2. China

Men wanted: For hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness. Constant danger, safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success.1

IN 1914 ERNEST SHACKLETON planned to set sail from England on his ship—the Endurance —bound for Antarctica. Once there, he would lead the first expedition to cross the frozen continent on foot. It is alleged that when Shackleton placed this advertisement, he received five hundred responses. It was to be a great adventure.

As a kid growing up in Missouri, I'd been addicted to the Choose Your Own Adventure series of books, in which I could create my own story. Journey Under the Sea began, "Beware and Warning! This book is different from other books. You and YOU ALONE are in charge of what happens in this story. There are dangers, choices, adventures, and consequences ... You are a deep sea explorer searching for the famed lost city of Atlantis. This is your most challenging and dangerous mission. Fear and excitement are now your companions." Goose bumps rose as I read by flashlight until two in the morning.

Like many American kids, I grew up in a world populated by heroes. I read about Pericles, who built democracy in Athens, the Spartans, who fought for Greece at Thermopylae, the Romans, who gave us law. I read about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, who fought sorcerers, trolls, and giants, and protected the weak. I read about the Israelites, who escaped slavery and journeyed through the desert. And I read about great American heroes: George Washington, who crossed a frozen Delaware River and led America to victory; the colonial forces at Bunker Hill, who held their fire until they could see the whites of the British troops' eyes; Abraham Lincoln, whose words at Gettysburg laid the dead to rest and called a nation to its duty; Martin Luther King Jr., who announced to the world, "I have a dream."

I loved history, but this rich view of the world also left me afraid. My big fear was that God and my parents had made a terrible mistake and that I'd been born at the wrong time. I sat in the library and read stories of people discovering ancient cities and settling wild frontiers. I read about warriors and explorers and activists and statesmen, but I'd look up from the book and stare out the window of the public library onto the green, freshly mowed grass outside, and the world looked very safe to me. It seemed that all the corners of the earth had been explored, all the great battles fought. The famous people I saw on TV as a kid were athletes and actresses and singers; what did they stand for? Had the time for heroes passed?

My second, related, fear was that I'd miss my ticket to a meaningful life. I had been told—perhaps since kindergarten—that if I wanted to live a successful life, I had to go to a place called college. College, they said, was "the ticket." I understood that they gave out tickets after high school, and if you wanted one, you had to have good grades. When I came home with my report card from third grade, it read: Eric Greitens, HANDWRITING: B-. When I told my mom that I got a B minus in handwriting, she said, "That's OK."

"But will they still let me go to college?"

My parents cared a lot that I was a good person. They wanted me to treat others with kindness. They wanted me to be respectful. They wanted me to try hard. They wanted me to be a team player. But while they cared about these "character" things, they weren't particularly concerned about whether I got great grades.

This was always made clear at science fair time. I was left to my own devices to imagine, create, and construct a science fair project. I had little help. So, in third grade, I set up an experiment to determine whether or not cut tulips lasted longer in water, soda, or beer (my dad's Budweisers). Every day for a few weeks I recorded data on tulips as they wilted sitting in beer. I cut out my cardboard display in the basement, scavenged some spray paint from the garage, and in uneven passes of the can, I painted my display and then wrote on it in black marker my hypothesis: "Cut tulips will last longer in water than in soda or beer." My plan for science fair day was to set up a glass of water, a glass of soda, and a glass of beer, with a tulip placed in each. I would display my results, written in pencil on notebook paper, next to the tulips.

The day of the fair, I was astounded to see that my classmates had well-constructed and perfectly painted wood displays made to the exact specifications of the science fair regulations. What's more, their displays showcased robots and gardens and springs and typewritten analyses of data, some with tables.

Undeterred, I set down my spray-painted display, laid down my pencil-and-notebook-paper results, and cracked open my beer. I poured a full glass, then dropped the tulip in. As I was arranging the tulip in the soda glass, however, I knocked over the beer tulip, and Budweiser spilled all over my display and began to run down the table and onto the floor. The horrified parents whose children had built steam locomotives from scratch looked on as my mom—ever resourceful—used the bottom of the sweatshirt she was wearing to mop up the beer. We had a quarter can of Bud left, so I poured the remaining beer into the glass, dropped the tulip in, and left my science project to the fate of the judges and posterity.

The judges frowned on my experiment, and when I received their judgment—a white ribbon for "participation"—again I asked, "Will they still let me go to college?"

This theme continued for a while.

When I lit a pile of leaves on fire to keep myself warm while waiting for the school bus, and then accidentally set the whole bus stop on fire: "Will they still let me go to college?"

I had been told, over and over again, that college was the place where I could pursue big dreams. College was the place where life began. College was the first step into the "real world," where every great purpose could be pursued.

So I went to college. And after just a few weeks, I felt that I'd been lied to. I remember the moment. I had decided to study public policy, because public policy was concerned with—I believed—the great affairs of the world. It was the study of all we had in common and how we could improve the world together. Yet in my first class, Introduction to Public Policy Studies, the professor droned, "First, we calculate the values of the proposed outcomes." He scratched a graph on the chalkboard. "Then we assess the probability of achieving those outcomes." He scratched again. "And then we multiply." He scratched a final time. "Now we know what decision to make."

This was public policy? Great decisions about the fate of the world made by multiplication? Where was the romance, the energy, the great causes? When were we going to talk about how to live well, how to lead, what to fight for? They had promised me that in college we would dive into the deep pools of the world's wisdom about how to live, but instead I was being taught how to plot decision trees. They had promised me that in college we would learn how to shape the world, but they wanted me to do it with math.

I struggled. I took up a new sport. I considered a new major. I talked with everyone who would meet with me, and soon I realized that my journey wasn't going to be handed to me: I had to choose my own adventure.

And then one day I saw my advertisement. It wasn't as dramatic as Shackleton's, but in the student newspaper I discovered a chance to win a grant to conduct an independent-study project overseas during the summer. Applicants like me who had never been abroad before would be given preference. I tucked the newspaper under my arm and walked to class.

The grant offered a chance to see the world, but where should I go?

My uncle was in the broom business, and he had once made a trip to China to visit a broom factory. That was all the background I had, but I put together a grant application to study in China.

When I left for the airport, I did not know any Chinese language. I did not know anything about Chinese culture. And I knew almost nothing about Chinese history. I did, however, own a new hat. Inspired by Indiana Jones, I went to the mall and purchased one. Mine happened to be of the Australian Outback variety. Walking through the airport with a brand-new pack on my back and the Australian Outback hat on my head, I was ready for adventure.

I flew from St. Louis to Dallas to San Francisco to Beijing. On the final leg of the flight, I asked an elderly Chinese woman sitting next to me to give me a crash course in Chinese. She asked me my family name, and I told her, "It's Greitens, pronounced like 'brightens,' but instead of a B, it's a G." She told me that in China, I'd be better off as "Mr. Eric," and then she taught me a few key phrases. By the time we landed, I was able to say, "I am hungry. Feed me."

Han Lin was a friend of a friend of my uncle's. She picked me up at the airport and drove me to a Beijing hotel, and I woke the next morning jet-lagged and thirsty. Everyone in America had warned me over and over again that even touching the water in China would lead to dysentery, diarrhea, diphtheria, and a host of other maladies. I had purchased a water heater, but after five minutes of unsuccessfully trying to boil a cup of water in the hotel bathroom, I threw caution to the wind, opened the faucet, filled a glass of water, and drank.

I went to the window and opened the curtains on a bright, beautiful Beijing day. I looked down on a street teeming with commuters pedaling bicycles. I was really here. I was abroad. I was traveling. Before leaving for my trip, I had put my finger on a globe at the position of St. Louis, Missouri, and another finger on Beijing. I was now standing on the other side of the world, and a wide smile broke across my face.

This was 1993, and China seemed much more foreign then than it does now. The China of 1993 was, in my mind—and the minds of most Americans—much closer to the China of 1989's Tiananmen Square massacre than to the China of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. China was becoming increasingly open to the West, but was still associated primarily with Communism and oppression, not business and growth.

My plan was to go to Changchun, a city in the northeast of the country that was often referred to as China's Detroit. I would study China's emerging business sector, and I would have some time to get to know the country.

Changchun was not a popular destination for tourists. With the exception of a few Germans at a Volkswagen plant, I didn't see any other foreigners in the city. My trips to the factories were interesting, but I also wanted to learn about Chinese culture, so when the receptionist at my hotel invited me to join her kung fu class, I accepted.

We arrived at a school gymnasium at four thirty the next morning. The shifu—translated literally as "teacher-father"—was about five feet five inches of packed muscle under a gray crewcut. I guessed that he was around sixty years old. He wore a light blue cotton shirt with embroidered ties for buttons, the cuffs folded back against the sleeves. He spoke in a slow, steady voice that exuded self-possession. When he walked between the lines of students doing their taolu—a fight dance of choreographed punches, kicks, and blocks—he reminded me of a predator on the prowl. On my first day, he demonstrated a move by placing his fist against my chest. With a sudden shout, he opened his fist and knocked me backward into the wall. The other students nodded dutifully. The shifu helped me up only to knock me backward again.

My friend the hotel receptionist explained, "Shifu punch you to show how to destroy enemy."

Ready to learn the secrets of destroying the enemy, I returned the next morning. After some stretching, I joined the lines of students. The shifu faced the class and bowed. With the palms of their hands flat against the sides of their legs, all the students bowed, and they began the taolu in unison.

The assistant shifu was a police officer in his mid-thirties. Each day he wore what looked to me like a pair of loose black pajamas. He was about five foot six. If I met him on the street, I would have thought: short, tubby guy. When he stood on one leg to demonstrate a strike, however, or when he kicked with ease at a target six and a half feet off the ground, he moved with incredible power. He spent a lot of time with me. My friend translated: "The assistant shifu says you must learn kung fu. If you go back to America and are bad, he will be shamed." Once, when I was practicing a set of strikes, he came up behind me, grabbed my chin with his right hand, and put his left hand on the base of my neck. His hands turned quickly and I heard every vertebra in my neck crack like a thunderclap of cracked knuckles.

I toiled for a few weeks until the class graduation. The graduation was a series of tests of skill. In the first test, a student centered his chi—his inner power—and grounded himself. He stood with his legs spread as if riding an invisible horse, hands together in front of his chest as if in prayer, and eyes focused straight ahead. The assistant shifu set a rolled rag on top of the student's head. Then the assistant shifu set one red brick on the student's head. Then he set another brick atop that one, and then another. It looked to me like a balancing exercise to test how still the student could remain while each heavy brick was stacked on his head. Nine, ten bricks were set on the student's head. I thought, I can do that.

Then a folding chair was placed next to the student, and the shifu stood on its seat. The shifu gave a command and the assistant shifu ran to the corner of the room. The assistant shifu returned holding a sledgehammer.

When I saw the sledgehammer, I said a small prayer. The prayer was in English, and I thought it had been quiet, yet somehow everyone in the room—who had understood the test from the beginning—sensed that until that moment, I had had no idea what was happening, and they all smiled.

The shifu swung the sledgehammer in a wide arc through the air and brought it down on the top brick. The bricks cracked clean down the middle, straight to the final brick, and the broken halves fell to the side of the student. Standing in this pile of debris, the student turned and bowed dutifully to the shifu, apparently thanking him for the experience. The student turned back to his classmates with a smile. I was standing next in line.

I held up my hands and protested in English—"No, I'm sorry, that's not..." Very well, they said, I could take the tests in any order. The assistant shifu drew a sword. I watched again as one of the students centered his chi and grounded himself. The student looked straight ahead and focused his chi in his suprasternal notch (the flesh just under the Adam's apple and between the clavicles). The shifu placed the pointy edge of the sword against the student's neck and started to push. I thought the sword would go straight through the man's neck, but as the shifu pulled the sword away, I saw that he'd left only a small red scratch. When the assistant shifu approached me, I stepped backward, thinking to pass on this test also, but the assistant shifu spoke forcefully to my friend, who turned to me and said, "The shifu says that it would be very bad for Chinese kung fu if you die. It would also be bad if you do not test. The test is important for their honor and for you. He says that you can pass the test if you try."

I was sure that my family would take little consolation knowing that I had given my life "in honor of Chinese kung fu," but I stepped forward. I set my hands in prayer in front of my chest, and as the shifu put the point of the sword against my neck, I focused all of my energy on my throat. He pushed forward, and I felt the steel point of the blade against my neck, and then suddenly I was bowing. I had apparently passed the test.

It was the first time in my life I had been overtly tested for martial honor. I was nineteen years old. I left the class that day with an appreciation for kung fu. I also left with a pair of steel railroad-spike nunchucks and a sword. I never thought I would need these or any other weapons—the world's violence happened offstage for me. I wanted to make a contribution somehow, somewhere, but I didn't think that my fight would involve armed violence.

Later in the summer I returned to Beijing, and Han Lin helped me to get a job at her company, where I could teach English in the afternoons. I expected only a few students for the first English class, so when three or four students walked in, I said hello and tried to make small talk. A few more students arrived, then a few more. Soon, I had a classroom packed with fifteen students eager to learn English. As I greeted each student, I heard an incredible range of abilities. Some of the students were almost fluent; others struggled with "How are you?"

I stood in front of the class. I had no idea how to teach English, and I had no idea how to teach students at so many levels of ability, so I decided to open the class for free discussion. I would take and answer questions. Maybe a few people would get something out of the dialogue.

I introduced myself, then said, "I'd like to learn together."

A hand shot up. "Mr. Erica, what is freedom of speech in America?"

It seemed an odd first question, but every pair of eyes was glued to me, waiting for an answer.

"Well, in America, we have one document that forms the basis for our government. That document is the Constitution, and the Constitution includes a Bill of Rights that gives rights to every citizen. One of those rights is the right to say almost anything you like." I was going to explain more, but it was clear that I'd already lost some of the class.

Another hand shot up. "Mr. Erica, what is freedom of assembly mean for you?"

A student to my right glanced nervously at the door, then got up from his chair and shut it. I assumed that he was concerned our voices might be disturbing others in the building and I continued on. The third question was also about the Bill of Rights.

Many of the students in the class were in their early to mid-twenties, and I soon found that they had been student activists at Tiananmen Square in 1989. For many of them, I was the first American or Westerner they had spoken with since then. The room came alive with dozens of eager hands, and I did my best for over an hour to explain what Americans thought about what had happened at Tiananmen. They were not looking to me as a guide on democracy; most were just curious to understand what Americans thought about what they had lived through.

After class, a group of us rode bicycles to dinner and continued our discussion over dumplings and vegetables. We spoke in hushed voices. The student who had closed the door in the classroom explained to me, "Mr. Erica, the government does not like us to talk about June 4 [Tiananmen]." This pattern of discretion and secrecy continued throughout my stay. Every time a political subject came up, someone would shut their office or dormitory door. No one spoke about politics in public. One night, I saw a man arguing with a soldier in Tiananmen Square. I stopped my bike to see what was happening and one of my friends pulled on my shirtsleeve and said, "Mr. Erica, I am sorry, we must go."

Still, the students who sat around the dinner table were eager to tell me about their experiences. One described the days she had spent with her friends at the demonstrations. She felt that they were going to change history. She had not been there the violent evening of June 3 and early morning of the fourth, but a friend of hers had helped to carry another bleeding friend out of the square and to an apartment for medical care.

I had watched the TV coverage of June 4, 1989, and I remember footage of tanks, trucks full of soldiers, and crowds of students. The government crushed the protest. Chaos and confusion reigned as reporters announced that shots were being fired at unarmed protesters. Students on bicycles and rickshaws carted away the injured. Other people pushed rickshaws through the streets, running injured friends to the hospital. I remembered watching TV several days later and seeing pictures of a now-famous man who stood in the path of a line of rolling tanks. As the tank pivoted to drive around him, the protester moved and blocked the tank's path. He stood his ground.

As I was talking with the students over dinner, I realized that this was the first time I had ever spoken with people who had been part of shaping history. I had watched them on TV. Now I saw that those courageous activists were very real people. Some of them liked soy sauce on their dumplings; others drank more than they ate. Some of them were unshaven, some of them joked constantly, and some had big dreams of going to America. History was alive today. It was made by people: courageous, determined, thoughtful—it was made by people my age.

We rode back to the workers dormitory. I stayed with two men in a cramped room with a concrete floor and concrete walls covered with posters of movie stars, cars, and singing girls. We stayed up talking about San Francisco, the Cultural Revolution, Harley-Davidsons, Mao Zedong, World War II, the Year of the Tiger, and American women.

For the first time, I felt that I was representing and speaking for a group of people: Americans. When the Chinese asked me questions about the American media and democracy, they weren't asking me because they were interested in what I had to say. They were interested in what Americans thought. I felt unqualified to represent all of the United States, but I had a glorious time riding bicycles to and from work, teaching in the afternoons, going out for dinner with my new friends. Many had dreams of traveling to the U.S., and they had questions such as, "How much does an apartment cost in Los Angeles?" and "Do they have rock 'n' roll clubs in Boston, or only in Memphis?" They wanted to know how hard it would be for them to get a job in America, how hard it would be to get a scholarship.

One night in the dormitory, when only two other people were in the room, one of my new friends placed a small canister of film in my hand. He said, "These are photos I took of June 4 protests, but I cannot develop them. Please take these home and develop them. Know what really happened here."

I took the film canister and shook his hand. I felt like I'd joined an underground resistance movement.

One Friday night, a group of us were playing darts in the workers dormitory when there was a knock at the door. Two police officers stepped into the room and spoke to my friends. My friends turned to me with pale faces and said, "Mr. Erica, the policeman wants you go to police station."


"To make paperwork."

I looked at my watch: nine o'clock. I said to my friends, "Please explain to the officers that I would be very happy to assist them with their paperwork, and that I would be pleased to work with them. I would be more than happy to come to the police station on Saturday morning or on Monday morning, but I cannot go with them at nine o'clock on a Friday night." This was translated to the police officers. The officers spoke again to my friends, and then my friends turned to me.

"Mr. Erica, you are going to the police station, now."

Han Lin and I were driven to the police station in the back seat of a police car, accompanied by another man from the dormitory, who whispered to me, "They can't do anything to us. China is different now."

When we arrived at the police station, we were directed to a waiting area, where we sat on green couches and whispered to each other. At about ten o'clock, they called us down a hallway. I followed Han Lin. She was directed to a room on the left; I to a room on the right. As I stepped into the room, I saw two police officers sitting behind a gray metal table. One of them was dressed in civilian clothes and the other wore his police uniform. A single bare light bulb dangled from a wire, and I saw that they had set out a single cigarette for me next to a pack of Marlboros. (I knew from my Chinese friends that American cigarettes were in high demand. The cigarette was clearly intended as a friendly gesture.) They shut the door.

The walls were concrete, and the room contained nothing but the metal table, a filing cabinet, two officers, me, an empty chair, and the cigarette. I sat in the empty chair, and one of the officers pulled out a lighter. He politely urged the cigarette on me. I declined. Then the questions began.

"What brings you to China?"

"I came to study and to learn," I said.

"You like it here?"

"I like it very much. The Chinese people have been very friendly, and I have learned a lot."

"Who got you job here in Beijing?"

"My friends and my colleagues at the company," I said. "I help during the day, and teach a class in the afternoons."

"Do you have work permit?"


"What you teach them?"


"Teach anything else?"


"Who in the class ask questions about American government?"

"Hmmm." I thought about how to respond.

"Who in the class ask questions about freedom of speech?"

I explained that there were different students on different days, many discussions about many subjects, and it would be hard for me to say with certainty what any particular student had asked about any particular subject. The room grew hot. I could hear Han Lin crying across the hall. The officer in civilian clothes looked hard at me as Han Lin's crying grew louder. I figured that I was in no danger. I was a nineteen-year-old kid in their eyes. I knew that I wasn't worth an international incident. My friends, however, had jobs they needed and dreams of going to America, and I didn't want to put their jobs or their dreams in jeopardy.

"Why you teach English in this company?"

"What you do during day at company?"

"You have friend at company?"

At about midnight, I said to the man dressed in civilian clothes, "I am very happy. It has been a pleasure speaking to you for two hours. I have done the best that I can in answering your questions. Now, I think it would be best if we called the American embassy."

The officer pulled out a yellow softbound book with red writing on the cover. He opened it. The text was in Chinese. He ran his finger across several lines of text and then pointed his finger at me. "You have broken the Chinese law. You must punish." I put my hands in the air in a gesture of no bad intentions. Again, he stabbed the page with his finger and then pointed at me. "You have broken the Chinese law. You MUST punish."

"I understand what you are saying, and we can continue to talk, but I would like to call the American embassy if possible." In his broken English, the interrogator said to me, "You know, if we must, but only to hit the Americans." I looked at him and tried to smile. I had no idea what he was saying. Was this a threat? I put a confused look on my face. "I am so sorry, my friend. I don't understand exactly what you are saying."

"We can call American embassy, but only if you are hit." This sounded like a bad deal.

The officer was getting flustered. He was sweating and smoking and struggling with his English. Eventually it became clear to me that he was saying that he would only call the embassy if an American had been hit or injured in Beijing. They had no obligation to call the embassy otherwise. I had broken the Chinese law, not the American law. I was in China. They were free to question me as long as they liked.

I asked for water. They brought a glass and we continued to talk, but shortly after, the questioning came to an end. They took my passport and explained to me that they were going to keep it until Monday, when I could come back and pick it up.

That Monday, I returned to the police station and paid a fine of roughly nine dollars. They asked me to sign a number of papers—all in Chinese—before I received my passport. I didn't know if I was declaring myself an enemy of the Chinese state, signing a receipt for the fine, or pleading guilty to a minor infraction of the law. But I signed, I got my passport, and with the passport, I could get home.

Several days later, I boarded a plane back to the United States. Security was different then, and inside my backpack I had the railroad-spike nunchucks, the kung fu sword, and—wrapped inside a pair of socks—the film canister from Tiananmen Square. As I went through security, the sword and the nunchucks were pulled from my pack. The weapons were handed to airline staff, and a kind stewardess said, "I cannot allow you to bring these with you to your seat, but you can pick them up from me at the end of the trip." No one mentioned the film. Also tucked deep into my pack was the Australian Outback adventure hat.

I left a lot of my naivety in China. I also left a lot of my fear. I learned that history was very much alive, and I'd met solid ordinary people who moved it forward. As I sat down in my seat to fly home, I was thinking less about choosing an adventure and more about choosing a path with purpose. But the adventure continued, and I'd soon come to think that maybe I'd been born at the right time after all.

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