Tuesday, June 4, 2019

In Remembrance of Forgetting

June 4, 2019  Guangzhou, China

Last year my wife and I celebrated our 30th anniversary together. We were married in Wilmington, Delaware on July 2, 1988. I wonder if being able to celebrate and remember the day of our wedding made any difference to our marriage and to our lives. What if we were not allowed to celebrate our anniversary, talk about it with our family and friends, share pictures of us celebrating our wedding or anniversary on social media? Would it make any difference to us or our families or friends?

It's hard to answer this question because like most counterfactuals, the scenario I'm putting forth has never happened. Of course we are able to share our memories with others and we take it for granted so we never really stop and think about why it matters. Here I have to confess that I've never been one to appreciate the institution and trappings of marriage. As a 28 year old still searching for his bearings - and this is no reflection on my wonderful wife - I approached the wedding like I approached getting my vaccinations at the doctor's. It was more an utilitarian exercise I needed to do so I could move on with my life.

As I've grown older, I've changed my view of that event.  I've come to appreciate that sharing memories of our marriage contributes to a larger collective memory and history that gives our relationship and our life more meaning because it is shared and remembered by others outside our immediate relationship. Sharing memories of that event matters because it became an essential part of building the family and community that we started when my wife and I chose to marry.

Not being able to share the event with others would create a discontinuity in that collective memory and history. We would still be able to talk about other things with our family and friends. But something would be missing: the founding event that led to our wonderful family and community of friends. Being denied the ability to share that event, we would not be able to live a normal life, to build a normal community of family and friends.

A few months after our wedding, I started my Ph.D. in political science at Columbia University in the city of New York. I had decided to specialize in the study of Chinese politics after spending a year teaching English in China and coming away knowing I wanted to study this great enigma of a country.

The next year, in the spring semester, I remember walking through hallway of the School for International and Public Affairs, and seeing a mass of people packed into the auditorium on the ground floor listening to someone speak. I was told the speaker was a certain Liu Xiaobo, a visiting scholar at Columbia at the time, who was speaking about something big taking place in China. Shortly afterwards, he flew back to Beijing to join in something he knew he had to be a part of.

After two years of fieldwork in Taipei and Xiamen, and two more years of writing my disseration, I received my doctorate in 1996 and went on to teach political science at a liberal arts college in Poughkeepsie, New York. My wife and I raised two children in the town of Hyde Park. Ten years later she joined the foreign commercial service and was posted to the U.S. embassy in Beijing, bringing her family along.

I spent most of my time in Beijing working for China Development Brief, a Chinese NGO reporting on the ever so gradual development of China's civil society. We were motivated by the idea that China needed to build a strong societal foundation if any change in its superstructure was to be sustainable. My colleagues and I looked nervously to the future, rarely talking or thinking about the past, and dreaming of better things. One early June day, I asked a taxi driver if he knew what anniversary it was. He was stumped until I told him. And then he suddenly remembered what all of his compatriots had forgotten.

We had been living in Beijing for around three years when, in 2010, Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. He was unable to accept the prize, having been imprisoned for taking part in the writing of Charter 08, a manifesto calling for China to move in a more liberal, democratic direction. Liu ended up dying in prison on July 13, 2017 of liver cancer. Almost no one in China knew who he was. Many of his compatriots hadn't forgotten, they just didn't know he existed. Which is worse?

I ask that question about my anniversary. I think I would rather my anniversary be forgotten than for people not to know about it. I understand people are busy and have better things to remember than my anniversary. But I would want my friends and family to at least know my wife and I were married, that we had a wedding sometime in the distant past. That sharing of memories constitutes an important part of what separates our community of family and friends from our acquaintances.

On this day, I understand that the Chinese are busy too, and that they have better things to think about than the past, such as the future for their families and their nation. I hope for their sake that they are not ignorant, that they have instead simply forgotten. Because then, like my friend the taxi driver, all it will take is a reminder for the light to go on and the memories to return.