Monday, June 22, 2009

China 21 Years Ago

This month marks 20 years since the Tiananmen Square Massacre. I have been thinking about it all month and people and images have been flashing across my mind out of images stored away from my memory 21 years ago.

The summer of 1988 I boarded an airplane with other college students from all over the United States in route to China on a program called OTC (Overseas Training Camp). We spent a week in San Francisco learning about the culture of China and some language study and then a week in Hong Kong to slowly acclimate us to the change of culture we would experience. We spent the rest of the summer in China. When we left China we briefly spent time in Macau before heading back to the States.
While in China we were matched up with students from the University of Beijing. The students, or our "Counterparts," taught us not only Chinese, but also their history, culture, and so much more. We really got to know these students as they took us to so many places in their country from the Great Wall, Forbidden City, the emperor's summer palace, Tiananmen Square, museums, toured the Bejing University campus, and many more places. We road bikes with them in the busy streets, we jammed into tight places with them on the bus, we chatted with them over gyoza ("pot stickers"), and some of us even saw the inside of their dorm room. Through all these social settings we felt as if we were really getting to know them and making some sort of long term attachment.
Late in April of 1989, while I was back at college, I started receiving letters from my "counterpart," informing me of how certain students I knew from our trip last summer had went to mourn Hu Yaobang (Death: 15 April 1989. The leader of the People's Republic of China who purported economic and political reforms.) And then continued to sit in protest in Tiananmen Square.

After finishing the school year (early June? can't remember), I was back sitting with some old friends getting back from college and we talked about the social unrest in China. While sitting among the crowd I mentioned I was receiving letters from the inside of what was going on in the square and read the latest letter out loud. A Chinese student among the group (a friend of a friend-someone I did not know) asked if he could borrow the letter and put it on the local Chinese radio station for those who lived locally. Wanting to help in their efforts, I agreed and just handed the letter over to him.

I never received that letter back, nor did I ever hear from my "counterpart" again. I feared I did something to reveal her identity and her family's position in China. I may never know.
This past month I dug up my journal and my photo book of that summer. I can't believe I was conscience and able to write a journal 21 years ago - that I am really old enough to have a memory from that long ago. What is worse was that it was AFTER high school. Scary. (A bit more cautious, I am not posting photos of them on this site like I intended.)
I have not heard from any of those Beijing University students since that time. I think of them (now in their late 30's early 40's) and their families and wonder how they are doing. Do they still stand up for reform? With the current affairs in Iran we witness on the news people who are rebelling against injustice, demanding a fair election, and appealing for a government without corruption. I wonder what I would stand up for in risk of family, life, and imprisonment.

What would you fight for? Would you protest on the streets, sit in the town square to demand reform, or write a letter to a politician for change? What would you stand up for to look out for your children's and your own future?

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  1. Has it really been 21 years?? Wow! Thank you for sharing, Sharon. What an up close and personal experience you had! China is such an intense and unique country. It's been 10 years since I lived there, and it's sad to say that it is still VERY communist! I hope to go back someday! Maybe we'll go back there together!

    Have you heard about Lisa Ling's sister, who was reporting news in North Korea?? Scary!


  2. wow, what an experience! Thanks for sharing. I have thought about that question alot...What would I be willing to fight for? I would like to say that I would stand up for my faith and my right to worship freely, but would I in the face of danger? Would I rish mine or my family's lives? I dont even write letters to politicians! food for thought indeed.

  3. That is a great question. When it comes down to it I sure hope I would stand up for my faith, fight against discrimination, and protect my children any way that I can. Faced with the situation, I hope that I would hold my head up and not back down.

  4. Sharon, I had no idea you were in China 21 years ago. That is very cool and must've been a wonderful experience! This blog brought tears to my eyes, thinking of the danger they were in, and they did it anyway. I can't imagine living in a country where it's against the law to speak your mind. We truly are blessed, even though at times we feel so restricted and controlled as Christians. I have often wondered if I would fight/die for what I believe in and it scares me a bit to think I might not. I would hope that I would fight with all my heart for something I believe in and for my children but the thought of dying for "a cause" is really scary to me!

  5. @tira Yes, I would like to go back. Now that you are having more babies, when are going to have time? What would you stand up for here in US? Our perspective sure can change now in reflection of Indepence Day. Our freedom means so much more once we see others or been in situations where we haven't had freedom.