Seventeen years ago I published this poem in the British magazine TANK. I still recognize the lost and wandering soldier who wrote it, who poked around Beijing’s Summer Palace at the height of the season. Today I feel compelled to give China a leave of absence of indeterminate length, repelled as I am by its murder of human rights giants like Liu Xiaobo (say his name). But still in my head I hear the lowing of Beijing Wanbao! and I recall my friends and students, my landlord Yang, my neighbors. They remain and work, I believe, to make the country better even as I disappeared into an aisle seat on a long-ago United flight. Here’s to those twin poles: courage and cowardice.
Several years ago I worked as a research reporter for the New York Times’ Beijing bureau. One of the best trips I took, alongside another reporter, was to Zhengzhou in Henan province. We were there to visit two HIV/AIDS activists—Hu Jia and Gao Yaojie.