Laowai on the Long March

Tyler Terrance O'Neil( | Updated: 2016-09-01 15:07

Fancy a free Kindle? Take this Long March quiz.

As I clamber aboard a minibus for a leg of the Long March 80th anniversary press tour, I have no idea what to expect. I've never been to this part of China and, as all the materials I have been provided are in Chinese, I barely know when we will be having meals.

Getting on right behind me is Liu Chong, deputy head of the information bureau, Office of the Central Leading Group of Cyberspace Affairs. As the bus pulls onto the highway, he turns to me.

"I'm glad you're here. Historically, foreign friends even joined in the first Long March."

As the only laowai (foreigner) in the platoon of 50 journalists along for the tour, it's nice to know I'm not the one setting the precedent. But it got me wondering who those other influential foreign tag alongs were that have come before me.

There is, of course, the famous Otto Bruan. A German-born, Soviet-trained military advisor, he is often depicted in movies and on statues as part of the main decision-making body of the Red Army. Although I'm an American, I am also in China to act as an advisor, but I feel like my comparison with Bruan ends there. I stack paragraphs of text, not columns of troops in formation. I also hope Liu isn't anticipating me making as many blunders as Bruan, such as his failed anti-encirclement campaign that lost tens of thousands of troops. The worst I can do is misspell a couple words.

Am I similar to Bi Shiti, the famous Korean soldier who joined the Red Army after being driven from his home country by the Japanese? Nope. Bi was a competent and brave warrior, often at the tip of the spear for campaigns to seize resources or secure safe passage for the rest of the army. The bravest thing I'm likely to do on this trip is sample Hunan food that is much, much spicier than the Beijing fare I'm used to.

Then there is Rudolf Alfred Bosshardt, a Christian missionary who translated maps and helped acquire medical supplies for the Red Army in 1934. Now here is someone I can relate to. Bosshardt was a storyteller and wrote a book about his experience. The book, "The Guiding Hand: Captivity and Answered Prayer in China," was hailed by Bosshardt's commanding general, Xiao Ke, as the most accurate account of the Long March ever written by a foreigner. Maybe I can get Deputy Head Liu to say something similar about my chronicles of this experience, especially because I'm the only foreigner along for this trip.

But as kilometers tick by on the odometer, I realize I may have a different role all together. I can provide an outside perspective on a piece of history that my fellow reporters have known for all of their lives. I can shine a different colored light on issues we encounter that have already been framed in a certain way by media that has come before us. And I can be completely, unapologetically silly, interacting with the locals in a way that allows them to let down their guard and engage with us in new ways. Through this I hope my platoon of reporters can discover and report on something not yet discussed as we follow the route of the Long March.

Fancy a free Kindle? Take this Long March quiz.


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