AP English Language and Composition
30 August 2019
I was out in a street market, laughing at the knockoff children’s toys, bewildered by the strange music, and terrified by the strange and exotic street food. I admit, as someone from a fairly western European culture, I did judge the whole arrangement like an explorer of the Orient, serving His Majesty—seeking pride and glory by taking for King and Country, only to land upon a Sino-Slavic bazaar in the Muslim Quarter of Xī‘ān.
A few hours had passed, my soul was content, and two homeless women approached. They asked us foreigners, wài guó rén, for money. Brandishing their aged skin, sullen eyes, and missing limbs, I was filled with remorse. Unfortunately, I’d just spent my money in the shops, so I had none to offer. They became agitated, frustrated at humanity’s apathetic attitude towards suffering, until a friend of mine offered them some spare bread. They pointed at their mouths and showed us their lack of teeth—what teeth could they chew bread with?
I thought about those women a lot, and I still do. I often ponder if they’re dead, if they had children, even coming up with fictions to give answer to how they’d become so destitute. The group got back onto the bus and drove back to the hotel. Flipping through the channels on the television set, fiddling with phone, looking outside, I became grotesquely aware of China’s silence. A country of over a billion, silent to the mind and heart. It spoke with a homogenous hive-mind, deafening as it reached its monotone yet voluminous crescendo—a voice proud in its inability to think or feel, for socializing would be unsociable.
The plane I boarded to Shanghai afterwards played a familiar ditty, “Annie’s Wonderland,” just as all the other planes in all of China did. Once off the plane, onto the bus, the tour guide told us of the lottery system the city uses to hand out license plates to its populace. Looking at the smoggy sky, I could see why. Before I’d headed to sleep, I remembered a sign from the airport and giggled: “INTERNATIONAL DEPARTURES (AND HONGKONG-MACAU-TAIWAN).” I awoke the following day to head to a temple that proudly advertised a 1998 visit from Bill Clinton. The man guiding us through the halls spoke of him as “your leader, Bill Clinton,” as if he weren’t merely a memory in the American consciousness. There were many families there to pray for their children to do well on their exams. Every year, the children of the People’s Republic take the gāo kǎo, their graduation exam from upper secondary school. To fail, one would have to repeat the year, being blacklisted from universities, leaving them a future as a low-wage worker ‘till death do their hands apart.
That night, our tour guide told us to speak cautiously. Our words were being recorded, and dissent marked. Political discussion, he said, was to solely occur in private conversations with him, not on the bus. A noted tension and gravity stained what was otherwise teenage levity.
Among the many seas of people I’d sailed through, only a few among me had substance to discuss. Mass mind erasure on a catastrophic scale had devastated a culture. I had seen it in those women from the bazaar. Their destitution, their desperation—it was a symptom of a societal problem that had gone unspoken. China was a nation of history, without memory of it. It’s very foundation existing in a state of superposition, with its long and rich history propping up the regime that’d erased it. At the end of the trip, I went to an art gallery. There was, of course, the usual student art. Young minds with passion, needing to share what could not be shared with words. Right next to the most beautiful artwork of all was propaganda. A poster by the Communist Party. I had the luxury of forgetting it. China can’t. The world chooses not to. After all, how’d a little bit of industrial trade ever hurt anybody?