Friday, June 5, 2009

My Anonymous Hero

I have a lot of heroes. Most of them are freedom fighters. Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Joe Marti, Harriet Tubman, Susan B. Anthony, Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Benjamin Franklin... and a skinny Chinese guy in a white shirt and black pants holding two plastic bags, standing defiantly in front of a line of army tanks on Chang'an Avenue, near Tiananmen Square in Beijing in 1989.

I have no idea who this hero of mine is. Nobody does. The anonymous man stepped in front of the rolling tanks and stepped in photographic history at the same time, as a handful of photographers took still photographs and shot a video of his gut reaction to having the seem the "People's" Army massacre the People the night before, in the mammoth square.

He stood before the tanks, blocking their path. Then the tanks tried to go around him, and he moved in the tanks' way. Finally, he climbed up on top of the first tank and banged on the lid. A soldier within opened the lid and they spoke. Who knows what they said. Perhaps the brave civilian said,

"Brother soldier, why are you killing our people? Do you want to kill one more? Well, here I am, my brother."

That's what I imagine he said, but then again, it's pure imagination, because this man is a figure of my imagination, and has been for 20 years.

Yes, 20 exact years. He stepped in the path of the those tanks on June 5, 1989.

For 20 years, whenever I see that iconic image of him, I've wondered, What was he doing there? Was he coming home from work? Why was he holding plastic grocery bags? Did they have food in them? Was he bringing home the food that he would cook for dinner? Was he a factory worker? Maybe the bags had his sweaty work clothes in them. Was he a university student who had been involved in the protests? Did he live nearby? Was he a survivor of the previous night's massacre in the square? Did he just happen to be at that moment crossing the street when he saw the tanks and said,

"I've had it. ENOUGH. Enough already"

and, despite all the carnage that the army had unleashed on unarmed civilians, he, an unarmed civilian, stepped in front of those tanks, making himself a human shield, shielding an already overwrought populace from more government reprisals.

And then, what happened to him afterwards? On the video, you can see that he was whisked away by a few men. I've always had the gut feeling that those men who led them away were not connected with the Chinese government. I don't think they were leading him away to be arrested. There is something about their body language that to me, says that they were trying to get him away before he got himself killed. They looked like concerned pedestrians.

But did the police find the tank man? The area, after all, was crawling with police and state security. If he was found, he was surely executed.

I imagine that he wasn't found, though. I imagine that he blended back into the masses as seamlessly as he stepped out of them. I imagine that he had a solitary moment of promininence, when it was JUST HIM in the spotlight, and that immediately after, he returned to being what he always was: just another face in a country of a billion faces.

But again, this is just pure imagination, because this man has been a figure of my imagination for 20 years.

In June of 1989, I was a college student, just like the protestors in Tiananmen Square. I had just completed my second year of college, and was still living in Clear Lake City, a suburb of Houston, Texas.

To me, college was acting in the theater. For two years, I had gone from one play to another in my college's theater department. I had acted in like ten plays. When I wasn't rehearsing or performing, I was in class... English Literature, Botany, American Government, what have you. My spare time was spent hanging out in the green room backstage, socializing with my theater friends. We often spent our nights drinking beer and driving around.

I was NOT a politically involved youth. Seven months before the events of Tiananmen Square, I had voted in my first presidential election. I voted for George Herbert Walker Bush, because my father had voted for George Herbert Walker Bush. In retrospect, I shouldn't have even voted, because I had no idea about what the election was about, except that Bush visited flag factories and Michael Dukakis looked silly driving an army tank.

So when the Tiananmen Square protest began to dominate the news, I finally paid attention. I paid attention because these were STUDENTS, like me. Students who didn't have the right to vote like I did, and if they HAD had the right to vote, they would have made a more informed decision than mine, they would have had more appreciation for that right to vote.

These students weren't hanging out with their friends, goofing around, drinking beer and acting in school plays. They were acting on the WORLD stage, openly rebelling against a totalitarian regime, showing little fear of the consequences, with the TV cameras of countless countries focused on their bravery.

I knew what that meant, defying the regime, because despite my political apathy, I do come from a Cuban family--mother, father, grandparents, all exiles from Communism. My father did time in a Castro prision. I had heard stories all my life about the repression of a Communist regime. So I looked at those students on my TV in wonder, they were my contemporaries, and I felt a sense of shame for being such a fluffball at my age.

Then the massacre came on the night of June 4th. Horror.

Then the following day, the sun rose and was shining bright, and a column of tanks was leaving the square, where the night before they had squashed the students like so many cockroaches.

THEN: a skinny guy in a white shirt and black pants stepped in front of the tanks, and he stood his ground.

And I cried.

Tears flowed down my face, and from then on, I paid attention to politics, and kept myself informed of what was happening on the world stage, and by the next presidential election, I had realized that the Republican party may mesh with my father's views, but it didn't with mine; and I became a Democrat.

The tank man has been a big influence on my life. As I watched him and saw the photos of him in the papers, I thought, I'm not fit to shine that guy's shoes.

And actually, I still don't think I am.

That man is a hero to me. He's an international icon of defiance in the face of oppression-- the everyman against the grinding machine.

May he still be living today, and may he know that what he did in those few minutes has been seen and admired by millions of people around the globe. I imagine he knows this, and is keeping his renowned heroism a secret with a slight smile.

But again, this is just a bright scenario which is a product of my imagination, because that wonderful man has been a product of my imagination for 20 years and counting.

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