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Wednesday, April 15
the life of tyler mays
China and Blood
It was crazy. I was thirteen years old and had never been on a plane before, let alone outside of the United States, and there I was boarding a plane in San Francisco, headed for Hong Kong on a crazy mission of "love and understanding" enforced upon me by a crazy stepmother and her oh-so-much-more-crazy family. I was scared to death that the plane would crash. I was scared to death that I would disintegrate the moment I stepped foot on foreign soil. I was scared to death that God was going to strike me down for many reasons, the least of which was the fact that I didn't believe in him, yet was scared of him. The reason for my voyage to Hong Kong and beyond had one goal and one goal only: to save the souls of the godless Chinese people. This goal was one that I had not set for myself. In fact, this goal was set for me by my stepmother, who had (in my humble opinion) paid for my trip to visit her family in the New Territories of Hong Kong, with money solicited from the naive members of our church, who gladly paid for my journey into missionary life. My personal goal was to not die.
I stepped off of the plane in Hong Kong some thirteen hours later to a wall of air, almost physical in nature, of decaying vegetation, suffocating heat, overwhelming humidity, and innumerable human beings crowded upon each other. I had made the journey by plane, by myself, and found myself unable to breathe, and very much out of my element. I was a Northern California boy... what the hell was I doing here? After the hassles of immigration and baggage claim, I was pushed out into the waiting crowds and somehow managed to locate the people with whom I was going to be living and working for the next month: a near-seven-foot tall old man with white hair and his short, culottes-adorned wife, with the neon green tank top and cross-laden shopping bags. The three of us could not have looked more out of place, but I seemed to be the only one that realized that fact.
At the time of my journey, Hong Kong was still the property of Great Britain, which meant that, everywhere I turned, there were white people occupying a landscape that, to me, appeared to be entirely not their own. I remember thinking, for the first time, about how horrendous it was that entire lands had been taken over by such entirely foreign interests and people and money and yet, I rarely passed an Asian person that did not smile at me and wave. I have never figured out, to this day, whether they were waving at me because they were friendly, or because I looked ridiculous in my 1990-style Bermuda shorts and hot pink baseball cap I got at the Hershey Factory in Oakdale, California. I like to think it was pure good will that brought on the smiles.
As we spent that first day in the cities of Hong Kong, we came across several displays of photography and video that no one seemed to be stopping at, but which enthralled me. I had unknowingly landed in Asia on the one-year anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests that had been all over the news in the United States. A year had gone by, and I wondered why it was all worth having displays and marches, when such things were long past. Being raised in an overwhelmingly conservative and Christian household, I had been very sheltered from most things in the world, but I do not think that this fact alone accounted for my revelations that day. Watching the news during the uprising, or protests, or whatever they were being called at the time, I do not recall seeing many images of unrest beyond simple fires and people running away, or one brave man standing up to a line of tanks and getting his photograph sent around the world.
What I saw that afternoon, far away from home and the safety of my own boring life, was the truth. Photographs, blown up to poster-size, of crying protesters, stone-faced soldiers, and much more were stapled to display walls with writing I could not understand emblazoned upon them. Walking along though, I realized the photos were much more. Among those more-expected photos were images that I still remember to this day. Bodies, or what had BEEN bodies, lying where they had been run over by gigantic tanks. Bodies that had been set fire to and still remained curled up on the pavement. Men and women that had been shot in the chest or in the head and had fallen where they stood. Crushed bicycles with pools of blood next to them. I saw, for once, the truth behind was caused all of those tears, and protests, and displays. It served, in some ways, to break my spirit. I still believe that to this day. I immediately had such a profound desire to avenge these people that I never knew, yet truly showed me how little I could do as one person. A person that really had no right showing up in a foreign country with the sole purpose of changing them into what my church and family thought they should become. I knew then about what it truly means to have respect for a culture and a people and that is to love and appreciate them for what they ARE, and what they go through, and how they persevere. My thirteen year old brain had many conflicting emotions that day, not the least of which was to foster a long-standing inability to accept the American mass media as the purveyors of absolute truth.
The very next day, I was to begin my assignment in Hong Kong, for I was sent there for one purpose: Bible-smuggling.
The old ladies in our group filled their many hidden culottes pockets with dozens of small bibles and hundreds of religious pamphlets proclaiming the beauties of a white Jesus and the evils of communism. The old men stuffed the tops of their hats, and put bibles in their shoes. This absolutely mortified me, because I knew that I did not believe in this enough to convincingly pass armed guards and cross borders with the confident air of superiority needed to defy the law. I went into my room so that I could "load" my bags and garments with bibles and emerged with a total of TWO measly books stuffed in the pockets of my Bermuda shorts. That day, the shorts were the pattern of a red and blue jungle, very inconspicuous. We hopped on to the rail system and rode to the last stop on the Hong Kong line at the border into China. What had been very green and lush surrounding in the southern part of Honk Kong had become barren, dry, grassy nothingness at this exact point, and, at the time, I took it as an obvious sign that we were on our way to certain death in a militarized country of lost people and out-of-control government. The oldsters that I was with chose this time to tell me that we all had to pass through Immigration/Border crossing by ourselves so as not to draw attention to our shenanigans. I was, of course, irritated and highly anxious. I was to pass through all of the checkpoints and pass over the bridge to meet up in the city of Shenzhen.
I walked past guards that, to my young mind, wanted to shoot me with their machine guns and hated me for many reasons and walked up to the lines to hand over my passport. Immediately after I handed over my passport, two guards came up and began demanding something from me. I had no idea what was being said or what to do. They were waving a paper at me that I had seen the adults I was with filling out earlier. I had been told that, as a minor, they would not require one of me, as I was too young to "declare" any of my possessions. I stood there, near emotional death for three minutes until someone else from our party noticed and came over to explain to the guards that I was too young. He says that he was saying "thirteen" over and over in Cantonese, but to me it sounded like a plea for my life. They let me pass and I was a free man again but in no way relaxed. Our group met up and transported our stash of illegal bibles and literature to a factory in town that had been set up as a front for the distribution of said materials. In this factory, lived and worked young Chinese students who spent the next two days speaking to me in minimal English, asking questions about how strong my love for Christ was and how great it was to be helping their brothers and sisters. The idea that these young people, not much older than me, were risking their well-being for such ridiculous ideals really made unhappy. I vowed that I would no longer be a part of this activity and stuck to my guns from that point on.
I did make more trips into China, including one on an overnight peasant boat up the Pearl River to Guangzhou. Surrounded by poor, beautiful Chinese people that could not stop staring at this six foot tall pale boy in his hot pink hat, I became embarrassed by the loud Americans and British people that I was with. The ten of use had taken that overnight boat in order to "experience" how the locals lived, while the others proceeded to roll out expensive sleeping bags and food that cost more for one meal than an entire month's salary of those that were watching us in our communal bunk bed. I tried as well as I could to appear apologetic, but I never felt at ease with myself. If these poor Chinese workers knew that we disembarked from the archaic boat and taxied immediately to a five star hotel in the city, they would probably have not been surprised.
I was stranded for three more weeks in a country and amongst a people that I was steadily falling in love with, yet entirely incapable of experiencing in any real way. I had been sent to help change them, but quickly learned that it was not China or Hong Kong or its people that need the changing. I have been trying, to this day, to become a better human being as a result of this trip. To learn about people different from myself. To encourage tolerance. To encourage good will. None of which is accomplished by slipping them a cheap copy of some book that was never meant to address their lives in any meaningful way.
The people of Asia were my first love, and, though I have never had the money to return, I still think of them often in times good (economic revival, scientific advancement) and bad (earthquakes, civil unrest). So, Asia, I hope you forgive me for the religious propaganda and for the hot pink Hershey’s hat.
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