As I prepare to head back to the US, I want to share a few of my favorite memories from my five years in China.
Late 2007 was a fantastic time to arrive in China. It was the perfect chance to get wrapped up in all of the Olympic hype, and even in the remote county of Longzhou the students could hardly contain their excitement. In October I was asked to fill out a survey from the provincial gov’t to gauge my enthusiasm, and while it seemed odd to ask someone who couldn’t have ended up much further from Beijing, I was pretty excited too.
As the Olympics grew closer China’s gov’t faced two huge challenges, the widespread Tibetan uprising, and the devastating Wenchuan Earthquake.
It was during the Tibetan protests that I had my first experience with internet censorship. At that time the web in China seemed freer than it does now (at least in English). We still had Facebook and Youtube, and for the most part G-mail was speedy and reliable. The rapid blocking of news articles was concerning and surprising. One had to stick to the news sites and hit refresh until something new came up and then load the link before the censors found it. Articles had to be copied into word documents to be sent to friends in China, the links would stop functioning almost instantly.
Sites like anti-cnn.com popped up (which unsurprisingly was never blocked), and bashing the West became part of my campus’ activities. I remember a friend in Lanzhou sending me a link to a breathless BBC reporter covering her city from the back of a car as he “evaded” the police. She told me that students had been barred from going home, but that the city seemed more or less the same. The coverage wasn’t inaccurate as much as overly dramatic (with the exception of a few misattributed photos).
A student group presented me with a t-shirt that had a fist smashing through Tibet that read, “Tibet has always been a part of China, don’t divide our nation.” After a fruitless conversation about the meaning of the word “always,” and questioning whether or not Tibetan’s felt that it was their nation, I thanked them for the shirt and went on my way. I was glad no one noticed that I never wore it. Protesters around the world rallied against the Olympic torch parade in solidarity with the Tibetans, but that wasn’t how my students saw it. The west was once again trying to divide and cripple China.
Then the earthquake happened, and I suddenly found myself struggling against the censors again. As the world watched the horrific death toll climb, there was also an outpouring of approval from friends overseas at the efficiency of the Chinese response compared to what our gov’t had failed to muster after Hurricane Katrina. It would be some time until they started hearing the reports that shoddy construction had caused the large number of student deaths. I remember listening to a broadcast of a family mourning the death of their child and their parents who had died together in one building. I’m generally not an emotional person, but the pain in their voices was so raw that it pulled something out of me that I didn’t even know was there.
A Tibetan friend later told me that his hometown had been very fortunate in the quake, because there were still so many soldiers there from the riots. With the roads destroyed, the soldiers had no choice but to pitch in and help with the rescue efforts.
For months I had been distracted from the Olympics, but when the torch arrived in Nanning I had to see it for myself. The streets were packed with eager students decked out in every bit of red they could find. I think the schools in the region had been encouraged to facilitate their presence, but every single one of them seemed ecstatic about the opportunity. Back in Longzhou the students had been prodded to stage a mock torch run through the town. One of the male Chinese teachers joked about draping himself in a French flag, stealing the torch, and then screaming “Free Tibet.” When he said this, my parents, who were visiting at the time, just about fainted. Was this really something we could joke about? The teachers and the students were frequently worlds apart when it came to politics.
As the flame slowly passed by, the crowd went into the kind of frenzy that’s usually reserved for teenage girls meeting the cast of Twilight. I was swept up in it too.
Months later I watched the opening ceremony not from Beijing, but at my parent’s home in the Midwest. The broadcast was a delayed feed, and all day folks on the radio had been chatting about what a fantastic feat it had been. My twin brother had flipped the radio off when the hosts started detailing the performance, he didn’t want any spoilers. I was beaming with pride, and I knew every single one of my students were too. For a moment, the world stopped talking about Tibet, tofu structures, and human rights, and we collectively marveled at the transformation that now seemed complete – China had arrived triumphantly on the world stage. It was a magnificent time to be here, but the admiration quickly faded.
Since then, each major event in China has attempted to reclaim the world’s spotlight, and each has fallen short – the 60th anniversary of the nation, the Shanghai Expo, Universiade, and I’m betting that the Youth Olympics will also be found lacking (my co-worker told me today, “Nobody is looking forward to it. It’s just a waste of money and causes a lot of traffic. I don’t care about it at all.”) I hope though that I will get to experience such exuberance in China again.