The conversation usually goes something like this:
“How long were you in China for?”
“Just over a year.”
“Oh wow, how was it?”
Then I take a moment to consider how honest I would like to be in my response.
“Tough,” is the best I’ve come up with so far.
I watch as a flicker of confusion flashes across their face. This is not always the expected answer.
And then they get to decide if they would like to know more, or not.
Sometimes they say, “I can imagine,” and move on.
The curiosity-prone often choose to probe.
Where to begin?
The most obvious and basic place to start would be freedom of speech. As a person who believes deeply in the power of language, self-expression and honest and tough conversations, this was the most broad and far-reaching challenge I faced. It still blows my mind, after being out of China for more than a month, that I can now access facebook, Instagram and my gmail account without first having to connect to a VPN in order to sneak over the firewall.
During my time in China, I knew, on an intuitive and visceral level, that it was not ok for me to be fully myself. Questioning authority, discussing sexual orientations other than straight, making too much noise, standing out too much, all unsafe and genuinely scary things to do. My true and honest fear for myself, was that when it came time to leave China, the government would have placed a red flag next to my name and passport number as an enemy of the state, based on a conversation I had with a friend from home, and I would be detained without a trace. Because that is a real thing that happens there: Check out this article about an award-winning photo-journalist who disappeared in China.
One time I was on facetime with my mom in Maryland. We were discussing the political situation in the states and she got a phone call, (she was using her iPad to speak with me at the time). She put the phone on speaker and we heard a recorded message in Chinese. My mom called the number back and the man who answered was instantly furious. He began yelling at her with limited English skills, telling her never to call this number again. When she attempted to explain, calmly, what had happened, he said that his business phone had been hacked and he had already “reported it to secret service.” “You reported it to secret service?” My mom said. “How do you even do that?” The man only became more incensed and it was clear that this was a one-way conversation. I don’t mean to sound paranoid, but what the actual fuck was that about?
On a separate occasion I was asleep in my apartment in Shenzhen. I was startled in the middle of the night by the sound of a man screaming erratically outside. He sounded to be in genuine distress. I was concerned, so I went to look out the window. By the time I got there, I witnessed a dark-colored van pull up and within seconds, had the man inside and drove away. Again, without a trace.
Originally published at https://thisisalexrizzi.com on June 20, 2019.