In April of 2001, a U.S. spy plane flying near the Chinese Island of Hainan was investigated by 2 Chinese fighter jets. A midair collision caused one jet to crash, and damaged the large EP-3, forcing an emergency landing on Chinese soil. All 24 crew members were detained until a diplomatic resolution could be settled. I remember this incident well because I had just booked my first flight to China. During that period, our US media spun the incident so predictably, painting the Chinese as the aggressors. At least half of my friends and family advised me to cancel my plans, to stay home where it’s safe and avoid the dangerous Chinese. At the time, I was shocked at the naive response from these otherwise intelligent friends of mine. Of course I respected their concern, but the incident was so obviously caused by us that I just couldn’t see how anyone could blame the Chinese.
I moved to Shanghai, China on August 21st, 2001. I remember sitting with my mother and sister right at the gate awaiting my plane. This was a defining moment in my life, and I felt waves of emotion as I prepared to let go my homeland for a journey out into the unknown. Looking back, this would be the last time my family could accompany me to the boarding gate at an American airport. After living in Shanghai for just 3 weeks, I was sharing dinner with my new friends at our local hole-in-the-wall restaurant. Dinner was done, beer was flowing, shenanigans ensued until Big Mike came running in shouting “We’re under attack!” Of course we had no idea what he was talking about. The guy liked the beer, and often led the jokes, but this time he was serious.
5 minutes later, I was in my apartment with the TV showing live footage of the World Trade Center. Smoke and flame poured out of one tower, and I saw the impact on the second tower. At the time, I was stunned, alarmed, shaken, worried, but not surprised. I called my family on Skype. I chatted with close friends I knew in NYC, some of whom actually were in the building when things started. Everyone in my immediate circle was safe as the whole nation reeled, glued to the news. Since then, I’ve heard my mom tell this story countless times. Apparently, I told her on the phone: “This is your son. Safe and sound in Communist China.” I didn’t mean to be cheeky, just talking straight.
Are these events tragic? Yes! Are they necessary? No! Are they preventable? Yes! Do they happen the way the news describes them? Absolutely No! The funny thing about living in foreign countries is you quickly find the ‘news’ is interpreted and reported in different ways. Of course it’s biased everywhere. Media companies have their investors and political friends, independent reporters have limited circulation (and limited influence), and the facts of any event can be so easily manipulated by whoever controls the airways. Living in China, it’s very common to hear an American say something like this: “How can you live in a place where the government limits the media, controlling what the people can see?” My first response is always a giggle and a question… “What country are you from where such things don’t happen?” There’s an amazing quality in so many people that allows them to see an event, to see the obvious flaw in the story, and then continue to believe the often contradicting official report of what happened.
I’m not going to launch into conspiracy theory here, or even cynicism. That’s a can of worms that goes nowhere good. My point is that people see what they want to see. And stepping out of the box is the best way I know to see it. The only reason I’m writing about this now is I am heartbroken when I see ‘the news’ in any country, but especially in my home. Every time I pay attention to what passes as news here, I am painfully reminded of how sick our society really is. Overpaid talking heads on the screen talking theory while this nation is in an advanced state of decay. I travel everywhere, and the most intimidating border crossing on Earth is when I return home. I am always met with xenophobic, paranoid ‘security’ who don’t travel themselves. They look me up and down, look at all the visas in my passport, and can’t fit me into their categories, can’t quite tell if I’m dangerous. I’ve learned that the best way through the checkpoints is simple answers and jokes. I’m not a threat. I respect the ‘security’ workers as individual humans, even I have no faith in their work. But it always makes me sad to return home to such conditions, where everyone believes they are free and secure, but the obvious truth tells a different story. I wish I could take a flight without removing my shoes, my belt, my dignity. I wish I could bring my family members to the gate. Alas, the rhetoric of the time is more powerful than the truth… or the people… that is a really painful pill to swallow.