This is my era

There and then: Places and moments that shaped my here and now – Part III of III

Berlin, Germany, 2014

It started to rain when I arrived at the Berlin Wall, so I sat down at a cafe nearby. In the past few days, I had been randomly checking out segments of the Berlin Wall here and there, but in front of the cafe, I saw that one part of it was original, and protected as a historical site.

I was visiting my German brother Marc-René Simon, and for a week I spent my mornings at the German Language School trying (but eventually failing) to pick up his language. “You’ve got a strong American accent,” my German teacher said, which made me even more confused about my Chinese identity than usual. The afternoons were for checking out the capital city, and dinners were always at my German brother’s apartment one minute away from the Charlottenburg Palace, which he called “my palace”. Every evening, we would take a long walk around “his palace” and chat late into the night.

I call Marc-René my “brother” for a reason. Years ago, we met in the red centre of Australia and found that we were born on exactly the same date in the very same year. Since then, I have been receiving birthday wishes from his parents every year. Later, we met in Hong Kong, where he was learning both Chinese and Chinese culture, but all the Chinese he had by the time we met again was “This is my name card”, so it turned into another session of me trying to understand his culture a bit more.

A waiter arrived with my coffee and a slice of German Black Forest cake. I had a taste. German people’s rationality is evident from the amount of sugar they put into their cakes — it is just reasonable, like everything else about the country.

I looked towards the Wall. Tourists were walking in the rain, and their colourful umbrellas lightened up the heavy mood around the area. I sensed that these people were all searching for something. Perhaps they were trying to reach out for truth; perhaps they were searching inside of themselves for their personal connections to the Wall.

Suddenly, memories of my parents talking about 1989 came back to me. I put the spoon down, took out my notebook, and started to write:

Can someone who doesn’t believe in God believe in Fate?

In the year after I was born, two significant historical events happened in the world: the Tiananmen Massacre, and the Fall of the Berlin Wall.

I was born in a hospital a few blocks away from Tiananmen Square, and I spent my childhood years in Muxidi, the district in Beijing where massive shooting on students happened. On June 4th 1989, my father went to Tiananmen to check out the student protest, and he felt that things had gone a bit out of control. “You’d better come back to the university with me,” he told a student from his university who was protesting there, and dragged him back. Later that evening, tanks came into the city, and all the people who were still on the street were shot dead.

Beijing was shut down for a week after that bloody night, and no public transport was running. A few days after the massacre, my parents borrowed a basket from their neighbour, put me in it, and carried me back home from my grandma’s apartment by bicycle. Smoke from tanks was filling the air and soldiers were walking around with their rifles; but the streets were extremely quiet.

“All that people could hear on the street was you crying,” my mother recalled. “You could probably sense that something was wrong in Beijing’s air. We had to stop the bike next to the tanks a few times to comfort you.”

A few shops were still open, so my parents bought a large supply of water, instant noodles and cabbage, in case food supplies were interrupted. When they got home, they heard from our neighbour that the younger brother in their family had been shot dead at Muxidi subway station. He was just a teenager.

But none of that is in any history textbook. As a matter of fact, I had no access to any information about the June 4th incident until I left Mainland China. My personal experience at Tiananmen is images of many happy faces — proud tourists taking photos in front of Mao’s memorial. These happy faces’ connection to the stories of the land under their feet have been completely cut.

I continued to write:

When the sound from the horrible thunder and noisy tram come together in the city centre of Berlin, what I hear is the world history of all the countries turning pages together, and I see my fate becoming clear.

We are all survivors of wars. Hiding in our blood there is the brave fighter, or the scared and escaped soldier. Our hearts are filled with the pride and prejudice of the human species. Behind our eyes, there is love and hope, loneliness and fear.

This is the era that I was born into, and we had no choice but to accept it for what it is. We are all passengers on this broken ship carried by the current of the mysterious ocean. Some of us try to keep ourselves busy by decorating the ship; some of us read to kill time; party animals sing and dance. But there are also people who stand at the back of the ship, stare into the water, and wonder what everything means. But no one can find the answer, and the destination is somewhat definite: we all have to be kicked off the boat at some point.

I closed my notebook and walked towards the Wall, in search of my own role on the ship of life.

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