Tuesday, December 09, 2003

For What It's Worth
I just learned last night that my pod partner - a soft spoken, bespectacled, diligent reporter and devoted mother who regularly frets about finding enough time to ferry her 5-year-old daughter to piano lessons - was a student at Tiananmen Square during the June 3-4 1989 protests.
The fact that she told me this was amazing enough.
Fourteen and a half years after the demonstrations and deaths, it's still a taboo subject in China. It's certainly not a topic for casual conversation with a "long nose" while you're stuck in a traffic jam as we were on our way back from a newly opened psuedo-Moroccan pink stucco mega bar, restaurant and disco that she had reviewed.
Jennifer and I had been talking about her frustration about being a reporter at a paper where she can't write the stories that she wants to. Her father was also a journalist and had urged her to avoid the trade for the same reason.
"It is too political here," she said. "I studied economics in Beijing at China's finest economic and business university. I want to write real business stories."
She laughed just a little bitterly and quickly eased her Nissan into an open spot just in front of a mini-bus that was threatening to take off her right door and fender and me with it.
"But I cannot. What do I write here? Rubbish, mostly rubbish. Restaurant reviews. At least people read them."
It was shortly after that when she quietly dropped her bomblet about what the Chinese simply call "June 4."
"You know June 4? I was there."
You were? My "Huh, what?" reflex kicked in again, as it has so many times since I arrived.
I began pressing her for details and what emerged from her perspective sounded like the demonstrations were - until the soldiers began slaughtering the students - more of an excuse to party, with calls for democracy almost an afterthought.
"I left just before the trouble," she said. "My friend did not feel well and I went back to our university with her. "
But why did you go to begin with?
"I am curious about many things. I like to watch and listen. It is why I like being a reporter. I went just to watch. There were no classes, everyone was there. It was also very romantic...is that the right word?" She laughed self-consciously.
I don't know. What do you mean, 'romantic?'
What Jennifer described was the erotic frisson familiar to anyone who has spent an extended, intense period of time in a hot house environment with others bent on the same mission, whether it's producing a play, working overtime at the office or trying to overthrow a government.
"Many students fell in love there. They got engaged there. Some shouted to get married right there." She laughed again. "Some of us said these romances would not last. None did."
Did you see the Statue of Liberty?, I asked referring to the homemade, crude replica that the students had constructed.
"Of course. It was a little ugly, do you think?"
I liked the spirit, I said. Any American who saw it understood and applauded the spirit.
"Of course. It was very symbolic."
She seemed lost in thought and also was trying once again to avoid being crushed as cars on the left and right kept pressing her for space.
We were both silent for a moment then she said: "The day after the deaths, it was so quiet on our campus. No one talked. We knew something terrible had happened but no detail. Silence everywhere. Empty classrooms, empty rooms, empty canteenl. No one could talk about what happened. I rode my bicycle to Beijing University because I wanted to see what it was like there. It was quiet, too.
"I looked up at some windows and I saw new white flowers. White flowers at windows and balconies. Do you know what that means?"
No, I said. I don't.
"White is our color for death."
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