Thursday, March 21, 2013

Under the Shadow of Chairman Mao

I have arrived in Beijing. When I landed at the airport, I exchanged my dollars for Chinese yuan. I received two shocks when I arrived: First, my bags were stuck in Guangzhou, a city in Southern China where I had a layover. (They were shipped to my hotel a few hours later.) My other shock came when I looked at the money and saw that the portrait of Chairman Mao Zedong was on all the money I received. When I tried to log into my blog, I realized that I couldn't because it was censored by the government. Since my warm clothes were in the bag that had been held up, people must have thought I was crazy walking the streets in only a T-shirt and khaki shorts. I realized that the street my hotel was on, Nanliuogu Xiang, was a historic street and full of charming bars, bubble tea stands, and a wonderful Tibetan restaurant with delicious yak butter tea, momos (Tibetan dumplings), and hot pots. I decided to take a night walk around Tiananmen Square. After learning the subways, I arrived in the square and saw a gargantuan portrait of Chairman Mao overlooking the square. I would have thought all the people killed under Mao's regime would have desecrated his image, including all the Tibetans who starved to death after Mao forced them to cultivate wheat instead of barley and who were incarcerated because of their Tibetan Buddhist practice. Yet, it seemed that people still viewed him as a national hero. Of course, my next thought was that leaders responsible for enslavement of Africans and genocide of indigenous people like George Washington, Andrew Jackson, and Thomas Jefferson are still seen as national heroes and found on money. Still, I found it egregious that Chairman Mao, whose oppressive rule was responsible for suppressing so many civil liberties, was looking down at the site of the massacre of students who demanded democracy. That night, I ate at the Crescent Moon Muslim Restaurant in the Dongsi neighborhood. I drank pomegranate wine and ate pan-seared peppers, all of which were delicious. The restaurant was run by members of the Uighur people, a Muslim ethnic group in China who have also been suppressed because of their refusal to capitulate their practice of Islam. Some Uighurs have incarcerated because their Islam has been seen as too subversive. I greeted them with “salam alleykum,” the traditional Islamic greeting which means “may peace be with you” in Arabic, Uighur, and several other languages. I thought of all the various groups oppressed under Chinese Communism, and decided that while I was here, I would do what I could to support them. There are several ways to do this. But supporting their businesses and celebrating their art are two small ways.

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