I sat watching the tanks roll by, line after line of mechanized monstrosities, followed by rockets and troop transports as part of China's National Day parade at Tiananmen Square. Formations of soldiers from China's various military branches had preceded the mobilized divisions, marching in impressively succinct lines.
But just as the nuclear missiles were about to pass, everything became quiet. Not a sound could be heard, and so my roommate quickly changed the channel to correct the problem. We'd been watching the parade down Chang'an Avenue from our apartment television, unable to attend the procession in person.
October 1, National Day, marked the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China, and to celebrate the Communist Party of China (CPC) threw itself a party second to none. A military parade and historic pageant took up the better part of the morning while a massive fireworks display and cultural dance ensemble put the day's celebration to bed.
Despite not being allowed to attend any of the October 1 spectacles (they weren't open to the general public or non-Party members), I wasn't totally barred from participating in the Chinese birthday.
The week prior to October 1, I was invited to several VIP functions, one of the perks of being a "foreign expert" for a magazine with direct ties to the Chinese government.
An exhibition displaying China's cultural and economic achievements in the past 60 years kicked off a week of special treatment. Featured prominently were China's accomplishments in economics, culture, technology and the improvement of living conditions for the every-day person. Graphs and charts showed the financial progress made over the past six decades, as well as comparisons of kitchens from the 1940s and 50s and modern culinary displays.
Later that week, I was invited to the Great Hall of the People, the legislative building of the Chinese government and rough equivalent of the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C., for a operatic performance of New China's 60-year history. The beginning was dark, as the fight to oust Japanese invaders in the 1930s and victory of the Chinese Communists over the Kuomintang in the 1940s were displayed in a sea of red and black, with loud drums beating and lights flashing to represent the chaos and intensity of the conflicts. A lighter mood was established as the prosperous 1970s led to China's policy of reform and opening up.
I was able to make an encore appearance at the Great Hall a few days later for a special ceremony honoring foreign experts and friends of China. The dining hall was decorated with enormous 60-year anniversary logos, as a section of the People's Liberation Army band played in the background. The table for Beijing Review foreign experts was in the front row, next to the section for Party members.
The vice premier of the Communist Party of China greeted the guests and made a few remarks before dinner was served.
Around me were foreign experts who'd spent much of their lives in China, reporters from all over the world and foreign dignitaries aplenty. And there I sat, a 22-year-old recent college graduate from a small town in the Coal Region of Pennsylvania, among them. It was overpowering. I couldn't help but sit and smile, beaming at what a wonderful experience this was.
More than anything, I was honored. Honored that the people at the Beijing Review thought I was good enough to be one of their foreign experts. Honored to be extended the invitation to visit the Great Hall, not as a tourist but to celebrate in China's national festivities.
But despite these formal invitations, and having to watch from a television set, I was still most impressed by the military and cultural heritage displays on the morning of the National Holiday. We just don't have these kinds of celebrations in America. On the Fourth of July, tanks and soldiers are absent from the streets of our nation's capital. Hundreds of airplanes don't grace the sky over the D.C. metropolitan area. And we certainly don't haul our nuclear missiles from their subterranean dwellings to parade up and down Pennsylvania Avenue.
A procession of this sort would seem overly militaristic by American standards - a show of force for opponents to back down against - but taking China's history into consideration, such a display is perfectly understandable. Before 1949, China had been invaded and occupied by European and Asian nations alike multiple times. The tanks, troops and nuclear missiles weren't meant to convey a message of aggression, but rather to make it clear that if attacked or provoked, China can defend itself.
The military and heritage parade lasted over two hours, with more than 100,000 participants involved. Another parade like this won't be held until the People's Republic's next major anniversary in 10 years.
As the parade cleared up and the TV announcers made their closing remarks, I thought to myself: "Ten years. That's more than enough time for me to get on someone's VIP list for the 70th anniversary celebrations.
Brandon Taylor is a language consultant/foreign expert for the Beijing Review, an English language weekly newsmagazine in Beijing, China. He is a former correspondent for the TIMES NEWS. Read Brandon's blog at http://btay200.weebly.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.