On April 16, 1989 my husband Henry and I left NYC for Beijing . We never imagined the events of June 4 that were even then beginning. Our only thought was about taking up my year long post as ‘polisher’, a kind of sub-editor, for Women of China English Monthly Magazine published by the All China Women’s Federation. We arrived at 2 a.m. Beijing time, exhausted, but met by excited members of my work unit. They drove us through the murky night to our housing at the Friendship Hotel. We were registered and my new colleagues walked us through the dark grounds of the Hotel, very like a small college campus, to our apartment building. At one point I stopped to listen to an eerie sound. I felt like I was in a Charlie Chan movie. One of my new colleagues said, “Oh, it’s the students mourning Hu Yaobang in Tianenmen Square.” We soon learned Hu was a reformer in the Chinese Communist party, and greatly loved by students especially. This was the beginning of the Beijing Spring.
The student mourning soon became a movement with thousands of students converging on Beijing. Students from Ren Da and Qinghua universities marched and bicycled right past the Friendship Hotel. What is happening? What does it mean? Our lunches in the Hotel’s Foreign Experts Dining Room where we ate every day discussed the rumors and implications. Many of the other Foreign Experts were professors and journalists with years of experience in China. The answer to every question began with “It’s very complicated.”
Of course, I was going to work every day, polishing the articles in our magazine to make sure the English was correct and there was sufficient context to explain unfamiliar situations. My colleagues were all very excited about the student demonstrations. One day Henry and I took the Hotel Bus to the center of Beijing to the Friendship Store which is not far from Tianenmen Square. All along the way the roads were filled with rivers of students on their way to the Square. Some work units sent workers in their work trucks. All along the side of the road old people and others carried signs, and cheered in support of the students. Something good was happening. Students met with top leaders, but no real demands were made on either side. What did the students want? What were the leaders going to do? There was a euphoric energy throughout the city. Even when the army was called in my colleagues were not worried. The People’s Army would never hurt the people. Their phrase was the Army moves through the people like fish through water. They cause no harm. One day Henry and I were told we were being given a special treat – we would be taken to the Beijing Botanical Garden with some students who were being trained to work in the tourist industry. The students would help us, and practice their English. We did not know until later that while we were in the Garden, my work unit was joining the demonstration in Tianenmen Square for the day.
Henry was in the Square with a friend the day Gorbachev was scheduled to lay a wreath at the monument to the People’s Heroes, an important symbolic action, but the students prevented him from leaving the Great Hall of the People to take his wreath to the monument. Waves of students went up the steps of the Great Hall every time an attempt was made. Soldiers drove the students back, but Gorbachev was finally taken away through the back of the building and did not lay his wreath until he got to Shanghai as his visit continued.
It was on June 4 that I was finally going to visit the Square and see the demonstrators, and the Goddess of Democracy myself, but we were awakened by a phone call telling us about the massacre. The next few days were chaos. Students were fleeing or arrested. Foreign Experts immediately began leaving the city. On June 5 I sat in on an international nursing conference that was being held at the Friendship Hotel, but by noon the weeklong conference was cancelled, a great disappointment and humiliation for the Chinese nursing association.
It was very difficult to fly out of Beijing. There were few scheduled flights, and no amenties at the airport. People camped out in the terminal, bringing their own bread and water. We did not leave until Friday at dawn when we had tickets for a flight, and the Hotel arranged a van to take us and several other hotel residents including Perry Link, distinguished scholar and China expert, to the airport for a flight to Hong Kong.
Our van drove through the Beijing dawn just as soldiers were coming in to take control. We stayed close to Perry Link in the airport because he spoke Chinese fluently, and was the most likely to know what was going on. The flight to Hong Kong was uneventful, but we landed in a city that was afire with emotion and activity. Faxes were being sent everywhere spreading unofficial news of what was happening in Beijing and to the students who were fleeing, hiding, or being arrested.
We chose to come to Hong Kong instead of returning home because we wanted our year in China. Besides our house was rented. Where would we go? We had planned to visit our daughter Betsy later in the year before she left Kenya where she was serving with the Peace Corps. We managed to call Betsy and make arrangements to visit right then. She was on vacation and arranged to meet us in Nairobi in a few days. In the meantime we wandered around Hong Kong where emotions ran high as HK residents considered what the Massacre meant for them as they looked towards the Handover, when Hong Kong would be returned to China by the British in 1997.
We spent hot humid days seeing the old and new Hong Kong, travelling about on the Star Ferry, watching Dragon Boat races, and even had a British tea at the very posh Pennisula Hotel. Then it was off to Kenya.
Betsy met us in Nairobi where we were tourists for a couple of days and then took a 6 hour bus ride up into the hills to her village Munyaka. The choo (outhouse) was out back, and like every other woman in the village Betsy had to carry her water – although her successful Peace Corps Project made that a little easier. I wrote about that here. I got the one straw bed in the house during our stay; Henry and Betsy got the floor. Betsy’s landlord killed the fatted chicken to welcome us, and we got to visit all her neighbors and gain some idea of the changes coming in even a rural Kenyan village.
As part of her Peace Corps training Betsy became fluent in Swahili which was necessary for her to deal with her village. When it was time for us to leave, everyone was invited to Betsy’s house for chai and to meet us formally. They all started asking us questions – in English – about what was happening in China. They knew about the June 4 massacre and wanted to know why the government did such a thing.They also knew about the one-child policy. They thought the government shouldn’t tell you how many children to have, but they knew they also were facing population problems in their own country where a man might have more than one wife and 20 children. Betsy chastised her neighbors for not letting her know they spoke English, but they said it was for her own good. How else could she get to be fluent in Swahili?
We were able to telephone a new friend at the Friendship Hotel who told us all was well and quiet in Beijing. My work unit wanted me back. When we arrived in mid-July we were just in time for another treat. Those Foreign Experts who remained (or returned, I guess) were sent off to Bei Dai He, a seaside resort. Of course this meant we needed to be accompanied by some of our work unit colleagues who got to share the treat. We could stroll around the town, see the sights like the promontory where Mao was said to have written some poems, go swimming and generally do all the things vacationers do at the seashore. In the evening we entertained ourselves. Those few who had a few magic tricks up there sleeve were lucky indeed. All Henry and I could come up with was Two little blackbirds sitting on a fence, a rhyming song for young children.
At the end of our vacation week, hot and tired, we and our translators took the train back to Beijing. Soft sleeper! The most deluxe train travel!
Beijing remained quiet. As far as we could tell. No one was permitted in Tianenmen Square until October 1, the 40th anniversary of the founding of New China, a great national holiday. Work units had been preparing dances for weeks. That night buses took us Foreign Experts to the back gate of the Forbidden City and we walked through the city’s ‘alleyways’ feeling as if we were in a time warp 100 years ago. Then we were seated in bleacher seats to watch thousands of dancers in the square, performances separated by the most incredible fireworks I will ever see.
Only a few new Foreign Experts arrived that fall. Many universities cancelled their programs in Beijing. Our social relationship with my work colleagues was limited, but we enjoyed a busy – and educational – social life with other Foreign experts from Europe, Africa and the Middle East.
On this 25th anniversary of the Tianenmen crackdown I remember those amazing days, filled with hope and excitement, then fear and anxiety. When we arrived the journalists said that after a week people could write a book about China; after a month they could write an article; and after a year they could write a paragraph. I’ve written more than a paragraph here, but still no conclusions or revelatory insights. We returned to Beijing for another year in the spring 1995 to see how China had changed. That was the year of the U.N. Women’s Conference which came with its own problems for the government, for my work unit, and the attendees, but that is a story for another day.