It wasn’t so much that my husband and I wanted to tour China as that we thought we should. Now that we were here, despite the cultural marvels, the affability and kindness of our guide Lee, and the omnipresent street signs proclaiming, “Beijingers are friends of the whole world,” the image of a young student facing the gun barrel of a tank often insinuated itself between me and the landscape.
Today we are to tour Tiananmen Square, and I’m not particularly interested. As the bus parks, Lee stands and calls out, “Hello, friends, you will have forty minutes here. You may wish to visit Mao’s mausoleum.”
We leave the bus, walk through a tunnel, and emerge onto the square, so vast it seems empty despite sightseers, locals flying tiny kites, and a long line, four or five abreast, waiting to enter the mausoleum. My husband and I have no desire to view Mao’s embalmed remains; we’d been in Lenin’s tomb and found the veneration of a waxy figure deeply depressing.
Flags and banners snap in a stiff breeze; it’s chilly and gray. Since no traffic is allowed in the square itself, we decide to exercise by walking its perimeter. Halfway round, we see a Chinese family—father, mother, daughter about four—photographing each other in front of a monument to the heroes of the revolution. The little girl’s bright red sweatshirt captivates me; it’s emblazoned with a large grinning Mickey Mouse face and the caption, “Sweet Heaven Baby.”
With hand signals, I offer to photograph them as a family. When they understand, they smile, hand me their camera, and pose. I click as my husband captures them with his digital camera. When he shows them their image on his camera screen, they point, exclaim, and smile. Then the mother motions me to stand next to her daughter for a photograph. I move towards her, but the child balks and cries. Despite my most grandmotherly smile, I am too big, too blonde, too foreign.
Fluttering apologies, her mother soothes her, scoops her up, and stands beside me. The father smiles, bows, and photographs us. A guard at the monument has been watching our encounter carefully, and I hope my naive offer to photograph them will not get this little family into trouble. However, after we take the final pictures, he smiles approvingly. As we walk away, the little girl, emboldened now that we are leaving, and I have not eaten her, grins, and calls out rapidly, “Good-bye, thank you, thank you, good-bye.” We wave farewell.
As we finish our stroll around the square, I think about the family’s warmth toward us, the foreigners. I’m reminded once again that repressive regimes do not represent the people of a country. After all, the student in Tiananmen Square was challenging his government. Perhaps now when I see that image, I will also see a smile in a red sweatshirt.
S C Cole