By Michael R. Honig
“The way to make God laugh is to tell him your plans.” That thought crosses my mind often.
My background is Jewish East Central European. If I was going to visit any continent first, then, you’d think it would be the lands of my ancestors. So if 10 years ago, someone had told me that during my life, I’d visit China before I traveled to Europe, I’d have thought they were nuts.
I met my wife on Valentine’s Day 2002, and we married on December 28, 2003. My wife is a Canadian citizen, but she was actually born in Fu Jing City, in Hei Long Jiang Province in the northeastern part of the Peoples Republic of China.
I’ll bet that about now you can see what’s coming …
When we first met, her parents were staying with her, so I had about 6 months to get to know them, and for them to get to know me, before they returned to China. I found them to be lovely people. Her dad was friendly and cordial but very quiet. Her mom was talkative and very bubbly, always wanting to be friendly and helpful. (I actually have found a lot in common when comparing archetypal Jewish mothers and archetypal Chinese mothers, but that’s another story.)
In any event, by early 2004, we were planning a visit to my wife’s family in Acheng, a suburb of Harbin City; an area of northeastern China that’s perhaps several hundred miles equidistant from Russia and Korea. One objective was for me to meet her family – and her extended family – and perhaps even more importantly, for her family to meet me. A second objective was for me to ‘meet’ China, and for that purpose, part of our trip would be spent seeing the sights around Acheng and Harbin, as well as sojourns to Beijing, Shanghai, and other cities around them.
My family is rather distant in both proximity and relationships. I’ve got relatives in Florida, California, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and even Paris; and those are just the ones I know of. But aside from me and my mom, I’m not sure that any of us are really close, if you know what I mean.
My wife’s family is something else altogether in this regard. When they learned that we were coming to visit, her relatives came from all over the region to see us, and meet me. Relatives that even her mom and dad had not seen in years made the trip; and almost all of them stayed with us in the same two-bedroom, one-bath co-op apartment. (But that, too, is another story.)
After a fascinating two weeks of meeting her relatives and touring the city’s environs, we went on to spend a week visiting more of China. It was a great experience, and I have many memories of this trip that continue to fascinate and intrigue me, and which will stay with me all my life. There are so many stories of small moments that I’d love to tell in writing, and maybe one day will.
There is one moment, though, that I relate often. And it’s sort of odd that in a trip filled with so many ’firsts’, this one moment has taken on so much significance for me.
Maybe it’s because I’ve grown up listening to the government and the media talk about “Red China”, “Communist China”, the “military threat from China”, the “authoritarian and regimented society in China”, etc., and I don’t necessarily dismiss that aspect of the country. But this particular experience – isolated and seemingly trivial – added a layer of complexity and, well, humanity to that side of my concept of China.
We were in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. It was a brutally hot day in July; one of the hottest on record, I was told. Even our guides were having trouble with the heat, and this in spite of making deliberate efforts to stay hydrated.
As we walked the Square, I saw a Chinese policeman – or perhaps soldier; in China it’s hard to tell the difference – standing under the blazing Beijing sun, in full uniform with white gloves on; his only shade a military cap. He was in a very martial posture; ramrod straight, his head slowly scanning back and forth to keep an eye on the crowds and events in the Square. He was one of many tasked with the same responsibility.
This sight seemed so typical of the two-dimensional and authoritarian images I’d seen of China in general, and Beijing specifically, that I very much wanted to capture a snapshot of this man.
Now, to put this in context, when I’d tried to take a snapshot of the baggage retrieval area at Harbin Airport, I was waved away by an airport security guard. So I wasn’t quite sure how this attempt would be handled – in this politically sensitive location – by the man who was to be my subject; or for that matter, by one of the guards in the vicinity, of which there were many. Nonetheless, I felt compelled to get the shot.
I was standing perhaps 20 feet away, using my telephoto to get as close as I could to my subject. I knew he saw me … And was fascinated to note that the guard had stopped moving. I took this as a positive sign and snapped the shot quickly, not wanting to push my luck. (See photo. And yes, the air in Beijing really is that hazy.)
As I lowered the camera, the guard once again began scanning the crowd in the square. As a gesture of courtesy, I gave him a small wave, acknowledging that I understood he had permitted me to take this photo, and expressing my silent gratitude that he had essentially posed for me. He surprised me by giving me just the slightest nod of his head as an acknowledgement of my gesture.
I doubt that he saw me smile, but I did. At that moment, he had transformed himself into more than just a Chinese military caricature. He had become a person who had had an opportunity to perform a small kindness for another human being, and had done so instinctively, without being specifically asked. He had been thanked without words, and had acknowledged that gesture of my appreciation in a small, inconspicuous, but human way. This all transpired almost invisibly, without a sound.
Was this a big deal? No, not really. It certainly had no impact on international relations or politics, and it may have made no real impact on the guard who was the subject. He probably doesn’t even remember it.
But I do.
© Michael R Honig, all rights reserved