I have been teaching Luke, a Chinese high school student, spoken English. He comes from Zhejiang, an eastern coastal province, and traveled by train to Beijing, the only other Chinese city besides Shanghai he has ever visited, to study English. He’s an awesome kid who yawns a lot, but he is very enthusiastic and diligent about his studies. Luke’s regular school schedule in Zhejiang would be unimaginable to anyone outside China; 6 days a week, 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. with two breaks in between for meals. Personally, knowing what I know and seeing what I’ve seen, life would be utterly unbearable forced to stay within school walls for more than half the day, everyday. For Luke, though, it is a nice thing to be around his friends all day.
For our English classes, I have been selecting newspaper articles from the New York Times and BBC for him to summarize, but more importantly, for him to learn about the world outside his home. To my surprise, I, a foreigner, was also teaching him about his own country. I have had him read articles about India’s missing children, Arizona’s immigration law, orangutang habitats, former NBA player Stephen Marbury now playing for the Beijing Ducks, and most recently about the Chinese government’s attempt to censor the nation’s microblogs against “rumors,” aka any utterances against the government.
Somehow Tiananmen Square came up in one of our heated debates (I like to play devil’s advocate with Luke–he hates it). I mentioned the Tiananmen Square Massacre, after defining what “massacre” was, but Luke had no idea what I was talking about; he vaguely knew about the protests, but he didn’t know people were killed, tanked. My jaw literally dropped below my knees, and so I began my rant about dictatorship, censorship, Communism, and the Chinese education system that intensely suppresses the smallest ounce of information that suggests anything negative about the government. This he knew; many Chinese students I have met know that information is missing from their lessons but they also know that any questioning of or disagreement with a teacher is pretty much forbidden, unless you’re a masochist.
I forgot to mention that my 22 year old cousin also had no idea about the Tiananmen Square Massacre. Can you picture my jaw literally scraping along concrete as we were walking in the street talking openly in Chinese about this national incident hidden from Chinese youth?
After sharing with Luke what I knew about the Tiananmen Square Massacre, the only crime I’ve probably ever committed, I then asked Luke if he had heard of Liu Xiaobo, the 2010 Chinese Nobel Peace Prize winner (crime #2). This time unsurprisingly, he said “no.” So, I went on spilling the rotten beans about his home country. Thankfully Luke was very eager to learn more–he likes anything “tragic”–and pressed me on to continue my disenchantments of China. Don’t worry, after our lesson I wiped all the new vocabulary–dictator, censorship, freedom of speech, Communism, massacre–off the board.
A few days later, I had dinner with a Chinese friend I met in my first year at Ithaca College, in the States. I brought up my shock and horror of China’s ability to manipulate and suppress news, simultaneously wondering how that is even possible in the digital age where information is accessible to everyone–except China obviously, although sites like Wikipedia, BBC and NYTimes are still available. So then how can people still be so oblivious to horrific crimes that occur in their own country?
Well, my friend said plainly, if there is no interest, no suggestion that would lead one to search for such events, why would anybody go out of their way to find the information?
That made complete sense to me. If nobody ever told, or hinted, to Luke that violent crimes occurred in 1989, what are the chances of him googling “Tiananmen Square Massacre” or Liu Xiaobo on his own? None! You can’t find what you’re not looking for.
I have been in China exactly 4 months and my mind has already been blown to pieces by numerous and various forces. As I am still unaccustomed to many Chinese ways and have much more to learn about how this country works, I will take advantage of this “ignorance” as defense in case any scary Red Guards chase after me and continue my rants about what I think my students deserve to know. Information is meant to be known; it can’t be hidden forever. I have much to uncover, much to learn, as do my students, and the Chinese government. It’s just a matter of (jail)time, exiles, and many disappearances.
I’m writing all of this in the wake of Kim Jong-il’s death. Oy.
Well-known Chinese Human Rights Activists/Dissidents (that I, and you probably already, know of):
Chen Guangcheng – blind civil rights activist who defended women’s rights against forced sterilization and abortion
Ai Weiwei – an influential artist highly critical of the Chinese government
Liu Xiaobo – a writer and Nobel Peace Prize winner who helped draft Charter 08, calling for political and legal reforms
My list is a short one, but it’s a hopeful one.