Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, and a Teachable Moment

Do you know who is in the picture?

Of course I did. It was only one of the most famous portraits on the planet. Still, I played dumb. I learned shortly after arriving in China that when it came to our guide's trivia, it was easier to just pretend to be the ignorant American. Otherwise, to correctly identify Chairman Mao would only lead to a more obscure follow-up question, designed to reassert his expert authority. Right now, I wasn't in the mood for random facts out of Wikipedia. I was more interested in the vast, infamous stretch of stone which passed by the van's window.

I was just a kid when the events of Tiananmen Square unfolded on the evening news; still too young to understand the politics behind it all. While the concepts of democracy and oppression might be a little deep for a 9 year old, I had no problem grasping the gravity of the situation. A single man standing in front of a line of tanks needs no explanation...at any age. Fast forward two decades and the fuzzy images which were ingrained into my memory were now juxtaposed on top of the infamous square which lay before me. 

Forbidden City Beijing
Chairman Mao's portrait above the entrance to the Forbidden City

Until this point in our guided tour around China, the closest we came to a political discussion with our escort was the subject of gold medals at the Beijing Olympics. More specifically, the host country's abundance of them. While our guide rambled on about the importance of Tiananmen Square, I couldn't help but wonder about his own memories of the crackdown. We were the same age, so surely his memories were just as fuzzy as my own, the key difference being the visions in his mind might not be from the TV screen.

The square was completely empty, with just a few stray people walking about. Nothing like I expected it to be, and certainly not the crowds I remembered from the demonstrations. We stood in the middle of the sterile, smog ridden expanse, completely alone. An eery feeling which I had grown accustomed to during the prior day's lonely hike on the Simatai Great Wall. When our guide reached the end of his approved list of facts, he tentatively asked if there were any questions.
Tiananmen Square
Just a open expanse of nothingness.

There were plenty. I wanted to know what he thought of this place, not what his script said was important. I wanted to know if he or his family knew anyone lost in the bloodshed. I wanted to know what he thought of a government that turns a gun on its own people. Here, in the middle of Tiananmen Square, where so many of his fellow countrymen lost their lives, I wanted to ask all of this and more.

But I didn't.
Tiananmen Square
The Monument to the People's Heroes and the People Congress

The look of relief in his eye confirmed what I already knew was the right decision. I wasn't the first to have those questions - and I wouldn't be the last - but today he wouldn't have to fumble through the rewrite of history he learned during training. Sometimes, it's better just to leave the hard questions unasked.

The Emperor and the Frappuccino

We took the short walk across the square to the Tiananmen gate of the Forbidden City. In stark contrast to the emptiness of the square, the entrance to the Forbidden City was bursting at the seams with visitors. The overwhelming majority of them weren't foreign tourists like ourselves, but citizens exploring the history of their homeland. It struck me as odd that so many were clamoring to see the Emperor's former palace, while so few were visiting the square which lay directly behind us. Then again, perhaps some history is better off forgotten.
Forbidden City Beijing
The crowd filing through the gate

The guide started up once again with his script, until we reached the last thing I ever expected to find in the Forbidden City. Starbucks. My affection for grande iced coffees with light cream has been well documented here, but what surprised me almost as much as the shop itself was how much our guide clearly loved Starbucks. He went on and on about his favorite locations around the city, and asked about our Starbucks back in the states. From there, the conversation snowballed...

We talked about Disney, our favorite cars - my choice of an Audi A6 raised an eyebrow, given their use by the Communist Party - and the banter carried on this way for the rest of our visit to the Forbidden City. Truth be told, I liked it much more than the script, and it wasn't long before I fully understood why.
Starbucks Forbidden City
How do you say Grande in Mandarin?

There's an old cliche in the travel community that the best way to learn about a destination is to get to know its people. The thing about cliches...they usually earned that distinction because they're true. I learned more about our guide and the things he loved most in 30 minutes than the rest of the previous three days we spent together. More importantly, our conversations over the remaining day of our China tour took on a whole different feel. We connected on a personal level, and as a result I learned more about the people of China than I ever could have if he'd simply stuck to the script.

Soon we piled into our van and pulled away from the Forbidden City, while passing by Tiananmen Square once more. It looked different this time around, as did the rest of Beijing, but I knew that nothing had really changed. The only thing which was different was my perception. What I learned during this my first trip abroad, is that it is imperative for a traveler to separate a country's political or humanitarian mistakes from that of its people. Regardless of flag or creed, when it comes down to it, they just might enjoy iced coffee as much as you do.

Enjoy Your Stay