Friday, June 7, 2013

The Time I Started a Riot


November 15, 1992

I'm on an overcrowded boat down the Yangtze River in China from Wuhan to Chongqing, past fields and cliffs and caves and orange groves (this is before they built the big dam). Daily, I have fought my way to the stern of the boat at mealtimes, to get my ration of  rice and cabbage with bits of bone and gristle and hair, served from a fifty gallon drum. I've eaten my personal food stash, and I'm getting a little grumpy and a little faint.

One night, the boat docks in a small town to unload sacks of rice. A man has set up a fruit crate on the dock, and is selling oranges and instant ramen and buns. I rush down with the other passengers to try to buy something, anything, to eat. I pick up a packet of  instant ramen and the shopkeeper grabs it out of my hand and throws it down.
Suddenly, one man tackles another onto the ramen and buns and  jumps onto his chest, hammering him with both fists. A tooth sails into the air and bounces to the pavement. The man on the bottom doesn't have a chance. To me, this just seems unfair. I snatch up the aggressor by the jacket collar. His fists windmill through the air. The crowd is suddenly still. I scan their faces. Is anyone going to help me? A little old lady catches my eye and nods, as if to say, "put him down." I hesitate, then drop him back on his victim and step aside.

Next thing I know, a bench flies past and someone tries to smash someone else with a beer bottle. Half the population of town rushes down to the water, crushing the victim into the gap between the boat and dock. They heave him out and he tries to run away, but is dragged down and beaten again.

As soon as the fight moves away from the stand, the shopkeeper checks his money box, then goes back into business. I buy some oranges and smashed rolls. I get back on the boat.

For the next hour, as we sit in port watching the police sort out the mess, I vow never to get involved in another fight when I don't understand what it's about.