Archive for September, 2011

Looking Back, Part 1

by on Thursday, September 29th, 2011

[Above diagram: Layout of the first floor of the KCIA building, showing where the bodies were found: 1) Park Chung-hee, 2) his bodyguard Cha Ji Chui, and 3-7) other bodyguards.]

For many years the military dictator Park Chung-hee, self-proclaimed “president for life” feared assassination, particularly by communists or North Korean agents. His wife was killed in 1974 by an assassin gunning for her husband. Ironically, the deed was finally done by Park’s own head of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency, Kim Kae-won, who was angry at his declining influence over Park and fearful of losing his job. He invited Park to dinner at KCIA headquarters, killed Park and Cha Ji Chui and had his five KCIA henchmen finish off the remaining bodyguards. Almost immediately, all of the culprits were arrested and questioned. The “Friday night massacre” was reportedly plotted and led by Kim alone and was not part of a coup. The assassination was the subject of the controversial black comedy The President’s Last Bang (2005).

The end of the 70s and the early eighties was an interesting time for Korea. The next few posts will give the observations of expats who were in Korea at the time.  These come from interviews conducted in Korea in 2007. First, a banker whose story was posted as “More Than One Right Way, Parts 1-2” on February 18 and 25, 2011. Another post about the military dictatorships of Park Chung-hee and Chun Doo-hwan appeared as “A Priest’s View of Human Rights in Korea” on May 9, 2010.

Lawrence’s story

On October 27, 1979, I was sitting in my office in our branch bank in Tokyo, where we were getting market information about currency trading. The news came over the Reuter’s telex that South Korean President, Park Chung-hee had been assassinated, and nobody was certain whether Korea’s economy would be totally destabilized or not as a result.

Our loans to Korean companies were backed by letters of credit or letters of guarantee from Korean banks, which required that we present these letters and demand payment in case of a threat to the stability of the country or the companies. We knew that after we presented the letters the Koreans would say, “Thanks for the documents, but we don’t have any money.” But legally, if you didn’t try to get the money back—this was many millions of dollars—you no longer had a valid claim. The documents had to be delivered in person because the documents being lost in the mail in light of the crisis was an obvious defense that might be raised. We checked with the American embassy in Tokyo and the US government had not issued a travel advisory against going to Korea, so I was chosen to go.

Now, at that time it was fascinating to fly to Korea from Japan. Tokyo was the most modern city in the world, even more modern than Singapore then and Korea, in terms of economic development, was in its infancy. As we were flying in, the land we were flying over looked like a moonscape. The mountains that ring Seoul were absolutely devoid of trees – nothing but rocks and clay soil. I was told that the people had cut down all the trees for fuel. An announcement came over the loudspeaker, “Do not take any pictures looking out of the aircraft. Your camera will be subject to seizure if you do. Please respect the military authority and follow all instructions carefully.”

It was a cold, gray day. I arrived at Kimpo Airport, where there were machine guns and military police in khaki uniforms with hats of the shape that airplane pilots wear. They were saying “there” and “there” and pointing at the line snaking in this cold and cavernous arrival hall that reeked of cigarette smoke. The crowd coming in was much smaller than usual because people didn’t want to walk into the eye of a storm. Nobody was just strolling over to Korea to find out what was going on. There were no immigration windows like in normal times. Everything instead was a makeshift affair with long Formica tables, two set up together, then two more and two more and two more. We all went through the same search and questioning procedure four different times. Why the first time wasn’t good enough was beyond me, but I knew better than to ask questions. They were opening cigarette packs and looking through the cigarettes to see if there was anything coming in that shouldn’t be – anything related to espionage, for example. The Korean customs officials were examining documents (such as my letters of credit) in English that they couldn’t even read, and they were obviously under heavy pressure, knowing they could suddenly end up dead if they made a mistake. Punishment came swiftly in Korea.

At the first station the senior-looking guy took my passport and asked questions in broken English: what are you doing here, “what do you know, who are you going to see, why is it necessary for you to come now?” No matter how good your answers were, you got a very nervous reaction because the officer’s English was limited, and he didn’t know what he was looking for. He was also checking the passengers’ names off against a list. It could have been as innocent as a flight log, or it could have been a list of people to watch out for. Meanwhile, his partner went through everything in my bag, opening the can of talcum powder, squeezing the toothpaste. They were seizing cameras—of course writing down the serial numbers.  If you had one, you didn’t get it back until you exited the terminal.  Then I was herded over to another table, where they seemed to have a different list. At table two I was frisked. At table three they took my coat off and took it into a room and then brought it back. They were very serious about anything electronic—a tape recorder, anything like that. If you had a tape in there, they were playing it and fooling with the buttons, very paranoid about what the outside world was finding out and what they knew.

The new Lotte Hotel

Several times a day four military men would unlock my room at the Lotte Hotel with a passkey and suddenly burst in with their machine guns, shouting, “room check.” They were so rude. They’d go through my luggage. They’d go through my notebook. They’d go through my wallet. They’d ask questions. “What’s this a picture of? Where did you get this picture?” Maybe it’s a family photo under the Christmas tree. “What is this a photo of and when was it taken? What country? Why did you bring it here?” The favorite question was “How many foreign cigarettes do you have? Where did you get them? Let me check.” And they’d check for the duty-free stamps showing where they originated from. They wanted to make sure there were no hookers,  no North Korean spies, no Koreans of any kind in the room because they didn’t want secret meetings that couldn’t be monitored. If a Korean businessman was in a foreigner’s room smoking Marlboros, that guy was going to jail for possessing contraband at the very least unless he had a lot of money to purchase the military policeman’s “good will.” They wanted everything under open sky. That’s why coffee shop in the Lotte Hotel seemed at the time like something out of Casablanca, providing a perfect forum for the spy vs. spy thing that was going on. It was all so silly, because no foreigner coming to Korea had any information that could have changed anything. We didn’t know how many U.S. troops were amassed on the border and what they would do in the event of an invasion from the North. People were constantly asking foreigners, if x-number of American soldiers were killed in one week, would the U.S. abandon its defense of South Korea and leave Korea to its fate. We had no answers, but people were curious and constantly asking the same question nonetheless.

So we had martial law, and we had machine guns in the streets, and we had curfew. I was across the street from the Lotte Department Store in Myoung-dong listening to bad Korean folk music and drinking awful instant coffee. Curfew was 8:30PM. I left the coffee shop and was walking across the street to the Lotte Hotel when a military policeman stopped me, pointed to his watch and explained that it was 8:31; I had violated curfew and I couldn’t cross the street to go to my hotel. He was not budging, and it was too public for me to purchase an ounce of his goodwill so he just said, “Go back.” Go back? The coffee shop wasn’t going to let me stay overnight. I figured that the policeman wasn’t going to take me to jail because that would take him away from his post. He was just going to get me to find a place in Myoung-dong. I ended up staying at a three-dollar-a-night Korean yŏgwan, sleeping on the floor, until sunrise when I could walk across the street to my $150-a-night hotel. It was a very pleasant diversion as I recall it now.

The military police were really running the country. They were the authority in Korea and the KCIA helped. The military had total impunity to act in any way it deemed necessary with foreigners. They were everywhere. Everything was screened. Every call was monitored, every telex was intercepted and then retransmitted. I was constantly trying to figure out what they were doing, but they didn’t really seem to know what they were doing, It was a very unprofessional screening job because there was a lot of duplication in it. They just seemed uncertain and nervous. For military people, they seemed frightened too and they had machine guns. As a matter of fact, on the streets in front of the brand-new Lotte Hotel, there was very little traffic, but everywhere there were soldiers. There was a soldier within eyesight of another soldier throughout the city. Soldiers with a machine gun, stopping people, checking papers, asking questions at random. “Where are you going, what are you doing, what’s your business here? Show me your passport.” And they were stopping Korean citizens too. Even before the assassination, all the windows facing north were shuttered or painted black—all windows in all of the buildings. Korea was in a state of permanent blackout, facing north so the North Koreans could not observe their development or their activity and to make targets more difficult to spot if the North Koreans were to invade the South. From the first day I arrived here for several years.

The building our bank’s representative office was in was new, but to save precious heating oil the temperature was kept just high enough so the pipes wouldn’t freeze. It was so cold you could see your breath. I remember having to take my gloves off to sign checks and vouchers. I met with people from Samsung, Hyundai, Daewoo—Korean companies which are now giants—which were then very small and very risky companies to lend money to. They were assembled on a shoestring budget, and their staff was living pretty much hand to mouth. They didn’t have presentable offices, so they would meet us at the Lotte Hotel in the coffee shop. That was where you did business in Korea. People would wait in line for tables. It was just round-robin marathon of meetings with the Samsung, Hyundai, Daewoo people. Foreign cigarettes opened doors. It was illegal for Koreans to smoke foreign cigarettes or to own foreign cigarettes because Korea was desperately trying to keep all the foreign exchange in the country. It didn’t want to be importing things and sending dollars overseas because the country was desperately short of capital. So you’d be having a meeting with bankers or businessmen in Korea, and you’d give them a cigarette and they would be very grateful for it, and if they lit it and smoked it then, they would hide it under the table because the military police were everywhere, and they would go into a restaurant and look, trying to catch a Korean smoking a foreign cigarette because the fine, payable in cash, on the spot, was about a ten dollars—a month’s wages in those days, which led to a lengthy negotiation for a discounted bribe.

Koreans were hungry for news of the outside because news was heavily censored. Our office had to get case by case written permissions to receive foreign publications like The Wall Street Journal. The government employed professional readers and redactors who would cut things out, and the paper would look like confetti by the time you it on some days. I recall a 64-page Time Magazine our office received. It had eight pages remaining by the time the redactors were finished. You knew a lot was going on behind the scenes in Korea when most of the articles were cut out of the paper. And then you’d be on the phone trying to talk in code because there were listeners on every phone call you made overseas. All the lines overseas went through government offices, and every overseas call was recorded and monitored. Korea was so paranoid. They were afraid of infiltration. They were afraid of an invasion from the north. They were so afraid of an inability to control people’s hearts and minds, afraid of losing control of the public will, that they monitored everything very, very carefully, and they were quick to take action if they sensed you were being too American or too British or too French.

In those days telex information from the Japanese office was almost instantaneous with our offices in Manila and Hong Kong and Singapore. We could talk live. I was a fast typist, and often we would have conversations over the telex because it was cheaper than calling. Yet when we got a telex from Korea at the Tokyo branch it was three or four hours old. On days when there was a lot of news that Korea was sensitive to—news about China or about Russia—there were telexes which people couldn’t understand. Of course a lot of our telexes from Japan to Korea were written in jargon that only our American representative would understand because we wanted to convey information that the bank needed, but if the telex got too obtuse on a day when there was a lot of scary information going back and forth, the telex wouldn’t arrive at all. We were transferring money through Korea’s central bank by telex. We were also transmitting a lot of information, but it was interesting. The thought police, the Korean Intelligence Agency, came to visit our branch and question us almost weekly, but they never acknowledged that they were intercepting our telexes and reading things, asking questions like what would an American mean if he said this or that. Even our telephones had keyword cut-offs. If you mentioned North Korea—click—your phone went dead. Other words or phrases were also unacceptable. They would threaten to cut off your phone entirely if you abused it. You get an arrogant American or an arrogant Frenchman saying, “Nobody’s going to tell me what I can say,” and they’d find themselves without a phone and the president of their bank would have to come out to Korea apologize in person and get the telephone reconnected. People learned to behave pretty quickly.

Finding Contentment in Mainland China

by on Friday, September 16th, 2011

Cart hauling paper

In 1984-86 I taught at Xiamen University in Fujian Province, China. (See First Year, Second Year–July 24, 2010) My friend Jim is now teaching in the province to the north of Fujian. When we did this interview over Skype in July 2011, it was clear that some circumstances in China had changed, like technological and economic growth, but others, such as the living conditions of Foreign Experts and the behavior of people in public places were much they same as they were twenty-five years ago. (Jim has kindly supplied the photos.)

Jim’s Story

Heading out of town

It was great moving to Asia at the age of 50. I needed a change. Now, Toronto—my home town—is multicultural, with about half a million Chinese and some of the world’s best Chinese restaurants. In my opinion you shouldn’t move to a country if you don’t like the food. I really liked Chinese food and culture—Japanese and Korean culture too, but not as much, and I wasn’t too crazy about Korean food. And some of the worst horror stories were from people teaching English in Korea. The Japanese seemed more uptight,  and because of history I felt more sympathy with the Chinese, who didn’t invade Japan and kill 100,000 people. Although I believe around the world—everywhere—most people are good.

I wanted to go somewhere warm, without snow and ice. In Taiwan the weather is hot and humid and rainy like Florida. You can go without a jacket almost twelve months of the year. I like the night markets and being able to roam the city, anytime, day or night. I never saw any crime there, or in China. They have the best subway system I’ve ever seen. It’s just amazing—very convenient and very crowded.

I went over on my own to look for a job teaching English. I’d talked to people who’d been there and who advised against signing a contract without seeing the workplace and meeting the people. In some ways what I got was a good job. I mean, they paid on time, and they were fairly professional. I think it was a good place to be for my first year.

To get a job in a college or university I needed a graduate degree. I only had a BA, so I taught at an “institute,” an English-teaching business offering classes for adults who want to improve their spoken English, mostly evenings and on weekends. Their biggest selling point is having foreign teachers. In fact, this school was in a prominent location on the corner of a busy downtown street, with big, glass walls so people outside could watch all the foreigners at work. To me it felt like a car showroom.

It was like a fitness center which charges for the use of the facilities. A student paid and was allocated a certain amount of class time, without having an assigned class. The students could just show up, and they’d be put somewhere, not in the same class as before and sometimes not even with others at the same level—although they did try with the proficiency levels. But I liked teaching, and I think I’m suited to it. I like people, and I’ve been trying to learn Chinese, which helps me relate to the difficulties the students might be having.

I was there for a year, and I found it quite exciting. I met lots of nice people, both foreigners and Taiwanese, and traveled around. I took my first trip to Hong Kong. But the first six months I had a lot of culture shock. In Taipei there’s McDonald’s and Starbucks, but even buying a coffee can be challenging when you don’t know the language. The frustration would turn me into an ugly foreigner—or arrogant foreigner. I’d often get angry and upset about things like noise. Taipei is one of the most densely populated places in the world, and Taiwanese and Chinese people tend to be so loud it would drive me crazy. The politics also got to me, the anti-mainland fear-mongering with daily items in the newspaper about an eminent attack from the People’s Republic. I found myself taking the Chinese side, which the Taiwanese didn’t like very much. It’s a little better now that the separatists have lost power. With time I’ve gotten better at handling my frustrations.  I think traveling and living here is making me a better person. I try to accept that things so, instead of getting upset that I didn’t get what I wanted, I enjoy what I did get.

After a year in Taiwan, I went back to Canada and lived in Vancouver for two years. I had a job working with homeless people, which was very depressing. I’ve seen far more homeless people in Toronto and Vancouver than in Shanghai. In mainland China you don’t see much poverty, although it is here. But most people seem to have something to eat and a place to live and a job if they want it. China seems to be trying to make life better for everybody, including the poor whereas in Canada it the attitude often was that if you were poor or unemployed it was your own fault. Like two months ago there was a news story here that they were going to double the minimum wage.

After another nine months in Taiwan I moved to the mainland, to the prosperous Zhejiang Province, the province north of Fujian and south of Shanghai. I’ve be here two and a half years. Officially, I’m a Foreign Expert at a college. This contract will run out in about six months, so I’ll have to decide whether to stay here or experience another place. This is a small city of about half a million people, with about ten Westerners. The weather here is like Tennessee. It gets cold in the winter, but we seldom have snow. The summers get into the nineties. We’re a landlocked city, but outside of town there are some beautiful open spaces which remind me of Canada—but with food growing everywhere. I just took my motorcycle out there this afternoon.

In China there are different levels of college and university, and students qualify on the basis of their marks and test scores. My school is one of the low-ranking ones, owned by a corporation whose specialty is construction and development. About three-fourths of the students are boys who are learning building and things related to that. Most of my students are girls majoring in business English and hotel management. Nowadays the students aren’t assigned jobs like they used to be. After they finish their two-year course they have to go and get a job. They get some help, but mostly it’s up to them. A lot of my students want to have their own businesses.

There’s a lot capitalism and a lot of money. In this small city there are two or three Rolls Royces, a lot of BMWs and Mercedes and Audis. I’m sure 20-30 years ago it must have been different. [no private cars, just owned by the work unit]. Even ten years ago there weren’t many cars. It’s just really amazing to see things change before your eyes, with buildings going up and people getting cars for the first time. On the other hand, China is building a lot of railroads and the bigger cities are having subways built. That’s one thing about the political system: they can decide to do something and  do it on a big scale.

At the college many people belong to the Communist Party, which is just a way to make contacts and get ahead, like the Republican Party. Every class has a monitor. I’m sure they report on me, but I can’t read or write Chinese. Maybe ignorance is bliss. On the Internet we can’t access certain sites like Facebook or Youtube. There are so few foreigners that it’s probably very easy for them to monitor us. We’re registered with the police, they know where we live and work, they know everything. I don’t have a problem with that because I’ve got nothing to hide, and it also keeps me safe. A few times it’s looked my mail was opened, but I’d never be able to prove it. On the other hand, in the United States and Canada studies have been done about employers spying on their staff.

Most of the English teachers are Chinese who teach reading and writing. The two native speakers do spoken English. Every week we have an English corner, where the students can talk about anything they want. In class I focus on getting them speaking. I tell they’ll become better at English by doing it, like learning basketball. It doesn’t matter if you make mistakes. With time I’ve learned what works and what doesn’t work. Each class has about forty students, so it’s hard to spend much time with an individual or with a small group. A small number want to learn, and some who have no interest. I see my job as helping and encouraging them improve. The college is on holiday now, but I have one student who calls almost every day to talk for five minutes.  Unfortunately, not very many would do that, for many reasons: they’re not interested, or they’re too shy, or they don’t want to impose on me, or they’re afraid they’ll make mistakes.

A lot of things are similar to home. Almost every kid at the school has a cell phone, many have computers and the rest have computer access. All the teachers and students use an instant messaging system called QQ. I have students keep in touch on QQ. Students from two years ago who are doing business in English, if they come across something they don’t understand will send me a message, and I’ll help them sort it out. We also talk occasionally by telephone or on Skype. I don’t think I could live here without modern technology. The downside to life here is the isolation. I don’t know how people did it years ago, but even though I spend many hours in the computer I sometimes wonder if my quality of life wouldn’t be better because without it, because then I’d be interacting with people face to face or reading books.


My starting salary was 5,000 RMB [$774 USD] a month, which according to what I’ve seen on the Internet is around average. In Canada that would put me below the poverty line, but I also have a nice, free apartment, and it would be no problem living her on 1,000 or 2,000 RMB a month. My last Canadian job didn’t pay much. I was always in debt and just working to pay bills. That was true even when I had a business and a house and a car. But at this stage of life I’m not trying to save to buy a house. My focus is on having a decent life now. I like to travel, and in the past few years I’ve taken the best trips of my life. I had two months in Canada, a week in Hawaii and three weeks in Thailand. I feel I’m in the right place at the right time, given what I have and what I can do. China badly needs foreign teachers, and the students appreciate my being here. In Canada I spent forty hours a week in the office, and my employer’s attitude was that I was lucky to have a job. If I didn’t like it, I could leave. I got two weeks’ holiday a year and not necessarily when I wanted it. Here I have three months off and have money to spend on holidays. If I can keep on working, I’ll just stay in China.

I’m just an ordinary middle class person, maybe lower-middle class, but in my mind I’m like Walter Mitty, wondering why I’m not rich and famous. Because we’re so few foreigners, being here is like being a rock star or a minor celebrity. Every time I go out, people stop and stare, and little kids point and say, “Hey, there’s a foreigner.” It can occasionally be annoying, but most of the time I get a kick out of being special.

Part of the culture shock came from getting questions westerners would consider rude. You meet people, and in less than five minutes they’re asking you how much money you make and how old you are and if you’re married with children or why not. When I arrived on the mainland I was surprised at behavior like people spitting right on the floor inside—men and women, but the men were worse—but here it’s accepted. Before they spit, there’s the loud hawking, clearing the throat of phlegm. [At one time the loud noise was believed to ward off devils.] In restaurants, they’ll spit bones out on the table. And screaming to their friend across the room. Smoking is allowed everywhere.

Duck heads

In China people are learning to wait in line. Younger and more modern people are getting more used to the concept, but it’s common for someone to cut in front of you. Bus and train stations have physical barriers and security guards who try to enforce the rules. In a hospital I went to, patients sign up and wait for their numbers to appear on the electronic board. There was a nurse at a counter supervising, but people still pushed ahead. It was bizarre. One patient might be talking to the doctor while three or four watched. In western countries we have this thing about our personal space and first come, first served. But here, if I’m a fast food place where people are pushing ahead, I push also because otherwise who knows how long I’ll have to wait. I find that strange, but also sometimes very funny.

People blow their noses out on the street by holding one nostril shut and then forcing the mucus out, which is accepted. [Chinese are repulsed by the idea of using a handkerchief and putting it back in your pocket.] I think that’s one reason the Taiwanese who have never been here think mainland Chinese are like animals. Even now the word “peasant” is in common use. People keep the habits they’ve had for many centuries. [After Liberation, particularly during the Cultural Revolution, having bourgeois habits was dangerous. Peasant/worker behavior was in.] I see so many things that would make westerns wonder what was going on. Babies don’t wear diapers. They have like a trap door open in the back [split pants], so when they have to pee or poop a parent will hold them so they can go on the street [in the gutter. Parents also whistle as a signal for the baby to pee]. There’s no toilet paper in restrooms, even in fairly decent restaurants in Taiwan. So I got in the habit of always having tissue paper with me. [Which you need to do anywhere in Asia.] My first year in Taiwan I was bothered by things like that, but now I’m just used to it.

I call China “the opposite world.” For example:

* Toronto is very multicultural. Here over 99% of the people were born in China.

* Driving here is crazy. Traffic lights were just introduced a few years ago. People often drive right through them. There are no stop signs, unlike all the four-way stops we have in Toronto. People are not required to stop, but most people slow down and see if anyone else is coming and then weave in and out.

*In Canada there are so many safety restrictions, like mandatory seat belts and government-approved car seats for children. Here people drive on motorcycles carrying the baby in their arms.

* In Canada you have to have lights at night and wear reflectors on your bikes, but here half of the people on the road at night have no lights. People walk down the street with no street lights, wearing black.But here people try to cooperate and work together. I don’t want to hit anybody or get hit. When I do see accidents they’re minor, just a little bumping into each other and no personal injury. [China has the highest rate of fatal traffic accidents in the world, but that fact is unlikely to appear in the state-run media.]

* In Canadian parks it’s an absolute no-no to throw litter on the ground. We have a saying, “Take only photographs, and leave only your footprints.” Here people throw garbage around everywhere, although there are garbage cans around, and many people employed to go around to pick it up. Near my college they’ve been building some beautiful parks which are kept clean. Of course, one of China’s biggest challenges is pollution. My students talk and write about how important it is to have clean air and water. A lot of the motorcycles are electric now to cut down on pollution, and they’re investing a lot in wind and solar. They’re launching huge projects and learning very quickly.

* The values here are amazing, and it’s not just lip service. Many of my students have stood up in class and said, “I love my mother, I love my father.” At home you’ll here students say, “Man, I hate my parents. They’re divorced, and my father lives in another city.”

* The Chinese love their country, and they’re proud of it. I really think the government is trying to make life better for everyone. Education is very important. A lot of new schools are being built, as are new homes and new train systems and subways. The Chinese want to catch up with the developed world, they are catching up. . China has a huge military, but I believe it’s for defense, peace keeping and disaster relief.

Last Days in China, Part 2

by on Friday, September 2nd, 2011

In Part 1, Harriet described the xenophobic mood and the widespread discontent preceding the pro-democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square, then the glorious day of April 27, when she followed the demonstrators from Beijing Normal University from the school through the square and beyond.

Harriet’s Story

Sometime in the next few days, the officials had a dialogue on TV with the previously recognized student organizations [set up by university officials]. Some of the questions put by these student leaders were pretty lame, but some were to the point. The answers were rather patronizing, but they were at least talking. The activists said it was not a real dialogue.  I was shopping with a friend in Beijing on May 4, the anniversary of the 1919 student protest against China’s humiliating Japan policy. This is a traditional day of protest. We tried to follow a group of students going toward the Jianguomen area [where the foreigners live] by taking the subway, but the subway stops along the route were all shut down. At the Beijing Hotel the crowd was impossible. I think the police may have been blocking the crowd further toward the square but letting the students go by. There were fewer demonstrators than on April 27, and emotions weren’t running as high. After that, students went back to classes. That spring there were periods of intense activity and times when we’d return to our schoolwork, but keep an eye on the news.

The next phase was the hunger strike, when Gorbachev was in town and the movement spread nationwide. If you listened you’d see that everything was connected to the movement in one way or another—but not explicitly. It was such an emotional week. One student who appeared on television struck me as being the embodiment of the new spirit of self-sacrifice and courage. He said that because of inflation and corruption people had lost all faith in the party, the only force in China, and had no faith in China’s future. In words that became famous he said drastic steps against corruption were called for, “chong laozi kai dao” [starting with myself. Laozi, “old one,” when used to mean “myself,” is a term a father uses for “myself, the old one.” When used by a student this is a common, but disrespectful language. Here it underscores the fact that the students wanted to speak from a position of equality, not deference.]

In Nanjing huge demonstrations were held in support of the hunger strikers in Beijing. They weren’t covered in the media, even though in 1986 much smaller demonstrations had made headlines in The New York Times. We showed support quietly by giving free drinks and T-shirts to the demonstrators from our center when they got back. In addition to recording all of the Chinese news, I was working with a friend, taking notes on all the BBC broadcasts. In the morning, for example, I usually listened to the 6:00 or 6:30 news on my Walkman, then informed people as they got up, and then caught the next BBC broadcast. The analyses were very interesting, but nobody really knew what was happening.

That very week there happened to be an international conference on Sino-American relations outside Nanjing. One of the Chinese delegates said the student movement had discovered nonviolent activism. But most people stuck their prepared talks, making predictions about the next decade, apparently unaware that under their noses all of what they said was being changed. When two of the conference directors came to our center to give a talk, there was a huge demonstration taking place outside, drowning out their rather traditional views of Sino-American relations. They also lost their audience, which went out to watch. I thought it was so symbolic of the path events were taking.

On May 18, Li Peng and other officials met with representatives of the hunger-striking students. Some very powerful emotions were touched by the meeting. The students were physically exhausted. Their voices were very hoarse, and some were sort of half-dead anyway. By that time some people were refusing water as well as food. Wu’er Kaixi apparently had already been hospitalized. At one point we saw him being given oxygen, but his spirit was so strong.

He always had something feisty to say, although some people say that he went overboard when he told Li Peng, “We called this meeting, and you’re late.” The state leaders, sat opposite the students and had their say. Li Peng said all the standard things in the standard ways and lost his train of thought, and the end he was fidgeting in his chair as if he had another appointment. His delivery was occasionally rather comic, especially when he ended by telling the students, “Give my sincere regards to your comrades on the square!” When he said “sincere regards” he was waving his fist and screaming at them. This meeting was being broadcast live nationwide. The “sincere regards” became a national joke. If the leaders had been a little more sophisticated, they might have won some people over, even with their hard rhetoric.

On May 19, Zhao Ziyang went to visit the students on the square. Li Peng went along, actually, but he left earlier and didn’t make a speech. They both tried to look solicitous of the students. Zhao was visibly moved by what was going on around him. He started out with an apology. But then, before discussing any of the issues the students were striking for, he said, in words similar to those used by the hardliners, “You guys, you can’t sacrifice yourselves, somebody is using you, sacrificing you, you’ve got to stop your hunger strike and go back.” His entire speech was broadcast several times, but people didn’t know how to take it, because nobody knew what was happening in the leadership power struggle.

That week Zhao had publicly distanced himself from the hardliners when he told Gorbachev about a 1987 secret agreement to defer to Deng Xiaoping on all policy decisions. [Zhao’s remark was an announcement that Deng still wielded the power in the country, despite the fact that Zhao and Li were in the head positions.]  As commentators said, “Zhao was washing his hands of everything that had gone wrong in China for the last few years.” After his speech the students swarmed around him, asking for his autograph. Many people, especially the most active people in the movement, thought that that was sort of a stupid, embarrassing thing to do.  The next day Zhao was fired and thus became a martyr for the cause.

That night around 11:00 there was a special meeting when martial law was declared. We knew it was going to happen, and we stayed up to see it. I sat through the night with many Chinese friends and a few other American students, listening to the hourly updates on VOA and other coverage, just to figure out what was going on in Beijing. I vividly remember one of the army people telling me, “Tonight everyone in Beijing is in physical danger.” We discovered that the troops were all-positioned around Beijing. At first we were astounded. Then there was a debate about whether the troops would enter the city and what they would do when they got there—whether they would use force or not. The army people at the center tended to believe that they would, that the army wouldn’t be divided, although they didn’t support military action—no way. Their predictions about what the army would do were accurate.

So that was the night of May 19th and the morning of the 20th. As the days of martial law continued, we examined word-by-word how the situation was treated in the official press. Next to the hardline account, there were descriptions of what was going on in the city. The tension was very, very high the first few days, and then a week passed and then almost two, and people suddenly remembered they had term papers to finish. We would gather to watch the news, and we came to accept that this was just the way it was.

Now, on a more personal note, graduation was planned for the next weekend. My husband and I had made arrangements for him to come down that Wednesday so we could spend a few days seeing Nanjing. Then after graduation, we planned to go back to Beijing for the summer. My husband had just gotten his passport at the end of May, and after he got his exit visa we planned to go to our American wedding in August. That’s not the way it happened.

On June 3, the reports came of the tear gas and stone-throwing, and then the massacre. In Nanjing the Chinese and Americans together came to a realization of what was going on, in the sense that the news was filtered through us, interpreted by us. It didn’t come on the evening news like it might have in the West. We got it in stages. The live CNN coverage you had wasn’t available, but we did have VOA and BBC. We only knew that very drastic measures had been taken. We didn’t know any of the specifics.

One of the things the authorities do, of course, is manipulate rumors. Earlier there were rumors that the Foreign Ministry had declared itself independent from the government, now we heard the death toll was in the tens of thousands. Looking at the Chinese news, anybody could tell there was something incredible going on in Beijing. The news would come on, and then it would be cut off, and then it would come on again and be cut off—indicating a fight over control of the broadcast. Then they would show some clips of how the troops had been attacked and burned to death. Then we knew how many of the units had been killed and what happened to the soldiers.

Those days were the worst days of my life. I knew that my husband was supposed to come down Wednesday. Our family in northwestern Beijing, not close to Tiananmen. I talked to some of my foreign friends in Beijing who were evacuated to hotels in other parts of town because people were afraid the troops would go onto campuses. Those days are just a blur in my mind now. I didn’t really eat, I stayed in my room the whole time, I listened to the news and waited for a phone call. I couldn’t get in touch my family in Beijing. I don’t know whether they were cut off or whether it was just because nobody was working. Nobody really knows. But of course there was no phone at home, anyway. So if my husband wasn’t at work does that mean? Maybe he’s safe at home, maybe not, you know?

The center showed the entire series about the civil rights movement in the US, Eyes on the Prize. But otherwise it was in mourning. In Nanjing there were protests against the government action. People got together and made paper wreaths and marched to the square with them, carrying tape recorders playing funeral music. A white flag with the Chinese character for mourning was flying at half-mast. The wreaths were placed at the bottom of the flag post.

There were rumors that martial law would also be declared in Nanjing and Shanghai. The demonstrators set up roadblocks to prevent the troops from coming in, but of course that also disrupted traffic and provided an excuse to call in the troops. I don’t know how the negotiations went, but word had it that the students and the government had reached an agreement that as long as the students didn’t block main arteries there wouldn’t be martial law. The Nanjing Daily carried headlines saying, “No people to gather in groups of two or three on the street” and “No looking around at things,” and other items suggesting martial law was coming, but no troops came. The trains were blocked in many places. Then Shanghai students were run over and the train turned around and attacked. In Chengdu a whole shopping mall was burned down, with estimates of 300 dead.

We were waiting to hear. Our fax machines had been working all spring, people faxing us things from Hong Kong and everywhere. We got some Western press reports, which we posted near the mailboxes until things got bad. Ten people left, and all the stuff was taken down.

Graduation exercises were cancelled at a meeting after the evening news. The American co-director got up and said, “We’ll mail your diplomas later. Obviously we can’t have a celebration now.” After the American co-director spoke, the Chinese co-director got up, holding a piece of paper with a few sentences on it. He broke down in tears.

Just thinking about it makes me feel that way, just talking about what China lost. I was torn up. I didn’t even know if my husband was alive. I don’t know if that’s incredibly selfish or not. Eventually he called. He had no phone at home, so he had gone into town, and there was still random fire going on. After he described the blood on the streets, the helicopters overhead, the tear gas, the carcasses of buses on the street and the fires, it didn’t help much knowing he had gone out in it to call me. Eventually he arrived in Nanjing, though the train took a half-day longer because it was stopped in so many different places. Of course he didn’t want to talk too much because he could be accused of rumor-mongering, which was counter-revolutionary crime. There was a special phone line from our place to the U.S. Embassy, so we were able to call and find out what to do. The embassies were telling foreigners to leave.

We went back to Beijing. In a way I’m glad did. If you see it at least you realize it still exists. The people in Beijing were going about their lives. I couldn’t contact many people to say good-bye, but at least I could see the family and see that they were all okay and see that the city was still standing. You could see the bullet holes in some of the apartments near the Jianguomen area where the foreigners, the journalists and diplomats stayed, and the tank tracks on the Avenue of Heavenly Peace. At first the square itself still had tanks on it. Then they rolled out, but it was still under armed guard.

People couldn’t talk like they did before, but that didn’t stop them from talking. They talked where they knew they wouldn’t be overheard, that’s all. When I was getting my hair permed, one lady in the shop talked about a man she worked with who was killed. She said a grandmother who lived near the Tiananmen area, who had not turned out the light, but had just gone over to the window to look out, was shot. They were speaking their minds, I guess they didn’t think any of them would turn the others in for money, although there was a lot of that.

After a while you can even get used to seeing armed guards on the streets. You know, when I first went to China in 1986, if it had been like some countries in Central America where you see armed guards everywhere, then I would have accepted it to begin with. About ten days after the crackdown, I rode from our house northwest of Beijing to the subway stop, about fifteen minutes. I counted forty armed troops on the street.

Anyway, we finished up my husband’s paperwork. The embassy issued him a tourist visa, which has cost us no end of problems, but it did get us out, and we left—two days before all exit permits were cancelled. For the first month back in the U.S., I was just emotionally and spiritually removed from it all. I just felt the pure selfish relief that he wasn’t killed and that it wasn’t as bad as it could have been. I mean, civil war would have been much worse. Granted, the tragedy was horrible, but nobody suffers like the people do if there’s a civil war.

I don’t know what will happen. I am certain there will be a re-evaluation of what happened and that things will be set right, at least to some extent, before the end of the century. All those eighty-year-olds in the leadership will die. History does not always repeat itself. But I don’t know. That’s one reason why I probably will never go into politics, because you’re expected to know what the future’s going to bring.