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Free Speech

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. —U.S. Constitution, First Amendment

First, let me say that I don’t intend this to be a political post. (But…right?) But read those words carefully. Celebrate those words.

Sometimes I think we take it for granted that here in the U.S. we can write what we want and read what we want without fear of reprisal. I can have this blog that talks about nothing in particular, and I don’t have to censor what I say (unless I choose to do so). I can surf the internet freely, read any newspaper I choose and buy more books than I can ever read in my lifetime.

I just read an article online about China doing an about-face and declaring that, in spite of their promise to commit to freedom of the press, it will censor and block the internet during the Olympics. They intend to block sites that don’t fully support their communist rhetoric. It’s disgusting and it’s disgraceful. (This last sentence would get me arrested if I lived in the People’s Republic.)

In October/November 2007, my husband and I had the opportunity to go to China for a couple of weeks. It wasn’t high on our list of Must See Places (hello? Tuscany?), but it was a fairly inexpensive, all-inclusive organized tour—a too good to pass up, once-in-a-lifetime experience. A few of our best friends came along as well, so we were pretty excited about going. It was a good time to go there, too. It was the beginning of the rainy season so we didn’t have any smog (I swear they were the only two smog-free days all year), and since it was less than a year before the Olympics, we had the chance to see some of the new venues they built.

We hit four cities in 10 days—Beijing, Hangzhou, Suzhou and Shanghai. We stayed in Beijing for the first two days. In those 48 hours we saw The Forbidden City, the Imperial Palace, the Summer Palace, Tiananmen Square and the Great Wall of China. I can’t even explain how incredible it was to hike up the Great Wall (that may be another post). But it makes me sad to say that I could have skipped the rest of Beijing.

At the base of The Great Wall

At the base of The Great Wall

As beautiful and historic as the sights were, it was a dreary, miserable place. It was exactly as you would think a communist capital would be. I felt uncomfortable and we were definitely watched. I know that sounds paranoid, but they were clearly keeping an eye on us. In fact, the State Department warned that the police routinely place foreign visitors under surveillance, that hotel rooms, telephones, and fax machines will probably be monitored, and personal possessions in hotel rooms, including computers, may be searched without your consent or knowledge. Big Brother was watching.

That is, until we were walking into The Forbidden City and a man reached out and smacked me on the back of the head because he thought I was the blond devil (how could he know that so quickly?!). Suddenly, no one was watching. Apparently, I should have been forbidden from that city.

But as soon as we traveled farther south, the feeling of oppression lifted. Hangzhou and Suzhou were stunning. Hangzhou is full of beautiful pagodas and tea plantations. Driving through you could almost picture yourself in Napa Valley (except instead of wineries there were acres of tea). Suzhou was positively charming. It’s famous for its silk, and the city is built around canals—just like Venice (Italy or California. Take your pick!).

Laughing Buddha at the Lingyin Temple (Hangzhou)

Laughing Buddha at the Lingyin Temple (Hangzhou)

I wish we had more time in Shanghai. I have never seen such a vibrant place. It’s one of the most populated cities in China. It’s under the control of Beijing, but because it’s a port city, it’s incredibly cosmopolitan. I have never seen so many cars, people and buildings crammed into tight spaces. And the neon! Vegas has nothing on Shanghai in that department. My husband has a former co-worker who moved back there, and we spent an evening with her. It was such a different experience. I think we really got the real flavor of the city that night.

The Lingering Garden (Suzhou)

The Lingering Garden (Suzhou)

I’m glad we went, but it was frustrating because we did not see anything that they didn’t want us to see. We were on a tight schedule and they herded us from place to place with no deviation. And it wasn’t because they wanted to make sure we saw everything we paid for. One afternoon, we were on the bus traveling from Beijing to Hangzhou and the bus driver (shout-out to Mr. Gow!) thought he could take a short cut. Instead, we ended up on a dirt road through what you could call a shantytown in the middle of an open-air market. The guide was mortified and could not get us out of there fast enough. Our breakfasts, lunches and dinners were all scheduled, so we didn’t even have the opportunity to wander the streets and taste the flavors of the cities. Frankly, I’m surprised they let us leave with our local friend, but after the guide spoke with her on the phone I guess he trusted that she wasn’t going to take us anywhere deemed inappropriate.

It’s a shame that the Chinese government keeps the people so sequestered, so locked away from the rest of the world, because for the most part we found people to be friendly, polite and curious. It’s a country stunningly rich with culture and history. It’s the most populous nation in the world with a rapidly growing economy, and although it’s less restrictive than before, for a country that thinks in terms of dynasties, not decades, it’s got a long way to go. It’s saddens me that they’re politicizing the Olympics (although it’s not the first country and won’t be the last to do so) and limiting/controlling the way the world covers it.

I am not political. I avoid talking about politics and I certainly don’t write about politics. I don’t care if you’re a Democrat, Republican, flaming liberal or Right Winger. This isn’t about Left or Right. To me it’s about right and wrong. It’s about having the freedom to express an idea out loud, on paper or online. I have been making my living with words for the past 16 years and I can’t imagine not being able to do so. I can’t fathom a life of censorship.

Corny as it sounds, I am privileged to live in America, a country that not only allows you to say what you want but encourages you to say it. Out loud. On paper. Or online.

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2 Responses

  1. Me???? I LOVED your China trip. Why? Because I got from you several gems a day like the following:

    “We’ve been in China nearly a week and I have managed until today to avoid the squat toilet. I will spare you the details except to tell you that I’m not surprised that the Chinese have such successful gymnastic and acrobatic teams.” And the subject line? “COPPING A SQUAT.”

    That’s right. I saved them all. 😉

  2. I wish I saved more of those! I have a couple buried somewhere in my e-mails! I forgot all about those damn toilets! Good thigh workout, though.

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