They hung a picture of tank man in the halls of my elementary school. The Tiananmen Square massacre had happened the week before, and the iconic photo was everywhere. What I learned then is what I know now:
- Students were protesting the government
- The government sent the military to kill them
- This man stood in front of a tank in a small protest
Tank Man was a slow burn. I found the image striking, and I found the Chinese government’s reaction truly horrific. But it got lost into the din of everything else scary I was noticing at the time. The homeless population exploding near my home, AIDS, crack, gang wars, Iran/Contra, the fall of the Berlin Wall, airline hijacking, Russians in Afghanistan, the continuing threat of nuclear annihilation. Things felt dark, dangerous, and out of control.
But for that magical minute in front of the tank, things made sense. Of course you shouldn’t kill students. Of course free speech is worth protesting over. Of course you should fight back. It was so obvious. The clarity of his act kept echoing in my mind and challenging me as I grew up. Over time it got louder.
One day I turned down a significant raise because it would have required switching teams to work with someone toxic. We all knew he was bad news, but no one ever said anything because they didn’t want to jeopardise their career prospects. But I, as a 22-year old dropout and with a good “promotion velocity” at the company, said no. My manager offered me more money, and I reiterated my response. My manager stared at me, smirked, and said “you negotiate like a terrorist.”
That might be my favourite compliment ever. It meant I was standing for something. And I can trace the courage of that moment back to how I felt seeing Tank Man’s photo taped in the hallway of my elementary school. Thank you, Tank Man. And thank you to everyone who takes the time to figure out what they believe in this world, then find the courage to stand for it.