The crackdown started, infamously, on June 4, 1989. But the movement had been swelling by this point, made so tragically clear as we revisit images from that time and remember.
“We know now that one side was arguing for restraint towards the demonstrators and for wider reforms, while hardliners pressed for a crackdown. It was almost unbelievable to witness the open massive challenge to the authority of the CCP. It went on for days, then weeks, numbers growing. But something had to give.”
“The things you experience … are written on your cells as memories and patterns, which are reprinted again on the next generation. And even if you never lift a shovel or plant a cabbage, every day of your life something is written upon you.”
-Madeleine Thien, in her cultural revolution epic, Do Not Say We Have Nothing
I’ve been thinking a lot about identity lately. Since nothing is divorced from the context it’s in, I can’t think about who I am (or who we are as Americans) without thinking about where I came from.
More than 15 years before I was born, my dad left the only home he’d ever known — China — on a leaky raft in the South China Sea. His dad, my grandfather, had been the United States as a student since my dad was a baby (after scoring high enough in some national exam that earned him a scholarship), and when war with the Japanese broke out he couldn’t go back. That situation was both a blessing and a curse. A blessing, because it was a familial tie to the Western world. A curse, because Grandpa’s scholar status is exactly what Mao Zedong and his forces targeted for “re-education in the countryside” during the years of China’s oppressive Cultural Revolution.
I don’t know the details, as my dad has gone the 34 years of my life without talking about it. But in snippets I’ve heard from him, my late aunt (his sister), and my mom, and my grandmother, I have learned my father was one of the tens of thousands of young Chinese sent to labor in rural areas of China to familiarize themselves with the plight of Mao’s vaunted peasants. Dad went to a pig farm where he saw beatings, starvation and suicides. To this day he doesn’t speak of this time in his life, probably because a lot of it is unspeakable.
The pig farm was in Guangdong province, in Southeastern China, close enough to the coast to make an escape. The situation in China was getting While laboring, he secretly trained to swim long distances in a freezing river near the farm by slinking into the water every day before dawn. He told me this summer he didn’t know whom to trust, so he could tell no one in the family about his plans to defect. It was a time of secrets, since countrymen were turning on each other, and encouraged to.
On the other side of the earth, Grandpa was lobbying his senator in Missouri, Stuart Symington, to help get my father asylum should he make it to the U.S. Symington’s office reached out to the senator from New York, Robert Kennedy, for help, since if my dad survived the long odds to make it out of China, his first stop would be in a major city like New York. Kennedy’s office worked with Symington’s office, and wrote my grandpa assuring Dad would get safe passage. He made it, at 6’2″ and weighing only 135 pounds, with no papers to his name.
But for American values and its policies of that time, I wouldn’t be here.
Before I moved to Asia, my notion of freedom largely existed in the realm of figurative freedom, that is, to live in the moment and be free of worry about what was next, or what was buzzing over on my smartphone. How to live freely was notional — a mental freedom, because the other kinds were a given.
A year into this Asian life, my entire construct of freedom has changed. The areas where freedom was default — the freedom to breathe without endangering my health, the freedom to browse the Internet without hitting walls, the freedom to speak and be understood, are no longer a given.
I have come to know the challenge of not having a common language in which to communicate with sources, and just in everyday life. Korea and Japan, my coverage areas, are famously homogenous societies. In Korea, the number of “foreigners” living here is three percent. My Korean interpreter is excellent, but there is a certain captivity when having to speak through someone else’s voice; something I never understood so clearly until living this way for the past year. Would I be able to get that one interview if I were expressing myself properly, or if there were a way to do nuance when speaking through a proxy? Is there just an entire world that could be unlocked to us if we could understand what the hell was going on around us?
It is my job to monitor North Korea, but North Korean sites are more accessible from the firewalled Chinese internet than they are in Seoul, where South Korea blocks North Korean news and information sites under a Cold War-era national security law, a holdover from the time of fear that communist ideology would creep south of the border. Getting on trusted Western news sites in China, meanwhile, makes you long for the dial-up internet speeds of the early 1990s. VPNs can help, but only so long as the Chinese censors don’t kick you off of them just as you’re getting connected.
The environment. Each morning my first phone check is not for the news or my emails but instead, the levels of the harmful, invisible particulate matter, PM2.5, to decide whether I can exercise outdoors, or whether the baby gets to go out on a walk in the afternoon. On many days this year, the levels have been too high for my girls to go outdoors. “The air is bad today” coming out of the mouth of a three-year-old is quietly heartbreaking. The hacking cough sounds of a baby are even worse.
In March, my husband, daughters and my parents stayed for a long weekend in Okinawa after I finished up some reporting there. The six of us were walking to dinner (we had found a Red Lobster in Japan and I’ve never met a chain restaurant I didn’t love). My mom and my older daughter, Eva, disappeared for a few minutes. Later when they caught up with us my mom told me they had come upon a steep grassy hill and young Japanese kids were rolling down the hill. Eva found it puzzling and delightful. She tried to do it, but it took her a few attempts before she could figure it out — the girl had never rolled down a hill before, because she hasn’t grown up around enough grass or hills to do so, nor does she get to play outside that much. I was aghast; I grew up a tomboy in the suburbs, playing in creeks in the summertime and sledding down neighborhood slopes when it snowed.
This kind of existence has made me value small, yet huge, freedoms I never thought about before, and consider them more fully when deciding what to do next. Millions of people in China and India’s megacities have it far worse when it comes to pollution, and millions of children are growing up breathing the same air my children would breathe if I moved to, say, Shanghai, for a couple of years. But, I have a choice; many of their parents do not have the same choice. 99 percent of the time my parenting philosophy is kids are adaptable and flexible; they can easily fold into their families’ lives. But I feel like pollution and lifelong lung capacity falls in the one percent of instances where I should adapt to what they need, first.
Internet hassles and lost in translation moments are sort of the pleasures of a job as a foreign correspondent, challenges that shape you and mold you, over time. I find pollution far more pernicious because its effects may not be known for awhile, if ever. The privileges of my life and work so far mean I’ve never had a “I can’t have it all” moment until now. I think this is it. I want kids who get to go outside and to cover arguably the biggest global story right now. The former has outweighed the latter.
I kind of dread going to Beijing these days because my brother Roger (who lives there) always makes it sound so dystopian. But my one-night trip was actually quite lovely. Even though I was there less than 24 hours, I was able to:
a) See my brother’s new office headquarters. He’s the founder of a tech startup in Beijing and they just moved from the tech district (by Tsinghua University) to center city. It was great seeing rows of developers working hard, just as I’ve seen in numerous American tech offices. Only twist was all these guys were employed by my scrappy little bro. Weird! (Also cool.)
b) Have drinks and dinner with Kinsey, a VIP on my “personal board of directors,” people to whom I go when seeking life advice or a centering when I feel off course. Kinsey also happens to be one of the biggest brains and most overprogrammed people I know, so getting any catch-up time with him is a delight. In Beijing, we continued our tradition of hanging out together only in cities where neither of us live and work, because that’s the only time he has time. Roger came along for dinner, and I love it when people from various parts of my life connect, so that was lovely.
c) Night-capped in a whiskey bar in the alleys of Beijing’s traditional hutongs with my Beijing-dwelling friend from Washington, Ben Dooley, who some of my pals may know from an inside joke as “Sad Eyes.”* Roger and I took a sketchy and too-risky-for-my-age pedicab ride in a pedicab adorned with hanging gourds (no idea why) to get there, and it was already past 10pm when we arrived. But the three of us sat talking and joking around, having a great time. Ben loved Roger’s jacket, and now Roger will take Ben to meet his tailor. EVERYONE IS CONNECTING, THIS IS WONDERFUL.
d) The best part came at the end of my trip: a forty minute cab ride to the airport and the driver astoundingly chatted me up (they usually aren’t chatty or are down right assholes). He asked about my family, told me about the context of China in the pre-Mao 1940s when my grandpa was sent to study abroad in the U.S. on a government scholarship, demonstrated nuanced understanding of the complex China-North Korea relationship, waxed philosophical about how we come into the world with nothing and leave with nothing, so just to make the most memories we can, and talked about U.S. politics a bit. His take on Trump? “His popularity makes it clear that Americans don’t have equal access to education and information.” ZING!
*The “Sad Eyes” story is one of my favorite and funniest stories of my five years in Washington. Someday I will have to relay it on this here blog.
Even though I gave him a hard time for, oh, our entire childhood, I’m really proud of my little brother, Roger Hu. He is risking his lungs to live in frighteningly-polluted Beijing for the sake of his startup, TeeKart. TeeKart is teaming up with golf courses across China to allow golfers to book tee times online. (I’m told that’s not a widely available service in China right now.)
TeeKart held a big launch event this week at a gorgeous course on Hainan Island, China. Cousin Cary, who is the company’s CTO, took a bunch of pictures. For some reason, Roger Hu and team decided to look UTTERLY RIDICULOUS in almost all of them. I had to share a few — he’s in the orange:
“Maybe next time we have a week, they can try not to pack it completely to the fucking brim with explosions, mutilations, death, manhunts, lies, weeping, and the utter uselessness of our political system,” said basically every person in America who isn’t comatose or a complete sociopath. “You know, maybe try to spread some of that total misery across the other 51 weeks in the year. Just a thought.”
“As Boston celebrated last night, the week from Hell managed to end with one more tragedy: A 6.6 magnitude earthquake hit southwestern China’s Sichuan province on Saturday. Right now, 156 people are said to be dead, and an estimated 5,500 are injured, making the earthquake the country’s worst in three years. We’re just hoping marathoner and West, Texas resident Joe Berti wasn’t around.”
Journalism and social media both got a reminder to just chill out and take a breath. Reddit sleuths went down as many bad trails as promising ones, implicating innocent people in the process. The New York Post was particularly egregious in its fact ignorance, reporting 12 people were killed on Monday and that a Saudi national was a suspect. (Neither of these reported “facts” proved true.)
Oh, and our newsroom was split into two buildings, producing our afternoon show, All Things Considered, from 1111 N. Capitol, and the morning program, Morning Edition, from 635 Massachusetts Ave. As tragedy struck blow after blow, we were struggling to coordinate news reporting and broadcasting while in between the final phases of our staff move. By Friday, the old building and its parts were getting dismantled around us. The moving and salvage crews outnumbered NPR staff. Yesterday, in the middle of our efforts to report a manhunt that shut down the city of Boston, the TVs got cut off. This prompted a move to 1111 half a day early.
President Obama called it a “tough week.” I’d call it a curl-up-in-fetal-position-and-rock-back-and-forth-week.
As you reflect and process and drink heavily (you deserve it), consider consuming any of the following:
David Remnick wrote beautifully about the Boston bombings and the suspects we now know as the Brothers Tsarnaev. Only one of them lived to see the week’s end. “The sense of bland unknowingness—“He seemed so nice!”—began to evaporate the closer we got to the Tsarnaev brothers,” Remnick writes.
We’re near Washington, DC, for a massive family reunion. My maternal grandma flew all the way in from Taiwan to take part, so our one layover in Houston really doesn’t count as much travel. Grandma has five brothers and sisters and she’s the oldest surviving one. The fact there are six siblings in that generation mean that by the time you get to my generation, there are about 68 cousins and second cousins and cousins-in-law-once-removed. Or something. I still don’t know them all.
We’ve shared some moving moments – like the survival stories grandma told about triumphing over war (WWII), revolution (the Cultural one) and separation (time and distance).
But mostly this gathering has been about the lighter moments — eating way too much food in order to please our elders (a Chinese thing that feels like being slowly fed to death), joking about perhaps incorporating our family into some sort of LLC, and cousins connecting over which ‘realm’ or ‘guild’ they are in in the addictive computer game, World of Warcraft.
Which reminds me: Cousins Calvin and Cary, both grown-ups with families of their own, decided a few years ago to go out into the woods and fully embrace who they are as men. They choreographed an extensive Star Wars-themed kung fu light saber battle that my other cousin, Clarence, caught on tape. See below.