Years after a catastrophe, resilience continues to express itself. Memory lets us relive and reinterpret past events, unpacking things that overwhelmed us and growing our response over time. It is not an easy process. The approach of a date, a particular smell, image, or snippet of music can send us back to a deeply fearful place. Some try to forget, but the things we hide from the daylight have a way of resurfacing in our dreams. Unexpressed emotions can be powerful poisons. A world that suppresses history is a world in which violence simmers continually just beneath the collective consciousness. Resilience grows in the soil of our stories, informing the people we become, passing through us into our relationships and communities. We must share with one another if we want to survive.
This prose poem is the work of my friend, Sherry Cheng, a vibrant, warm and intelligent Chinese American woman who came to the United States in her teenage years. In it, she relates how the catastrophic events that happened in Tiananmen Square on a fateful day in 1989 impacted her, her family and her future husband. Her raw honesty speaks volumes, simple and clear. There cannot be many things more terrifying than a government that kills, imprisons and intimidates people with impunity.
Let me set the stage. On June 4, 1989, a peaceful, student-led protest is violently suppressed by the Chinese government, as the military, armed with rifles and tanks, kills at least several hundred unarmed people in Tiananmen Square. The images of tanks plowing down students shocks the world. Wei, Sherry’s future husband, is at the Central Conservatory, where he studies viola. Almost a decade before he will meet his wife, he steps out of the conservatory into a war zone. Sherry is sixteen and sits in front of a television set in an apartment in Starkville, MS, as horrific reports of the violence in her homeland flood the screen. Sherry’s aunt, a student at the University of Chicago who had taken donations from Americans to the student protesters at Tiananmen Square, boards a plane back to Chicago with her three year old son. She is also pregnant. Plain clothes police waiting on the plane meet her and take her and her son to prison. They will be missing for nearly two weeks, while her family uses every connection they have to find them. It will take a couple of months and a promise that she will never again be politically active for the family to secure their release.
Violence is not an anonymous phenomenon. The aggressors, the injured, the killed, the witnesses: they all have faces.
June 4, 1989
29 years ago today the tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square,
bullets flew overhead while a young man lay prostrate on the ground right outside the Central Conservatory gates.
He saw a little girl shot down,
an innocent bystander,
her Mother wailing.
A 16 year old girl across the ocean sat transfixed,
as events transpired on her TV screen.
She could not control her tears as images passed by of bloodied bodies piled on makeshift carts.
Hope turned to fear that day and for months after.
Innocent deaths, interrogations, terror, arrests…
The girl’s aunt, who had helped distribute funds to the peaceful protesters,
disappeared from the airport on route to Chicago,
her whereabouts unknown for weeks.
She had her 3 year old son with her, as well as another one on the way.
Fast forward 29 years…
I mark this day every year because forgetting is easy,
even for those who experienced the terror first hand,
like my husband.
even for those who believed so strongly in an ideal that they would’ve given their lives for it,
like my aunt.
Because life does go on.
We move forward.
So many have forgotten.
For each new generation the memory grows dimmer.
History is reevaluated and reinterpreted.
Black and white, right and wrong, everything is blurred.
Amnesia sets in. Ideals are lost.
But I’m still here, so is Wei.
We carry that history with us.
We will tell our stories every year,
even when no one is listening.