Teaching in China

On the eve of the Tienanmen Massacre:
Chinese students' hunger for freedom

By George Jay Leonard

[This article by George Leonard , professor of interdisciplinary humanities at SFSU, appeared in the editorial section of the May 26 San Francisco Examiner, shortly before the Tienanmen Massacre of the Chinese students.]

We sit in front of the television set, watching the students in Tiananmen Square. The media have found a boy to be their Mark Rudd (Columbia University strike leader, 1968). He's a student at the Beijing Teacher's College where I taught last summer.

I recognize a woman standing with him -- a plain woman, 30ish, shy, always smiling; when she tried to talk to me another woman always cut her off. Now here she is on network television.

Who are they? (Dan Rather is asking.) What do they want? Why are some students carrying a six-foot Statue of Liberty? What do they think "democracy" is? What do they think "America" is? President Bush has told them to "Stand up for what they believe in," but what do they believe in?

I can answer in part. Some of the students in Tiananmen Square, and apparently some of the leaders (if there really could be leaders in a situation like that) were in my classes last summer. Less than a mile from Tiananmen, at Beijing Advanced Teacher's College, I gave 120 to 140 of Beijing's working English teachers (a ninth of the capital's total) the first lecture series on America by a foreigner they had ever been permitted. Perhaps their last. My wife left Beijing only three years ago, and I speak Mandarin, so that helped us communicate.

What did they know about America? Only that it's Paradise. Less than your great-grandfather knew when he came over here to pick up gold off the street; less than any people in the world. And mind you, I was teaching the teachers -- and this was the heart of Beijing.

I brought slides with me because I knew they hadn't even seen images of America. The Chinese still have not seen our movies or television. They're now, in 1989, allowed Mi Lao Shu, Mickey Mouse, every Sunday at 6 for half an hour, and about four weirdly assorted American movies a year. When I met my wife she didn't know who John Wayne was, or Frank Sinatra --she didn't even know who Elvis was. My students didn't either. Now, if they've never seen a picture of Elvis, how much do you think they know about American culture?

The chairman of the English department, as we sat down to the obligatory Peking duck dinner, told me confidently that he'd heard that in America the knife was used only once, at the start of the meal, to cut the meat into bits, which were then eaten with the fork. Was that true? When I ungraciously said no, he lost face, and had to insist. Yes, he'd heard this from a very good source. I was perhaps mistaken?

He was head of the department. The students in Tiananmen know less about us than he does.

Democracy? Capitalism? None of my students were remotely interested in economics, except for one question: "How much does a teacher make?" "I don't know what democracy is," Newsweek quoted a student saying some weeks back, "but we need more of it." "Democracy" fascinates them in the abstract way "sex" fascinates virgins. Without experience, they understand it only in the abstract. But everyone understands what a dishwasher is, what food is, what it would be like not to have to ride a bike through sleet to work.

I tried to give a balanced picture of America, tried to talk about social problems, the inner city, the crack epidemic. My students seemed shocked to hear me say it, since they had heard about that part from their government, and everything their government tells them they assume is a lie. But they soon got back to their real interest: "How much do teachers like us make?"

The most ambitious of these people, by the way, were Communist Party members. It means nothing. Picture yourself trying to rise in a Ford plant without joining the AFL-CIO.

I showed them pictures of the desert right outside Los Angeles, to suggest how much open space there still was in America, but they were only interested in the giant power lines marching across even this vacant space. Until a few years ago much of Beijing only received electricity certain days of the week, and even now, in 1989, it fails almost daily.

My wife kept telling me to drop the aesthetics and social theory and give them what they wanted. In the last lecture I gave them what they'd been waiting for, the American Dream, the same stuff that would have brought a tense, respectful silence to my grandparents' shtetls back in Europe. A Party meeting had been scheduled opposite this lecture, so only about 20 people could come, but we had a good discussion. We saw "workers" driving cars they owned; shopping malls ablaze with electric lights and filled with "workers"; the endless dumbfounding Sizzler salad bar, surrounded by elderly people eating great plates of food. My wife showed them slides she's taken in Safeway: ordinary people buying hao chr-de, plentiful, inexpensive food.

You have to turn your mind back to your great-grandparents to remember that America means food. During the early sixties, after Mao's disastrous Great Leap Forward, all the leaves disappeared from the elm tree in my wife's building courtyard; people had climbed up and eaten them. Food is still rationed in Beijing: Every meal I had at my mother-in-law's was the same -- rice, eggplant, peanuts, cucumber, tomato and sometimes an egg. S'may said Meiguoren (Americans) needed meat, so her mom took two buses through the heat to a store that had a backup generator for its refrigeration and paid a small ransom to buy me a heavily salted chicken leg, which dissolved into a brown liquid somewhere near the middle. The third time it was served to me I finished it.

When you eat, people politely ask, "Hao chr-ma?" Americans always translate that as "Did it taste good?" but that's not really what it means. If the food was hao - unspoiled, edible --it's assumed it tasted good enough for you. When old people meet they still say, "Ni chr-le-ma", "Did you eat?" An American friend once asked his Cantonese father-in-law if this greeting was some sort of an implied invitation to dine. The old gentlemen said that, no, it was more like, "Did you find anything to eat?"

That is, as we say, where my old students in Tiananmen are coming from. By "democracy" or "freedom" my students meant: whatever America was doing right which was getting them electric power, refrigeration and hao chr-de, good food.

One final hunger I saw firsthand: the hunger with which they listended to an American's lectures, which they knew were uncensored, "free." Imagine being sealed in a time capsule -- and knowing it. If you can know something by its absence, then indeed they know "freedom" -- and perhaps, by extension, can intuit "democracy."

First publication, San Francisco Examiner; national syndication, Newspaper Enterprise Associates
Reprinted with permission from the San Francisco Examiner and NEA syndicate.