As a kid, my job was to make sure that the new-fangled gadget, the VCR, would record the local and national news for my parents. We recorded WWBT Channel 12 – the local NBC affiliate and grew up with Tom Brokaw so it was great to see him again at my brother’s college graduation (he gave a great speech). We kept up with the weather report, and what was going on in the world.
I remember the day of the Challenger explosion and talking about it on the bus ride home. But I vividly remember the Tiananmen Square Massacre.
It was Saturday morning Eastern time, and I had come down to watch cartoons, but there were no cartoons. Just the news. And it was bad news. Even before I looked at the TV, I knew it was bad news because my parents were visibly upset. For weeks, the Chinese college students had been protesting in the square, and now there were pictures of tanks on TV and the voices of journalists in Beijing talking about gunfire.
I was only in 6th grade, so I only really understood the basics. I remember going to a vigil/protest/memorial in Richmond soon after, and seeing some of the other Chinese American families we knew in town there. Some people had created a copy of the “Goddess of Democracy” like the students had in the square.
I know now that there were a lot of factors at work. The students weren’t as pure as the media made them out to be. There was a power struggle going on in the Communist Party, and the hard-liners won. Even with those nuances, reading eyewitness accounts and seeing video footage still brings tears to my eyes and makes me angry.
But only more recently have I realized what an impact it had on my sense of self. Richmond back then had so many less Asian Americans… we all stood out, and we were often teased for being different. The news kept talking about how the Chinese government crackdown was so horrible. (And it was!) But whether someone actually said it to me or not, the questions and comments I got after Tiananmen Square communicated, “You’re from that place where they shoot college students. That’s bad. You must be like that.”
I’m not sure why anyone didn’t say (or I didn’t hear), “You’re from that place where college students are brave and where pedicab drivers risked their lives to rescue the wounded.” or “You’re from that place (Hong Kong) where millions turned out in protest and solidarity with students.” But I guess years of racist comments had taken their toll. Reflecting back, I’m thankful that God has brought me healing in so many of these places.
I still admire the courage of the students and really the workers of Beijing (historians believe that actually more workers may have died trying to keep the Army from reaching the students in the Square). I have a photo of the Tank Man in my living room – it reminds me of the message it sends when even just one person stands up to something.
And I’ve spent the last 8 years working full-time with college students. When I think about Tiananmen Square, I look at my students and imagine men and women their age captivating the world with their hopes and dreams. Now more than ever, I believe that college students can change the world.
You can check out this BBC news report from 1989 for an eyewitness viewpoint.
*In Chinese, we refer to the Tiananmen Square Massacre as “6-4” for June 4th….