In 1989 I was a college student, largely self-absorbed and still working on figuring out how the world fit together, and disengaged from the idea that I fit in that picture as well. There was no internet. I didn’t have a newspaper subscription, and I watched very little television. So it was that the Tiananmen Square Protest of that year were little more than background static–blurbs heard in passing on the radio, bits of conversation overheard here and there, headlines on magazines in the grocery store check-out line. Had I been paying attention, I would undoubtedly have been transfixed by the student protests–I vaguely remember thinking how shocking it was. China seemed monolithic and steady. When the government declared martial law and violently suppressed the students, I nodded: this was China, this is how things are in China. It was only a matter of time.
And then, in the midst of the tragic, murderous crackdown, something amazing happened. A man, probably a man of great love and conviction, said “enough” and, without stopping to set down his bag, stepped in front of a squadron of tanks. He stepped into the street and there’s no question his eyes made contact with the eyes of the young men driving and commanding that tank–and just maybe those soldiers had seen enough because together, the unknown man of conscience and the un-named soldiers, changed the world.
A few months later, and halfway around the world, the Berlin Wall fell, and everything we’d ever known about fear and distrust, friendship and animosity, changed with it, just as everything we knew about China changed.