Restaurant Politics

It’s been awhile since I’ve had the chance to sit down and think about the past month. It’s been about a month, really. China has swept me up into it’s culture, it’s drama, it’s busy world and I haven’t looked back since. There are many things I could say – there are many things I should say, as I have had many adventures, but now is not the time for recounting. Instead I would like to muse for a moment.

Mark, a handsome young Chinese rockstar of a guy I met at the hostel, has been taking me around the city and teaching me the ins and outs of Chinese culture, music, history, even rebellion. I have spent most of my time here with him learning and enjoying Beijing, and I know he will be a big influence in my decision of where to spend my next year working. He has a lot of big ideas for a country where freedom of ideas has not yet become a solid concept in the average mind.

The other day, we went out for breakfast to a small Chinese restaurant. It should go without saying here that I was the only white person in the restaurant, and got a lot of strange looks when I walked in with Mark. None seemed too unfriendly though, so we sat down to eat. Mark was telling me about how when he was a child, he was allowed the privilege of reading more than most other children in his village. His father had been a teacher and a headmaster at one of the local schools, and thus had access to the library at all times. That meant that Mark could go and read books whenever he wanted to. He told me about some of the different books that he had been reading, and commented that at the time when he was still a child, the cultural revolution was still strongly felt. Tienanmen Square was on the cusp. Many of the books that were in the library, therefore, were written by Mao. There was no comment made on Mark’s behalf about Mao or what he thought of the guy. Out of the corner of my eye, though, I saw an older Chinese man perk up at the mention of Mao. He listened to our conversation, and it was clear that he understood part of it. I didn’t think anything of it until suddenly the man stood up and came over to our table and sat down next to Mark. He started lecturing Mark in Chinese and Mark tried to tell him to go away to no avail. They had a bit of fight…I couldn’t understand any of it, but I heard Mao in each sentence. Finally the man stood up and left.

I looked around and everyone in the restaurant was staring at us quietly. I felt so awkward but Mark was really mad and told me that the man had yelled at him for talking about Mao. In so many words, he told Mark that he knew nothing about Mao, and that Mao had done so much for the country and the people. He called Mark a betrayer and told him to stop brainwashing me. I couldn’t believe it. It was the reality that I have only been reading about in my face. But it didn’t stop. A few minutes later, as we had moved on to a new conversation, the man came back and pointed his finger in Mark’s face (a very rude gesture) and started yelling in both English and Chinese — saying things like ‘Mao saved us all’, and ‘The people had to struggle’, and ‘Look how bad it was, Mao made it better’. And then he left, for good.

China is still in the thick of making and dealing with it’s history and it’s reality and it was really shocking to see this. In it’s own way, this was one of my best experiences of the real China that I have had over the month that I have been here. Even Mark was really blown away by what the man had to say to him. There is still a mentality that has been completely engrained in people’s minds and noone can be sure when that will change — or if it will change. People still go and visit the embalmed body of Mao everyday – and not just a few, but many many many. This is, to me, both fascinating and frightening. But it is a big part of the reasoning behind why I think, more and more each day, that China is where I need to be spending the next year of my life.

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