Quietly, Mei-Shai Cho packed her belongings while the moon still smiled at the sky. She didn't want to awaken any of her siblings, who were sleeping in the same room, but she knew if she didn't leave now, she’d never have the nerve to do so. It was 1966, the world was changing in China, and Mei-Shai knew she needed to escape before it was too late.
Mao Tse Tung's regime was quickly taking over China, and the Cultural Revolution was quickly gaining more power every day. Children turned on their parents and teachers, in fear that they would be corrupted by their ill-doing if they didn't. Mei-Shai didn't believe that her family was doing anything wrong, but the Chos’ were labeled as ‘black’ because of her father's hard work and saved income. “If I could only be somewhere else,” thought Mei-Shai, “I could come get my family when it’s safe.” Her friend Li was already waiting for her outside, ready to embark on their journey to America - the only place they knew they would be free.
Mei-Shai stealthily shimmied out her first floor window to the soft ground on the side of her house after throwing her only bag of belongings down to Li. "Be careful," Li whispered as Mei-Shai nearly landed on a sharp, thorny bush. Thorns could hardly hurt Mei-Shai; the mental anguish placed on her by Chairman Mao was more pain than she could bear. Li hadn’t considered the weight of Mei-Shai’s baggage and made sure to look out for her friend if only to keep her mind off their escape.
"Don't worry, I'll be fine. We just have to get out of here without anyone seeing us.” Mei-Shai made sure that Li knew where her head was and looked around the corner of the house as they were sneaking onto the guarded street. Since the Revolution began, the Red Guards were vigilant and nothing that occurred under their watch went without their notice. The girls knew that escaping would pose a problem, but they did their best not to appear afraid. Mei-Shai was easily able to hide the fear that was inevitable under these circumstances, but Li stood shaking, visibly vibrating like an idling car and nothing protected her from this obvious display of trepidation. "Are you sure you want to do this?" Mei-Shai queried, knowing her friend as she did. Li had never been far from home and was often the caretaker of her elderly grandmother. Leaving now, with Li’s grandmother ill, made Li a liability, but Mei-Shai needed to trust her friend’s word when she claimed to be “okay.”
"Yes, I'm sure. I'm just a little nervous. Aren't you?" Li looked at Mei-Shai searchingly, hoping she felt the same fear, but Li soon realized that nothing was going to hold her friend back from the dream of a better life. Even if Mei-Shai was afraid, now wasn’t the time for her to say so. Mei-Shai kept her fear wrapped tightly inside. Fear could only serve as adrenaline now.
“I guess, but right now I can't think about it or else I’ll never leave. I think that I fear being trapped here more than I fear what will happen if we go.”
Mei-Shai was emphatic about her decision, and Li could see that. Although she was a small girl of five feet and slight in size, Mei-Shai appeared grand. For an 18-year-old, she was strong in her convictions. Her large brown eyes reflected hope and adventure and covered a depth that few understood. Li was not as brave, despite being older than Mei-Shai, but she trusted that her friend would be there for her. Li was also small; her body shaped like a young boy's: straight and simple. Her hair was cropped around her ears, and she wore a small butterfly clip in her bangs to keep the hair from her eyes. Her features were simple and common.
"Well, here goes nothing." Li waited for Mei-Shai to join her on the side of the house near the street. Li ran out across the street undetected. The girls knew they had a long night ahead of them and were sure that they would need their strength to make it to the dock where the boat was waiting. Their feet padded on the ground lightly, almost not touching the hard concrete. The girls ran like ballerinas, gracefully floating through the streets of Shanghai, barely making noise, leaving no trace of their escape.
The dusk air was thick, hazy, and damp. The heat was already causing perspiration despite the early pre-sunrise hour. "Phew… That was close!" Mei-Shai stated as she made it across the street without notice. The Red Guards quickly looked in the friends' direction, but their gaze didn't keep up with the girls’ movements. The guard assumed what he perceived was merely the unforgiving wind shaking a tree or an animal rummaging through the garbage; he chose not to investigate further. The girls looked at each other and sighed a heavy breath of relief; they knew they could have been caught and their whole plan been foiled without having taken a step outside their own town. There would be many of these instances that evening, and the girls just prayed after each successive one that neither one of them would have a heart attack from the anticipation of potential capture.
The streets were nearly deserted, except for the occasional armed guard who watched the houses of corrupt families. The guards stood silently staring into the darkness that hid Mei-Shai and Li. Mei-Shai trotted like a ghost, and Li followed without question. Li trusted her comrade knew where they were going and put her full faith into letting Mei-Shai lead the way; Mei-Shai was always the leader.
They passed rows of houses and apartment buildings, few open spaces, which was lucky because that’s where they were more likely to be seen. China was very crowded and the housing developments reflected that: one tall building next to a shorter one, and they all looked black before the night sky. The further they got from the city the sparser the buildings became. They could sense their closeness to their passageway out as the city receded behind them with the memories of their family and childhood hanging in the early morning Chinese air.
As the girls got closer to the water, the smell of salty sea air wafted up to their noses, signaling safety and freedom on the horizon. "We're almost there. I can smell the low tide and picture the boat already!” Mei-Shai seldom allowed herself to feel excitement, but she couldn't help but feel emotional about their potential escape. Li, seeing Mei-Shai happy, knew that comfort would soon be upon them for at least a short while. The anxiety that had grown within both of the friends was beginning to subside.
“The air tickles my nose, and my feet are damp with dew.” Li smiled and just kept a close tail on Mei-Shai. Shanghai was close to the East China Sea, which was their escape route to Taipei, Taiwan. If the girls could make it to Taiwan, they would be able to fly to the United States undetected. Taipei was a good two to three day boat-ride from Shanghai, but the girls were determined and a little rough water was not going to scare them away.