I was a bright-eyed student in a small Baptist university interested in education, considering nursing, who had a passion for learning about other cultures.
Actually traveling to far-off places was out of the question since we were barely scraping by financially. However, when I realized our college had an international club, I rushed to participate.
We had shared meals and I learned about a number of other cultures. Yet the highest number of students from abroad at that time hailed from Hong Kong. They mostly spoke Cantonese, so I did have some exposure to the cadence prior to the days of the Viet Nam war, although I often wished I understood even less and I sometimes even turned off the news in order to hold onto hope and sanity. But that’s another story.
Then one day I met a wife of a professor who spoke Mandarin. She was simply lovely and had a small child who was precious. She noticed my interest in all things Chinese and volunteered to tutor me in Mandarin. Since the written language would work both ways, I thought it adventurous to take lessons in Mandarin while spending time with Cantonese friends. Nowadays I might doubt the wisdom of that, ha.
I had read Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth in high school and was enamored with oriental art, literature, and cultures. This fine lady seemed to relish a chance to connect with someone outside her home and even had a number of early learner primers so I would be able to start my studies even as a child would. I was dearly thrilled with both the chance to learn and the attention and respect she gave me.
Even though I did learn quite a lot, I never became really proficient in Chinese. However, my studies fed my further interest in the greater world and broadened my horizons which had heretofore only extended to riding the city bus to school and as far as I could walk.
When the academic year came to a close, I decided to head to The Big Apple with several carloads of Chinese and other friends. They assured me the wages for summer jobs were far higher there, and I was eager to escape returning home where abuse was an issue.
This lovely lady made a celebration of my last lesson. She fed me a special creation of her own making and handed me two gifts: the dress she wore when she crawled under a fence to escape Communist China, and a red pin which she had worn during her youth. As she shared some of her experiences, I gained a greater understanding of why she seemed so happy in the wonderfully sleepy little town of Shawnee, Oklahoma. She cherished being safe and found much to be grateful for in her daily life.
I treasured both of these presents, using the dress for many years in my long teaching career. But at one point an older friend reacted vehemently when she saw the pin. She said I could get blacklisted for having it. Students of history know that in the sixties such things were not impossible.
Now I had a problem. I was afraid to throw it in the trash for fear someone would find it and I would be in trouble with the government. Now, notice, I was and am someone who has never been in trouble for anything. The very idea that anyone of the Powers That Be could suspect me of any wrongdoing literally stabbed the sanctity of my soul!
I could just imagine the evidence stacked against me:
She studies Chinese (this was back when only European languages were taught).
She associates with Chinese students and even goes to a house each week where a “former” Communist lives.
She traveled to New York City and was hosted by Chinese families in various places of business.
After she settled into a residence and job, she still goes to Chinatown almost each week to shop and to eat.
I could hear a prosecutor saying, “Who knows what she does there?” (Hmm, maybe enjoy fried rice and watch an old man use an abacus. . . )
I kept the little red pin for a few more years, always well hidden. I never knew its full meaning, but was given to understand it was worn proudly by young Communists. Eventually in the late sixties when I had two small children I buried it in a well-soiled diaper and discarded it in a trash bin far away from my home. That made me feel safer, knowing that someone from the government would not come knocking–assuming I was something I would never even dare think of being.
This memory has often brought a smile to my face, yet I support my stance of being overly careful at the time since ambitious government workers can sometimes go to excess in their zeal. I had horrors of being accused of activities I couldn’t even conceive of. Getting rid of it made me feel like a free person again.
The NSA issues of 2014 present many concerns for citizens as well as for a government trying to maintain a safe environment for its citizens. Yet my little red pin reminded me that there are always officials somewhere who might accuse me of something I didn’t do in their fervor for accomplishments. There is value in the public discussion.
No doubt I will never forget my very private trauma about owning a red pin.
Copyright by Hildra Tague. Obtain permission for use online or in print.