I discuss Freedom with Athena (Great Wall of China)

I the train journey from Lhasa to Beijing took two days.  The train traveled across all of China, from the Tibetan Plateau to the mountains of northern China, past the terracotta warriors in Xi’an and onwards to Beijing.  The Beijing municipality is roughly the size of Belgium, so it took a while to get to the center of town.  I was awed by Beijing’s size, impressed by its modernity, and disgusted by its polluted air.  I fell sick with a swine-flu-like illness within a few days.  I blame the air.

Though I had enjoyed discussing politics with the Chinese on my train, I still couldn’t see eye to eye with government.  As I walked through Beijing, I allowed my political beliefs to overshadow Beijing’s cultural gems.  When I saw the Forbidden City, I cynically remarked that it was only spared from the Cultural Revolution because Mao wanted to use it for his own purposes.  When I stood in Tiananmen Square, the largest in the world, my appreciation was dulled by the memories of how the government squashed the 1989 pro-democracy riots.

Then I went to see Mao’s embalmed corpse, which is displayed in Tienanmen Square like Ho Chi Minh’s in Hanoi and Lenin’s in Moscow’s Red Square.  I was a bit disappointed by Mao; Uncle Ho’s mausoleum outdid Mao’s in almost every way – a better building, better atmosphere, better guards, and a better looking corpse.  I still have one more embalmed communist dictator to see in Moscow, so I will reserve my final judgment until after I see Lenin…but so far Uncle Ho is in the lead.

But my journey was almost over, and I needed time to think.  I needed a walkabout.  I hiked onto the Great Wall at sunset and spent a night in one of its watchtowers.  I thought about my journey and I tried to put everything into perspective.

As I stared out over the hills towards Mongolia, a white ghost appeared high above the Great Wall.  What was this apparition?  The ghost of King Hamlet?  

“No, you fool, it’s me, Athena, Greek goddess of Wisdom.  Why do we have to go through this every time?  Ah, never mind…but tell me, how do you feel now that your Odyssey is almost complete?”

“I feel pretty good, but, where the heck have you been, Athena?  I  have needed your help so many times in the last few months!  Why didn’t you warn me that Delusion tricked me into buying that piece-of-junk Minsk motorbike?  Or was it Ares that killed my bike just to spite me?  And why have you given me no guidance in China, the most confusing country I have visited thus far?”

“The gods had nothing to do with those mishaps.  You are just too stingy – if you wanted to make it to Hanoi, maybe you should have worried less about saving money, and more about buying a bike that would last for the whole journey.”

“Wait…you mean the gods weren’t even involved in that part of the journey?”

“No, we have been preoccupied on Mt. Olympus.  MTV started filming a reality TV show and Aphrodite has been hogging the camera, kissing all of Ares’ enemies just to cause drama.  And after what she did with Dionysus… Oh, Zeus!  Ares is on a warpath!  He has been throwing spears all across Olympus and crying his eyes out to the camera.  The MTV producers are eating it up, but we have all been too busy to worry about you.”

“Wow… I had no idea.  All this time I was blaming you guys for my misfortunes.”

“Nope, your misfortunes result from your own poor judgment.  You must take some responsibility for your actions.  There is a reason why few people sacrifice goats to Zeus anymore; you can’t depend on the Olympians for everything.  But tell me, what have you learned since we last spoke in Cambodia?”

“Well, Vietnam was incredible.  On my motorbike, I tasted true freedom for the first time in my life.”

Aphrodite smiled at me and said, “There’s nothing in the world like total freedom, is there?  Let me tell you something, Mark: every soul is born free, but over the years most people make sacrifices and comprises and most trade away their freedom before they are even aware of its existence.  It’s not to say that these compromises are wrong, or that true freedom is better than having a high paying job and owning a nice home – but you rarely can have both together.  If you want to regain that freedom again, you must walk through life more deliberately, you must be careful about the sacrifices you make.  You made a sacrifice when you abandoned the Minsk, didn’t you?”

“Hey, that’s a sore subject…I loved that bike.  And I didn’t really have a choice: my visa was going to expire, the repair costs were mounting and I couldn’t cross into China with the bike…I had to ditch the Minsk.”

“Still, you made a sacrifice.  There is a reason why most of the world is not traveling the globe by motorbike.  Most people in the developing world don’t have the money, and people in the rich world have the money, but most don’t have the time.  You are quite lucky to have both the time and the money.”

“Jeez, Athena, you are making me feel guilty.  I know that the average person in Burma can’t travel like I do…not even many middle class in Vietnam or China have ventured past their borders.  But the truth is that we have different opportunities than those in the developing world.  How can I explain to a Cambodian farmer that a low wage in America is enough to live like a king in Cambodia?  Are you saying that I should be doing something else with my money?”

“Absolutely not, Mark.  Each time you have discussed traveling with the locals in Asia, what did they tell you?  They said that they wished they could do the same thing, right?  So don’t feel guilty about your relative opportunity, take advantage of it.  Travel because you can.  Don’t forget that you live with a freedom most of these people will never know.”

“You are right.  And being in China has made me appreciate my freedom even more.  After being totally free on my motorbike, it was difficult to conform to the crowds in China.”

She raised an eyebrow.  “You can’t spend all of your life hiding on up the Great Wall, Mark.  You have to return to society eventually.  Remember what Emerson said: ‘It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after your own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.’”

“No, that’s not what I mean.  Sure, never it was almost impossible to find solitude and the government makes it clear that you must conform to their strict rules.  But what really bothered me was the censorship and all the security cameras on every corner!  I can’t find any information about the Dalai Lama or Tiananmen Square, I can’t even access the Facebook or most blogs!  The Chinese are fed propaganda and what’s worse is that they all believe it!  When discussing politics, everyone just regurgitates the Party Line and they claim it is best for their society to censor the internet!  It’s crazy!”

“Is it really that crazy for them to think that way?  Perhaps it’s their culture, have you thought about that, Mark?”

“Ha!  You mean it’s part of their culture to cower before Big Brother?  I don’t follow.”

“No.  You are viewing China through Western eyes, judging China with Western values.  Individual freedom, a social contract between governments and their people, these are principles of the European Enlightenment.  Democracy comes from ancient Greece, not ancient China.  Chinese culture is shaped more by the principles of Confucianism, where respect for superiors is paramount and a harmonious society is the overall goal, not individual satisfaction.  The Chinese might see your individualism as rude and selfish.  You must be aware of your own biases.”

“Fair enough, but that doesn’t mean I have to agree that the Chinese government can keep their people in the dark, does it?”

“No, of course not.  If you want to spend your whole life searching for the truth, so be it – fight the good fight.  Tell the world about what you have seen in Tibet and Burma.  But just don’t call the average Chinese ignorant simply because they would rather trade a little bit of freedom for social harmony.  Try to understand where they are coming from.”

“I hadn’t thought of it that way; maybe I have been too judgmental.  I guess the average Chinese is just trying to get by.”

“Mark, twenty years ago, most people in Beijing were wearing blue Mao suits and riding bicycles down dirt roads.  Now look what the Communist Party has built for them.  Beijing is a thoroughly modern city.  It just hosted the Olympics, and China won the whole thing.  Does it surprise you that they are willing to trust what the Party says is good for them?”

“I guess not.  But I could never think that way; my eyes have been opened, and I can’t close them anymore.”

“Good for you.  Now enjoy your freedom.  But, hey, I just got a text from Dionysus – more drama on Mt. Olympus…I gotta get back to Greece.  It’s time to say goodbye, Mark”

“Wait!  Is there anything else I should know before I get on the Trans-Siberian?”

“Not really.  If you have made it this far, I think you can handle the rest.  But I will say that you have a wild imagination…you dreamed up all of the Greek gods, even me.  And you are dreaming as we speak, which seems to be what you do best.  Now enjoy the rest of your sleep and good luck on the Trans-Siberian.”

And with that, my relationship with the gods of Ancient Greece came to an abrupt end.  I awoke the next morning and watched the sun rise over the Great Wall.  I was on my own with no more help from the Greek gods.  I headed back to Beijing, organized my affairs and prepared to leave Beijing, to leave China, to leave Asia behind.

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