It's a rare Chinese cabbie that can speak English, but on my second night in China, while slumming it with friends in Beijing, our driver saw three westerners get in his car and my mother tongue came pouring out. He went right for the good stuff, too, or rather the bad stuff. He wanted to swear like a native speaker.
We took him through the basics: "Fuck that," "Those fuckers," "That's bullshit." It was international cooperation through cussing. He tried it out on passing cars on the Second Ring Road, who gave plenty of excuse for vulgarity.
I lost the conversation when it turned to Chinese, but my friend Lindsey, who has lived here three years, kept chatting with him. My mind drifted to the passing lights of the Beijing night and my future in China and other insignificant things until a familiar word brought my attention back into the cab.
"Was he there?" I asked Lindsey. "Yes," she said quickly before switching back to Mandarin.
And finally we came to the driver's real reason for needing those choice English phrases.
"That was fucked up," he said of the 1989 massacre. "It was bullshit."
Foreign teachers like to talk about all those things we can't talk about. We joke about the three -- "Tibet, Taiwan, Tiananmen" -- and Falun Gong, and politics, and everything our students and employers like to pretend doesn't exist. A year of this has left me exhausted. Something twitched in me last night, and I just said, "Screw it, I'm curious."
I wrote the date on the board: June 4. "Does today have any significance to any of you?" I asked 30 college freshmen. The oldest among them is 20, so it's a matter of what they've heard, what they've learned in school, and what they've found on their own.
I added the year. "Does anyone know what happened on June 4, 1989?"
I've embarrassed my students enough to know when they're holding back. They stare at their desks, avert their eyes and suffer a sudden loss of all ability to speak English. Every student in this class was staring at me, dumbfounded, with no idea what I was talking about.
Which doesn't really surprise me. It is, after all, taboo. The Net Nanny knows her job.
One student finally whispered as I passed, "Do you mean...Tiananmen?"
Today I asked one of my better graduate students on the way out of class what he knew about Tiananmen. He shrugged: "Maybe they had too much free time. I don't really know what it was about. You know, I was small when all that happened."
It's possible I just did something monumentally stupid. I could get a call any minute now from the foreign affairs office for a proper dressing down because I brought politics into the classroom, though my contract makes no mention of any such rule (religion is the only subject specifically barred). Maybe they're already processing the deportation paperwork.
But I doubt it.
First, my university has never shown any interest in what happens in my classroom. I'm certain no one was aware that I missed a class last month after spending a night regurgitating bad clams. If the department cared, they'd have given us books. And second, my students are the university's best defense against controversy. While the younger students are curious, the older set tell me, time and again, "We (Chinese) don't like to talk about politics."
The interest gap might be worth pursuing, though. Before bringing up Tiananmen, I put my class of freshmen through a less controversial exercise: Pretend you're the next president of China. What would you change? What needs fixing? Thirty lists came back, each with four or five bullet points, and almost no subject overlapping.
Build more roads. Lessen the income gap. Take back Taiwan. Reform the college entrance exams. Nothing revolutionary, but they're thinking (I'll give the complete list in a follow-up post). "No one else asks us what we think," one student told me after class, the same one who knew what yesterday was.
There are reasons to remember Tiananmen, and reasons to forget. It's easy to get caught up in the Three Ts, to snicker about controversy, to poke at Chinese nationalism and national forgetfulness. But it's hardly the top issue for my students, who will have to figure out where this country is headed long after I give up and go back to a more familiar locale.
Who is talking: