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说东道西 – Talking About Everything – Aria Liu '23

I walk downstairs for dinner but stop dead in my tracks at the sight of my mom’s stern

expression. What is it this time? I think as I sit nervously at the dining table.

Tongtong, I read your midterm comments,” she says in Chinese. “Why do all of your teachers say you should participate more in class?” I groan as I realize she’ll reprimand me again about how I should speak up more, how being quiet isn’t “American,” how she didn’t immigrate here, to the “land of freedom,” just for me to not use my voice. I hear this lecture every few weeks without fail, yet somehow I never change. It’s not on purpose though––I think it’s mainly fear that holds me back every time. Silence means I don’t have anything for people to judge, which is comforting. But if I talk, I might not say what’s right or what other people want to hear and there might be consequences. I worry so much about this that in the end, I’m left without a say in anything, without a voice.

** *

My mother’s voice was born on April 26, 1989. She was eighteen years old. Nine days earlier, China’s zongshuji, or General Secretary of the CCP, had passed away, and the Tiananmen protests had begun. College students, not only from Beijing but from across the entire country, went on the streets, wanting to change the world. And my mother was one of them. They protested for months, just for a chance to get a voice in the government, for a chance to be heard. What pushed her to join the protests was a banner at the front of her school, Peking University, that said, “Feng xiaoxiao xi yi shui han, zhuangshi yi qu xi bu fuhai” (The wind was weak and the water was cold, when the strong general left and never returned). It was a poem from a story about an old Chinese general who sacrificed himself for his country. Although the loss of a life was tragic, he was eternally remembered and celebrated for his noble deeds. So when the students put that banner up, it meant that they, too, were willing to sacrifice themselves for their country and for what they thought was right for their country. Her classmates wanted China to change for the better, and so did she.

They were all peaceful protests. Just shouting, holding banners, marching, and going on strikes. They made posters with their own materials and money and gathered students from not only the whole city of Beijing, but also all across China. In every major city there were thousands of students assembling to protest. During the protests, they kept yelling, “We want democracy! We want freedom!” My mother yelled until her throat hurt and her voice disappeared––just like the general from the poem. Sacrificed for the country.

On May 13, my mother and hundreds of others went on a hunger strike in Tiananmen Square. During the seven days that my mother participated, the medical students at Peking University checked their blood pressure and medical issues. “It was hurting, you know, to starve yourself,” she told me in her broken English. “One day they found that my blood pressure is very low, so they send me to the hospital. There are so many students there, not even enough beds, so I laid on the floor and they put an IV in me.” After she got her IV, she went back to Tiananmen, joined her schoolmates, and returned to the hunger strike again. Even though she knew the consequences of going back on strike, she decided that it was worth it. She decided that she wanted to use her voice, to be able to save her country from tyranny. So she pushed herself through the pain and persevered. Days later, the medical students found that her blood pressure

was too low once again, so she was forced to retreat back to the hospital, where she stayed until the protests ended with the brutal massacre. After the hunger strike, for around seven or eight years, her stomach continued to ache. She described her pain as “a burning fire.”

“After the events, China tightened its system. That’s why I decide to go to Hong Kong to pursue my PhD degree, for more freedom. I can say and write what I want without danger or fear. And that’s where I met your dad. Remember my stomach ache? It didn’t heal until I go to Hong Kong and drink lots of soup that Dad cooked for me. And all my teachers in Hong Kong persuaded me to come to the US, so that’s why I came here to have you.”

** *

I am nothing like my mother. She has no fear, while I keep to myself. I suppose it’s because her voice has been trapped for half of her life, living in China, so she has to take advantage of the privilege of speech that she has now. Meanwhile, I was born and raised here, in the supposed country of freedom, so it’s easier for me to take it for granted. She thinks of it differently, though; I’m sure she expects me to talk more since the concept of free speech should be ingrained in my mind. Isn’t that what America is all about?

My mother concluded her story with, “Keep your voice loud, don’t stay quiet, don’t be afraid. The end result was we didn’t change anything. But it’s still worth to try, isn’t it?” She came to the US in search of an auditorium to release her and her family’s voices, sacrificing her life in China in the process. Now, every so often, I imagine my young mother fighting for freedom and starting anew in America, just for me to not take advantage of my ability to speak. And it makes me think that maybe she’s right then. Maybe it is worth it to try speaking more.

Art by Belen Suros '22


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