Liao Yiwu is a Chengdu native and he recently escaped over to Berlin via the Horse and Tea Trade Route pathways of southern China. Reading his story today reminded me of a few things.
Ever since I have lived in China, I imagined my escape route. There are a few, but the Yunnan-Guangxi one is the best. I rode a bike across the border at Mengla and no one checked me. I even went to the massive casino there and played some Texas Hold-Em with cigarette-skinned northerners while I waited for my visa to China to come through. The visa they attached to my passport was a piece of paper. Handwritten. It lasted all the way to Chengdu where I turned it into an F visa. Those were the days …
I still imagine what I would do, if the poop ever hit the fan here. Steal a car and do a midnight run to the border? Don the chupas I bought in Litang and hike into Tibet with my family lying on a travois behind me? Make a run for Xinjiang? Slip across the grasslands of Mongolia, ruins of the Great Wall the only witnesses to my furtive gait?
I throw a fist up for Liao.
His story also reminded me of conversations I have had with Chinese friends over the past ten years. Conversations laced with despair and resignation. Tinted with hope that I might help them out. Get them across the border. Get their kids across the border.
The other day I had one of those conversations with a man in a hot tub at the foot of Emei Mountain. It started like they always do, where am I from, what am I doing, how do I like it …
Then we talked about buying homes and the future and children and the man started pouring his heart out to me. He is a poor man from Inner Mongolia and his wife is a poor woman from Gansu. They met in Chengdu while at university and through hard work and intelligence built a home and a life. He works at the Hi-Tech Zone, she works for a software company. Mom-in-law takes care of their kid. He is middle class now. Has a car. Makes good money; together he and his wife put back 5-6k a month. Maybe more. He is in great shape, handsome. Educated. The wife breastfeeds; they want better schooling for their kid. They think of sending him to a private school, to an international school. Not dream … think. Big difference.
He said, “I’ll never save enough to be anything but a peon.”
“I came here ten years ago with my classmates and we drew the pagoda above Baoguo Temple. I remember it like it was yesterday. We were filled with hope, with passion, with dreams for the future. I am back here now, but not one of my friends will ever come back here. We dont have the time to get away. No time to re-visit these sites and replenish our spirits. How could ten years have gone by so quickly?
“I work all day. No one in my company is doing well. We have more money, better homes, better appliances, but we are not happy. How could that be?”
“There was a time, once, when my wife would have supported me as an artist. but not anymore … those days are gone.”
“How could this be? I am only 32, but my life is over. There is nowhere to go. Nowhere to turn.”
“I am imprisoned.”