In 1998 I was sick and tired of America so I ran away to China. I was tired of all the shootings in schools and neighborhoods and shopping centers by private citizens. I was sick and tired of being afraid of my neighbors, so I went to China. It was far enough away.
I walked about the cities of China with a freedom I didn't have in America; I had no fear of being a victim of a violent crime. I worried about pickpockets and, indeed, my billfold was stolen twice without me knowing it, but I never needed to worry about a gun, or even a club, being used on me.
However, I was not able to access the New York Times or the BBC on the Internet. I tried again and again, but those websites were blocked. My university students explained to me with heated sincerity that censorship was good for Chinese people; it was necessary for national security.
I was impressed with how the Chinese government used fear to convince the people that what it did was for their own good.
"Oh, Miss Reva," said one of my friends, a government employee, over dinner in a restaurant, "you don't know how important to Chinese people is stability."
His voice was shaking. He said it because my companion at the table with us, a Chinese citizen who was a minority person and not of the Chinese race, had refused to show him her identity card.
He told her, "You people don't think like Chinese people! Your minds are different!" He wanted her card so he could help the government keep track of her.
I missed American multiculturalism. On my first trip home, when I arrived at the airport in Los Angeles, I got lost between terminals. I asked a security officer for directions. He had such a strong Spanish accent, I couldn't follow all he said. Yup, I was back in America. Good ol' America, land of many races, land of many languages. I went as far as I could based on what I'd understood, then asked another man with a Spanish accent. He took me to my gate.
There is nothing so good at teaching appreciation of one's country as living in another country, and China in particular taught me. The Chinese needn't fear their neighbors but they do need to fear the government. It can spy on its own citizens, imprison people without charges, and torture the prisoners. It can decide what information people should have. The Chinese government can do this; there is a constitution but the government doesn't follow it, and there is no check and balance system. A Chinese friend once explained to me how lucky Americans were to have a good constitution and a government that had checks and balances.
In the spring of 2001, I waited for a friend in the lobby of the American consulate in Guangzhou, China. Across from me were photos of our new leaders. I observed them closely, wondering what kind of leadership they would provide: George Bush, his simple boyishness; Dick Cheney, a man with a crooked smile; and Colin Powell, whose photo was smaller than the other two, as though he was not as important. It was odd how my eyes lingered on Dick Cheney's crooked smile.
I came home in August 2001 glad to be back in America, where I still worried about the armed populace but could count on the government to respect the privacy of its citizens and the dignity of its Constitution.
he months that followed Sept. 11, 2001, were the beginning of the end of America the beautiful, the land of the free. Since then, we have been on a steady march to China.
We have found we have a president who doesn't allow people who disagree with him to attend his speeches. We have found we have a government that uses fear to justify holding prisoners without charges, and we have allegations and proof that prisoners have been tortured. We have a government that is teaching some of its citizens to treat other citizens as untrustworthy because they may have minds that are different.
This year we found we have a government that spies on its own citizens and says it is good for us and necessary for national security. Like the Chinese, we now have a government collecting our phone records and reading our Internet messages.
While the Chinese people are enjoying more freedom, Americans are losing their freedom. America remains a place where you fear your neighbor has a gun, and now it is becoming a place in which we fear the government.
Reva Rasmussen lives in St. Paul, Minnesota.
© 2006 The Star-Tribune