Mrs. Smith is a free-lance writer. To protect the identities of the Chinese students, some of the names in this article have been changed.
I stood watching the Yellow Sea slide onto the sands of eastern China. In the distance, a fairy-tale pagoda rose above red-tiled German villas, remnants of this resort town’s European past. The calm sea soothed me; I held my husband’s hand, thinking what a lovely place this would be for a vacation. But it was no vacation. We had come here to leave China, and leave quickly. With barely two days’ notice, we had frantically packed, spent our useless Chinese money like crazed game show contestants, and made for the coast. We would fly out to Hong Kong the next day. It was June 1989: Chinese students and citizens, peacefully seeking democracy, had been murdered by the People’s Army in the streets of Beijing.
Ahead on the beach, a crowd hummed and pointed. A student was walking straight into the sea, fully clothed. He plunged directly into the cold water, steadily advancing, his loose shirt floating in a halo around his waist. A Chinese friend of ours scuttled down to the water’s edge. “Think of your family,” he called. “They will be disgraced by your actions.”
The young man turned back.
My husband Matt and I had traveled to China to teach English at a college in Taian, a city of over 250,000 people. Taian, a small town by Chinese standards, is located in Shandong, an arid province that juts out toward Korea between the Bohai Sea to the north and the Yellow Sea to the south. Taian is the home of six colleges and of Tai Shan (“Peace Mountain”), the holiest of the sacred mountains of China. I arrived in the early spring of 1989, when Buddhist peasants, mostly round little old ladies tottering on butterfly feet, made their way up thousands of stone steps to the top of the holy mountain, burning paper money for their ancestors, and hoping for the blessing of the gods.
My first day of teaching was April Fool’s Day. I was happy to be in China in the spring, happy in my role as the new American teacher. But as I entered the building my mood collapsed. The rank odors of urine and coal smoke permeated the entire building. I had to step around globs of spit in a dark, dirty hallway in order to get to my classroom. I had been told it was the nicest room on campus.
Entering, I breathed a sigh of relief. At least there were windows. I closed the door on the reeking hallway and walked down to the front of the room, greeting my new students as I passed. They answered with nervous nods and small laughs. In China, laughs are an integral part of the language, and you soon learn their meaning. This one meant, “Please don’t ask me to speak. I don’t know any English.”
As the weeks passed, my initial zeal for teaching quickly waned. My students slouched in their chairs, yakked during class, gazed aimlessly out the window, and punctuated my lectures with loud, juicy spitting. They rarely did their homework and never studied for tests. Writing assignments were copied out of encyclopedias. During tests, they opened their books and brazenly asked questions back and forth. When I accused them of cheating, they laughed—a high-pitched, anxious laugh—and denied it. Later, I would get a note. “What you did was very hard on me.” I felt guilty about causing my students to “lose face,” but continued to slap zeros on the tops of their papers.
“Long Live Sixty”
Soon, I learned a new Chinese saying: “Long Live Sixty,” a pun on the Cultural Revolution slogan “Long Live Mao.” If you are a college student, no matter how little you apply yourself, you will always receive a passing grade: 60. No one fails. Everyone gets a degree after four years. Your course of study is predetermined by officials. Many students know, even before they enter college, what their work assignments will be after they graduate. If you are interested in architecture, and the Party needs engineers, then a engineer you’ll be. Aspiring to continue your education and become a professor is a ludicrous idea. A common simile in China is “as poor as a professor,” for educators make less than shoe repairmen, taxi drivers, or vegetable peddlers.
Still, I refused to fall into the complacency the students seemed to demand of me. Determined to give my students what I called a “real” education, I inundated them with writing assignments. Curiously, their initial essays repeated the same stock phrases—eerily similar—over and over: the product, I discovered, of years of mandatory Marxism classes. An in-class assignment on Chinese history elicited identical platitudes on many of my students’ papers: “Through science, we can achieve great things.” “China had a glorious past, but now we are behind. We must study hard so we can catch up.” Their knowledge of the U.S. was also uniform: “The United States has a high divorce rate. Many people take drugs and are sick with AIDS. We must learn technology from the United States, but retain our Chinese values.” My students felt most comfortable when I drilled them, a monotone droning of English words in unison, safe from being singled out. It was difficult to get them to speak English individually, but in a group they would speak loudly, with one voice.
There was one student, however, who stood out from the rest, who had his own voice. He sat up in the front of the class, his head tilted to one side, staring at me with large, lively eyes and a rakish grin. He was the only student in my class who chose his own English name—“Daniel”; the others passively waited for me to give them a name, absolving personal responsibility even in the simplest of things. He was the only one who asked questions (“How many black people are there in America?”), the only one who dove into writing assignments with glee, the only one who, during quiet moments, I could hear repeating a new English word over and over to himself. He was also the only one who wanted to be in the class. All the others had been mandated to take the class and weren’t concerned with learning English: Long Live Sixty. Daniel, however, had saved up three months’ salary to pay for these classes, and the rare privilege of hearing a native speaker of English. He made the most of it—asking questions after class, sharing meals with me and my husband. Within one month, he went from being barely understandable to virtually fluent.
“Kun Shou You Dou”
Daniel and I shared a love of language, and quickly became friends. He delighted in American slang, and we enjoyed discussing the ways in which language reflects culture. We traded idioms back and forth, amazed at similarities: both Chinese and English share expressions such as “putting the cart before the horse” and “killing two birds with one stone.” One idiom he taught me was kun shou you dou, or “even a cornered beast will fight.” We used it laughingly at games of cards: I would be points ahead of Daniel, clearly the winner, but he would laugh and shout “kun shou you dou,” refusing to resign himself to defeat.
One day, Daniel sadly told me of his earlier education. In the 1960s, anti-intellectual Maoists had staffed the schools with peasants; as a result Daniel’s education had been so poor that he was unable to pass his college entrance exams. So he taught himself the building trade and, even though he lacked formal education, was now teaching construction at a local college, using what money he could, save to pay for college courses. He understood my frustration with the apathy of his classmates, and prevailed upon me to understand that most students in China no longer see higher education as a way to advancement. Daniel, the son of teachers, was one of the few who valued learning for learning’s sake.
So, if higher education is seen as worthless, how does a student get ahead? The only way is through cultivating guanxi, which means “special relationship” or “connections.” Guanxi is an integral part of daily life, an unavoidable necessity. The word itself is rarely spoken by Chinese, and when it is, is cloaked with a laugh. It is more frequently spoken by foreigners who unwittingly find themselves trapped in a system with no alternatives. Guanxi is more overtly expressed in the word meiyou, a word spoken with such frequency that it is one of the first words a visitor learns in China. Meiyou means, literally, “not have.” In one sense, meiyou means “I haven’t got it, I can’t get it, this government is too corrupt for anything to work smoothly.” You hear the word every time you ask for anything, from cooking oil to plane tickets. When a shopkeeper says “meiyou,” it is an invitation to press him harder—perhaps with money, more likely with a “back door,” someone you know who is part of that person’s guanxi network. In a situation where the person has power over you, meiyou really means “Give me something and I”ll talk to my friend (or cousin, or father-in-law) about it.” Unless you are the child of a cadre, born with guanxi, it is very difficult to have power as a young person, for power comes from amassing a network of “special relationships,” and that network, integral to survival, comes only through time.
Guanxi is not just an easier way to get things done; it’s the only way. Guanxi penetrates Chinese society like a cancer, crippling individual initiative. In China, to be ambitious one must also be corrupt; the most honest and diligent people are often found in positions of the least power. If you’re a student, and you want to go to America to study, and you work hard until you’re at the top of your field and study English until you can speak it better than your teachers, then when an opportunity comes up for a visiting scholar position in your field in the United States, you see the university president’s son-in-law, who can say “hello” and “good-bye” in English and knows little of your field, packing his bags to get on the plane to go take the position that belongs to you. This happened to a good friend of ours. Her reaction? Not rage, as you would expect, but a certain resigned sorrow and, of course, a small laugh.
The corruption of guanxi permeates every layer of society in China, from the old woman selling vegetables on the street to the highest officials. If flour is being rationed, then the clerk sells it to friends and to those who can return favors. Deng Xiaoping’s son benefits greatly from his “special relationship”—he is now a millionaire.
However, unlike in Western societies, the corruption of men in power isn’t reported in the Chinese media. Mention it and you get still another laugh, meaning, “We don’t talk about that.” The China Daily, our most accessible paper, was a Party tabloid dripping with “good news.” Frontpage stories chronicled the success of industries, the bravery and heroism of citizens, the progress of the Four Modernizations. Educated Chinese never take the media seriously; its amateurish propaganda is aimed at the peasant class, who make up the vast majority of Chinese citizens. Our friends were quite adept at deciphering the “news”: “Oh look,” they would say. “Pictures of Deng exercising in the park! He must be dying.”
The Life of a Student
The debilitating effects of guanxi and a distorted press would be enough to explain the apathy of my students, but in addition to being powerless to effect any real changes in their lives, they also face appalling living conditions. Student dormitories are worse than the worst U.S. slums. (A Chinese delegation visiting Houston asked to be shown the “slums” they had read about, and then didn’t believe they were being shown real slums. In their world, government officials would never show foreign guests the country’s insufficiencies, and besides, back home, many people live in similar—or worse—conditions.) The student dorms are shoddy looking buildings, victims of poor craftsmanship and lack of upkeep, with broken windows, littered stairwells—in stark contrast to the beautifully constructed temples that still stand after centuries. A standard joke in China is that you can’t tell whether a building is being torn clown or put up, because the materials and craftsmanship are so pathetic.
A dormitory’s stench forms a cloud around the buildings that can be smelled from half a block away. “Sanitary engineering” is a Western technology the Chinese haven’t quite mastered. The toilets don’t work, but continue to be used. Sinks and corners become urinals when the toilets are full. As many as eight people live in a small room with bare cement or dirt floors. The plumbing (when there is plumbing) rattles, clogs, and moans. Cold, unpotable water is turned on three times a day for half an hour. Hot water is unheard of; students fill thermoses for tea from a single rusty boiler on campus. Electricity, like water, has long daily outages. Many dorms have no heat in the winters, with temperatures frequently dropping below freezing. The food, served in a filthy dining hall, is barely palatable. Students survive on mantou, a soft doughy roll made solely out of white flour and water, and on limp vegetables cooked with bits of gristly meat. Needless to say, students are often sick, and always tired. Long afternoon naps are a custom in China; energy levels are low and sleep is the best way to escape the ennui of student life.
Students spend the bulk of their time away from the dormitories, usually gathering in empty classrooms to “study.” Our small apartment, embarrassingly bourgeois compared to the students’ rooms, soon became a place to hang out, drink soda, play cards, and chat. Friendships come easily in China, as they are the main form of entertainment. Daniel was one of many frequent visitors, staying for dinner night after night. I could tell that he wished to reciprocate, but was too embarrassed to invite us to his small room. Instead, he taught me to cook elaborate dishes and insisted on spending half a month’s salary on a banquet “in our honor” at a local restaurant.
Evenings with Daniel and other students were lively and enjoyable, and caused me to change my initial impressions. Students who seemed barely alive during class burst with enthusiasm over a simple card game; clearly their apathy wasn’t inborn, but chosen, as a defense against hopelessness. There was no real reason to work hard in school.
I soon began to see the wisdom of another new Chinese saying, which told of the three types of Chinese students: the yi to, the er go, and the san hun, each with their own way of coping. The yi to fervently throw their energy into studying to pass the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language), the standard examination required for admission to all English-speaking universities. They pin their hopes on escaping the system by being accepted to study in the U.S., Australia, or Canada. Their chances are slim, and they know it. The er go are so named for spending the bulk of their time playing go ji, a lightning-fast gambling game that involves six decks of cards, as many quarts of beer, and a great deal of raucous shouting. And the san hun, who, by my informal poll, made up the vast majority, were resigned to their fate, frittering away their days, shuffling along with their hands in their pockets and all the time in the world. They played a mean game of ping-pong, and loved to stage mock arguments, which always drew a crowd of even more san hun, interjecting comments and laughing.
Daniel was also one of the few students I met who escaped categorization; one of the few who, in spite of great odds, entertained hope for the future. One day as we walked up the hill at the foot of Mount Tai, he spoke, as many others had, of passing the TOEFL, going to the U.S., getting a degree. But then he hesitated. “What I really want to do is study psychology,” he said. I was astonished. Psychology is considered a Western evil in China: affirming the individuality of each and every one of us, it goes against the grain of a paternalistic society that wishes to have a nation of subservient people, all thinking the same thoughts—thoughts the government chooses. The works of Freud are banned, and most people don’t know that psychology exists. Amazed, I asked him why he had chosen this forbidden subject. He scowled at a cheap plastic buddha on the side of the road, stuffed with money by peasant pilgrims for “good lucky,” and said, “Because my people have no spirit.”
Daniel impressed me with his energy, his dedication, his belief in his ability to make a difference. I grappled with how to impart some of Daniel’s spirit into the rest of my students. The morning of April 16,1989, signaled the beginning of the transformation I was wishing for, but it had nothing to do with my work, and, sadly, it was not to last. When I walked into the classroom that morning, I was greeted with a hubbub of sounds. Instead of slumping at their desks, gazing out the window, my students were standing, wildly gesticulating. Instead of talking quietly, they were arguing, shouting; some looked as though they had been crying. I knew what had raised their spirits to anger and sadness: the death, the day before, of Hu Yaobang, a beloved leader, one of the few who wasn’t corrupt.
At last, I thought to myself. A subject that they were interested in. Hu’s death could be a catalyst to inspire my students to write, maybe even speak. My students were angry, for the rumor was that Deng Xiaoping and Li Peng had badgered Hu, the “students’ friend,” to the point of a heart attack. (“His heart was sick for China. Deng Xiaoping killed him,” they told me in private.) Word that their counterparts in Beijing were walking the streets in protest brought a light to their eyes and an urgency to their speech I had never seen before. I threw out my lesson plan for the day and devoted the whole class to the story of Hu Yaobang, and we wrote a mock newspaper article on the board.
I knew that in China no one talks openly of any topic that is remotely controversial: it is best to pretend the subject doesn’t exist, hide your uneasiness behind a laugh, and stay out of trouble. I knew it, but rebelliousness took over, and I delighted in speaking and writing about a forbidden subject. My students delighted in it too, and most of them joined in the exercise, with a few exceptions.
One of those exceptions was the banzhang, or “class monitor.” Until that day I thought that the monitor’s duties were to ensure that I had hot water for tea, and that the blackboards were cleaned at the end of the day. However, I soon learned that the monitor is the highest ranking member of the Communist Party in his class. It was also his duty to report everything said in the classroom back to his leaders.
That afternoon, my husband left the apartment; within minutes, three older Party members were at my door. (Later, we found that the gatekeeper was told to notify the officials as soon as my husband walked out the college gates.) I poured tea as they sat on the couch across from me: two English teachers, one acting as interpreter, the other ducking his head, hoping I wouldn’t expose his poor knowledge of the English language. The third was the leader of the Foreign Language Department, a man we had nicknamed “Fishface” for his total lack of humor and his wide mouth, locked in a perpetual frown, which gave him an amazing resemblance to a grouper.
They made a sad trio: former Red Guards, now in petty positions of power, nostalgic for the glory days of the Cultural Revolution. I could almost sense their history: in their teens, they were on the wave of what was thought to be a new era, a new beginning for China. At that time, they must have felt the same camaraderie and excitement my students felt now, in their own quest for change. But years of institutional brutality and lying to survive had crushed their spirit, until no trace remained. There was none of the humor, the sparkle of friends like Daniel. Just bitterness, set deep in the grooves of their faces, and eyes that never met mine.
“You are an English teacher. You have been given books to teach from. It is your duty to teach your students from these books,” the interpreter told me. I sat silent as we acted out our parts, bit players in a farce about the Cultural Revolution. I thought of our friend in Beijing who told us of a man who had been harassed by Red Guards and thrown out a window, breaking both his legs. But this was the 1980s, the decade of openness. I was only caught up, temporarily, in the old habits of these sad people. Fine, fine, I thought—I’ll teach out of the boring old book. Just leave.
They made their point quickly. No mention was made of my class that day, of Hu’s death, or of the student unrest in Beijing. I was curious about their thoughts, and cautiously broached the subject. The three nervously glanced at each other; Fish-face laughed, his mouth struggling to retain its downward grimace. “Oh, ha-ha-ha- ha-ha,” he said. “Do not worry. We are taking care of it. It will end soon. You are in Taian—a small city—a problem like that would never happen here.”
But the demonstrations in Beijing were not over. They swelled in size, and went from mourning a great man’s death to an outright attack on corruption and the specious media—what the demonstrators called “vestiges of feudalism.” Students from our city rode the train eight hours north to Beijing to support their peers; soon the train conductors, in solidarity with the students’ cause, gave free transportation to students in and out of the capital. News of the movement spread rapidly on the college grapevine, and my students continued their energetic discussions during their free time.
Then, on the night of April 28, as my husband and I lay asleep in bed, the windows open for coolness, I was startled awake by a sound—a muffled roar—was it a dream?—was it the pilgrims climbing the mountain?—no, they were always just chattering, nothing like this. And it was far away, down by the river, like a rushing of wind. I woke Matt, and we went out onto the porch. It was definitely a roar, like a crowd of people. Perhaps some festival we didn’t know about. Puzzled, we went back to bed.
The next morning Matt left for an early class, but reappeared within minutes, breathless. “No class today! I’m going to a demonstration!” he shouted, grabbing his camera and flying down the stairs. It was the continuation of a large demonstration from the night before, born at the Teachers’ College and growing to include thousands of students from all the colleges in town.
“They threw chairs out the windows! They knocked down the gates of the school!” my students excitedly told me. The president of the Teachers’ College had told Beijing that Shahdong students did not support the pro-democracy movement, and word of his report infuriated the students, sparking a riot. No support! In the days that followed it seemed as though every student in town was on the street, chanting “Down with Li Peng!” From Jinan, a city an hour north of us, came stories of demonstrations exceeding 100,000, with the students lying down on the railroad tracks to block army trains. Every campus in every city in China was rallying in support of their brothers and sisters in Tiananmen Square. Big-character posters, painted rapidly to show the urgency of their message, bloomed on campus walls, disseminating news from Beijing. Classes were boycotted: no time for such things, there was work to be done! For the first time ever, I saw students running—dashing enthusiastically to rallies—an astounding sight after being accustomed to seeing them shuffle along like rag dolls.
The visits from Fishface and his entourage continued. Since the students were boycotting classes, I had stopped going down to my room every day; many of the students had gone to Beijing, and the rest were busy with daily demonstrations. “You must go to your classroom,” he told me. They had rounded up some guanxi students, obsequious sons and daughters of cadres, who would serve as my students until the “trouble” passed; it was important to Fishface and his ilk that things appear as normal as possible. Walking down to class, an older cadre-member caught up with me. “Ah, going to class?” he said, satisfied at the appearance of normality. In the classroom, as always, I heard the same lines, repeated in robot fashion. Asking one of my “students” to translate a hastily scrawled character poster plastered to the wall, she ignored my request, saying: “The students must be in the classroom. It is their duty to study.”
Daniel as “Hooligan”
Daniel visited our apartment every day now, regaling us with tales of the pro-democracy movement, improving his English by leaps and bounds. We laughed and called him “hooligan,” Li Peng’s term for the bad element that was causing all this “trouble.” Daniel told us of large character posters he had printed: one was a petition stating the students’ demands for a free press and an end to corruption. Grinning, he said that for the first signature, he had forged the name of the college president. He proudly marched through town with a homemade sign saying “Hello, Mr. D”—the students’ affectionate name for democracy.
It was spring, and there was a heady feeling all around. The students now had a vehicle for their pent-up frustrations, a hint of hope that they could change their fate. It was as though energy and exuberance had been lying in an underground stream, waiting to bubble up. One day, while I watched a demonstration, one of my students who never spoke English in class ran up to me exclaiming, “Miss Marcella! We are marching for free!”
When, on June 4, 1989, the blow finally fell, so too fell the brief hopes of those brave, frustrated students. The night of June 3 we watched the television news, and knew by the reports (the army’s duty is to protect the students . . . the soldiers have been ordered to defend themselves . . . ) that students would be killed. Still, our Chinese friends denied the possibility. “Oh, no-no-no-no,” they said, waving their hands, dissembling their fears with laughter. “The People’s Army would never kill the people.”
The morning news reported 40 dead. As the numbers climbed into the hundreds, then past a thousand, we sat rigidly by the radio, waiting for the hourly reports of the BBC and Voice of America. By the evening of June 4, we knew it was time to leave.
All the next day we attempted to contact school officials, but they were in a meeting, agreeing, we assumed, on the standard Party response to the massacre. Finally, that evening, we sat down with the vice president of the college. As always, tea was poured, and pleasantries were exchanged before getting down to business. My husband and I were angry, firm in our convictions. We no longer had any patience with Chinese protocol. “We cannot stay in a country that murders its children,” we said. “We want to leave China as soon as possible.” “Oh, ha-ha-ha-ha,” the vice president answered. “Why are you so worried? Why don’t you wait and see? There is nothing to worry about. Taian is as mall, peaceful town. Nothing will happen here.”
He clearly wanted us to continue going about business as usual, pretending nothing had happened. We mentioned to him that over a thousand had been murdered. “Oh, huh-huh-huh. Not so many have been killed. Not so many as that. You do not have to worry. You are not in danger. There will be no more trouble. It is over now.” “Besides,” he continued, “how do you know the Voice of America and the BBC are not lying? You yourself have said that your American press is not always truthful.” Cringing, I remembered an earlier question-and-answer session where I had innocently delved into the “inadequacies” of the American media.
“You Are Not in Danger”
The crushing of the pro-democracy movement confirmed the bleak circumstances of the students. Students who, a week before, were marching and shouting in the streets, were back to shuffling, avoiding the Americans, and speaking of the movement only behind dosed doors. It was as if nothing had happened. Mention of the Tiananmen atrocities brought the same response, repeated ad infinitum: “You are not in danger.”
No matter what we said, the rationalization that the idiot Americans were fleeing, fearful of being ripped apart by an angry mob of counterrevolutionaries, prevailed. They seemed truly unable to understand our motivations. Of course it wasn’t danger we were worried about, although certainly that was foremost in the minds of our loved ones back home, who were unable to reach us. We knew that the officials wanted us—the highly Visible Americans—to stay in the classroom, drilling our students with boring lessons, “proving” that everything was all right. “You must stay,” we were told. “Think of your duty to your students.” It was our duty to our students that made us leave. We could not pretend nothing had happened. The only way to support them was to make the physical statement of leaving, to create a visible absence that would show that we did not tolerate the actions of the Chinese government.
Starving for news, we turned on the television. Scenes of happy workers, satisfied in serving their country, were now the dominant theme. “Ah,” Daniel would tell us, “that means the workers in Beijing are joining the fight.” Footage of the students “peacefully leaving” Tiananmen Square was shown: it was an old clip of a demonstration, shot from the rear. Scenes of students setting fire to tanks and close-ups of dead and mutilated People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers were aired repeatedly: the Counterrevolutionaries Attack Peace-loving Members of the People’s Army. The commanding general of the PLA held a press conference, saying, “No one was killed in Tiananmen.” And the media continued to implicate foreign influence, especially American influence, in the “student trouble,” causing some of our Chinese friends to become increasingly nervous about their contact with us.
Still, brave “counterrevolutionaries” within the news media were able to get their message out: one night, soon after the massacre, a news-caster, dressed in black, hung his head while he broadcast lies written by the government; he was never seen again. Another night the English service news broadcast was canceled; in its place savvy technicians ran a documentary about funeral customs. In the middle of the documentary, a red cross was displayed for 30 seconds, telling viewers that the Red Cross figure of over a thousand dead was accurate.
To counter the propaganda, we had news from students who had recently returned from Beijing. They wrote their stories on huge sheets of white paper, in black characters splattered with drops of red. The PLA was arresting students getting off of trains in Jinan, and was placing tanks at intersections, so the students would continue on to our smaller, safer town. “The soldiers of the 27th army were shot up with amphetamines before their rampage,” we were told. “They crushed the bodies with tanks, bulldozed them into piles, and burned them, so no one would know how many. Beijing was covered with a cloud of putrid smoke.” And they brought with them the chilling rumor of civil war: “The 38th army is on the outskirts of Beijing, preparing to fight the 27th.”
And, when the stations weren’t jammed by the government, we listened to the scratchy broadcasts of the Voice of America and the BBC. “Foreign diplomats’ residences were riddled with machine gun fire yesterday.” Good grief, we thought. If they’re shooting at the diplomats, what about the lowly foreign teachers? We thought of our families back home watching film of the carnage, news we were unable to see.
Almost two weeks after the massacre, we still seemed unable to persuade the school officials to assist us in leaving. Rumors were that the trains into Shanghai were blocked, and everyone knew Beijing was a madhouse. We worried about our families worrying about us, for there was no way to communicate with them. We began to wonder if we would ever leave. The school officials seemed desperate to have us stay; we were their only visible symbols of normalcy. Suddenly, on a Wednesday, they brought us news of train tickets booked for us that Friday. We would travel to the coast and fly out to Hong Kong. I began to pack.
Our friends wept openly; in China it is customary to cry at the parting of Mends, and it was cathartic. Our friendships, though short, ran deep. I knew that, like me, they were also crying for China. I felt as though I were abandoning them: we were leaving, and they could not. There was news of executions in Jinan—not of students, but of workers, for strikes were what the government feared most. We were concerned about Daniel’s safety. He had thrown himself heart and soul into the pro-democracy movement, and had been quite visible. “Go home,” we told him. “Back to the countryside. Dirty up your clothes. Grow vegetables.” But this advice only made him laugh. “If they kill me because of my actions, let them,” he smiled. “There are 1.1 billion of us. They cannot kill us all.”
Out through the “Back Door”
In the end, events intensified. It was as though China were kicking us, to make sure we got the point. Storekeepers and restaurant owners struggled frantically to cheat us, knowing they would not see foreigners—and their money—for a long while. We had to use a “back door” and bribery to wangle tickets to Hong Kong from a travel agent who was laden with expensive jewelry, the by-product of her profession. In the hotel lobby, we were constantly dodging a chuckling little man with a video camera glued to his eye, setting a propaganda trap: “The Happy Americans Untroubled by Recent Events in Beijing.” And, in the evening of our last day, we watched as the young student walked into the Yellow Sea.
Late on our last night in China, wide awake and edgy, I sat watching the television show face after face, bright, alert, faces—like Daniel, I thought—all wanted by the PLA. I could decipher the names of the colleges: Beijing University, Beijing Iron and Steel. And the names: Wuer Kaixi, Chai Ling . . . and the ages: 22, 23,19 . . . These were not the faces of criminals. They were China’s best and brightest, her only hope for the future. I knew that, if found, they too would be killed. And I feared for Daniel.
Now, back home in the U.S., I make new Chinese acquaintances. They are outgoing at first when they hear I have visited their country, but quiet when I tell them I was there the summer of 1989, saying, “We had to leave earlier than planned.” Suddenly, there it is again, the same laugh heard so many times in China. It is as if they are afraid Fishface is in the room. “Oh, ha-ha-ha-ha,” they say. “Everything is fine now. You can go back. There is no trouble.”
And slowly, painfully slowly, the letters trickle in. The first ones talk of sadness at our leaving, of the routine events of the day. No mention of anything political. And, from our best friends, no word at all. We didn’t hear from Daniel after writing him two or three times—finally, we received a card at Christmas, with a funny picture and a cryptic message: “I’ll write you later, and THEN answer me.”
A few weeks later we heard from a friend: “You want to know about Daniel. I met him one month ago. He is o.k. now. But you had better don’t write to him directly. He told me he had some trouble in June and July last year. He is afraid of writing to you and receiving your letter.” She went on to complain about the increased load of boring “political classes” the students were forced take. “I hate them,” she wrote.
And, finally, in February, a letter from one of our brave friends who had been active in the movement. He has passed the TOEFL and been accepted at a university in the U.S., but college officials won’t release his educational records. Afraid of further trouble, he sent the following words to us through an intermediary:
I’m very pleasure for receiving your Christmas card. It brought great comfort to me. I know there are my friends concerning with me on the other side of the world. We are not lonely.
I had trouble in the past days. lain on their list, and I refused to do what they told me. My health is not good for near two months. Perhaps that was my good luck, because it help me to pass those days. Thank you! Thank America! Because of America our situation is little better.
Though there is no news on news report we know the news about East Europe. I believe that Mr. D will come to China early or late.
Kun Shou You Dou: Even a Cornered Beast Will Fight
Saturday, December 1, 1990
Republish This Article
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except for material where copyright is reserved by a party other than FEE.
Please do not edit the piece, ensure that you attribute the author and mention that this article was originally published on FEE.org