What I do remember came after the film. I said goodbye to my friends and walked out to my car. It was a red 1982 Mercury LN7. You probably don’t know what a Mercury LN7 even is. No matter. Think of a two seater Ford Escort that could be passed off as a Toyota MR2 for the Soviet Bloc and you wouldn’t be far off.
But the Mercury wasn’t why I remember the evening either. I remember it because of what came next. I put the key in the ignition and prepared to start the car. But something caught me. The hour was just turning to 11 PM, time for the report on the national news service, CBC radio. I sat for a moment to listen. But this was different. The newscaster spoke with a sense of urgency that reminded me of the initial reporting of the Challenger disaster three years earlier (and which I would hear years later on 9/11). It was that gravitas that said “What I am describing is an important part of the human story.” And it was. I sat there for twenty minutes in an emptying theatre parking lot, a sixteen year old riveted to history unfolding.
I had not heard of Tiananmen Square prior to that point. Or if I had I didn’t remember. But in that moment I learned of the struggle in the unforgettably frantic tone of the correspondent from Beijing, his voice shrill as if he were calling the seventh game of the World Series. Except that this wasn’t a trite ball game with rules settled by arbitrary convention. On the contrary, this was an age old game between oppressor and oppressed with rules woven into the fabric of the universe. And everything seemed to settle, in the popular imagination at least, upon one young man standing in front of a line of tanks.
As I listened spellbound to the correspondent calling the game of freedom vs. oppression I wondered, if I ever find myself in that game would I have the courage to walk onto the field? Or, even worse, would I be playing on the wrong side?
Finally, after those twenty minutes the CBC rolled onto another story and I started the car and was on my way. Soon the business of a sixteen year old’s limited horizons crowded out the visual of one young man staring down a line of tanks. But I was reminded of that experience the other day when, watching the evening news, I heard the following comment from Aung San Suu Kyi, the political conscience of Burma (Myanmar) who has been imprisoned by her criminal government for many years. She said:
“When I say that it embarrasses me to talk about my sufferings I’m thinking of others who have suffered more. And in a situation like, uh, people have died. And it seems to me that nobody who is still alive has a right to complain.”
Given that we North Americans make it our business to complain about pretty much everything — the traffic, the weather, the government, the length of the neighbor’s grass — this caught my attention. What a perspective on life.
And then there is me, pathetically (if accurately) self-described on my Twitter account as an “inactive activist for social justice.” Too busy complaining about the traffic, the weather, the government and the length of the grass. Twenty two years later the groove I’ve worn into the bleachers is deep and all-too-comfortable. And the game continues.