Cui Jian played over the tinny speakers and the Goddess of Democracy seemed to smile at Mao- the Great Helmsman himself, looking down indifferently at the square. The students were so full of hope then, so optimistic. The death of Hu had brought them to this stage, but the promise of liberalization, the promise of freedom had kept them. He felt proud, he felt alive, he felt hope.
The bowl of noodles was the best he could afford on his salary, and the warmest thing he could eat on this freezing day. He’d gone to the train station again, the same result- still banned from travel. It was 2018, almost 30 years after that spring on the square. Now there was no hope, just these noodles to keep out the cold. He hadn’t even tried for the new bullet trains, he guessed they’d be less strict on the cheaper old trains- that they’d move the best workers to the sleek new station and maybe he could just slip through at the old station, on the train, back to Beijing. Just to visit, to see the place which burned in his memory as it burned that June.
The streets he swept in Xi’an’s historic quarter were full of tourists from all over China, but mostly the prosperous East coast. He’d see them with their selfie sticks and material comforts, every day breaking his heart. Not because he didn’t have a nice phone or was living in a tiny room that was cold in the winter, hot in the summer, and didn’t have running water; no, all of that was an enormous step up from the labor camp. Re-education, he’d snort at the name, funny how those empty suits in Zhongnanhai pronounce ‘torture though slavery’ as ‘reeducation through labor.’ No, it was heartbreaking to see how the young tourists didn’t care about their country.
His parents had been Redguards, beating teachers for the mercurial love of a madman and his cronies. His generation had risen up to see the backside of the next generation of cronies, stubborn old men more concerned with losing face than killing civilians. This generation was just concerned with taking the right selfie and their number of online friends. Some shit that is, he thought, firing up a cigarette to wash down his dinner. He looked down at the white pack of smoke, he always smoked Zhongnanhais, named for the former imperial pleasure garden where the tyrants lived and ruled the country. He loved lighting one on fire, just as he would love to light up the real thing.
He watched the snow fall gently. As a kid he’d learned a poem about snow falling, but it, along with his other lessons, had faded from his mind. Not much use for a degree when he swept the streets. He thought for a minute, he might be the best educated street sweeper in all of China. No, he paused, there are too many of use who have asked too many questions and have been relegated to this humble profession.
He asked for the bill at the counter near the door. The city walls loomed beautifully out in the snow storm. He wondered if they could talk the stories they’d tell. The turbulent life of this city, the senseless bloodshed, the crushed hope, the lonely street sweepers they’d seen. Then he looked down at his change, the crumpled pictures of the Great Helmsman, he snorted, if only you could see this XiaoDongDong I’d love to see the look on your face.
He smiled as he stepped outside, his mind still on Mao, na, he thought, you’re too busy to see this, you’re burning in hell with Deng and all the others.