Thursday, June 4, 2009

A June 4 story from Tiananmen Square

Security was tight and police were everywhere, but in the end you had to know this was still China, where the cops are oafs and the army filled with wiry thin young men you feel sorry for more than anything. (Most of them look like they could use a good joke.) And despite all you've heard about authoritarianism and corruption and whatever new crap some English tabloid has dredged up, you have to know that only in China can one actually talk his way out of a quandary with just a sense of deference and politeness.

Here's what happened: the security guards waved Hsing-Hui and I through, but Alicia was held up for bag check, a standard procedure. As I was waiting, I did a very foolish thing by turning around and aiming my point-and-click camera at the security gate, which is like the ones you see at airports. Nothing happened until a couple minutes later, when the three of us were walking away. Two entrance guards -- a man and a woman, both fairly young -- jogged up to us and asked, in English, for us to wait. They saluted us for some reason.

"Please come with us," the man said.

We retraced our steps back to the security gate, where another man with a prominent orange canker sore patch on his lower lip asked if I could understand Mandarin. His partner then said I took a picture without their permission and asked to see my camera. I obliged and -- because I didn't really want a picture of the security check anyway -- deleted that photo.

The man with the canker asked for our passports. I had mine because by some stroke of luck I was graced by the angel of foresight earlier in the day. Alicia, who's Cantonese, showed them her Hong Kong ID. Hsing-hui, however, came up empty-handed.

"Then you can't come in," the officer said.

We looked at each other with the sort of look one wears while trying to figure out whether to be confused or bemused.

"Please leave," he said again.

We asked if a driver's license was okay.

"No, it's not. Please leave."

We asked why not.

"Say you were in Chicago trying to get into the country. What if you had no passport? Would you be allowed to pass?"

I raised an eyebrow. "That's not exactly the same thing," I mumbled.

Hsing-hui was ready to go, but I lingered, suspecting this cop hadn't completely been brainwashed by whatever powers brought him here. He looked in his mid- to late-30s, possibly a little older, probably a father. Something about the way he spoke to us -- that hint of a grin, as if he were amused by our confusion -- told me he had a head about him, or put another way, a brain.

I waited till after I made a phone call (to another friend to warn her to bring her passport -- she didn't pick up). I briefly considered grabbing the gals and sneaking away -- the canker man was now talking to a driver and seemed almost hoping we'd take this opportunity to disappear into the square. I thought about what I could say to him, how I might lie and say we were students, or we "just wanted to see the Square," we're just tourists, we arrived after much difficulty.... And then I approached.

"We're going to walk around a bit," I said.

"Sightsee some more, eh?" he said. Again, that hint of a grin. "So she'll wait for you here?"

He meant Hsing-hui, my passport-less friend. This was the moment of truth.

"Can you let her come with us?" I asked in a tone slathered with deference.

He hesitated. This was my opening.

"Look, we don't have anything, just a camera," I said. "Rang ta lai ba, hao ma?" Let her come, will you?

He grunted a chuckle, or chuckled a grunt. "Ah, okay," he said. "Go ahead."

I thanked him, as did Hsing-hui. No one asked to see any more of my pictures the rest of the day.

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