I thought, in that spring of 1989, that my life had finally acquired a semblance of order and stability. Even my mother grudgingly admitted it, relieved that “the China business” was behind me. It had taken roughly ten years for me to settle or, as my mother would say somewhat scathingly, to mature, which conferred cheese-like qualities on me I felt I didn’t deserve.
And yet it all unravelled so quickly in that year of upheavals. I felt it first – a sort of inner stir, an unsettling flutter in the stomach – over breakfast towards the middle of April when I opened the Sunday paper and read that students were demonstrating in Beijing. Demonstrating!
One hundred thousand students had gathered in Tiananmen Square the day before Hu Yaobang’s funeral, to honour him and voice their discontent. The government will clear them out pretty fast, I thought sadly, worrying about the consequences for the students. I bought newspapers every morning after dropping Justin off at school but as the protests grew I felt increasingly concerned, partly for idealistic reasons (still, but not those I once had) and partly for personal ones, because of the time I had spent there and what had happened. I didn’t realise, nor would I until Baohong showed up on my doorstep months later, that those momentous events would even have an impact on my own small life.
The students remained in the Square and I became glued to the BBC World Service. The sight of them was griping the world; even my mother, Harriet, was intrigued. She called me one evening from Hove, demanding explanations.
‘So who’s Hu then?” My mother’s idea of a joke.
‘Hu Yaobang? He supported the students in ‘86 when they protested against inflation. He was forced out of office. You could call him a reformer I suppose, but hardly a great democrat. A useful peg to hang protest on, Chinese style. They’ve certainly got enough to protest about: the country’s riddled with corruption at every level, inflation’s gone mad, economic reforms are too slow, and as for political reforms, well, there just aren’t any…’
‘An the other chap? I can never remember those names.’
‘Zhao. Zhao Ziyang. He took over from Hu as General Secretary of the Communist Party when Hu was demoted. Seems to support the students, but who knows?’
After Harriet hung up I tried to imagine the exhilaration at Beida, the Beijing University campus I knew so well. The fervour, the bustling organisation, the cliques and the bickering, but also the shared excitement of a common cause that would overcome any fear of reprisals as the movement grew and spread beyond the students’ wildest expectations. On 26 April an editorial in the People’s Daily attacked the students: chaos would not be tolerated. That’s it, I thought, but instead of scaring them off it merely emboldened them further and they marched to Tiananmen Square in ever greater numbers. It soon became apparent that the Party itself was split in its handling of events. In early May all the universities were on strike, the Square was still occupied, and a group had started a hunger strike – a dramatic move in a country that had known famine not so very long ago. The all-important Sino-Soviet Summit was to be held in Beijing, the first since the 1950s rift between the two countries. As the date of Gorbachev’s state visit to China approached and the possibility of a showdown loomed, I could bear it no longer. I swallowed my pride and wrote to the only visa-wielding Westerners I knew still living in Beijing. Alison was now teaching English and living in the Friendship Hostel, while Liv was working for a Swedish logging company and living in the Beijing Hotel. I begged each of them for a personal invitation, but as letters took days to arrive I finally splurged on a long-distance call. I dialled interminable digits and after a crackled silence heard a distant ringing tone that went on and on, until a grumpy operator grudgingly replied.
I gave Liv’s room number and Chinese name.
‘Bu zai,’ the voice replied curtly, and hung up.
I took Justin to the local pizzeria and as I toyed with the rubbery mozzarella on my plate and watched my tomato-smeared son stuff huge doughy triangles into his mouth, I was struck by the conflicting thoughts of how much I loved this unexpected child and yet how much I needed to leave him briefly and return to China. It was a matter of closing a circle, something I had to do.
‘Justin,’ I said, taking a swig of vinegary Valpolicella, ‘Would you mind very much if I went to China for a couple of weeks? It won’t be for long, I promise. Granny will come up to London and you two will have fun together, you know how she spoils you. I really need to go and see what’s going on for myself.’
Justin listened in his grave way, wilting pizza triangle suspended in mid-flight, and then asked, ‘Would my father have been there?’ I marvelled that he could make a future conditional out of his unknown past and resisted an urge to hug him very tightly; he was nearly ten years old and no longer of hug-tolerating age– at least not in public.
‘Yes darling,’ I said, ‘he would certainly have been there – right in the thick of it I should think.’
‘Then I want to come with you.’
‘No, my love, not now. Anyway, you can’t leave school before the end of term. I’ll only go for a short while. And I’ll call at least twice a week.’ Justin looked doubtful. ‘We’ll go together another time and have a grand holiday, I promise you.’
‘Well, all right then,’ he said grudgingly. ‘But I will go to China one day.’
Yes, I thought with a pang, you will. You will leave me and go there.
It had started drizzling when we left the pizzeria and the streets gave off a smell of wet cement mingled with earth and traffic fumes.
‘What’s China like?’ asked Justin, who had never left England and probably imagined the swirling dragons and garish demons from my children’s books; rather as I had once reduced the country to bamboo teahouses and misty mountain tops, or smiling happy workers and peasants. And even though this was not a new topic for us, I didn’t know where to start. I thought back to my strange first impressions of drab greys and blues, of frustrated incomprehension and blank faces behind which, had I only known, lay the unspeakable tragedies that still remained unspoken. But that was not for Justin. Yet.
After I put him to bed I turned on the radio and listened to the news while I cleared up, but thoughts kept interrupting me. As I tried to imagine myself back in Beijing after so many years, memories began to resurface, memories of events during that other extraordinary time in China, which might appear paltry now compared to what was happening in Tiananmen Square, yet they were unparalleled back then.
Now I allowed those memories to flood back. They had been repressed for so long out of necessity – not just to alleviate the pain and the guilt, but because there was little room for them in the humdrum requirements of caring for a child on my own and trying to earn a living. The years had dulled them a little and they needed to be examined again, viewed from a different light, before being put away again.
But those memories had a concrete manifestation too. I jumped up and went into my bedroom-cum-office. I carried my desk chair to the rather ugly wooden cupboard I’d bought cheaply in a flea market years ago and had never replaced, though I kept meaning to. I climbed onto the chair and reached for a large battered box on top of the cupboard, next to my dusty old typewriter case, and edged it gently towards me. I grasped it with both hands and swayed slightly for it was heavier than I remembered, but I managed to get it safely down from the chair and tipped the contents higgledy-piggledy onto my bed. There lay garish red plastic-covered Chinese notebooks with revolutionary slogans on them; small blue or green plastic-covered dictionaries; rice paper notebooks, stitched and bound in silk; common-or-garden squared exercise books for Chinese calligraphy; an assortment of souvenirs, badges, and elastic-bound typewritten pages. Dull notes on turgid propaganda classes were mixed up with illegible records I had jotted down at the time and which had miraculously survived (perhaps their very illegibility had spared them), and everything I wrote down after I returned, to help me understand.
We are all crammed into a little white ‘breadbus’ – so called, the jovial man from the embassy is saying, because the Chinese think it looks like a loaf of bread. ‘Not that many have seen a loaf of bread, eh?’ My friend Liv and I exchange glances and roll our eyes. We had not expected to have dealings with the embassy. I had naively imagined we would be picked up by a Mao-suited cadre and whisked off to dig ditches.
I press my face to the window. I am simmering with excitement, eager to get out of the bus and into Real China, but for now all I can see are straight, tree-lined roads jammed with blue-clad cyclists swerving away from our minibus, which is hogging the centre and honking assertively. We pass the odd rattling truck and are overtaken once by a large black limousine, lace curtains drawn to hide the very important person inside.
The Peking Foreign Languages Institute proves to be an ugly grey brick compound set amid flat fields in the middle of nowhere. There are many foreign students, from all over the world. We new arrivals are allocated rooms and ration tickets and we sit down to our first meal in the foreign students’ canteen, where disappointingly the only Chinese we see are behind the serving hatches. We survey our fellow exiles, some of whom we have chatted to during the long flight over. There is Robbie from Edinburgh, a self-professed Trotskyite – nothing to brag about in China, I tell myself. An eccentric-looking Cambridge graduate called Rebecca who irritatingly boasts that that she can quote Confucius and Mencius but has no idea how to ask for the lavatory or read simplified characters. She pronounces lavatory in four syllables and says the word ‘simplified’ with distaste. The inseparable look-alikes, Alison and Sean, both recent SOAS graduates, are the youngest of the group. Alison sports a short boyish haircut while Sean wears his long wavy hair in a ponytail. They are confusingly androgynous, and I wonder briefly if their appearance is a deliberate ploy to unnerve their Chinese teachers. I immediately nickname them The Twins. Then there is a prim and earnest older woman whose name I didn’t catch, who claims to be a Chinese language teacher but sounds as linguistically lost as the rest of us, an ardent spotty Maoist called Roger, and a lanky, bespectacled Peter who, to my disbelief, confides to me in a low voice that he wants to bring Christ to China. There are a few others we haven’t spoken to yet.
Well, I think, we’re going to have to live together for a whole year whether we like each other or not.