In July I celebrated my twentieth high school reunion with about eighty other classmates in a non-descript hotel ballroom on Fort Myers Beach. Twenty years earlier my friends and I had celebrated our high school graduation with a “beach week” at the Pink Porpoise a mile or so up the road. We were there when the Tiananmen Square massacre occurred, and I remember watching the events unfold on the poky television in the sand encrusted, pine-paneled lounge of our rented cottage. The news was in stark contrast to the vodka and Kool Aid (aka Pink Ladies) soaked days that had preceded it and would follow it; Tiananmen Square was disturbing but failed to dampen the festivities of the remainder of our week. It was perhaps a timely lesson about the degree of apathy and detachment required to be an adult in this world, where any genuine absorption of the constant stream of global atrocities is likely to render one mortally depressed. (Whether that depression is over the atrocities or the apathy in the face of them, I still haven’t figured out.)
Five months later the world was marked by happier news: the Berlin Wall had fallen. Today’s papers are celebrating the 20th anniversary with headlines about the Class of ’89, including Chancellor Angela Merkel, who walked from East Berlin into West that first night. The fall of the Berlin Wall has a personal resonance for me. I spent several weeks in Berlin the summer after seventh grade, visiting my father who was then a Pan Am pilot based there. During that summer I became mildly obsessed with the wall, particularly the Checkpoint Charlie museum with its displays chronicling escape stories — both failed and successful — in hidden compartments of cars, across the river, and over the wall on a James Bond-esque high wire. I remember the day we took a US military bus tour of East Berlin, mostly that we were barely allowed out of the bus and the predominance of grey, as if crossing the city border was crossing degrees of latitude into a drabber, colder place. I visited Berlin again two years after the wall fell, during a semester abroad. I have a framed snapshot of myself from that trip, standing astride two graffiti covered remnants of the wall in an ill-advised pea soup green mock-turtleneck sweater and faded black jeans, looking like I’ve just walked out of the East Berlin of the 1980s.
Two years after I visited a reunited Berlin, I first stepped foot into Tiananmen Square to visit Mao’s mausoleum. I had read about the atrocities Mao committed against his own people, but somehow the mausoleum seemed like a circus attraction and therefore devoid of any reverence. (I had even brought along my copy of Wild Swans, which chronicles life under Mao, to Beijing to see if the hotel would confiscate it. They did.) While I was waiting in the long line to get into the mausoleum I bought a souvenir from a street vendor, a plastic, battery-operated Buddha, about six inches high and spray painted gold. When you rocked Buddha like an overgrown Weeble on his round base, he laughed. I gave the Buddha to my friend Suzanna, who subsequently reported his cackle had provided a disturbing soundtrack to the Northridge earthquake that rocked her house the following January.