I worked there for thirty years, I enjoyed my job, I had the responsibility of being a liaison for public events, and since we had been colonialized, we partook in demonstrations as a display of our ability to thrive and think for ourselves. Although we had been colonialized for more than sixty-nine years when I first took the job, I was also born there so knew no other life.
Part of my job was to be the middleman between law enforcement and demonstrators, and sometimes we had very thought-provoking conversations about understanding each other’s sentiments: the demonstrators and their understanding what our duties entailed, and vice versa. Activists applied for the right to hold a demonstration, there seemed to be no need to say we couldn’t, that was our job after all. Sometimes I noticed that the activists requesting permission were very worried we would deny them, and I would reassure them we would work something out, since we were all citizens of the city and we all love our city. Often at the end of the demonstration we would shake hands and say, see you next year. Then things totally changed, the main government decided that we were incapable of making these decisions for ourselves because they knew better. They sent their own representatives who had never lived in the city before to implement the changes. Suddenly the police had shields against the crowds, they didn’t speak, they put their middle fingers up at the protestors, and suddenly all the trust we built up together was destroyed with the first water cannon, the first push that landed a student on his back, the first gunshot. It’s not how I would have done this, but I was released from my duties as too soft, perhaps subversive since they believed the hardline was necessary. That same day I saw my son, eating noodles at the snack shop arrested and dragged off down the escalator for being a student in the vicinity of the protest.
All I can say is that I have a clear conscience. I never killed anyone. I never needed to, I would give my uniform to the protestors to protect them. Before the police and civil service helped and respected each other. Now the authorities regard anyone with a question or a statement that is not wearing their facial expression as probable suspects of arrests. Once upon a time, demonstrations like ours was what made us distinct from the rest of the country surrounding us, we had enjoyed the ability to express ourselves.
Will I leave? I have lived here all my life. There are still pockets of quiet places where you can imagine it to have the equality to breathe without someone on the verge of reporting you. My wife has left with our daughter and my grandchildren. She arrived in what she thought was a free country for a fresh start and went to the community center to introduce herself to those who spoke the same dialect as us, she smiled at the people inside who looked like us, and they shouted at her. They said she was the cause of all their comforts being at risk of being taken away. She was the cause of how there are anti-human hate crimes because she was closer to where the lab leaked the virus and she probably went to protests and vigils, and our city has betrayed the country—what country I wanted to ask, the one you don’t live in any longer or the one you live in?—they walked so close you could smell the pork buns on their breath, they told us we should get real and wise up. The Middle Kingdom owned the world now, and our city was but a turd to be crushed or washed off with a hose and they swore at her. She’s been afraid to go outside since. My daughter and husband thank goodness have medical research jobs so they have work, but she said if it weren’t that she had intermarried, she would have more trouble. She is trying to persuade my wife to go outside with her and her husband and their two kids. I am still here because of my mother, she doesn’t want to leave, she is 106 years old, and I think she deserves to say where she wants to live for her final years.
I don’t know, I don’t play mahjong, and I like to watch science fiction movies, so hopefully that will help me last this phase in our lives. I always thought things would have got easier when you got older because you had grown more savvy about how to live, but it seems just as uncertain as when we were young, except our bones, tendons, and muscles don’t bend so well, and our hearts and lungs don’t pump so well, and for some of us our brains still ruminate, rolling around unnecessary concerns turned into agitated thoughts.
I hope that my mother will have a good peaceful end. She is a bit muddled now, sometimes she’s not sure what’s going on, which is good, because she brought us out from the Mainland and we traveled by boat here, she was fearless, and she knew martial arts and protected us. I told my mother I would never leave her. I know things will change again, just as they always do, time will turn something good into something we can’t bear, and then that will end and something new will turn up that will seem good and turn unbearable. I hope that when I die it is during a good turn and not a bad one.
Annie Bien has written two poetry collections and published flash fiction in print and online. She is a flash fiction winner and finalist of the London Independent Story Prize, 2020, and a Pushcart Nominee. She is an English translator of Tibetan Buddhist Sūtras for 84000.
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