How I ended up standing on a mass grave on the tenth anniversary of 9/11

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Distraction Free

We had a three day weekend and an invitation from a friend to visit his hometown of 黄流 in 乐东 County. By the time I’d finished teaching at five, hastily thrown a few things in a bag, forgotten my cell phone (loaded with books, podcasts, and games) on the table, and caught a cab in the rain to the bus station though; all the buses to Ledong County had left. No problem, we decided, and proceeded to play bus roulette. Have you played it? It goes like this: You show up at the bus station and take the next available bus to anywhere it happens to be going. We cheated a little by taking the next available bus that was going at least in the general direction of Ledong. Try it sometime, the results are always entertaining.

Tickets to 八所 (a town I’d never heard of) in hand, we decided to buy a map of 海南 and see where we were going. It was on the coast! Excellent. There seemed to be some tourist attractions nearby as well. A hot springs, which I nixed as I had an ear infection, was forbidden to swim, and had not brought a bathing suit. There was also this place called 万人坑. Ten-thousand person…check dictionary…hole? with no idea what that meant, it was close to the ocean and we’d see if we could find it!

As we rode the bus through the evening one of my travelling companions got a text from a friend in Beijing. It was one of those mass holiday texts that people send out to everyone in their phones this time of year. She read through it and then, somewhat shocked, translated it to English for us: “This year we have three holidays: Teachers Day is the 10th, thank you to the teachers! 911 is the 11th, thank you to Bin Laden! Mooncake day is the 12th, thank you to Chang’E and Hou Yi!” I wondered aloud if he realized he was sending that text to an American, and she just shook her head and shrugged.

Soon we’d arrived and after checking in at the third hotel (the first two were small and made excuses — the tv is broken… there is no air-con… the fan doesn’t work — until we got the hint that they didn’t want to deal with foreigners and moved on) and got some sleep. In the morning, after a failed attempt to drink locally brewed Hainan coffee, we pulled out our map and started asking around about places to visit. We met a very nice older man who told us 万人坑 was just up the road and we could take a 三轮车 (like a tuk-tuk) there, and it shouldn’t cost more than 4-5 yuan. Since we’d already had an incident with a  三轮车 who wanted to charge us 10 yuan for a fairly short trip, and when we disagreed she said the higher price was because we were foreign, we figured if it was that close we might as well just walk.

We’d walked only about three or four minutes when the nice older man caught up to us on his bike. He explained he didn’t have to go to work (as a security guard at a resort) for another half hour, and he might as well show us the way! Good thing he did, too. The way meandered for 20 more minutes over a mud track through a village. We chatted and enjoyed getting to know him. He was a retired teacher. He either taught English or music, but it was hard to tell through his thick Hainan accent which it had been. We decided it must have been music, since the only English he’d attempted with us thus far had been an emphatic THANK YOU! in response to our profuse 谢谢‘s. We laughed and joked with him as we walked down the path.

Finally we came to the 万人坑. I wandered ahead, picking my way over the sandy soil and carefully around the abundant cacti towards the concrete spire, while the others stopped to read the sign at the entrance. Just as I was about to climb the stairs to the platform, they called out a warning. “It’s a mass grave!” Yeah. Ten-thousand person grave. More somber now, we stood on the platform together to read the inscription. It was long, and our helpful new friend kept standing in front of the bits we were reading to point out other bits of the text and explain more about what it said.

The grave turned out to contain conscripts from all over south China who’d been forced to work in Hainan during what the Chinese call the War of Japanese Agression and we call World War II; mining, building roads, laying rail lines, refining salt. They’d been worked to death and buried here, under our feet. Were there really 10,000? It was hard to know and even the numbers on the inscription seemed to conflict with each other. Was it appropriate to visit a Chinese mass grave on the anniversary of the worst terrorist attack in American history? At the time it felt uncomfortable. We’d come out, happy with our adventure, having no idea where we were going. Our guide had known. He didn’t seem to take offense at our high spirits or curiosity. Should we be thinking about these Chinese victims when every other American was thinking about OUR victims? What would our friends and families back home think?

I feel so disconnected from America these days, anyway. I haven’t lived there since January of 2005. I miss certain people, of course. And while occasionally I get a craving for a Bloomin’ Onion or an original glazed Krispy Kreme doughnut, my life is here in China. It feels right to me to be standing here, speaking Chinese with this old man and learning the history of the locality.

China is my home now. I’ve had many homes before (I’d lived in three countries by the time I was five) and I don’t think of it as losing the homes I’ve had before, but gaining more with each new home I have. I have Hainan in my heart, now. I mourn with them their tragedies, the 2008 Sichuan earthquake and the unknown numbers in the grave in Basuo. I have Chicago in my heart and I remember being there on that day, in 2001. I remember how every yard and window sprouted patriotic displays that fall and winter until it seemed that instead of Christmas in July we had Independence Day in December. I have Japan in my heart too, hard as it is for my friends here in China to understand. I mourn with them the losses of the earthquake and tsunami. It seems like it only just happened, not six months ago already.

I hope my American friends can understand that I don’t stand with them any less if I also stand with new friends in China on this day. I wonder if more of us Americans stood with people of other lands and felt their losses with our own, if more understanding could lead to fewer of those losses one day.

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3 Comments
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  2. Only play roulette if you’re feeling lucky! ;) haha Did you every get to your intended destination??

    Don’t feel bad that you didn’t feel so patriotic on the 9/11 anniversary – war/conflict anniversaries can be days to remember victims around the world.

  3. Thanks Claire! We did get there, the next day. Wrote about it on my other blog :)

    I agree, bus roulette can have mixed results! But hey, you’ve got to have an adventurous spirit to be an expat anyway, right? But yeah, probably not the best idea if you’re feeling grumpy or having a Bad China Day.

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