What a difference a Revolution can make...
I was 21 and already "Out" for four years, HIV+ for two years. I had grown up in a middle class "nuclear family" in South Florida during the 1960's. It was now 1986. The foment that would become the 1989 Tiananmen Square was starting to boil. Mao had only passed in 1976. The People's Republic of China (PRC) was still a very cloistered, guarded society.
Uncle sponsored a trip for my brother and me to visit Grandmother for her 80th birthday. My Grandfather had long since been dead of causes which my father and my uncles still will not speak of to this day. They only tell me he died just after the Revolution of 1949.
There were so many odd, eye opening moments during that trip.
Entering first to Hong Kong, we swooped down to land at Kai Tak Airport while taking in the skyline splendor of luxury of a colony under British protection. Immigration and Customs was but a formality. I encountered a place and people where I blended in, but not, because I'm 1/2 Puerto Rican, clearly of North American culture, Twinkie Gay, and at 6'1" I kind of stood out. People stared at me. Uncle lavished us with accommodations at the Peninsula Hotel, dinners at the Royal Hong Kong Jockey Club, and evening chats at his "just below the Penthouse" apartment at Victora Peak ("It doesn't get as hot as the Penthouse, which is better"). Uncle made his money in the manufacturing of "core memory" when the family's mainland holdings were nationalized in 1949.
On the last days before entering the PRC, we went shopping, Uncle took our passports, then gave them back to us with papers.
I asked, "What are these for?"
Uncle quipped, "You're bringing gifts."
"What are the gifts?", I pressed.
Looking a bit annoyed Uncle responded, "A washing machine and a refrigerator. Your brother is bringing in another washing machine and a freezer."
"Oh.", was all I could muster.
Uncle gave my brother and me two cartons of Marlboro Red cigarettes.
"Uncle, I don't smoke.", I stated.
"They're not for you. They are for tips.", he schooled me.
"Oh." I was so naive and callow.
We entered the People's Republic of China through Beijing. The flight in was grey. We stepped off the plane to be "welcomed" by stoic, armed soldiers who looked at us. I couldn't tell if the look was disgust, anger, or just intimidation. We arrived in the Immigration control area where uniformed officers were seated at high desks which towered above us allowing them to look down upon us with their cold, shifting eyed glances. Uncle took our passports and after about 20 minutes of banter in the (for me) unintelligible Mandarin Chinese language of my paternal ancestors, we got our "chops" and now were able to go through Customs. Our bags were ransacked before our eyes. Uncle looked my brother and me with that "say and do nothing" kind of look.
After we repacked our bags and exited Customs, there was a push of people scrambling for luggage carts. I went to get one and somebody tried to take it away from me. I said in (what must have been for him) unintelligible English, "No, this one is mine, you will have to get another.", as I maneuvered my body and pulled the cart away. I turned to some other relatives who came back without carts, and asked why they didn't grab one. There were plenty.
My relatives said, "We cannot take one. The carts are reserved for foreigners only."
And, for the first time in my life, I felt the stomach sickness of disgusted guilt because I was being given preferential treatment to the discrimination of others. I would feel this sickness again and again during my visit to the PRC as we would encounter bathrooms, restaurants, hotels, luxuries, and other public accommodations "for foreigners only".
All the while, around me was what looked like ancient poverty.
We attended Grandmother's 80th Birthday. I consider myself blessed to have had the opportunity to meet her once even though we could not understand each other verbally, we connected through the eyes.
My brother an I did not stay over long in Hong Kong once we left the PRC. Before we knew it we were finishing the Narita to JFK flight and stepping off the plane. It was a long flight.
As we headed to the Immigrations hall, the entrance emblazoned with "Welcome to The United States of America",
I took out that little navy blue U.S. Passport,
I stopped and looked at it.
And as the memories of where I just had been flashed through my mind, I clutched that passport.
And I cried tears of humble gratitude in memory of all who have died to establish and perpetuate the liberty and freedom which I had taken for granted up to that point.
I had done nothing to earn the liberty, the freedom, the opportunity of safe, secure, well-fed, medically supported, educated upbringing.
I had done nothing to earn the rights guaranteed to me under the U.S. Constitution.
I had done nothing to earn that little navy blue U.S. Passport.
All I had done to inherit what that little navy blue U.S. Passport represents was to be born in a particular place to parents who happened to also have understood the priceless legacy of United States citizenship.
Since that time, I have had the opportunity to travel around the United States and to many other countries in the world. There are so many wonderful places around the world. I make it a point to "put my best foot forward" when I am traveling outside the United States. I feel the weight of duty to represent my country well.
And, every time I return to the United States I continue to be grateful that I live in a country which although far from perfect, progresses as none other before us.
It is my greatest hope that our best values guide us, and true us to be our best selves so that we may be our best as a nation in a global community of nations. What a Revolution THAT could be!