China Stories Pt. 36: Leaving Beijing
Bob, Katharine and I decided we would go to Hong Kong together the next day (assuming we could get out).
Our last night, we had dinner with some of our Chinese friends, in the Italian restaurant in the Shangri-La Hotel. It was bittersweet for all of us - we had made some good friends, and we were leaving them. We laughed a lot, and we talked about what we would do next. Our Chinese friends would probably try to come to the US to study, but it was uncertain whether or not they would be able to.
I gave one of my friends the key to my bike. It was a rite of passage.
The next morning, we set out for the airport. We were given the additional last assignment of getting one of CBS's senior cameramen on a flight to Tokyo. Thus the final words from my boss, Susan Zerensky, the CBS Producer Calling The Shots: "if Warren doesn't make that plane I'll kill you."
I can't remember how we got to the airport exactly, but I think one of "our" drivers took us in a small bus. My friend Randy, with whom I had shared the responsibility for the drivers, saw us off. He was staying.
We had to go a roundabout way to get to the airport, to avoid the army and to avoid the roadblocks that had been erected to keep the army out. Along the way, my adrenaline was building, bracing for the scene at the airport.
The airport on a normal day is somewhat chaotic, but after my experience with the train stations, I was not unaccustomed to that. And it was a chaos I could understand. On that day, the chaos was definitely greater, but it wasn't "fall of Saigon" chaos. I wasn't particularly worried about the possibility of not getting out. If I didn't get out, I'd go back to the Shangri-La and try again the next day.
We got in line for tickets. When we got to the front, we asked for tickets to Hong Kong. The employee simply took out boarding cards and placed stickers with seat numbers on them. (You didn't choose your seat. You got what she gave you, and that was that.) She asked me if I had luggage to check.
"Two pieces," I said. Now I knew we were going.
I remember being a little nervous about customs. What if someone had been paying attention to what we had been doing? What if they said, "you've been working illegally, and you violated martial law. Come with us." But I wasn't too concerned about that because a/ China is still run by a gigantic, inefficient bureaucracy; and b/ I was pretty much insignificant, since I hadn't done anything to foment protest. And even if they'd noticed or cared, they'd probably want me to leave anyway, which was fine with me.
The customs officer looked at my visa a little longer than I thought necessary, but then stamped my passport and slid it back to me while looking off in the distance. He couldn't have cared less.
We boarded the plane. I was excited - I was looking forward to being in Hong Kong. My parents were still there for another day, so I would get to see them. At the same time, I had a creeping sense of sadness. This adventure was drawing to a close. The showdown between the students and the government was growing ever tenser, and I had left the arena.
After the plane took off, we circled, I looked down, seeing nothing in particular, but in my mind I saw my friends. I saw my drivers, going about their day just as they did any other - smoking, laughing, sleeping on the job. I saw the students - tired, cold, hungry, scared, but defiant. And then the tears came and I couldn't see anymore.