Seventeen years ago, I spent a month in the People’s Republic of China on a youth tour. There were 40 Western teens — mostly from the United States — and 20 Chinese teens on the tour. We travelled together for a month, from Beijing down through Shandong Province; we climbed Tai Shan, drifted along the Huang He by boat, stayed in Wuhan for a few days, and finally wound up in Shanghai. It was an amazing experience.
I met a lot of people on that trip. Stefani later introduced me to Pearl, her freshman year roommate. Pearl in turn introduced me to Susan, who got me back into the SF con scene. I met Leon through Susan, and Leon introduced me to TinyMUD, which is how I got my first job in the tech industry. It was a rather important month in my life.
I also met a few people whose names I’m still uncomfortable using in public, because… you never know. The Chinese kids we travelled with were all smart highly educated children of Communist Party members from Beijing. At the beginning of the trip, they were highly doctrinaire around us. By the end? Everyone had loosened up. There was more trust. The more radical among them were willing to admit to being uncertain about the rule of their parents.
We exchanged addresses at the end of the tour. Some of us kept up our letter writing — circumscribed, always, and careful, but knowing each other well enough to read between the lines.
A little more than fifteen years ago, the tone of some of the letters changed. Got more excited. Something was up.
Fifteen years ago, the world saw this.
We stopped getting letters after that. I don’t know why; I like to think it’s simply that writing letters to Westerners were unwise, but I know it’s possible that some of my friends died in the protests. Unlikely, though; not many students did. But… you never know.
Either way, Tiananmen Square was very personal for me. I’d spent an afternoon there, looking at the monuments and being amazed at the scale of the place. I had, at the time, a little wooden fan with a picture of the Square on it. I knew people who were probably there when the tanks rolled in.