Farewell, Red Hero
A Memoir of Tiananmen Square, Spring, 1989
Sometimes the truth hurts. Sometimes it kills. I learned the dangers of the truth at an early age. I learned in school, at home and on the street that speaking the truth is an act that is punished swiftly and without mercy. Someone who speaks his mind, candidly and honestly, must be beaten severely or imprisoned for life or executed. And the stigma of that crime is seemingly never ending, as it passes from one generation to the next, like a flawed gene, to the children and the grandchildren of the criminal.
Avoiding the truth, not speaking it, not even recognizing it, becomes, therefore, a cardinal survival tactic requiring both will power and skill. To live, you must learn when to close your eyes and when to close your mouth. You must learn to listen and yet not hear and to masquerade your disappointment and discontent. You must learn to forget. You must not ask questions and you must not imagine answers.
I also learned early that life is hard. It always has been. It always will be. Bear it. Don't look back and don't look ahead. Don't complain. Avoid public attention. Anonymity is security.
I learned all of this as a child during and after the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in China, my Motherland.
In the summer of 1989 an even more restrictive code of conduct was implemented by the government of China. After that, merely hearing the truth became uncommonly hazardous. A citizen who listened to any story or overheard any rumor or report that contradicted an official government communique became, in a sense, a suspected troublemaker. Someone who independently sought the truth, it was assumed, actually conspired to commit treason and should be detained, interrogated, beaten or killed for the good of the country. Consequently, a short wave radio, a political pamphlet, a foreign newspaper or magazine or a whispered story were deemed unquestioned instruments of sedition.
For that reason, I never told my mother or my father all that I had seen. Because I loved them I never showed them my diary. To protect them, to secure their lives, I prevented them from discovering what I had witnessed, where I had been, what I had heard and what I myself had done. And because they never heard the truth from me they were safe and they could live.
But because I knew the truth, because I had seen it all with my own eyes, and because I could never forget -- or even worse, did not want to forget -- and because I might some day tell someone the truth, my life was in jeopardy. Because I knew the truth, I had to leave, to disassociate myself from my family and my friends and my country.
As I saw it, by the summer of 1989, I had but three alternatives: prison, death or exile. I chose exile and the chance to live and to tell this story.
I was born in 1968, in the midst of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. My parents named me Hongying or Red Hero. Patriotic names like mine were common in those times. I lived up to my name. As a child I'd participated in various Communit Party youth groups. In school I became a member of the Communist Youth Leage and while at Qinghua University I was admitted to the Communist party. The early years in the university were my salad years when I was young and red.
Then came the spring of 1989 -- Democracy Spring. And everything in my life changed. Forever.
This is what I remember most vividly. I remember the noise. I remember the sounds of the voices -- the singing and the laughter. Never before in my life had I heard such genuinely joyous singing and so much irrepressible and spontaneous laughter. I saw the students and the workers and the common people, the very old and the very young, men, women and children, together, singing and speaking freely and without fear day after day in Tiananmen Square, that enormous concrete expanse between the Gate of Heavenly Peace and the granite mausoleum of Mao Zedong. I saw the children of China dancing in Tiananmen Square at the base of the Monument to the People's Heroes! I believed for a time that I had glimpsed in the dazzling spring sunlight of that open square nothing less than the smiling future of China.
I also saw the most powerful Communist government in the world stammer and then stagger in confusion and fear when confronted by the people it professed to represent and by the truth of their questions, their accusations and their derision. I learned then how powerful the truth can be and why governments fear it more than anything else in the world. And I learned once more how it can kill. I saw one man, unarmed and alone, stand in the street and stop a line of tanks. Then he was taken away and the tanks moved on. I saw a statue of liberty raised in Tiananmen Square. And then I saw it reduced to rubble beneath the treads of armored vehicles. I saw the government respond to the appeals and petitions of the people with guns and tanks. And when the people were all gone and the blood was scrubbed from the stones of Tiananmen Square and the bullet-chipped Monument to the People's Heroes was meticulously restored, then again, there was silence in Beijing. No noise. No questions. No answers. No dancing. No singing. In their place, once more, the orderly and familiar day-to-day litany of recycled lies.
I saw all this. And I survived. I remember what happened. I know the truth.
The days after the massacre were a confusion of terror, rage, rumor, tears and then terror again. Each hour brought new disclosures, new reports of atrocities, new accounts of the police and the army closing in on demonstrators or innocent bystanders and shooting or beating them. The repressive forces unleashed by the government appeared to have gone berserk. Military and police vehicles sped by on the streets, sometimes with their sirens screaming, delivering death and misery to this or that neighborhood in the city, smothering the last smoldering embers, they hoped, of the movement.
Early in the morning on June 4th, several of us once more gathered once more in my dormitory room at Qinghua University. We had been meeting together daily since the first spontaneous demonstrations for democracy in mid-April. Here we first painted our slogans and banners, gathered for the marches, and read and studied and argued together hour after hour and day after day. This room was where I first dreamed of democracy.
The room evoked many sweet memories. This is where we returned at night, exhilarated and exhausted by what was happening, far too excited to sleep, and where we energetically discussed democracy and the Communist Party, corruption among Party officials and the ideas of the reformers and where wrote and read poetry praising democracy and the people and the future of the country. Here we dreamed of a new heaven and a new earth and a new China.
Here also we received inside information as to what the police were planning from a fellow student whose father was a senior chief of police. She, too, helped paint banners and joined the marches and demonstrations, much to her father's outspoken disapproval.
During the afternoon of June 4th, in those moments extreme weariness and intense emotion we talked and often shouted at each other and then cried. We cried out of fear and frustration as well as out of deep sorrow as the realization of what had happened gradually descended to smother all that remained of our innocent crushed hopes. This was not just some nightmare from which we would soon awaken. Yet we resisted that sickening conclusion as long as possible. Each passing hour and each successive news bulletin, nevertheless, drew us ever nearer to the recognition and then the reluctant acknowledgment of what was happening. Reality itself had become a nightmare of unimagined proportions.
The truth was elusive. We listened to the Voice of America and the BBC. Yet each updated report merely demonstrated that foreign correspondents and broadcasters were no better informed than anyone else. Some of them, in fact, knew less than we did. There was a wild disparity in the figures concerning the number of people killed in the initial massacre, ranging anywhere from less than a dozen to several thousand. There were stories of students taken inside the walls of the Forbidden City and there summarily executed or beaten to death -- stories that reminded me of things I had seen and heard during the 1976 demonstrations in Tiananmen Square. There were accounts of soldiers storming hospitals and shooting doctors and their patients. Still other stories alleged that civil war had broken out and that the various armies in the city had turned on each other.
There were so many unanswered questions. We wanted to know what was happening in Shanghai, Xian, Nanjing, Chengdu, Tianjin, and Guangzhou. What were the foreign governments doing now -- especially the Americans and the other governments of the West? How many soldiers were in the city? Where were they? Had the 38th Army really attacked the 27th Army in the western suburbs of the Beijing? Were soldiers really fighting with each other or were they united in crushing the demonstrators? Had the soldiers been drugged before storming Tiananmen Square? Was the government crumbling from within? Had Premier Li Peng been shot by one of his bodyguards? Had Deng Xiaoping been hospitalized? The only thing we knew for sure was that nobody knew for sure everything that was happening.
As always, the government was prompt in putting out its own version of what had happened and then altered it daily to fit the fluid situation. On our small television screen we watched uniformed men shoveling away the remains of what was described as "six dead soldiers." The bodies could have been students or workers or soldiers or anybody -- they looked like charred fish. The government claimed that the "six martyrs" were attacked by "counter-revolutionary thugs" and incinerated. Another graphic account showed the charred remains of a man hanging by a rope tied to the steel skeleton of a burned bus. He was described as Lt. Liu Guogeng, who, it was said, had been murdered by students and workers. This same line and similar images were broadcast day after day by the government news services in order to arouse the public against all the demonstrators. They repeated over and over again that we were murderers and thugs and counter-revolutionaries, fanatical followers of the Gang of Four, and they illustrated each allegation with grotesque photographs of bodies. This was the official truth, what all citizens were supposed to see and to believe. Anything else was deemed seditious propaganda invented by hooligans and rightists to revive the dark forces of anarchy that were being confronted and suppressed by the vigilant troops of the People's Liberation Army.
It rained sporadically for the next two weeks. The sky was almost constantly overcast and the sun broke through the gray clouds only rarely. Out of superstition and sentimentality the people of Beijing whispered that this was a clear sign of divine disapproval, that even heaven was weeping. Yet this dramatic divine censure of the government gave us little comfort.
As we paced back and forth in the room the rain outside washed down the walls around the university and the thick canopy of leaves on the trees outside our window. Whenever we tired of talking, we listened to the steady hushed hiss of the rain against the concrete and the leaves and the soft ghostly tapping and scratching of tree branches against the dormitory walls and windows.
We didn't sleep at all on the night of June 4th. All night long the clatter of gunfire kept us awake or -- if we started to doze off -- startled us to attention again. We were afraid and we sensed imminent danger and we felt lost. We were cut off from the rest of the world, from the rest of the city, from the other students and demonstrators.
But as the hours passed, more and more people ventured onto the streets and walked around. Many of them were like men and women who had heard or seen some enormous disaster, like a plane crash, and they were now looking for souvenirs or scraps of evidence that might indicate more precisely what had actually taken place. Others searched for their children or brothers and sisters or friends. A few had small photographs that they showed others and asked if you had seen this person. At the same time they were wary of undercover public security officers who might take away the pictures to use in their own search.
We rode our bicycles into Beijing. The ride took about one hour. Then we talked to people on the streets. We compared stories and questioned each other and told what we had seen. You could hear people say in hushed tones, "I saw some guys trying to stop a truck over there" or "I saw someone on a bicycle shot down right over there on the corner" or "this is where I saw the workers chased them down and shot in the back." Complete strangers came up to you on the street and asked, "What did you see? Tell me, what did you see?" They listened and then moved on to another corner or street or to another group huddled outside an apartment building or beneath some trees.
On Changan Avenue, the wide street that runs east and west past Tiananmen Square, trucks, buses and cars still burned. Fresh fires had been set by people that morning in many areas around the Square. The streets of central Beijing were littered with debris and some streets still looked like war zones. The steel barriers that had at one time been placed in the middle of Changan Avenue to separate lanes of traffic had been smashed by tanks and some street signs had been burned to white powder and melted into the asphalt. We walked up Nan He Yan street just west of the Beijing Hotel. At first we saw a crowd of several hundred people and then, as we came out onto Changan Avenue we could see several dozen tanks and hundreds of soldiers in the street and occupying the entire area around Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. We were only about 200 meters away from them when we stopped, and mixed into the crowd, looking for friends and students from the Movement. The crowd was a composed of students and workers and other citizens of Beijing who were taunting the soldiers. Some of them stood in the street and defied the troops, many more stayed behind trees along the side of the street or stayed around the corner in the cross streets where they felt safer from pursuit by the soldiers. I stood behind a tree and tried to see what was going on. It was a sort of deadly game that was being played on the street.
Beijing young people are well known for their creative and often off-color sense of humor. Now they demonstrated it. From behind the trees someone would yell, "Li Peng" and then others behind the trees would respond, "Asshole!" Then they would yell "Nazis" and others would yell "Japanese." The denunciations became increasingly obscene and increasingly louder. When the soldiers heard this they responded by shooting. At first I thought they must be shooting into the air. But much to my shock, they were not. The people yelled again, and this time, when the crack of gunfire cut through the air, I saw two people near me fall. And when one of the men who was hit fell from behind the tree where he had been hiding, into the open, the soldiers opened up on him and his body exploded all over the street and the bullets snapped and chewed away at the street around him.
Suddenly I felt sick, and my head felt light and I wanted to throw up. I wondered how I got into this situation. If I ran I was in danger and if I stayed where I was I was in danger, too. Everyone else was running and so I decided to run. The students continued yelling as they ran away and every time they yelled the soldiers fired. As I was running I heard people all around me screaming obscenities at the soldiers. Many died at that point. I saw a young man with a Japanese reporter beside him. I had met the reporter in the square earlier and had spoken to him. The reporter and the young man were running just across the street from us, when the soldiers fired. I stepped behind a tree when I heard the deadly crackle of the guns, and I looked across the street to see the young man with the reporter grab his throat stumble into a tree and then fall down flat. He didn't move but I saw a large stream of blood spurting from his face and head forming a thick scarlet halo around him. The Japanese reporter started to cry and he knelt over the young man. Then he stood and ran away. When I looked back down the street I saw that the soldiers still advancing. I saw another young man suddenly spin and fall when he was struck in the arm by a rifle shot. My heart was racing. I saw a young woman collapse and I saw pieces of bone in the pool of blood that appeared around her as she lay on her side with her face flat against the asphalt. Her foot was moving slightly, I saw, as I ran past her. As everyone ran past her.
I stopped looking back. I found my bicycle and rode as fast as I could in the direction of the University. As I peddled furiously I hardly even noticed that I was sobbing until I noticed the dark blotches on my blue skirt where my tears were falling. I could not make myself stop no matter how hard I tried.
In my dormitory room that night, again four of us compared stories and told the other students what we'd seen. Many students had run away -- trying to find a way out of the city and home. Some had also ventured out on the streets to see what was happening. They said they had seen piles of bodies picked up by the soldiers near Tiananmen. Some had gone out looking for missing friends and they asked if we had seen them on the street.
It was raining on Tuesday morning when four of us decided to bicycle to Beijing Normal University. During the night several students told us that people were placing white flowers in the wall and on the trees around the university in order to memorialize students from the school who had been killed. Beijing Normal, we heard, had suffered particularly heavy losses among its students at Tiananmen Square. We made several dozen white paper flowers and then each of the three of us put them under our rain capes and peddled to the university.
I was surprised by what I first saw at the University. There were many people -- both students and Beijing citizens, men, women and children -- standing along the wall outside the university gate. On each side of the gate there were enormous bundles and wreaths of white paper flowers -- hundreds of them -- attached to the wall. Several flowers and banners had also been fastened to the gate itself, and to the trees nearby. One long banner several feet long near the top of the wall carried the slogan, "MOURN THEM, THEY WERE THE ELITE OF CHINA". Among the flowers were more banners and pamphlets and photographs posted to memorialize students who had been killed. On a post near the gate there were many articles that students had written by hand denouncing the government and stories from students who had been at Tiananmen Square on June 4th describing in detail what they had witnessed and contradicting accounts broadcast and printed by the government. As we stood reading the poems and the stories, it started to rain lightly again, and many of those standing along the wall ran for cover under the trees or against nearby walls. We took out our paper flowers and began to attach them to the wall, at the same time trying to prevent them from getting soaked and washed away. For several minutes we were so absorbed in putting up the flowers that we didn't see the few remaining people who had been standing with us run away. Then we heard cars approaching and we turned around to see two army jeeps heading directly at us.
Many of the people who had run for cover a few minutes earlier were watching from a safe distance now to see what we would do. We were in the open and we had been caught doing something illegal. We stood there absolutely still, soaked with rain holding bundles of wet, drooping paper flowers.
The jeeps slithered to a stop on the wet street right next to us. The window of the first jeep was down on my side, and the barrel of a machine gun was sticking out. I thought for an instant that I was a dead girl. My knees felt unsteady and I couldn't have run away even if I wanted to. All of the doors opened and four policemen and four soldiers emerged. All of the men were wearing helmets and all were armed. The police carried pistols and the soldiers carried machine guns. They also had on the white gloves -- part of their dress uniform -- I noticed, as though they were going to sentence someone to die.
As the soldiers and the police approached us, we looked for a moment at each other. Yuhua told me later that my face was as white as the paper flowers I was holding. For the second time in twenty four hours, I felt I was about to lose my life. I felt powerless and I could control nothing.
Suddenly the soldiers shouted "Get the hell out of here." Get moving. Go away." A policeman walked over to me and then kicked me very hard in the leg and when I stumbled and bent over to grab my leg, he pushed me and I fell into a puddle of water and dropped all the flowers. He cursed me and when I tried to stand up he stepped down hard on my hand. I rolled away from him and sat for a moment against the wall. Then I stood and faced him. The soldiers approached pointing their machine guns at us. One young soldier stepped in front of me. He was much taller than me, and he was very young -- only about seventeen or eighteen. I wanted to ask him if he had ever shot a girl. But I couldn't speak, I was so frightened. I looked directly into the eyes of this soldier, trying to communicate with him without speaking. He must understand what we were doing, what we were thinking, I believed. I saw he had his finger on the trigger of his gun. He could kill me in a second. He stuck the barrel of his gun against my stomach and said, "Go. Get out."
I looked into his eyes. What I saw frightened me. There was nothing there. Nothing at all. He was not one of us. He seemed neither very nervous nor very courageous. He was unfeeling. In his dead eyes I could see that he could do anything he was told, like a trained dog. He was unfeeling. I felt sick when I recognized this. There was nothing there to communicate with. He had no sympathy for us as a fellow citizen nor as a young woman. As I looked into his eyes he suddenly jammed the short barrel of his gun into my stomach, very hard, and knocked the wind out of me. I bent over choking for air. When I looked up again the soldier's expressionless face had not changed and he stood ready to strike me again. At the same time the other soldiers and policemen continued shouting at us. I stumbled to sidestep the young soldier's machine gun barrel and then started to walk toward my bicycle. The same young soldier suddenly stepped up behind me hit me on the back of the neck with his gun and hissed, "Get the hell out of here! Go away! Go back where you came from!" He was a boy from the countryside and he had a very heavy and unusual accent and I wanted to turn and ask him why he didn't go away and why he didn't go back from where he came from. But I could say nothing. The police and soldiers were then all yelling, "Go away! Go away! Go away! Go away!" in the way you would chase away a small stray dog. And they chased after us for a few steps before turning to their assigned task.
The light rain had become a downpour and the three of us, wet and muddy and defeated, began to wheel our bicycles away from the soldiers. I felt like crying again but I did not want the soldiers to have the satisfaction of seeing a girl's tears. I forced them back. As we wheeled our bicycles away I turned to see what the soldiers were doing, to see if they might shoot us in the back. But they were absorbed with tearing down the banners, pictures, stories and flowers on the walls and the trees. The three of us walked to our bicycles for about a block. The last time I turned around I saw the soldier who had hit me with his gun jump up next to the wall pull down the large banner.
As we walked our bicycles down the street, some of the workers who had been watching what happened from under some nearby trees said as we passed them, "Don't get angry with those bastards. They're just doing what their told. They're just following orders. Don't get mad. It's not worth it. Forget it."
When they said that, I broke into tears. We got on our bicycles and rode back to Qinghua University. But on the way I kept remembering the feel of that gun barrel in my stomach and the dead eyes of that young soldier and I thought to myself, "This is crazy. This is madness. We have to stop this. We have to change this country. I have to change this country. We have to stop this. We have to do something." But when I asked myself what was to be done first, I didn't know. I just didn't know. I no longer had any answers.
There were mass arrests. We felt completely helpless to do anything. While we talked in our dorm room one Qingua student said suddenly she wanted to die. She said she had suffered more in the past days than those who had died. They at least, she said, were at peace. "But those of us who are alive," she said, "and who know what is right and wrong and what is the truth and what is a lie have to stand by and see everything we believe in and fought for crushed and mocked. We can't even mourn those who died. All we can do now," she said, "is suffer secretly. The government is winning. They are winning. They are killing my heart and soul while letting my body walk around on the street."
Nobody contradicted her. She was right, of course. It was the same for all of us. Everything was gone. The soldiers had won. The government had won. We had no idea what to do now but look for a hiding place and wait to be arrested. It was just a matter of time before they found us and we would then pay whatever price they demanded. It was over.
On Tuesday afternoon, June 6th, during a break in the rain, I went home for the night. My parents lived in a small apartment in the northern section of Beijing. At each of the intersections in the city now were several large loudspeakers blaring out the "truth" of what was happening in the city. As I rode through one intersection, I heard a voice reading announcements from Kim Il Sung of North Korea and from the government Burma congratulating the progressive Chinese people on their victory over the forces of reaction and counterrevolution. I forced myself to smile when soldiers looked in my direction. Trucks filled with soldiers rumbled past me every few minutes, leaving the air thick with black diesel fumes. Few people looked up as the soldiers passed. There was a palpable fear, which even I myself had experienced, of eye contact with the troops. I peddled across several overpasses manned with helmeted and armed soldiers, conspicuously ready for combat. Many of them stood back to back, staring straight ahead, seldom moving. There were several checkpoints along the streets where soldiers randomly stopped bicyclists and motorists to examine their identification cards.
There was still sporadic small arms fire in the streets near our apartment. In some sections of the city, I learned, when the Army began moving toward Tiananamen Square, people on the roofs and the upper stories of tall apartment buildings threw flower pots and bricks and other heavy objects onto the armored personnel carriers and the soldiers. In retaliation, the soldiers fired back, shooting out windows and blowing away pieces of wooden casings and walls. In some cases the soldiers who had been pelted from above continued to spray bullets into windows up and down the streets and then they returned to certain neighborhoods later to get revenge and to do more damage. They shot through windows when they simply saw someone standing on a balcony or near a window looking out. It was impossible to tell if they did it out of panic or out of cold-blooded intent. Yet there were stories of completely innocent people minding their own business sitting in their apartment, suddenly shot dead or cut by glass or wounded by bullets that ricocheted off the walls. What everyone learned was that it was dangerous to stand near the windows with the trigger-happy soldiers in the streets.
I took the elevator to our fourth floor apartment. The curtains in the apartment were drawn. Both of my parents and my sister were home and safe. They said they had spent most of the past two nights huddled in the washroom away from the windows and from stray bullets. For the past two nights, they said, they sat there on the floor all night, in complete silence without a light or even a candle, waiting for the shooting to begin and then waiting for it to stop, listening to the sounds of breaking glass and of shouting and cries outside in the street.
That evening, after dinner, I stayed seated at the table and wrote a long entry in my diary. I had kept my diary at home, locked in a drawer, and I now had more than a week of experience to record in it. I did not take it with me to the university, for fear I might be stopped and searched on the street and it could then be used against me. It was suddenly a dangerous document, tracing the development of the democracy movement and the way in which my friends and I had quickly been drawn into it. I had copied down slogans and poems and essays in it from Tiananmen Square. Each day I recorded my thoughts in the book, over a period of six years. In it I had tried to chart my growth as a student and as an individual. It was like an old trusted friend that I talked with candidly and honestly each night. But now, I believed, unless the situation changed dramatically, I would probably have to destroy it.
That night, in one of my final entries in the diary, I tried to explain to myself what I should do. I slowly wrote down what I had seen and done, in chronological order, and tried to make sense of it. I paused after each sentence to study my words. I thought that if I could put everything down on paper in exactly the order that it happened, I could encourage myself to go on, to find some suitable new course of action. In the university I had read George Orwell's 1984. I remembered it now and smiled because I felt uncomfortably like Winston Smith, the main character of the book, who kept his sanity by keeping an orderly diary. I now tried to clear my mind with clear thoughts and words. I wrote to myself that I had to stand up and continue to fight for what I believed in -- what all of us believed in. The past few days, I wrote, were the turning point in my life. I asked myself if I would bend or if I would break. What was to be done? I felt blessed in having seen what I had seen. I felt there must be some reason why I had survived this long. I wrote down a question: "Do you have steel in your heart now?" And after a moment, I composed the answer, "Yes. I have steel in my heart now because I have passed through the fire, through cruel times, and I am stronger now. I am alive. I am not dreaming." I had to write that last sentence just to make sure again that this was not some nightmare, that I would not suddenly wake up in my room only to find that everything that had happened since April was a dream. It was not a dream.
Late that night I was startled by loud gunfire very nearby. My mother and father awoke and came out of their bedroom. There was a military camp about 50 meters from our apartment building. My mother told me that every night around midnight since June 3rd this had happened. The soldiers fired their weapons into the air for several hours. They lit up the night sky in our neighborhood with tracer bullets and absolutely terrified the whole neighborhood. Now they were at it again. My mother turned off the light I had been using and led me and my sister to the washroom. She was afraid of bullets coming in the window. So we sat in the washroom and we had to stay there in the dark for the next four hours. And sitting there in the middle of the night we all felt how humiliating this was, how humiliating this life was.
All that time the guns fired sporadically outside, and the soldiers sometimes drove by shouting orders for people to stop or to come out from imagined hiding places or to stay in their apartments. There was the sound of breaking glass and of jeeps and trucks racing past. The cries and commands were punctuated with explosions of gunfire.
The next morning a friend from Qinghua stopped by to tell me the police were looking for leaders from the Democracy movement. They had photographs and clippings from foreign television news broadcasts. My picture had been in the newspapers, I had been interviewed by foreign newsmen. I had been on American television. She was sure my name was somewhere on their list. The police had been to the university, she said. I should not go back there. She said that all of us who had gone to Tiananmen and survived were doomed. Unless we escaped.
I thought of hiding. But how long could I hide? Yet I had to hide since for the moment I had no way of escape. I had never been outside of China. I had, in fact, seldom been outside Beijing. I didn't know where to go and I didn't know even how to begin to plan an escape. I spoke with my friends about leaving China but none of us really knew anything about that. We had read about people who had escaped, but that was the extent of our knowledge at that time.
Every day I listened to VOA or the BBC in order to get more news about what was happening. None of the news broadcast on the Chinese radio and television had any correspondence with the things I had seen that spring. I started to see how much of my country was built on lies. I was 21 years old and with the exception of the past few months, there had only been a few days in my life that I didn't lie. The rest of my years -- like those of all Chinese -- had been one lie after another, day after day. This had been true for everyone I knew. My parents and friends had to lie every day. The whole country lived with a lie. The local officials, the police and the communist party, the media, were all liars. The television news programs were nothing but lies. And the government was the biggest liar of all.
I saw what a massive fraud my country had become. The truth was not on the radio or television. It was somewhere else. It was buried in the hearts of the people. It was in another country.
During those days, I started to see things more clearly. I matured quickly. After twenty-one years of living in communist society, dissimulating every day, like everyone else, I had learned, without even thinking about it, to go along with whatever the government said. And so I went along with my teachers and my friends -- and succumbed to the gush of fables fed to the public by the government year after year after year. I was nursed on lies and never weaned. Up until the eve of the democracy movement, I had learned along with my countrymen to think one thing and speak another.
In the spring, during the Democracy movement, I had been accepted to Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, to do graduate study. I had been awarded a fellowship to Stanford. When I received that good news I'd applied for my passport. Yet in the back of my mind, during the glorious days of Tiananmen, I had been ambivalent about Stanford. I thought, for the first time in my life, that China was about to enter into a wonderful new age, an age of democracy and honesty, and I wanted to be part of it. I played with the idea of staying in Beijing and giving up the chance to study in America.
But that spring the police received a directive from the party saying that any student who had a passport --even if he also held an American visa -- could not leave the country unless he acquired a special permit to show that he had not been involved in the anti-government movement in Tiananmen Square. At that time the special permit came from the local neighborhood Revolutionary Street Committee(Jie Dao Ge Ming Wei Yuan Hui), which attested to the fact that you had not been involved in events in Tiananmen Square. The permit was then approved by the local Public Security Office. Only with the approval of these two agencies could you legally leave the country.
Now, knowing what I had to do, I made my obligatory journey to the office of the head of our Revolutionary Street Committee. These committees were composed of retired people that the government had organized to watch each neighborhood. They operated, of course, under the entirely false pretense of watching for thieves. But in fact they observed all activities of people in the neighborhood and tried to detect unacceptable political speech and activity. They were masters of prevarication and doubletalk and tried, through pretending to be sympathetic to suspected nonconformists, to get individuals to reveal their real thinking about the party and the government. Any hint of honest criticism was, of course, immediately used against an individual.
From the local committee I needed a statement affirming that I swore that I had never participated in any event at Tiananmen Square. So I went to the elderly retired woman in our apartment building who was the senior representative of the committee. She was a short, stout woman, with tiny feet, perhaps bound once in the old fashioned way. Her hair was chopped very short and she had small yellow teeth that protruded in an ugly and unusual way when she smiled, which was not often. Her office was on the second floor of our building adjacent to the a garbage disposal chute. In the office, bare except for a small desk and a single painted wooden chair, she sat all day every day, wearing a red arm band to signify her authority, and made notes on guests who went up and down the stairway or the elevator, and what time they did this and who they visited and for how long. She recorded all of this information very meticulously in a large notebook. She kept an old radio on the desk, and an old cracked tea cup held a small bouquet of faded red plastic flowers covered with dust. She drank from another cup with a lid on it and next to it kept a cheap steel thermos filled with hot water. From her desk she could see everyone who took the elevator up or down from seven each morning until seven each evening, when she was relieved by a less-senior representative who did the same thing for the next twelve hours. Although the elevator went to the first floor, it stopped automatically on the second floor where the committee representative asked where you were going and then pressed the button to send you to the floor where you lived or were visiting. Then the elevator returned automatically to the second floor. There was absolutely no way to pass the committee watchwomen and enter the building. They occupied the office all day every day. Each month, these two old women were paid 60 yuan each just to sit there and push the elevator buttons and note everyone who went in and out of the building.
And so I went to the second-floor committee office after dinner about six o clock one evening in the third week of June.
She was friendly, at first, as she always was. And, as usual, almost pathologically curious.
"I haven't seen you for a while, Hongying" she said, smiling as she watched me approach her desk. "Where have you been?" She was my ticket out of China. She hung on my every word examining it for the slightest hint of sarcasm or insincerity. But I was as good as the next citizen at lying, and I succeeded in convincing her of the sincerity of my agreement with her criticism of my father. This old woman's entire life was lies -- millions of lies. And she listened conscientiously to my lies to see if they were convincing. And she found them convincing. She smiled broadly. She especially seemed to appreciate my addressing her with the respected title of "Auntie."
I continued piling it on. "It is said, I know, that you keep the families in this building safe and that you protect us from thieves and hooligans. And you do a great job. Nobody in this building has ever been robbed. I even remember that last time you kept my letters from Stanford University for me(I failed to mention that she had opened and read the letters, too) and I thanked you at that time for guarding them for me. "If it had not been for you I might have lost them." Her smile became broader and broader and I had to force myself to stop complementing her. I only had one hour before she went to her apartment and the second shift came to the office.
"I appreciate all you have done, Auntie," I said. "I really do. Thank you so much. You are the heart and soul of China."
She smiled and blushed and said, "Why, you're welcome, Hongying. You are a very observant young woman. I only wish all the young people of China were like you. You seem to know how important my job is. Other people might steal your letters and open them or steal your stamps and you need a loyal organization to take care of you."
"Yes," I said, "I agree completely. Thank you so much."
"And what do you want now, my daughter?" she asked.
I took a deep breath, paused for an instant, and then gave her the bad news. "I want to go to America," I said.
She leaned forward, blinked her eyes and turned very white. She could not mask her shock and disappointment. Her expression and her attitude were transformed in an instant. Her respect for me evaporated.
"Well, you're a smart young woman," she said as though this were an insult rather than a compliment. "A very smart young woman. And so you want to go to America. That's just great."
"I studied very hard," I said. And I have been admitted to Stanford University in America. So now I want to leave."
Her tone of voice changed and she called me closer to her chair. Then she said in a very low voice, "I can't blame you, to be honest with you, Hongying. If I were you're age -- as you can see I am very old now -- but if I were your age and young and beautiful again, I would leave, too. I would leave this country. You see all the trouble now. All the trouble. I don't know. Maybe there will be more trouble. Maybe you should go away. I can't blame you."
I was shocked by what this faithful party cadre was confessing to me. I wasn't sure if she was trying to get me to confess something to her or whether this was a moment of rare candor. If she was being honest, then I felt a very deep pity for her because she had spent so many years in this grim, bare room watching the world go by, reading other people's mail, studying other people's lives, watching them throw garbage down a chute, pushing elevator buttons for them. Had she been at some time in the past young and filled with ideals and dreams? Had she ever been just like me? Did she find in me some curious melancholy fragment from her own lost life? I didn't know. And I had to be careful. I could not make a mistake with her. I simply could not assume she was telling the truth. This was too important to me. I had to be the model young woman for her until the moment I was beyond her power.
"I want to study at Stanford then come back to China," I volunteered.
"Don't come back unless you see change," she said very softly. "If you do you will waste your life. Go to America and stay there unless things change here. In America everybody is rich. Everybody has a car and a house and a big income in dollars --many-many dollars and even more." In her mind that was the sum of the promise of America --many-many dollars and a house and a car. "I heard that many Chinese, when they go there, can run a shop or own a restaurant."
"Yes," I said. 'I've heard that, too. But I want to come back to China and serve the people. I want to come back and work here."
"Yes," she said. "Yes. That is good, my daughter." And as she spoke I believe I detected just a hint of disappointment in her voice.
"I need your help," I told her. Suddenly her face lit up again because she knew that she was still very important to me. "I need you to write a statement of your approval for me to show that I was not in Tiananmen Square and that I did not join the demonstrations. I need this statement so I can get my security pass to leave the country."
She was silent for a moment and then she said, "But I have not seen you for several weeks. Where have you been?"
"But, Auntie," I protested, "I have seen you many times. Many times in the past weeks. You just don't remember."
She looked puzzled. "Oh, really?" she said. "I don't remember."
Then she said, "Exactly what should I write for you." I had written a statement on a piece of paper and I read it aloud to her and she copied down the statement in her own handwriting. I read, "Xue Hongying is a very disciplined young woman, who loves the Communist Party and loves the communist society and socialism and she has never made any trouble in our local area and during the recent demonstrations she never went to Tiananmen Square once and she never did anything to destroy property or said anything about the People's Liberation Army or gave a speech or read any documents from it. She did nothing in the counterrevolutionary movement. She does not sympathize with those hooligans." When I had finished reading, she put her pen down and said, "Tell your Auntie the truth, my daughter" -- again, she was my Auntie and my confidant. Again, she spoke in a very hushed tone. "Weren't you really there? Weren't you?"
I smiled at her and lied again. "No," I said. I was never there, Auntie. I think the demonstrators were mostly hooligans. I avoided them."
It didn't bother me to lie again. I had been lying for years. What difference was a final deception?
"Well," she said, "You put your Auntie at great risk if you did."
She wants a present, I thought. She is waiting for a gift. She again called attention to everything she had done for me and intimated that I had never shown any appreciation for this.
"I'll do this as a personal favor to you," she said. "I will write this out. Can you pick it up in two weeks?"
"Two weeks?" I asked. "But Auntie, I can't wait that long." She wants a gift, I was still thinking. Her statement in exchange for a gift. She said she would work as quickly as she could, but it would still take two weeks for the statement to be written out and completed.
The next day I asked a friend to buy two cartons of American cigarettes for me at the Friendship Store on Changan Street. I brought them to the Committee Representative.
"No, I can't take these from you, my daughter," she protested. "I don't smoke and I can't use these."
"I didn't buy these," I lied. "They were a gift. Someone gave them to me. These are for your husband, my Uncle. He is always so nice to me, and always asks me questions about my education and my activities." This was untrue, but I needed that statement soon and I thought this might work. I asked her to give the cigarettes to her husband and to thank him for his concern for my welfare. Then I said, "I still have something for you. We can celebrate when I give it to you after you have completed my letter."
She smiled and pulled open the drawer under her desk and took out the letter. She told me it would take two weeks. But here it was one day later.
"I know your heart is good, my daughter, so I finished this last night," she said. She was happy and I was happy and her husband was going to be happy with the cigarettes.
As I backed away she said to me, "Don't forget me, my daughter. When you are in America, remember me."
I approached her one more time, smiled and took her hand and said, "I'll never forget you, Auntie. I promise. Some day I will write a story about you" I left her office and closed the door behind me. But a moment later it opened, she stepped into the hallway and waited for the elevator with me. When it came she stepped inside ahead of me, pushed the button for the fourth floor, smiled, and stepped back into her office. I held her letter tightly in my hand and waved goodbye with it to her as the elevator door creaked shut.
The next morning I walked to the local police station to get another of the documents -- this time from the police commander -- required by the government before it granted someone permission to leave the country. I needed another letter affirming that I had never attended the demonstrations in Tiananmen Square. This particular police commander had given me a very hard time in the past when I was trying to secure a passport. Now I expected more trouble from him and his behavior matched my expectation.
The commander sported the sort of colorful mix-and-match uniform favored by most local police officers -- blue cotton trousers, a short-sleeved green shirt over a khaki undershirt, and a green cap with a red insignia. His fingertips had amber stains because he chain smoked and held each cigarette until it was so small that it was impossible to smoke it any longer. He bought the cheapest Chinese cigarettes -- Great Wall (Ba daling) cigarettes, which cost about ten cents a pack. There was a saying in China that if you could smoke a pack of Ba daling cigarettes you could also smoke the soles of your own shoes and enjoy it. His office smelled of stale cigarette butts and the windows of the office were covered with an ugly ocher film. I saw this and realized that the police commanders smoking addiction presented me with an opportunity. He was probably going to love Marlboros!
I told him I had not been at Tiananmen Square and I needed a statement from him attesting to that fact. When he heard this he pushed his chair away from his desk suddenly and shot back, "I don't believe you. I don't believe you weren't' there. You are lying. You are a trouble maker. You have always been a trouble maker. Your father was a trouble maker and you are just like him. You have always been a troublesome girl. Troublesome girl! You had to be there. You could not resist the chance. I know you."
He continued to deride my father and me. "I told you when you were here before," he said, "an intellectual, whenever he has a chance, will do whatever they can to destroy this country. They think they are so high, they look down on us, on the people and on the police."
"What does this have to do with me?" I asked him. "I am not an intellectual."
"Your father is an intellectual and a trouble maker," he responded. And you are just like him, just like him."
This man once told me that he had traveled all over the world, and he preferred to stay in China as a local police official. He compared everything he had seen in the world to his office in Beijing and he said that this was the very best the world had to offer. He was very satisfied, he was very happy, he served the people and the revolution, he said.
"I am not like my father," I lied. "I am not an intellectual. I am just like you. I want to see the rest of the world before I come back to China to work for the people. I want to further my education abroad."
He was silent for a moment after hearing my objections to being called an intellectual. And then he asked, "You are really not in Tiananmen for one month? If not, then where were you? Exactly where were you and what were you doing?"
"I was studying," I said. "I was studying in my room at Qinghua University. I studied day and night. I didn't care what happened in Tiananmen Square. Those young people can't change anything and besides nothing needs changing. I hate politics. You know that. I don't care what goes on in politics. That is a Party matter. I studied."
"If I wrote this letter for you," he said,, "it would really be against my better judgement. I am doing this against my conscience. I think you were there. People like you, young woman, were there. I know. I didn't see you on television, but I know you are not a good girl. You are a troublesome girl, aren't you? You are a follower. You don't obey your elders. You are troublesome. I know you. I know you."
Then, surprisingly, he gave in. Perhaps it was the tears welling up in my eyes that convinced him. "Ok, ok," he said, "Come back tomorrow. Let me think about this for a day."
That night I secured two more cartons of Marlboros. And then I came back in the morning with the cigarettes in a white plastic bag. When I walked into his office he said, "You will have to write a self confession for me stating that you did not join the demonstrations in Tiananmen Square and that you are loyal to the policies of the Communist Party."
"Ok," I said. "No problem." I took the cigarettes home with me and wrote the document. The next day I returned with the cigarettes and the document. He was in a bad mood. He read the brief statement and he said, "What is wrong with you, anyway? Don't you have a brain? The grammar in this letters is all wrong." I think he wanted to show me that he was more than just a common policeman. He wanted to demonstrate that he was uncommonly smart.
So I said, "Oh, yes, it is. May I correct it?"
"Well, you won't have to," he said. "But I just wanted you to know that your four years in college wasn't worth shit. You can't even write a proper letter. Look at this sentence."
He pointed to a sentence that had no error in it that I could see. "Oh, I see," I said. "Thanks for pointing that out. How did you learn about grammar? Where did you go to school?
"I told you before that I was selected from policemen from throughout China to visit all the other countries of the world," he said. "So I visited all the underdeveloped countries in the world in order to see for myself how superior our system is. I told you that. Don't you remember?"
"Oh, yes. Now I remember," I said. "Yes I remember you told me how you chose to return here and serve the people after seeing the failure of all other systems of government. Now I remember."
He smiled, reached into his drawer, took out his seal and stamped my letter, then wrote a short statement of approval and handed it back to me. I placed the bag with the two cartons of cigarettes on the floor next to his desk, picked up the letter, thanked him deeply and hurried from the office.
Now, I needed my American visa. I heard that the US Embassy was closed and that the Americans were no longer issuing visas. So I telephoned an American friend inside the Embassy. I had met her during the demonstrations in Tiananmen Square and had translated for her several times. She had given me her card with her number inside the Embassy. She remembered me. She said she was glad to hear from me, to hear that I was alive. I told her my problem, and she said she would take care of things for me. She told me to be at the Embassy the next morning with my admission letter and other documents from Stanford.
I was at the there before 4:00 the next morning and stood at the end of the long line that had already formed. The line was for people who had already previously been approved for visas and were now waiting to pick them up. The people in front of me said they had waited there all night.
When the Embassy opened, an American official came out and gave each person in line a number corresponding to his position in the line. I was number 136. I heard later that there were 280 people in the line that morning.
As I was standing there waiting, my American friend came out and walked down the line. When she saw me she came over and asked if I was all right. I said that I was, but I wondered how long this would take. "Not long," she said and touched my arm. "Everything will be all right now. Just be patient." That reassured me. The line moved quickly.
As I was waiting there, several newsmen came out of the Embassy to talk to those in line. I recognized the television correspondent Tom Brokaw from NBC. The other correspondents were from ABC, CBS, CNN and from American newspapers. There were also some Japanese journalists there. They began talking to the people in line.
A couple of weeks earlier, I met one of the CBS correspondents in Tiananmen Square and she had interviewed me. I now saw her again. She recognized me and came over. "I'd like to talk to you," she said. "Would that be all right?"
I didn't particularly want to call attention to myself by talking to her, but I also didn't want to seem suspicious by turning away from her. I was uncertain as to what I should do at that moment, but I told her, "Ok." And she signaled for the camera crew to come over. She held up her microphone and asked me, "Why are you standing in this line."
In the crowd of people outside the Embassy I had already noticed at least four Chinese security police in plain clothes. Now they were looking at me now, listening to every word I said. I was quite nervous and extremely cautious in my answers.
"Because I want to go to America," I said. "I have been admitted to Stanford University."
"Why do you think all these other people are in line?" she asked me.
"I don't know," I said. "Maybe all of them want to study at Stanford." I paused for a moment and then said to the correspondent, "I'm really sorry. I can't say any more." She understood perfectly why I was afraid and she moved on.
A moment later a Japanese newspaper reporter walked up to me and asked, in Chinese, "Do you think what happened in Tiananmen Square made this line longer than usual today?"
"Yes," I said. "I do." But even as I said this, I thought "Oh, God, what if the security people hear this. They will arrest me for sure." I told the reporter, "I can't answer any more of your questions. I'm sorry."
When the next American reporter approached me I just nodded my head no and stared at the ground.
At 11 a.m. they closed the Embassy. When I saw this I wanted to cry. I thought everything had been arranged for me. There was still a very long line at the gate and there were almost three hundred people in line. An Embassy official came out and announced that they would only accept thirty people that day and that they were sorry. There was a sigh and a rumbling of disappointment from those in line. Some people left the line and started to walk away. As I stood there, not sure what I should do, I saw my friend come out the Embassy gate again. I was just standing there like I was lost. She looked around, saw me, and came over. She took my arm, and walked me to the two Chinese soldiers standing outside the gate. "Zhe shi wode pengyu,"("This is my friend) she said. They didn't move. She repeated the phrase a second and a third time. They glared at me and then begrudgingly stepped aside. We quickly walked through the gate and into the Embassy building.
There were about 30 people inside the Embassy in the office where visas were issued. My friend told me to stand at the end of this line. As I waited she brought me a cup of water, then she said, "I'll see you later," and disappeared into another office
One of the women in line in front of me saw my friend give me the water. She concluded that I was somebody very important, probably the child of an official. "I'll bet your father is happy to help you," she said. I didn't respond.
At last, my turn came. I walked to one of the windows and confronted an American official. I handed him my passport and school documents.
"Will you come back to China?" he asked.
"Yes," I said. "I want to come back. Some day."
"Some day?" he said, and smiled. "Yes, some day."
He reached to his right and picked up an approval form. I almost cried. I thanked him at least a dozen times and he just smiled back at me. When I walked out of the office my American friend was waiting for me. The instant we saw each other we both broke into tears. I still needed her help to get my plane ticket to America. My American friend said she would arrange for that and said I could pick it up within the week.
The first thing I did upon arriving home was to destroy my diary. My mother was taking an afternoon nap. So, as quietly as I could and so as not to awaken her, I took a bucket onto the balcony. Then I tore the pages from my diary and dropped them one by one into the bucket, lit them with a match, and watched them burn. As the flames quickly consumed my memories, I added page after page of them to the fire.
My mother smelled the smoke and woke up. She came to the balcony door and asked what I was doing. I could not tell her the whole truth. I just said, "I am burning something." During the demonstrations I had told her nothing about what happened in Tiananmen Square. Had she known she would have been paralyzed with fear. She had suffered so much with my father, personally, during the cultural revolution. They wanted no more suffering in the family. And I know they would have tried to keep me away from the square. So I did not tell them what I had been doing. And I could not tell her what I was doing now.
On the television news I had seen the story of another student who had joined the demonstrations in Tiananmen, and during a fight with the soldiers, picked up a pistol and brought it home. Two days later he was arrested because he was involved in the movement and had been identified from videotapes. After his arrest, his father had hidden the pistol, knowing how dangerous it was. He buried it in the yard. A police agent remembered seeing the student pick up the gun and run away with it. But under interrogation, the student denied this. So the police went to his parents and threatened them if they would not cooperate. They said that they knew nothing about a gun. The police interrogated the student again and told him that his father had confessed and had told them about the gun. So the student, feeling that his father had betrayed him, confessed that he had watched his father bury the gun in the yard. The police returned to the student's home that night and found the gun and arrested the student's father. They took pictures for television showing him holding the pistol, standing beside the hole where he had buried it earlier. They sentenced the student and his father each to seven years in prison. My diary was like that gun. If my parents knew what was in it, they would know I had been in Tiananmen Square, and they would be in as much trouble as I was if they didn't turn me in and cooperate with the police. They might spend years in prison because of my activities.
I remembered one evening early in the movement when I had been at home watching the news on television of students demonstrating. My mother watched quietly for a time and then said, "Those kids do not know how brutal the communists are. They don't know. But they will learn. They will be made to pay for this. It is going to happen." My father said nothing, but just watched the television reports. When Li Peng had declared martial law my father saw the violence coming. "They can do anything and they will do anything," he said of the government. "If you show sympathy with those students, Hongying, you will be killing yourself. You would be committing suicide by going to Tiananmen Square."
But I had gone to Tiananmen Square. And I had survived. Now I wanted my mother and father to survive, too. So when my mother asked me what I was doing, I said as little as possible. But I also gave her a very concerned look and she understood enough not to ask any more questions. I told her to stay in the apartment until I was finished. She went inside and closed the balcony door and the curtains that covered it. She knew something was amiss. But she asked no more questions. I finished burning the diary in about twenty minutes. I then soaked the ashes with water and carried them to the garbage chute and threw them away. Then I sat down to talk to my mother. "I'm leaving for America-- for Stanford University. She put her hands on my shoulders and looked straight into my eyes and said, "So many people have died. And now you have this wonderful chance. You are really blessed. I'm proud of you."
I wonder how she might have felt if told her that I had disobeyed my father, I had gone to Tiananmen Square, and I was now escaping. I had to leave.
My mother wanted to celebrate my good fortune. She went to the market to buy special food to commemorate the fact that her daughter had the chance to leave the country and that he had stayed out of trouble. My mother prepared fish and meat and vegetables and a special sweet soup. She was so happy as she cooked. I had never seen her this happy before. She talked about how hard life had been in the past, how much she had worked and how she always hoped that I would be successful and get into to a good school in America. Now the fate of the whole family was about to change, she said. She just knew it. And she kept looking over at me as she was cutting up the food and the warm steam was rising from the pots on the stove and she was like a young girl again, the way she had been when my father first saw her and fell in love with her. She was laughing and smiling with genuine joy and with unbounded pride in her daughter.
But as she was talking and laughing, I was crying inside. I had been waiting to get out of China for three years. And yet that night I really didn't want to leave. I just wanted to put my arms around my mother that night and hold her and stay with her always. I didn't want to go to America just for a good life for myself. I wanted to share any good fortune that I enjoyed with my family. Of course I was happy to escape. But I loved my family, too, and I was not happy at leaving them behind.
We had a special family feast that night. While we were eating, my mother kept talking and asking me how I had gotten a scholarship and she wanted to know more about the school I was planning to attend. But my father said little. He seemed to know what was happening. I suspect my father sensed that there was something unusually timely about my scheduled departure for America. Perhaps he knew why I was leaving. Yet he didn't ask me about it.
After dinner my father took a large flat box from under his bed and from it he took a ring and gave it to me. It was a small 24 karat gold band. He told me his father had given it to him. Now it was mine and he told me to sell it when I needed money.
My mother took her wedding ring from a small box she kept in a drawer, gave it to me and told me to sell it in America and to use the money for my education and living expenses. The ring was a tiny fragile thread of gold my father had given her thirty years earlier. I never even knew she had it. I hadn't seen it before. I felt so deeply moved at that moment. And I knew that even if I was starving to death in America, I could never sell that ring. I suppressed my emotion and said, "No, Mom, I can't take it. It is too small and, you know me, I might lose it. I don't want to take it."
I think she was embarrassed because it was the only piece of jewelry -- the only item of any value -- she'd ever owned. It was so tiny and yet so precious. She examined it and then put it on her finger and held out her hand and looked at the ring. "I remember when your father gave this to me," she said. "It's the only ring I've ever owned. During the Great Cultural Revolution," she remembered, "I had to stop wearing it. It was a symbol at that time of decadence and capitalist sentimentality." She smiled when she remembered the insanity of those years. "I haven't worn it since," she said. She looked up at me and continued her story. "During the Cultural Revolution I stopped wearing this ring and I stopped growing flowers. Your father and I and all of our neighbors had to kill our flowers since Chairman Mao said that only capitalists had the time and the money to grow flowers. We spent one afternoon pulling flowers out of pots and killing them. I have always loved flowers," she said and smiled.
I looked down at the gold on her small dark and wrinkled hand as she spoke. I think I really noticed at that moment for the first time that my mother was getting old. And after a lifetime of labor she owned this little ring. "I didn't know you grew flowers," I said.
"Oh, yes," she said. "We kept them everywhere. But that was a long time ago. Before you were born."
My mother started to remove her ring but my sister touched her hand and stopped her and said, "Mom, wear it. It's beautiful."
"If I was your age again I would wear it," she said. "But not now. It's too late." She took it off and put it back in the box, and returned it to the drawer.
All of this overwhelmed me. In the past, my parents had been so reserved and conservative with my sister and me and they shared very few personal or family stories with us. They had never spoken to me before of the family history. Now they seemed to sense that they had little time left with me and they wanted to tell me everything I should know about our family. My father's brother often told family stories to his children and they then told me. That was how I had learned our family history. But tonight things were different. For the rest of that night and during the next days, late into the night my father told me the story of our family.
I had never seen my father cry before. But this night as he spoke to me his eyes were filled with tears. He said I needed to know the truth. And he needed to tell me the truth. "You know," he told me, "for the past forty years I never told these stories to anyone. And after the Cultural Revolution, like everybody else in this country I began to lie. And the lies never stopped after that. Now you are leaving and you need to know the truth. So I'll tell you. Maybe you can preserve it and remember it and tell your children -- my grandchildren."
Two days later I picked up my plane ticket. On the morning of June 30th I left home. Saying goodbye to my family was easily as difficult for me as I expected it would be. A friend hired a taxi to take me to the airport. My father helped carry my bags to the taxi and my mother and sister came with us. When the bags were loaded I turned to get in the seat. I tried to be strong. And I tried to figure out the proper way is to say farewell to your parents when you know you may never see them again.
My mother reminded me to let her know when I arrived safely in America. I said I would. We did not kiss or embrace. I opened the door and I then turned around and said, "Goodbye." I tried not to think about what I was doing. My father watched and said nothing. My sister said nothing. My mother broke the awkward morning silence and whispered, "Farewell, Hongying."
I got into the seat and told the driver I was ready. We pulled away from the apartment. I turned to look back and saw my mother, father and sister already walking back toward the apartment building. The three of them were holding hands. I continued to watch them. And then in the distance, saw all three of them turn around just before entering the door of the building, and all three of them waved. As I reached out the window to wave, we turned a corner and I lost sight of them.
We stopped at a red light not far from my apartment and a military truck drove up beside us and stopped. There were about thirty soldiers packed together standing in the back of the truck, all in their teens with red cheeks and green uniforms. One of the young soldiers seemed to sense my lack of enthusiasm for their presence. As we pulled away from the stop sign he leaned over the back of the truck and called out, "Motherfuckers!"
"You hear that?" the driver said as he laughed. "That stupid ass. If it wasn't for the demonstrations in Tiananmen Square he wouldn't even know where Beijing was. No wonder people hate them."
We proceeded the rest of the way to the airport without incident. As expected, we had no trouble at the military checkpoints and we were waved on through each one.
After I passed through the customs and a final checkpoint of the Public Security department -- the police -- I was directed to the CAAC passengers lounge. I sat waiting for the call to board the plane -- which seemed delayed for hours. Then, when the announcement was made, I stood and picked up my bags, gave the flight attendant my ticket and walked onto the plane. I found my seat, sat down and buckled my seat belt.
I heard the engines start. Still, I thought that at any moment, as I looked out the window, a jeep would come rushing up filled with soldiers and the plane would stop and they would board the plane and walk back to my seat and arrest me. I really expected this to happen because I had heard of things like this happening before. On the other hand, I was telling myself that it was almost over. I stared out the window and watched for that jeep to come racing out or for the flight attendants to open the door again and the Public Security people to rush in.
The flight attendants began giving instructions to the passengers. I sat there in a state of extreme anxiety waiting for everything to stop. But they continued talking and giving instructions and the engines began to race. The plane began to move. We proceeded to the end of the runway and made a sharp turn. The engines roared louder. I could actually feel my heart booming in my chest. We began to accelerate down the runway and the nose wheel lifted off the ground. I kept looking out the window as the airport buildings rushed by, waiting for the crew to cut the engines and for the plane to slow down and turn and return to the terminal. We lifted off and I heard the loud clunk of the retracting wheels. Then we rose up and up and up and I kept looking at the ground and then the airport and then the city. I looked for our apartment building and couldn't see it. I wondered if my father was watching, if he could see this plane. I thought about my father and mother. We passed through some clouds and continued to ascend. I sat back and closed my eyes.
After a few minutes I looked down again at the clouds obscuring the ground, and I started to cry quietly. I watched the peaceful white billowing clouds until I fell asleep. A flight attendant awakened me from my dreams as we prepared to land in Tokyo several hours later.