A year before I celebrated my 18th birthday in Krakow, I spent my 17th birthday in China. This was the first time I’d ever had a birthday away from home, as well as the first (and only) time I’d left Europe.
The fact that I was in Asia for the first time, sans parents, was not the most noteworthy part of this school trip though. Nor was the fact that I had a birthday party on a sleeper train from Xi’an to Shanghai. Actually, neither was the fact that I broke my toe ON MY BIRTHDAY tripping over my suitcase after oversleeping, only to spend the entirety of MY BIRTHDAY limping around the Terracotta Warriors and, eventually, wheelchair-bound.
Between food-poisonings, pollution-induced coughs and questionable animals served up to us in the guise of food, I think the most memorable part of our trip to China was when we got thrown out of Tiananmen Square by the Chinese police.
Let’s set the scene, shall we…
This trip to China was a history trip. I went to an all-girls grammar school. Both of these facts are key to the story because you would assume a group of intelligent, well-behaved history students, teachers, and enthusiasts, would be fairly familiar with what went down in Tiananmen Square in 1989.
We love an audience though
In fairness, we had been drawing attention from all over as soon as we landed in China. Locals would come up to us and ask us to take pictures with them (or their children). As the only ginger there, I think I made my way into quite a few Chinese photo albums that year. Regardless, in Tiananmen Square, someone wanted to up the ante.
So our school has this school song. We wheel it out on special occasions, like Christmas or leavers, or when we go abroad. We like to get footage of us singing our song all over the world.
The song was basically an Ancient Greek oath of allegiance put to a tune. There’s a lot of mention of “comrades” and “disgrace” and “cowardice”. Oh, and “fight[ing]”.
To spice it up a bit, we liked to stamp our feet at certain points in the song, like the huge army of teenage girls we were. It really creates a powerful sense of dread, y’know.
Anyway, this is all fun and games when you’re safe in the school hall, but when you start shouting in a foreign language and stamping your feet in front of a growing crowd, between Chairman Mao’s portrait and his mausoleum, and in the middle of Tiananmen Square in Beijing, the local authorities apparently don’t share your sense of whimsy.
We didn’t even finish the song. Before we could really hit our stride, the police had dispersed the crowd surrounding us and were firmly ushering us out of Tiananmen Square, speaking furiously at the teachers in Mandarin. In a country where social media is banned, and the story of ‘Tank Man’ is erased from history and blocked from search engines, can we really be surprised that our collective demonstration in the middle of Tiananmen Square got us kicked out? I’m gonna have to say no.
I don’t know who thought this was a good idea. It definitely was not a good idea.
Generally speaking, not causing any kind of commotion in the middle of Tiananmen Square would be sound advice
That’s how I got banned from China
JK, but it did cut short our visit in the square – naturally.
Beijing was only our first city on our itinerary though, and we moved on to Xi’an pretty quickly after that incident. We took plenty of snaps and vids in Xi’an and Shanghai for the rest of the trip, but we never attempted a do-over of the song. Best to learn from your mistakes, I reckon.
Worth it for the story, or just stupid? Leave your travel faux-pas in the comments!