“Ouch, je je I’m telling mamma!” I yelled in agony, rubbing the imprint her book left on my head.
“No you’re not, she won’t believe you; I’m older,” snickered my sister, and with that she ran up the crowded walkway; which in the morning hour, looked much like a stampede of bulls. As I walked toward school, I listened to the distinctive chatter of my fellow civilians, smelled the exhaust fume filled air and listened to the bells and whistles of another pristine day. This was Beijing, China on another busy workday, no time to talk, money is to be made, there is always somewhere to go and some place to be. It seems that this is the ideology of all Chinese; as I looked ahead, all I can see is a sea of black hair moving from side to side, up and down, in unison, everyone trying desperately not to drown. I tread toward the edge of the curb and am taken into a world of raging machine’s, streetcars, bicycles, and automobiles, racing down the street carrying even more people to some important place. I see a void in the racetrack and take a chance to run across the street to school.
I am in my last year at Mao Tse-Dung Middle School, it is full of long maintained rivalries between its top students, all of us are supposed to be the best, we are to make our families proud in any way possible and build a prosperous future; because our parents and previous ancestors worked so hard so that we could have this exclusive chance.
I have always been an exceptional student, always attending the after school classes and always being at the top of my class in all the major subject categories. After the examination, when my fellow students and I had swarmed the student standings list, I always would read my name in the top three; endlessly hearing criticism from my competitors.
“Mei Ling, first in Maths, second in Science and first in technological studies, it is because of her guanxi!”
Amused, I would simply reply, “Haha, my guanxi had nothing to do with my success, maybe you should all try studying; maybe one day I might have some real competition!” Guanxi is something that I definitely have, my father is a senior member of the Chinese Communist Party, and he more or less can ‘make things happen for my sister and I. Next year, because of this, she was going to study in the United States, she does not have to go through all of the unnecessary obstacles that the government makes all university students go through; sometimes living with six per dorm room. She does not have to spend 5 years slaving away at a substandard job provided by the government, whose main emphasis of which is on the working class and how much money they can make for the economy to lift China into the Modern Western World.
“Mei Ling, what are you doing?” yelled my best pong yo
I looked up in shock; I hadnt realized that I was standing in front of my locker staring at it all this time. “Umm, nothing” I answered in a daze.
“Well anyway, did you hear about Hu Yao bang?”
“Well, he died of a heart attack today.”
I froze: this man was one of my sisters heros, he was an actual respectable Chinese dignitary, and he understood Chinas need for change. I stumbled and replied, “Oh really? It must be all over the news, Ching Ching, I will probably hear about it later.”
With that, I slouched away looking like a wilted plant in the desert on a hot summer day. Class seemed to have dragged on for hours and hours, each teacher’s lecture droned on and on and I could not concentrate. I felt as though I were a rice farmer, counting every grain of rice I had harvested. I could only think about what my sister would do. She is the wild one of my family, the more American one. She dresses in their fashions, she talks in their ways and she even listens to their music. She is a free spirit, if anything. She has her own opinions and she chooses to voice them, she is not a normal Chinese.
She disobeys nearly all of our fathers wishes, she does not seem to care that Father has the last word for everything, and everything is his decision. We, mamma, je je and I must do everything in our power to please him because this is the way it is. In all Chinese families, the father or the man is the most powerful figure, he is everything to the family; everyone else, especially females, are there to serve him, we are there to perform his wishes and to complete his commands. Women are meant to be more of a convenience than a burden. I can remember a time when je je was 15 and I was 11, Baba told her she couldnt go to a local play put on by a local drama group because one of the members was “against the CCP” and Baba would not have his daughter seeing such a biased made mockery of so-called artwork.
On my way home back into the jungle of the streets of Beijing, the sounds I heard earlier in the day were still there to accompany me on my adventure. The signs of mourning were already apparent with store owners burning heavens bank notes and other necessities the dead may need in their afterlife, the smell of incense welcomed me as I explored the different preparations. They say that if a person is not “prepared for and cared for in their burial, they will haunt the living that were supposed to take care of them.” My guess is that no one wants to be haunted by Hu Yao bang, so this is why they are mourning so openly. As I continued my stroll through the somber atmosphere, I begin to notice all the different ways people mourn, the Buddhist, the Confucius, the Taoist all of them paid their respects to Hu Yao bang; I could imagine that the parades would begin soon, these mourning for Hu Yao bangs life. I recalled his background, Hu Yao bang came from a family that had a strong commitment to the CCP, he joined the Red army, and by 19 he was a full CCP member. He took apprenticeship under Deng Xiao ping, Chinas leader at that time, Hu Yao bang was one of the front contenders for the Red Army’s leadership, but because of his support for the students protesting for a better educational system and increased democracy he was condemned and spent most of his latter life reading, practicing calligraphy, and taking long walks.
I almost walked past my flat; it looked different today, less cheerful. We were lucky to live in a building with more class than many others; no rats, and we had wood floors instead of concrete. Walking on the path towards the gray concrete door, I remembered the night when I was in the hallway and je je was sneaking into the house from one of her study groups, she pulled me outside and made me sit with her on the large concrete steps that lead to the door.
This is when she said something that I didnt know the meaning of at the time, in a hesitant matter she said, “No matter what anyone tells you, I am your je je and I will always be.” I thought she was crazy, maybe the bitter cold of that February night had gotten to her, or maybe it was fumes vacating the local tannery that we stared at from across the street. This night was the first time I had noticed the sparkle in her eyes, while she lectured me on how I should not be like her. At that moment she was no longer just my sister but she was almost like a Shinto goddess to me, a higher being; she was not part of old Chinas ways as Baba said. She did not believe in our traditions, she was a girl, in China with her own political views, a complete oxymoron in these days. Je je was the perfect representation of a new democratic China, one with increased rights for all, freedom of expression and as je je would say with a grin American boys! My sister has a massive influence on my life, her kindred spirit brings color to my black and white life, I admire and love her; I sometimes feel as though I am the older sister, obligated to give her advice on whats right and wrong and being required to cover for her when she doesnt take my advice; which was usually a good part of the time. Though I can talk the world of my je je, she does have her faults, the biggest one being that she is an active member of the underground movement at Bei Da. This is her biggest secret, the one could break our family, and so it is essential for me to keep this one from my Mamma and Baba. She attends all of the democracy rallies; she listens to the crowd’s voice and hears the cries of her fellow classmates calling for Chinas reformation into a democratic society. The students yearn for a society in which they have a voice, an opinion and better living conditions and additional support from the government for when they are thrust into the cruel hands of the working world, a world that does not reward intelligence with better wages and praise, but spits down upon them as if they are no better than mafia members laundering money stolen from their loved ones.
“Mei Ling, chin ai de, why are you sitting here wasting your time?”
I looked up from the front steps of the flat into my mothers tired eyes,
“Ai yah, you sound like Jing Yee, just thinking about nonsense all the time, where is your je je anyway?”
“Uhhh, she is probably still at school, her study group meets tonight.” Another lie for my je je,
“Heh, she studies too much, always at school, never at home.” Hissed mamma while she pushed past me into the house. I rose to my feet like a crane carrying cars to be crunched in a junkyard and followed her inside.
Welcomed by the overwhelming scent of tiger balm probably wafting into the hallway from the local herb sorcerer, Dr. Wei. I greeted him with the usual greeting.
He nodded his head, and then went back to his “medical research,” which entailed knocking on our door at 2 oclock in the morning demanding to borrow our wok to mix his ginseng concoction. I giggled at the thought while I passed the mad scientist’s lair into the wonderful aura of Szechwan style food. Mrs. Wing, for as long as I can remember, has always been trying to fatten me & je je up by making us elaborate ten course banquets with delicious bean-curd based dishes, fish oozing with the wonderful spices tickling our tongues and noses with anticipation of the culinary anomalies to come and deserts with sweet rice and fortified coconut. I shivered with glee at the thought.
“Wan an, Mrs. Wong, your cooking smells very good,” I smiled, hoping for something to take.
“Ai, Mei Ling, nee how, you want some biscuits? I bake them just for you and Jing yee.”
“No no, its okay,” I said in the usual Chinese manner of total refusal unless of course the other party absolutely insists.
“Ai yah, Mei Ling, I have too many anyway!” she shoved the cookie tray into my chest and gently pushed me ahead.
“Shea shea ne” I answered with a huge smile on my face for I had gotten what I wanted.
I finally reached our flat, the largest one on the floor, and in the building. I wiped my shoes on the carpet and took them off, leaving them outside the door. Mamma is very superstitious, she and many other Chinese believe that if the shoes are inside the house and left at the door, this “vicious act” would bring bad luck to the family. We also keep a bat gua, which resembles an octagon with a mirror in the center, nailed to the top of the front door to keep bad spirits away from us.
When you turn the knob on our door and push it open, you walk straight into an atmosphere of peace and unity. Mamma is also very devoted to Feng Shui, which is the practice of the proper placement of objects in their surroundings so that “chi” can flow, allowing prosperity and knowledge reign supreme.
“Mei ling, dont you forget to bai sin a goong” nagged mamma from the kitchen
“Okay, I will” and with that I took 3 steps left to a goongs alter and bowed 3 times, showing my utter respect for him. A goong died before I was even born, he was a dormant member of the CCP, so my father had no respect for him, but since my father is the oldest of his 8 brothers, hes responsible for keeping the altar. Baba is a typical Chinese father, never happy with anything, not even his own children. He rules over our family with an iron fist, as I said before he is the last word on everything, even the dcor of the house. The walls are covered with banners with good luck messages written in lucky Chinese red, we also have an overwhelming amount of tapestries made by some of Chinas most famous artists. The furniture in our living room is so precious that it is not meant to be used; strange that our furniture is not meant to be sat on, but is only meant to sit, collecting dust and being admired. It doesnt matter anyway, the wood backing is too hard and the seat cushions are like rocks, it is old Mao furniture.
I dropped my book bag to the ground beside my favorite tapestry of the Great Wall of China; it shows the full extension of Chinas most renowned architectural wonder. I continued down the narrow hallway past Mamma fidgeting with a can, and turned left to the room that was je jes and mine. There is a definite division between our living spaces, almost like a country at war with itself. My side is sterile, bland and has everything in order; meanwhile, Jing Yees side is a wonderful mass of great disorder, her clothes all over the floor, her posters of American superstars and rock stars overlap one another on the wall, and her mattress is not made. I do not think it ever has been, and worst of all, there is a 2-day-old glass of soybean milk decaying at her bedside. I sigh and sit on my mattress to begin my studies.
“Chi tse, is the dinner ready yet? I am hungry!” bellowed my father from the front door.
“Yes, Mei Ling come and set the table, it is time to eat!” came my mother from the kitchen.
“Where is Jing Yee, is she of with Bai boy again?”
“Hey, dont say that! Mei-Ling says she is with her study group.”
And then came a slam at the door that changed my life.
“Mei Mei, Come here we need to talk!” my sister’s high-pitched voice echoed through the kitchen.
I instantly ran to our room, our usual meeting place for talks. She closed the door and stood against it. She had that twinkle in her eyes and she smiled with anticipation.
“No!” she threw a pillow at me “Look!” and she thrust a book at me, I read the title and I dropped it to the floor in astonishment. “Je je, this book is not allowed!”
She had a grin on her face “shhhhh, thats why we have to hide it before Baba finds out and blows up!”
We hid it under her mattress and went to dinner giggling. The atmosphere at dinner was quiet and uneasy like usual, Babas eyebrows were locked in great concentration
“So, Hu Yao bang is dead now, what do you think Baba?” hissed Jing Yee, for she knew Baba detested Hu Yao bang and everything he stood for.
Baba looked up from his rice bowl “what are you talking about you silly child?”
“Your best friend, Baba, your total opposite, a man of truth, justice and unity.”
I couldnt believe what I was hearing, what was she doing? Was she trying to get herself killed? I had never ever heard anyone disrespect Baba like that.
“Jing Yee, you watch your tongue,” my father said without even looking up.
“Why do I always need to watch my tongue? Why cant I ever say what I want to say?”
“Chi tse deal with your daughter please.”
“No, you always make Mamma do your dirty work! I just asked you a question about a man that I respect and who you once knew. You cannot even answer me?”
Baba paused, and then rose to his feet “Do you want to know what I think? I think you are becoming more American every day! You have no respect for me and your hero is a useless man with no convictions!” Lectured my father; I thought his eyes were going to pop out.
Je je stood up to say “you are nothing but a Communist set in the Old Country’s way!” she got up from the table and stormed off to our room. I sat, stunned, what had just happened? Later in my life I found out that Baba and je je were having many conflicts of interest. Almost on a daily basis, this one was the last one, the last time I would ever see my whole family together. I ran to my room, to find my sister throwing clothes into a pillowcase.
“J e je, what are you doing?” I knew exactly what she was doing.
“I am leaving for a little while.” She said Cooley
She paused, and looked hesitant than said “I am going underground with the movement, there is going to be a protest tonight.”
My eyes welled up with tears, “No, je je dont go, dont leave me! Its too dangerous, Baba didnt mean it!” I pleaded, but she only half smiled and said, “Remember what I told you, and remember why I am doing this,” she walked out of my room, and out of my life.
I could not sleep that night, I didnt know what my je je was talking about all; I knew that the underground movement was made of primarily of young students calling for a change in Chinas education system. Who knew what all these young adults were going to do, I didnt care, and all I wanted was for my je je to be safe.
The next day I woke up in a daze, the house was calm like just after a storm. Mamma kept to her sewing while Baba went about on his way, reading his paper and drinking cha. I said nothing to them and I walked out of the flat and started on my way to school. I began to think of about a way I could contact my sister, just to keep in touch; so Id know she was okay. I contemplated which one of je jes friends would know her location for the whole day while my teachers lectured us. The talk of the school today was the students of Ren Da and Bei Da and their protest at Tiananmen Square. It was all over the news “Today, at Tiananmen Square, thousands of students peacefully protest Chinas education system and call for the reformation of Chinas government as they chant the internationale. ” Other stations, such as the one run by the CCP reported “Today at Tiananmen square, reckless students protest Chinese officials and demand for change.” Two different views, who knew what was going on, all I wanted to know was Jing Yees status, was she was alive or dead?
On my way home, as I walked I passed by Mr. Lees fish market and it dawned on me, Jing Yees bai friend worked for Mr. Lee! I quickly ran inside and saw him cutting away at the fish. My nose was not use to the smell of raw fish and Jeff could tell, “Smell like roses dont they Mei Ling?”
I smiled before I came out and said, “Where is Jing Yee? She ran away from home yesterday.”
Jeff looked up and then looked back down, saying, “Well, you know where she is dont you?”
I definitely knew, but wanted confirmation “Is she at is she at Tiananmen?”
“Yes, she is, and she is being so stubborn.” He stopped cutting, then motioned me to the side of the counter “Im so worried about her, she is hunger striking and, I have heard rumors that the government will not tolerate this protest.”
My heart broke, why was she doing this, I still could not understand. I touched Jeff on the shoulder “Dont worry, she will be fine I am sure, can you just tell her that I love her and just keep me updated on her.”
After that day, I visited Jeff often at the fish market and talked about je je and how she was doing. “Shes doing fine.” Id always hear. Just another one of the protestors showing the officials that they could not be pushed around.
On the news and in the newspapers the stories were constantly conflicting, some said that the students demands for change were too unrealistic and others said the government was listening and were going to comply with the students wishes. The only reliable source of information for me was Jeff, we went on for months and months, I started to write je je letters. She would write me back with information on how things were going. She said the effort was becoming larger, and more people were joining. More and more progress was being made, until the day it happened; the day of the massacre. It was June 4th 1989, 2 days after my birthday, one of Chinas darkest days in history.
The Chinese Communist Party was getting fed up with the protestors. Most of them pledged allegiance to the cause for further democracy and freedom and were willing to die for it. At 9 am, a warm breeze swept through Tiananmen Square, hundreds of thousands of protestors awaited their demise, but they would not go without a fight. Deng Xiao Ping was finally fed up and ordered a full military attack on all of the protestors, the students were brutally beaten to death, shot beyond submission and were ran over by tanks. The whole world was watching as China crushed its children. It would not be until one week after the massacre that I would find out about Jing Yee. It was hot that day and the smell of the fish was intoxicating, but I would go through anything to find out about the well being of my sister. As I walked into the store I could tell by Jeffs red swollen eyes that the outlook was not good. As my heart ruptured into pieces, my eyes began to stream out tears of anger against the government; I walked slowly to Jeff and sat down beside him on a stack of rice bags and cried and cried. I did not want to stay too long and I wanted to be alone in my state of sadness. When I left, Jeff told me, “Look under Jing Yees mattress”
When I got home, I went straight to the kitchen and told my parents the news. Mamma went into loud bawls of agony and shed tears of love for her lost daughter. As for Baba, he kept a stiff upper lip and put on his typical Chinese father exterior, continuing to read his paper; according to him, he only had one daughter.
I locked myself into my room for days crying and contemplating how I would go on with my life. One night as I slept, I remembered what Jeff had told me and I shot up out of my bed. I went to my je jes dusty side of the room. I looked under her mattress and found the book that she gave to me the day that she walked out of my life. I picked it up, it was a book of poetry and Je je had marked one in particular and left a note, I read “Bye now my mei mei, I am gone and you are probably wondering why, read these and you will find the key to our country’s pain.” I sat on her bed and opened up the marked poem and read it
Arise ye workers from your slumbers
We’ll change henceforth the old tradition
And spurn the dust to win the prize.
The Internationale unites the human race.
The Internationale unites the human race.
The soldiers too will take strike action
They’ll break ranks and fight no more
They soon shall hear the bullets flying
We’ll shoot the generals on our own side.
Our own right hand the chains must shiver
E’er the thieves will out with their booty
Each at the forge must do their duty
And we’ll strike while the iron is hot.
I cried, this is what they were fighting for; they were fighting so that we could have a future, so that we would be able to read beautiful literature such as this and have a voice in our own destinies.
Nixon, Bob. Tiananmen Square. British Colombia: Douglas & McIntyre Ltd, 1989.
“The Internationale” http://www.anu.edu.au/polsci/marx/int/internationale.html, April 2000.
“Tiananmen Square Facts” http://kizuna.cwru.edu/asia110/projects/Qing/what.html, April 2000.
“Tiananmen Square Site” http://www.schoolpapers.com/china2345/tsquare.html, April 2000.