Around the World in 120 Days
A sea of tourists stampeded through the pedestrian tunnel running towards the stairs leading up to the square; it was the survival of the fittest. With our adrenaline pumping, we maneuvered our way through the swarm of matching neon orange hats, staggering tourist flagpoles, microphones, and children on leashes. The three American girls (Liza, Abby and I) were on a mission to view the preserved body of the late Chairman Mao at Tiananmen Square.
Exiting the congested tunnel, we could not escape the rush around us. Groups of tourists were scurrying in clumps back and forth as intimidating, bilingual police officers directed the crowds in every direction. Thrown into the mix, we started following a group in matching tee shirts to cross the street to Tiananmen. But the group in tee shirts led us to a fence; clearly they had no idea where they were going either. Taking matters into our own hands, we raced down the sidewalk, zigzagging through slow-walking pedestrians and others struggling to keep their balance in their platform heels.
Once more we tried to cross the street. Just as we were about to step out into the cross walk, a loud threatening voice began to yell, “Wú jiāochā!!” [No Crossing!] I jumped back in fear, practically falling onto those behind me. How was it impossible to cross a street? I held my breath, staring at the police officer as he marched past us towards two young laughing Chinese teenagers. The two had also tried to cross the street. We moved to the next crosswalk to do this legally.
I stood in the middle of Tiananmen Square staring up at the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong and the crowd that surrounded me. I was weirdly excited to see the corpse of the great Chinese leader. There must have been at least a thousand people zigzagged around the memorial standing in line, flowers in hand, waiting for their brief encounter.
As we walked towards the mausoleum, a woman in front stopped in her tracks, turned around, and took a photo of us. Throughout our wait in line I could feel the stares. What were they thinking? We were unquestionably the minority of the group. Chinese men and women of all ages surrounded us holding the small bouquets of white flowers that they just purchased for 3 RMB.
“They are definitely judging us for being here,” Liza whispered. We laughed as we marched up the stairs, when suddenly everything became silent. “What is happening…?!” Liza questioned under her breath as we approached a slick stone statue of Mao surrounded by hundreds of bouquets of white flowers. “I wouldn’t be surprised if all of the flowers end up in the trash. How could they possibly keep all of them?” We painfully held in our nervous laughter as a woman behind the red velvet rope advised us to kindly shut up.
As we inched our way through the memorial, I looked at those around me. There were groups of teenagers, adults, and children all huddled together, completely silent. The eerie atmosphere made me self-conscious. Individuals were holding prayer beads as they silently whispered to themselves, seemingly in prayer, while others were focused on the godly statue of Mao at the center of the room. Those who crowded around me were most likely at the mausoleum to pay tribute to their previous leader; meanwhile, I was only there for the thrill of viewing a 30-year-old corpse. I curiously watched as groups, one after the other, would approach Mao’s statue each bowing three times before placing their delicate white flowers before him.
I held my breath as I turned the corner into the viewing room. A large glass cube was placed at the center. Inside, two guards stood on either side of Mao. A single bouquet of flowers stood behind him. My eyes darted toward Mao’s face, which was illuminated by an overhanging spotlight. His face appeared to be bright orange. I couldn’t tell if it was from the spot light or from the make-up. I leaned in towards the glass for a better view until I was hissed away by a security guard advising me to move on. By the time I looked back, I was already exiting the building.
“Did you see the communist flag draped over the casket?!”
“No, I was too busy trying to look for his mole!”
“Sorry, but I wasn’t convinced that that was actually him.” I said, “It couldn’t be. I mean the amount of make-up—”
Liza interrupted, “That was the most bizarre yet exhilarating experience of my life.”