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     Volume 7 Issue 33 | August 15, 2008 |

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Writing the Wrong

A few words on China and Freedom

Sharbari Ahmed

On June 4th, 1989 I graduated from high school and really had very little to show for it. A few hours earlier tanks had rolled down Chang'an avenue in Beijing, China and fired into Tian'anmen square, killing unarmed student protesters and shocking the world. This affected me greatly for a very mundane reason. I was scheduled to leave for Beijing on June 9th, and now it seemed could not.

The whole high school situation was bittersweet. I was relieved to be finished, relieved I had not been expelled -- uh someday I will explain, after I get permission from my very respectable parents whose other children were angels, more or less -- but was being packed off to Beijing, where my father worked for UNICEF and therefore could keep an eye on me. The freedom I so craved was eluding me yet again. I had felt hemmed in at boarding school, too many rules; too many authoritarians dictating how I should live. And now I would be living at home at 18, with my mommy and daddy who were genuinely baffled at how a Bangali girl from a decent law abiding family could have turned out to be such a hellion.

When the dean of students sat me down in her office and asked me essentially the same question I replied,
“I want freedom.”
“You have that here, Sharbari.”

I remember looking around at the oak paneled office with the tall windows and the green wing back chairs arranged nicely around the fireplace and said, “Uh, I don't think so.”

Everything about the room smacked of tradition, stifling, old, and stagnant. Though very elegant and well appointed now that I think about it.

Beijing Normal University, Beijing, China (Fall, 2007)

“No,” I argued. “I have a curfew. I have to be indoors by ten o clock!” I nearly spat those last words out. To this day I have an abiding dislike of being told that I have to be home by a certain time, even if I have every intention of returning at a reasonable hour. “And I don't understand why certain areas are off limits at certain times,” I added, suddenly filled with misguided bravado.

“Would you be referring to the boy's dorms, Sharbari?”

I had the decency to blush, as that was precisely what I meant but was still dare I say it? Traditional enough to back peddle rapidly.

“No, I mean the gazebo behind the library.”

The dean looked at me, understanding everything. I still get embarrassed when I think about that conversation. Anyway, moving on. I failed pre-calculus because I never showed up to class and therefore could not get into college at once. I also had no desire to go to college as I was convinced that one did not need higher education to become a brilliant writer. So imagine my parents' dismay. It was decided that I would enroll in Mandarin immersion classes and attempt to get into college after a year.

I loved Beijing as my father had been working there a while and would visit it every winter and sometimes in the summer, but the thought of being under the parental thumb really worried me. Filial piety -- the Confucian tradition of honouring one's elders even if your addled teenage brain believed they were stifling you -- was not something I prescribed to.

I managed to convince my parents to let me at least stay in the dorms at the school I was enrolled in, Beijing Shirfan Da Shueor Beijing Normal University. So while I was bemoaning my fate in a spacious dorm room -- a double given to me as a single -- and access to the foreign student's cafeteria and various other amenities, local students had died fighting for better living quarters and food service. And the freedom to study without restriction.

The school I had been enrolled in, some said, was the epicentre of the student protests in Tian'anmen Square. It was at Beijing Shirfan Da Shue, that Wierakaixi, Chai Ling and Wang Dan, the alleged leaders of the protest attended school.

The students said that reprehensible conditions were what led to the protests and strikes. In the room I had been given as a single, eight Chinese students would be packed in. In their cafeteria food left out and rotting in the heat, would be served to them. In our cafeteria food was made fresh daily and a variety of juices and fruits were available to us.

When I arrived in Beijing, a month after the student killings, a pall had settled over the vibrant city. People walked with their heads down and shoulders hunched. It was generally believed (according to the Xinhua news agency and state run media outlets) that the CIA was behind the student uprising and the makeshift “Statue of Liberty” that was put up as a symbol of their protest in the square.

Therefore, I, as well as the other American students, were under close scrutiny and it was difficult to make Chinese friends.

In the days leading up to the final terrible day, June 4th, Premier Li Peng, Deng Xiao Ping's, the head of the Communist Party's right hand man, did something unprecedented, he agreed to meet with the student leaders. I still see clearly the image of the young, bedraggled Weiracaixi (he had been on hunger strike) wagging a finger at the Premier and accusing him of not taking the needs of the students into account. The whole scene was shocking to me, ironically, because I knew how much the Chinese prescribed to the idea of filial piety. Li Peng's face was impassive. A few days later thousands of students (according to various student organisations) were gunned down. The world called it the Tian'anmen massacre, the PRC called it the June 4th Incident. On June 5th, a lone man in a white shirt, carrying two shopping bags, calmly stood in front of a line of tanks rumbling down Chang'an avenue and created an image that will always be one of the definitive symbols of courage. Incidentally Chang'an means eternal peace and is actually where the majority of the killing took place.

I loved Beijing. It is where I grew up, literally, and started the process of understanding what it meant to actually fight for freedom. Until then I was just a spoiled kid who simply did not appreciate the opportunities I had been handed. Something my parents tried very hard to explain to me.

The Beijing I knew in my youth is no more. It is now a shiny, metallic place that has whole-heartedly embraced Western capitalism and is energetically attempting to find a balance between two incredibly disparate doctrines. The dreaded Americans, including our witless--sorry I meant, fearless, leader President Bush, have descended en masse on their beloved city for the Olympic games, in the wake of yet more violencein this case the appalling, insupportable treatment of Tibetan protesters--and discord. The Americans take their medal standings very seriously, as do the Chinese. The rivalry is deep. (Naturally I am talking mainly about basketball here).

And the rub is this: both countries have a very distinct notion about the meaning of freedom, the only difference being that one makes no bones about the fact their government will determine the degree of freedom the people will be allowed, and the other, well the other does the same thing and just pretends that her people are free. It appears that freedom continues to elude me.

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