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International Women’s Day in Beijing – and Greenfield

Teacher Hu Yaobang, beloved by students who mourn his death in Tianenmen Square

When we arrived in Beijing on April 18, 1989 we knew nothing about  International Women’s Day. Actually, we knew just about nothing about living and  working in Beijing, but we were ready to learn.

International Women’s Day, I learned much later was first held on March 19, 1911, drawing more than 1 million people to rallies worldwide. With the outbreak of WW I in 1914 most attempts at social reform ground to a halt, but women continued to march and demonstrate on International Woman’s Day. I do not believe that the Chinese held International Women’s Day that early. China didn’t allow much celebration of women until Chairman Mao Zedong announced the New China in 1949.

Young women training to be tour guides – I am in the back

Our year in Beijing began with tumult. We left our plane in the middle of the night and my new compatriots drove us to the Friendship Hotel. They signed us in and walked us to our building where we would live in an apartment. We stood by the door saying good-bye when I asked about the odd music I was hearing. Zhao Hu, my new boss, said it was the students chanting in Tianenmen, mourning the death of  Hu Yaobang a beloved man who loved  the students.

One of the women touring with us to keep us out of the way of big events in Tiananmen Square

That mourning is what ultimately led to the Tianenmen Square Massacre. We were safe, but like most of the Foreign Experts who were working at that time, we left for Hong Kong. I don’t know where everyone went then, but we left Hong Kong for Kenya where our daughter was finishing her Peace Corps stint. When it was time to leave Betsy we called our American friend in Beijing and she said it was perfectly safe to return. All was quiet.

Over the next months we met other Foreign Experts who returned. We rode our bicycles and toured around the city. We had meals and talk with our compatriots. We went to simultaneously translated movies – in several languages. There was fun, and there was substantial learning, for which we were very grateful.

Spring comes early in March (compared to New England) and Beijing prepared to  celebrate International Women’s Day. Henry was invited to my office where Zhao Hu declared him an Honorary Woman and they gave him a little pin to let everyone know.  Many Foreign Experts were invited to the big  International Women’s Day celebration. Henry and I were there and he wore his Honorary Woman button. There were speeches, dinner, drinks, Ganbei! (cheers, essentially) and then it was time to go. Chinese events  always closed very quickly.

Henry and I at International Women’s Day in 1990 at the Great Hall of the People

The International Women’s Day celebration on March 8, was also a marker that we were about to leave Beijing. There was a farewell gathering before we left. We never thought about returning to China BUT we did return in 1995 when Beijing was hosting the UN Women’s Conference. But that is another unexpected story!

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