Small Freedoms

As anyone who read my older blog may remember, I spent the summer of 2004 in China.

It was a transformative experience.

China taught me about racial experiences I could never see in North America because of my own white privilege — what it’s like to be a visible minority, where you’re the only one that looks like you in a room, where people are constantly calling out your outsider-ness, where you’re the one who speaks with an accent that gets laughed about even when you’re trying to be serious.

China taught me a lot about differences of approach — how we take for granted the way we do things, but those are really only one of many ways to do it: squat toilets, on-demand water heaters, moshpits instead of orderly lines at ticket counters, and so on.

But the lesson China taught me that I was thinking about again this week is about freedom. For one thing, North Americans take advantage of their freedom of speech in a way they don’t even know. Around here, people complain that anyone reprimanding them for saying something offensive is censoring them, curtailing their freedom of speech. That disagreement is oppression. In China, I met person after person whose parent or loved one was on a two-year “work assignment” in Inner Mongolia, XinJiang, or one of the other really remote provinces. And I talked to a few whose loved one had disappeared entirely. Usually because they had written something, or said something too publicly, or joined the wrong club. Or sometimes no one was even sure why. And this was in liberal, modernized China, where the worst was usually just a two-year work reassignment. The one thing they could all agree on was that it used to be far worse, and they wouldn’t even talk about that for fear someone might be listening. We have no idea what true persecution really feels like.

Meanwhile, they laughed at American freedoms. “You guys can do so many things, and yet you waste it on stupid stuff while pursuing false freedoms.” I asked my Chinese language classmate what she meant. “Um, okay. Here’s an example. Subway sandwich shops. They dazzle you with this huge array of meaningless choices, distracting you from the fact that none of the choices are actually good. Do you really need to choose between five kinds of bread? Wouldn’t you rather have one or two good breads than five bad ones? Does your choice of shredded vs. whole lettuce actually make the sandwich any better? Americans always mistake small freedoms for big ones, and mere freedom on its own for goodness.”

That last line has resonated with me for over a decade.