Hundreds and hundreds of teddy bears have gathered in this quiet town, paying tribute to the tiny victims of the nation’s most recent massacre. I introduce myself to a small bear who is sitting on a pile of wilting yellow chrysanthemums near the empty school yard. His fur is damp and his blue ribbon is scraggly and soiled. He has no name and this is his story.
He hails from a small factory, known for its excellent working conditions and rigid quality control, in the province of Guangdong. Lot number HJ87335. After his crisp blue ribbon is tied, by hand, he and his mates are placed in a large carton which has enough room for them to be comfortable. He has heard horror stories of overcrowding and suffocation and seams tearing during the long journey to America, but he is from a good factory that ships their bears well, humanely. They have a smooth journey, and the crane that unloads their shipping container at the nearby port lifts them gently and places them securely on a bright red Freightliner 18 wheeler. They pass through customs and security with no hitch at all.
At the warehouse, some of his HJ87335 friends are assigned to Wal-Mart, some to JC Penney, others to Sears. He is a lucky bear. He is going to Toys R Us. Every teddy bear wants to befriend a clean-smelling, little person from a Western country, to share their beds and good quality linens produced in the factories of Shaanxi province.
He arrives at the back of the store in the middle of the night. Many people are working. A tall, fat, dark woman picks him up by the right leg and carries him, upside down, into the front of the store. This is the critical moment. This is the strategic marketing opportunity that he has anticipated. He stands at 16 inches and hopes to be displayed on a shelf that would put him at eye level with a human that stands at 37 to 41 inches. A low shelf at Toys R Us in holiday season is the best. He is a lucky, lucky teddy. She settles his little rump on the grey perforated metal of the third shelf from the bottom. Perfect. He dozes and dreams of the little human who would soon reach out
He awakens and sees that Toys R Us is full of tiny little light bulbs blinking on and off. There are many Styrofoam Santa Clauses and herds of plastic reindeers made in those appalling factories in the province of Zhejiang. Not good working conditions. Not good quality control. No honor.
The shoppers begin to arrive. He sees many knees. He sees high boots and thick stockings and heavy bundles carried by chapped hands. There are a few little people. They seem cranky and whiny and pull their mommies toward the doll aisle, their daddies toward the toy trucks. In the early afternoon, the atmosphere shifts. The customers speak in a different tone. He struggles to make out their conversation. There are new words now. ‘Semi-automatic’ is new to him. He likes the sound of the word ‘massacre’ but knows not what it means. He hears the word ‘tragedy’ again and again. There is much sniffling in the store and he sees crumpled wet tissues on the floor in the distance. Fear grips his teddy bear heart.
A large human grabs him by his right arm. Hard. Tight. It is the tall fat dark lady. He does not panic. Maybe it will be okay. Maybe he will go home with her and meet her short fat dark daughter and they will all live together and sleep in beds with clean, soft linens and many good fluffy blankets made in honorable factories. She carries him down the aisles, through an unending maze of shelves packed with puzzles, trains, dolls, shiny toy revolvers and plastic rifles. Everything he sees was made in his country. He is proud of that. She stops.
“Employee discount”, he hears her say. Currency is transferred and he is placed, left side down, in a large, strong plastic bag produced in the province of Anhui. They leave the store. Large drops of rain bounce off the plastic bag as she runs toward her car. She drives slowly and he hears the tapping and rapping of her windshield wipers. After no more than ten minutes, she stops the car, gets out and pulls him out of the bag. She sets him down upon this very pile of chrysanthemums, walks away and drives off.
Later, many people, small and large, dark and light, fat and not, pass by. A few stop and gaze through the school yard fence, but none look at him directly. The rain has stopped. He is soiled. He hears the other bears talking and now understands that they are participating in a mourning ritual to honor small humans who have, tragically, been massacred with a semi-automatic. The community grieves. The nation weeps. The teddy bears, all of them, hundreds and hundreds of them, have been mobilized for this vigil. There are rumors that, after the last funeral, their soaked and muddied bear bodies will be loaded onto county sanitation trucks and hauled to the dump for communal burial. One of the older bears says that this is teddy bear genocide, but the word is unfamiliar to him.
I apologize. I cannot help him find the meaning.