By Nick Dao
My trip to China to see The Great Wall was going to be in August of 1999, but then I caught a news clip on CNN broadcasting how China was getting ready to throw a birthday bash in September to commemorate its 50th Anniversary under the communist rule. The news clip said there would be parades and other joyous festivities! While I certainly would never be one to celebrate the joys of communist living, I was curious as to what the celebrations would be like. I postponed my trip for one month and flew to Beijing in September.
There were a lot of celebrations all right. There was a grand parade down one of the main boulevards, and there was a flowery and elaborate show of pageantry inside The Forbidden City. The celebrations would have been a sight to behold, if only I could have seen those sights for myself.
When I was walking down one of the crowded, main boulevards to see one of those grand parades, I ran smack into a wall of soldiers blocking my path. At first, I thought they were a part of the parade that hadn’t yet joined in with the procession. I thought they would soon be marching and moving, so I waited for them to move, but they stubbornly just stood there. My impatience was getting the better of me. I tried to go around them, but they had blocked the road so that there was no getting around them. Those uniformed soldiers with their rifles in hand had separated the parade from the crowd.
What was going on, I wondered? I wanted to ask someone about the soldiers, but I don’t speak Mandarin. I looked around and saw a Caucasian guy who was standing idly by at the side of the road. He didn’t look nearly as perplexed as I was and seemed to have a grasp on the situation. I walked over to him and said a slow, “Hello,” while hoping he was an English speaker.
“Hi,” he said with a smile.
His vernacular greeting instantly told me he was American, and I felt relieved we wouldn’t have to talk in broken English. “What’s going on here,” I asked him. “I’m trying to see the parade, but those soldiers are blocking the way.”
“They’re keeping out the public,” the guy informed me. “You have to be some sort of a VIP to get past the soldiers and see the parade.”
I wrinkled my brow and spouted out, “You’re kidding me! You have to be a special somebody to see a parade?”
The guy smiled ruefully then sighed out loud, “Believe it or not.”
I thanked him for the explanation and walked away shaking my head. When I saw that news clip on CNN about the festivities to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the Communist Party, I had automatically assumed the parade would be for anyone and everyone, just like it was in the USA. Little did I know that in a communist country, you would have to be special somebody in the government or the army to stand by the side of the road and watch a parade.
I meandered away from the parade that I didn’t get to see and headed over to The Forbidden City. If I couldn’t see a parade, I thought, then I could at least see the historical site of The Forbidden City, and that assumption turned out to be my next mistake.
On my way over to The Forbidden City, I’d questioned if I would be able to get in there since the powers-that-be might have been having a pageantry in The Forbidden City. I dismissed that concern when I concluded that if the VIPs were back there busily watching a parade, then they couldn’t also be inside The Forbidden City simultaneously watching a pageantry.
After I had arrived at the gates of The Forbidden City, I began to wish I had stuck with my original plan to visit Beijing a month earlier in August. There wasn’t any display of pageantry in The Forbidden City at that moment, but the people working under the VIPs were busily setting up The Forbidden City for the pageantry. Therefore, The Forbidden City was closed and off-limits to everyone who wasn’t of the VIP status.
I chalked up the day as another learning experience that taught me something about sightseeing in a foreign country and about the inclusion of democracy versus the exclusion of communism. The next time I would see a parade on Main Street, USA, I would appreciate how anyone and everyone would be invited to watch the parade regardless of whether or not they were a VIP.
Writer Nick Dao is based in Southern California. An American originally from Vietnam, he is able to offer a unique perspective on travel to Asia and elsewhere.