We had just departed from an acrobatic show in Beijing, China (think Cirque de sole ) and were heading to our tour bus which would take us back to our hotel. It was a Wake Forest University school group, a summer education course. One week in Japan, two in China. Today was our last day . Earlier that day we toured the Great Wall of China, meant to be the highlight of our trip.
And that's when I heard those helicopters. Military helicopters, roaring over our heads, closer to the ground than one might expect helicopters to be. Heading in the direction of Tiananmen Square..
We looked at the Chinese people around us to gauge their reaction. Their faces bore the unmistakeable look of shock and concern at the helicopters. Perhaps we should be shocked and concerned too. Even before we entered the country two weeks prior, we knew what was going on. Student protest in Tiananmen Square, the ideological center of Communist China, had been raging for weeks. Up until our last night in Japan, we weren't sure if Wake was going to let us continue with our itinerary. An alternate trip to Korea was in the works. And then on that last night, the decision was made: we could go. Things appeared to be "stable."
So we had enjoyed our prior ten days: Shanghai. Xian. Guangzhou. A few other towns I can't remember. We'd seen some amazing sights, met amazing people. We were struck by the stark divide between rich and poor in a country where there were two forms of currency for two classes of people. I practically got a buzz cut at the hotel barber shop when I told the barber, "Take this much off," making a small space between my thumb and forefinger. He didn't understand a lick of English. He thought I meant, "Leave this much on." We laughed about that.
But we didn't laugh about those helicopters.
We made our way back to the hotel and turned on the televisions in our rooms - because even in 1989, long before 24-hour news cables, we expected live coverage of "breaking news." Alas, in a country where the government controlled all modes of communication, on the night when hundreds would kill thousands, all we found on the TV were reports on that year's crop harvest.
As dusk settled over this warm June day, the street outside our hotel became packed with Chinese university students, making their way to the Square on bicycle and foot, a mere ten minutes away. They wore black bands around their heads and arms, a blatant symbol of solidarity and defiance in pursuit of basic freedoms they were willing to die for. Some stopped and talked to us, saying that tanks had descended on the Square and were killing the protestors in droves. They knew they were very likely heading to their death. And they wanted us to go back to America and tell the world, because they were so afraid the world would never hear of this.
Try to get some sleep, our professors told us. We did - sort of. At 6am my phone rang. We had a group meeting at 7. Good news: our normal-scheduled flight out of China to Hong Kong was still on schedule. Bad news: the tour bus that had accompanied us throughout our trip, the tour bus that was supposed to complete her duty by taking us to the airport that morning, was currently burning in the Square, hijacked by students and used as a barricade in a futile attempt to keep the tanks out. In a stroke of luck, our professors managed to round up four van taxi drivers to take us to the airport. But we'd have to go in two groups. So the ladies went first and the guys waited in the hotel lobby. Women and children first, y'all.
Time dragged on. And on. Long periods of silence. No cell phones to call or text the other half of the group to see if they made it to the airport, if they made it at all. Time dragged on. An occasional attempt at a joke to lighten the mood. A few chuckles. Then more silence. Time dragged on.
Eventually the vans came back and had us on our way. Somehow I wound up riding shotgun in one of them. We were heading away from the Square, but the chaos was happening sporadically all over the city. Large groups of Chinese citizens gathering at every street corner, trying to find out what was happening, because the crop reports on television weren't cutting it. At one point we were stopped at an intersection, and I looked out my passenger window to see a large pool of blood on the sidewalk. Another time, a young Chinese man ran to our van and actually opened the door (long before the days of doors-automatically-locking-when-car-is-in-drive ingenuity). Speaking perfect English, he yelled, "Go tell the world what you've seen here! Tell them everything! Please!" And then he shut the door and ran away. I will never forget the hysterical urgency of his voice, nor the look on the face of my fellow student seated right by the door.
I was never as excited to see a group of women as when we finally arrived at the airport. I'm pretty sure they were equally excited to see us. We were rushed through customs, as the last thing the Chinese government wanted was a large group of American college students trapped in their country. We got on our plane, taxied down the runway, and soon were airbound. A loud shout of joy and relief erupted when the captain told us we were out of Chinese airspace. Later we would learn that, an hour after our departure, the Beijing airport completely shut down for over a week. We got out in the nick of time.
The first thing on our agenda in Hong Kong (at the time still a British colony and not part of China) was to call home and assure frantic parents we were okay. Mine were in tears - while we had been watching crop reports the night before, Tom Brokaw was breaking into Saturday morning cartoons on the other side of the world with the grim news. For nearly 24 hours, all they knew was that the city their son was in was in total mayhem. Now they knew I was safe. As the parent of two sons myself, I simply can't fathom being in their shoes all that time.
Hong Kong is also where we learned that one of our fellow group members had somehow made connections with NBC reporters those last few days in Beijing, agreeing to smuggle video footage of the Square massacre through airport customs to NBC affiliates waiting for him in Hong Kong - all in a selfish attempt to further his own post-college career aspirations. Had he been caught in customs in Beijing, we all would've been detained and questioned - and perhaps worse. He kind of kept to himself for the rest of the journey home.
That night we enjoyed pizza - an American delicacy we'd been deprived of for weeks. It was all very surreal - mere hours before, we had been observers and sideline participants in one of the greatest human rights tragedies of the century. It was all very scary and sad.
It changed me.
Every year on June 4, I remember. I remember those students, I remember the gentleman who yanked open our van door; all begging us to "tell the world." I haven't stopped telling anyone who will listen, including the mother of a new church member at a Youth Sunday lunch back in May. She and her son, a high school senior, had moved to the States a few years ago. I've been in the habit over the years of bringing up my Tiananmen Square experience with anyone I meet from China, just to gauge their reaction. Most of the time it's an indifferent stare. A few times it's denial that it ever happened.
This time, she smiled a knowing smile and told me she had been in the Square just the day before. She had been part of the peaceful protests, a college student herself, and had gone back to her dorm room for a good night's sleep before planning to return. She lost many friends that night. She, too, remembers. We talked long after the lunch buffet had been taken down; our two stories converging over decades and nationalities.
Even now I think of what happened when I hear the sound of helicopters flying above me. For that reason, and for many others, I won't forget.