Why I Ran Away

The firecrackers were the beginning of the end of my north Minneapolis neighborhood. I was standing in my seventy-year-old house with the hardwood floors and brick fireplace, going through the mail on the dining room table when I heard them. It was spring, about supper time, not when you expect to hear firecrackers, so I looked out my lace-curtained window. I saw five young black kids on bicycles crowding around a car driven by a white man. Momentarily. Then the car burst out from the knot and tore down the street with the boys on bikes in pursuit. Wrongo. I ran outside and met Terry, my white neighbor with the black son, in the middle of the street.

“Did you see them kids?” asked Terry. She was pale and sweaty and carried a child from her daycare. “One of them kids fired a gun at the guy in the car.”

“Those weren’t firecrackers?”

“Them little guns sound like firecrackers.” Terry would know. Her teen son and his friends worried us. After their parties, neighbors found their car windshields smashed, their tires slashed.

Ron, the white guy who lived next to me, arrived. He had called the police. Then four white boys, about junior high age, arrived on foot. Yeah, they knew those kids, they said. Those kids stole a bike from that guy so he’d been going after them to get it back. A car turned from 34th Street onto Thomas Avenue. Terry and Ron and I moved onto the sidewalk; the kids stared at the car without moving.

“Get out of the street!” shouted Ron. A white woman drove the car slowly toward the kids.

“Get you outa the street!” shouted Terry. Two of the kids ambled over to the curb, making room for the car to squeeze between the other kids.

“I ain’t afraid of those kids on the bikes,” bragged one of the kids who had remained in the street. “I’ve got a gun too.”

I looked at him. Skinny kid wearing baggy shorts and a tee-shirt. Not likely to have a gun. But I would have said the same about the kids on the bicycles.

I had a friend who lived two blocks from me. Her husband worked late, so I often walked over to her house for supper. That summer, I started driving to her house, we heard gunshots so often.

Houses went up for sale and sold to people with less money than the sellers. They sold to young families and to retiring people and to small time investors. The investors were people who had little money but wanted to make more, so they bought small fixer-uppers and rented them with or without fixing them up.

My house was lovely and I had a low mortgage. I was a nurse and I saw a population that needed to be taken care of. I was a writer and this neighborhood had stories. But more than any of these things, I would not bend to the injustice of having to move. Why should I move? I was not committing crimes. The criminals should move. I would make them.

With other neighbors, I hunkered down to fight for my neighborhood. It was worth fighting for. I loved the arbor of trees that met above the street, my hedge of wild roses, the showdowns between fat squirrels and lean alley cats. I loved the people, whites and African Americans, native Americans and Hmong Americans. That summer, I sat alone on my front steps and watched Terry across the street raise her black teenage son alone while his Dad finished his prison sentence for armed robbery. She had relatives in and out of that house all summer long and I wondered why European Americans talked incessantly about the break up of the African American family as though our own divorce rate wasn’t the same thing.

There was information here and I needed it. It was information I couldn’t get it from the news on TV or in the papers.

We lived in close quarters, the houses only six feet apart and I loved all those lives being lived in public, the problems exposed, the wounds festering on the streets. There was honesty there, no mulch to keep the weeds from breaking through. The place had a pulse that throbbed. But so did the music. Day or night, young men, white or black, drove down the streets real slow, the rap music from their cars preceding them ominously, a throb, a threat, an assault. We were at war for control of the neighborhood, and the war was being fought with guns and music.

I went to trainings and learned how to organize, and I became a block-club leader. With my neighbors Donald, who was black, and Ron, who was white, I knocked on the doors of other neighbors, including the suspected drug dealers, and invited them to block-club meetings at my house. “We’re trying to keep the neighborhood safe for kids,” we told them.

I struggled for eight years, hanging on while others sold their homes and moved out to the suburbs, to safety, they hoped. I stayed because I had a dream that we could work it out.

I also stayed because going west from my house on Thomas Avenue, even one block west, the neighborhood was fine. Going west, the houses were owner-occupied and that can make a difference. I had parents living seven blocks to the west. They were old and I needed to stay close to look after them.

I gave up my dream when people were shot to death one block to the south, one block to the north and one block to the east of my house. By then, I was exhausted from the struggle and my parents had moved into a nursing home where my father had died of strokes. I was free to leave.

I was also sick of America. I was sick of losing family-owned neighborhood stores to Walmart, Cub Foods and Home Depot. I was sick of pop culture: it was 1998 and Titanic and Celine Dion had been done to death. I was sick of looking at my poor black neighbors and my middle class black friends and seeing them as black before I saw them as neighbors and friends. If I had to sell my house, I wanted to go to a new place with a fresh outlook; I wanted a place that was really different.

I’d planned to go to China since the 1970s when I’d studied tai chi. Tai chi had suited me just right as a young woman; it was soft but strengthening, contemplative but active. It came from China. China must be wonderful.

I began to investigate modern China. Newsweek featured exciting cover stories on China. China was shaking off the shackles of communism and I wanted to be a witness to its economic takeoff. There were also plenty of reports of corruption. I was disturbed by the book China Wakes written by journalists Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn and decided to discount the book or to discount my reaction to it, whatever was necessary, because I was going to go to China. I was stunned by the power of lies and secrets revealed in The Private Life of Chairman Mao written by his personal physician, Li Zhi Sui, but that was then and this is now. The same went for the American television reportage of the Tiananmen Square Democracy Movement I’d watched in 1989. Minnesota writer Bill Holm wrote about both the vibrancy and the corruption in China in his book Coming Home Crazy. I read with rapt attention his marvelous experiences of teaching students who were thrilled to be in his classroom. I wanted this, too.

I talked to people who’d been to China – there were a lot of them in Minnesota in the late nineties. Everyone who’d been to China, had loved China. I screened out the comment from the guy who’d gone with a group of teachers. He’d told me, “I wouldn’t go alone, nope, I sure wouldn’t do that.” I was going alone, that’s how the cards fell.

It finally boiled down to my intuition. It said: go to China.

Intuition is never wrong.

I had a friend at that time who was thinking about teaching English abroad. She assured me there were plenty of jobs teaching English in foreign countries because English was the international language of business and science. How would I find a job, I asked. She suggested I search the internet using the words: teach English China. I did this. There were loads of possibilities. I mulled over jobs in Beijing and Shanghai, but then I found a job at a university in the city of Shenzhen, a new city in southern China across the bay from Hong Kong. I was in my late forties and going alone; it might help to be near a westernized city where English was spoken. I sent a letter and my resume by email. I received a reply the next day from Zhou Jia. I was very qualified for the job, he wrote, but “China is developing country. Do you think you can live in the place that is not as comfortable as what you are used to?”

I looked over my monitor, out the window to the street below. Darius Jefferson was on his cell phone in his front yard. A police car was parked two doors down in front of Terry’s house. The cops were trying to intimidate him. He stared at them defiantly while he talked into his phone. Darius, the drug dealer. Everyone knew it, and there he was staring down the cops. Again. This guy in China might know a lot more about comfort than I knew.

I wrote back to Zhou Jia, “I’ve traveled in Africa to places no tourists will go to. The only thing I can’t bear is sand in my rice.” He made me an offer. I tried for three days to fax my acceptance but to my consternation, the fax wouldn’t go through. The fourth day, Zhou Jia called me by phone and made me a better offer.

I accepted.


© 2008 Reva Rasmussen
All rights reserved.