So I departed for China in January 1989. The first stop was Hong Kong, where the group would assemble before "going in" to Beijing. I ran into two of my former classmates from Middlebury, so I was relieved that already there were a couple of familiar faces. I was really excited, but also a little scared. I'd never been this far from home, for this long. I was 20 years old.
I checked into my room at the Hong Kong YMCA. I remember sleeping a lot, because of the jetlag, but I also made a note in my journal that my second day there, the day before we flew into China, was the day of George H. W. Bush's inauguration. I celebrated with a couple of beers at a watering hole in Kowloon called "Ned Kelly's Last Stand."
The next day we gathered our luggage, and after breakfast, headed to the airport to fly to Beijing. The People's Republic of China.
China! Where paper and gunpowder had come from, and later this peculiar form of Socialism. Where Chairman Mao had launched campaigns that amounted to massive social experiments. They sounded like science fiction, but they were not. I was utterly fascinated.
In the previous 40 years, China had undergone social and economic upheavals on a scale I could barely conceive of. Campaigns like the "Hundred Flowers"
movement and the "Anti-Rightist"
movement; the Great Leap Forward
, which led to the deaths of 20 to 30 million people between 1959 and 1962; and the Cultural Revolution,
in which young Chinese became Red Guards
and turned into such a destructive, anarchic force that Mao had to call upon the People's Liberation Army to restore order.
Given the enormity of these movements, and the dire consequences of dissent, I was also fascinated by the trickle of dissent that had emerged in their aftermath. There was very little dissent, and it obviously took tremendous courage. I had heard of the Democracy Wall
movement, and of the Chinese dissident Wei Jingsheng, who had been jailed for writing an essay that advocated expanded individual liberties.
In 1987, just after I started studying Chinese, there had been some student protests. One of the senior leaders, Hu Yaobang, had been blamed for letting the protests grow too large, for being indulgent of the students, so he was forced out of power. I'd seen the protests on TV.
All of this was swirling in my head on the CAAC** flight to Beijing. As we descended, I took in the landscape: the farmland which had been subjected to the throes of collectivism; the farmers, who had been forced into communes; and finally, the city itself, Beijing.
Beijing was profoundly gray and colorless. The air was gray, the buildings were gray. At this time, even in 1989, although the majority of people had ceased to wear "Mao jackets," there was very little in the way of colorful clothing. And since it was a late winter afternoon, it was already getting dark. We disembarked by stairway onto the tarmac and walked to the terminal.
And the smell! Coal. My first, strongest and most lasting impression of Beijing.
It was winter, and Beijing stayed warm by burning coal. The air was heavy with the scent of burning coal. Not just the scent, actually; the air was also filthy. That was another of my early revelations, the black that was expelled whenever you blew your nose.
Every now and then I will catch a whiff of coal smoke. In an instant, I am right back there, a 20 year-old student stepping off the plane into the People's Republic of China, into this descending gray.
We entered the terminal, and then waited in line to go through customs and immigration. It was an imposing process. I'd had to send my passport away to get a visa, which took up a full page. I had had to fill out an entry card, a health declaration, and a customs declaration. Soon I would be standing in front of a uniformed official. In my mind, he was
the People's Liberation Army.
The official, a young man probably in his twenties, took my passport and my cards. He looked them over. He looked up at me once. I did my best to strike a pose of respectful earnestness. He looked back down, sleepily stamped my passport, and slid it back to me.
I was in.
The airport had a ramshackle feel to it-- like we had somehow landed in the 1950s. Linoleum floors, dingy whitewashed walls. Rattling single pane windows. Considering that this was a major international capital, the airport seemed shockingly small and spartan. The international terminal had maybe 6 gates, and two luggage carousels.
As we waited for our luggage, the students continued to get to know each other. It was a diverse group-- ages ranging from 17 to 32. Students from all over the country. A high school teacher, who was accompanied by his wife; an older student who had been traveling and was applying to graduate schools; a girl whose family were expatriates living in Hong Kong.
(As an aside, I had noticed that by and large, my classmates in Chinese language classes were not particularly interesting. I had hardly met any that I wanted to spend time with outside of class. But in my group in Beijing, I met a few of the finest, most unforgettable people I know, whom I will introduce you to shortly.)
We boarded the bus for "Bei Da," as Peking University is called. Along the way, people began to find roommates. I was a little late in realizing this was going on, so I ended up with a roommate mostly by process of elimination. My roommate would be Chad. Chad was from California. He was taking a year off from Princeton. He'd just spent the fall living in Taiwan. He was a good looking guy, very social.
"Okay," I thought. "West coast guy, goes to school back east. And he's fun to hang out with. I think this will work out fine."
We dropped our bags and set off to explore our new surroundings.*(There are, I believe, three different "YMCA" hotels in Hong Kong. It can be a little confusing when you don't know your way around. You tell a cab driver "YMCA" and he promptly takes you to a hotel you'd swear you've never seen before. Add to that some jetlag and general disorientation, and it'll mess with your head. For the record, we were at the one in Tsim Sha Tsui, in Kowloon.)**Civil Aviation Administration of China- one of the many quaintly anachronistic, anti-capitalist names I have come to appreciate.