Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Of Tanks, Games and Brotherhood

Frontline just re-broadcast its "Tank Man" episode from 2006. Not the most well put together of Frontline episodes, but insightful nonetheless.

Last week, as media outlets gave some (although not nearly enough) attention to the 20th anniversary of the Tienanmen Square protests of 1989, I read a couple of interesting postings about the so-called Tank Man on the NYT Lens blog. One brought to light a previously unpublished photo showing Tank Man preparing himself for a stand against the machinery of the state at least a good 25 yards in front of the first tank. The other featured accounts of four other photographers who captured some variation of that indelible moment.

As I read those postings, I thought back to the summer of 1989 and wondered what I was up to at the time. I was 13, wasting away the months between 7th and 8th grade. Before I bothered counting back the years, I'd assumed that I was still in elementary school, because it'd be somewhat excusable, or at least more tolerable, if I'd been an oblivious gradeschooler instead of an oblivious teenager. But the bothersome truth is that the events in my ancestral homeland that summer didn't make much of an impression on me as they unfolded.

Since then, I've developed a very difficult relationship with China. I recognize it as the place from which my roots, when traced back deep enough, sprouted. But I also go to great lengths to distance myself from it, identifying myself as Taiwanese rather than Chinese.

Pretty sure I didn't pick this up from my parents, although I do remember the lengths to which they discouraged me from buying anything made in China when I was a kid. Their attitude stemmed more from personal animosity towards the mainland than politics. I blindly played along for a while. But when I was in high school and college, I took the commandment quite a bit more seriously on my own, mostly because I'd learned to think for myself in grander terms. I avoided buying things made in China because I didn't want my dollars supporting a totalitarian regime. And it was difficult adhering to that principle, what with the arguments that such a silly protest was more likely to prolong the deprivation of Chinese people than to bring about any meaningful change. Besides, it was damn hard, even in the 90s, to avoid products made in China. I remember going to at least three stores in one afternoon to find computer speakers for my sister that were made in some place other than China. Couldn't find any, although I did win the respect of a small shop owner who asked what I was up to after I had him open up four different boxes of speakers.

I've mellowed with time. Unlike my parents, my beef isn't with the people of China. No, it's with the government that subjugates them ... the people to whom my roots ultimately trace. At some level, I look at them and see me.

The opening ceremony for the Olympics brought about some severely conflicting feelings. In the run up to the games, I'd read story after story about the myriad of problems faced by the organizers -- pollution, teaching basic Western etiquette to the masses, ouster of tenants to make way for venues, construction of fences to shield shantytowns from Western eyes, censorship of media access. So I was quite worried that the games would turn out to be a colossal mess and reflect poorly on people with whom I identify and to whom I am identified. But the prospect of failure also excited me, because I thought that failure would cause strain for a government that I detest.

When that glorious opening ceremony took place, I felt an immense sense of pride. The enthusiastic reaction of the crowd as the Taiwanese delegation entered the stadium was a particular surprise. All of that made me feel a greater sense of connectedness to the mainland.

At the time, I spoke to a Taiwanese friend about the strange mix of emotions I felt. She'd have none of it, because she feels no closer a bond to China than she does to Japan, Korea, Indonesia or Malaysia -- same general area, but those aren't her people. I was completely befuddled.

My guess is that she wouldn't be as sympathetic to Tank Man as I am, because she looks at Tank Man and sees not a bit of herself. I look at Tank Man and see the possibility of a brighter future for my distant brethren.

28 comments:

Mandy said...

Err... Did you mean me when you talked about the Taiwanese friend? The tank man is actually one of my favourite photos. I saw the same photo report on NYT and thought wow, I didnt realise there were so many background stories to the photos.

You're right in the sense that I don't identify with Tank Man on nationality basis and I don't see him as indicative of possibility for change in China. However, I see in him the incredible courage to stand up for what he believe in, which is something I think everyone could aspire to. He represents to me the hope that the world can change for the better whether it be in China, or Iran, or somewhere else.

The finer point for me I think is the distinction between national identity ( China vs Taiwan) and cultural identity (being asian, having asian heritage). Having similar cultural identity does not necessarily imply a closer tie when considering national identity, for example: US & UK, Australia & UK.

Anyways I could go on forever (haha, as you are well aware). How are you doing? Long time no chat =)

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