We are walking through a market in Qingdao, China, when an English voice calls out,

“Come drink beer here!”

Hearing English in a town where our white faces are exotic makes us pause, and several hours later we’re still drinking pitchers of Tsingtao beer with our new friend—a local named Laogai.
He’s a musician and deeply political in a way that makes us uncomfortable. In China to criticize the government is a very, very serious crime—especially for a foreigner.
But we’re several pitchers of beer deep, with smoked quail eggs, scallops, dumplings and fruit from the market scattered across the table like carnage.“
I hate cheesingting,” Laogai slurs, squinting to focus on us. “Do you know him?”
We admit we don’t.
He straightens his back, momentarily sober.

“He is our president and the worst thing about China,” he tells us.

We realize he means Xi Jinping, the president who recently removed his term limit.
“I hate him,” emphasizes Laogai. “If he came to town all of the businesses would close. We would never be open for him.”
I flick my eyes to my partner, who looks suddenly pale under his booze-flushed face. How safe are we to talk about politics with someone we know nothing about?
“With him they can just take you away to jail, like THIS!” Laogai roars, leaping up in his seat and painfully yanking my arm so I stumble out of my seat.
We’re standing now, his hand fiercely grasping my arm. His eyes are full of fire and I wonder if we are about to be arrested by the secret police.

But then the fire goes out and
he slumps back into his seat.

“I just hate tourists who come here and say they love China,” he tells us. “What is there to love? It is all so wrong. I just want people to know the truth. This is not a good place.”
Suddenly he seems young. Just a kid born under a communist regime. Brave enough to voice his rage and sorrow to two strangers with white faces.
I feel an icy chill deep in the base of my spine. How much can I say? How much can that man with the heavy boots in the corner of the restaurant understand? What could have me thrown in jail with no trial?
He is risking everything to tell us his views—how much am I willing to risk to tell him I agree with him? I dig my nails into my palm, wanting desperately to tell this stranger that a people should never fear their government, but a government should always fear its people. I want to tell him he isn’t alone, that the world is aware of China’s brutality and human rights violations.

But I am afraid.

If it could lead to your arrest would you tell someone stuck in a corrupt fascist country that they need to organize against their government and fight for a better future?

What about if that country openly
slaughters political dissidents?

I swallow shame that tastes like bile.
I reach out, shoulder still aching from where he grabbed me, and pat his arm.
“We understand,” I tell him neutrally, disgusted by my own cowardice.

“We hear you.”

— Michelle Gamage