails its dissidents, censors its media, and is choked in graft and kickbacks and schemes that lead to tragedy, like poorly constructed elementary schools that leave thousands dead in an earthquake. The government is still politely referred to as a “repressive regime,” but the vibe on the street is that nobody really cares as long as the stuff is flowing. The bullet trains arrive on time, the skyscrapers spring up with regularity, and the malls and markets are engorged with stuff for the having. There is little time to consider a jailed artist or two—if the news of his jailing ever got to you in the first place.

Alex sees me sitting stunned on the curb. She buys me a Sprite and tells me that I am fat. I tell her she is short.

“I hope I don’t get fat when I’m old,” she says.

I laugh. Age and weight are not taboo subjects to the Chinese.

 

In Kentucky, especially in small towns, the central square is now the local Wal-Mart. While the Occupy Wall Street group was symbolically camped near Wall Street, members of the local Occupy Lexington group decided to leave their usual spot in front of a bank and come to the Wal-Mart electronics section for about ten minutes of people’s-microphone chanting.

“We believe (we believe) a discussion is in order (a discussion is in order) about the meaning (about the meaning) of value and low costs (of value and low costs),” they yelled.

Agreed. Though as a slogan, it’s not very catchy.

I wish I could describe a Kentucky Wal-Mart in some way that defied what I imagine are your expectations. Yes, there are a lot of personal mobility vehicles, and sure, the folks in these steel scooters appear to be victims of the disease of obesity, and yes, there are mullets and beer guts and stringy-haired slutty sorts of trailer-trash types and “Nobama” stickers on the cars and Jesus freaks and pink shotguns on sale for your little girl’s birthday and toothless geezers made to stand at the door and greet you. But it’s also true that everyone is friendly and has cool accents and will talk and talk about everything in their lives—divorces, medical problems, wayward children—as you check out. So into this somewhat stereotypical brew of early 21st century mid-south America march a handful of protesters and they gather near a mound of cheap DVDs at a major crossroads in the store and just stand and chant. Nobody bothers them or kicks them out. Few even pause. One man angrily yells: “Why don’t you shop somewhere else!” That’s about it.

Look: The same junk from Nanchang has washed up here in Wal-Mart. It’s the end of 2011, and we are wondering what to make of a bunch of people who decided occupy a space. Is it meaningful, important, ridiculous, futile, or some combination of these?

And, after all, that’s all Xiao Ying was doing in Tiananmen Square. Just occupying a space. Saying, “Here I am.” She sang and sat on the steps of a socialist statue in the square at the center of the world. This statue, called the Monument to the People’s Heroes, is now off-limits. The mere fact of standing on it has too much meaning. To do that would be to re-live the Incident, the thing that never happened but keeps bubbling back to the surface. The students placed the Goddess of Democracy on the steps of that statue. What a thrill it must have been to mold that goddess and set it up for the world to see, right in front of Mao’s placid face. It was a fun party—at least until Tank Man and the hundreds of dead, not just in Tiananmen Square but all over the country.

We can’t talk about that now. As soon as it was over, it was officially forgotten.

A few rebellious students got out of hand. Why weren’t they working? Or studying? Why didn’t they press their concerns in some other way? Why did they have to sit and sing ridiculous songs in crazy outfits? What importance could that ever have?

 

“How did she make it out of the square?” Alex asks.

“She just ran home. Once you cross Changan Street and dip into the hutong, there is no tank that can follow you. And if you scramble down the alleyways and dive into your little room, there are few who will find the way or bother to follow. You can lie low, forgotten, while outside your friends are being slaughtered, I guess.”

I feel buzzed and small and unimportant as Nanchang gaudily flashes all around me. My brush with Tiananmen Square is of scant interest to Alex the historian. There is both too much and too little to tell. Restless, I say good night and exit through the gilded Marriott. I walk the purple-lit streets along the Gan River. There is man selling raw sugarcane from the back of what looks like the bicycle version of a pick-up truck. He whacks the purple skin off the stalk with a machete and hands me the juicy yellow insides. I tear off a strip with my teeth and chew and suck the pulpy, sweet cane. The juice chases away the alcohol. My mind clears as I lean against a cement guardrail near the river shore. I take my place here.

The flashing lights from the mammoth disco ball send tree-shadows across the rocky river shore in a momentary maze. The turgid Gan reflects the large crop of crazily lit skyscrapers that line its shores. Couples canoodle on the river shore, making out on the rocks or curled up on small cement trysting benches. The evening is all tropical heat and love and the strange snazziness of new Nanchang. The lights switch off as dawn nears.

How long have I been standing here?

 

The sun sends the tree-shadows across the snow in a complex, dark maze. The little river burbles over the broken ice, melting it, adding it to its cause. My boots are soaked.

How long have I been standing here?

She approaches as she always has: clumsily, fiddling with her wings. She’s always adjusting them, like they really don’t belong. Maybe they are strap-ons.

“You got fat,” she says.

Her wings smell kind of nasty. My memory’s angels are somewhat the worse for wear.

She promised we would see each other again. And here she is.

Our best friends, our lost loves, our finest ideasfriendship, bravery, equalitynever leave us. They rise up all the time and will always return when they are needed.

Jonathan Gourlay is the author of the e-book Nowhere Slow: Eleven Years in Micronesia. He is an editor at The Bygone Bureau and ESL Director at the University of Saint Joseph in Connecticut. More by Jonathan Gourlay