MY CHINA, MY TIBET

Caught in the Middle, Called a Traitor

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By Grace Wang
Sunday, April 20, 2008

I study languages -- Italian, French and German. And this summer -- now that it looks as though I won't be able to go home to China -- I'll take up Arabic. My goal is to master 10 languages, in addition to Chinese and English, by the time I'm 30.

I want to do this because I believe that language is the bridge to understanding. Take China and Tibet. If more Chinese learned the Tibetan language, and if Tibetans learned more about China, I'm convinced that our two peoples would understand one another better and we could overcome the current crisis between us peacefully. I feel that even more strongly after what happened here at Duke University a little more than a week ago.

Trying to mediate between Chinese and pro-Tibetan campus protesters, I was caught in the middle and vilified and threatened by the Chinese. After the protest, the intimidation continued online, and I began receiving threatening phone calls. Then it got worse -- my parents in China were also threatened and forced to go into hiding. And I became persona non grata in my native country.

It has been a frightening and unsettling experience. But I'm determined to speak out, even in the face of threats and abuse. If I stay silent, then the same thing will happen to someone else someday.

So here's my story.

When I first arrived at Duke last August, I was afraid I wouldn't like it. It's in the small town of Durham, N.C., and I'm from Qingdao, a city of 4.3 million. But I eventually adjusted, and now I really love it. It's a diverse environment, with people from all over the world. Over Christmas break, all the American students went home, but that's too expensive for students from China. Since the dorms and the dining halls were closed, I was housed off-campus with four Tibetan classmates for more than three weeks.

I had never really met or talked to a Tibetan before, even though we're from the same country. Every day we cooked together, ate together, played chess and cards. And of course, we talked about our different experiences growing up on opposite sides of the People's Republic of China. It was eye-opening for me.

I'd long been interested in Tibet and had a romantic vision of the Land of Snows, but I'd never been there. Now I learned that the Tibetans have a different way of seeing the world. My classmates were Buddhist and had a strong faith, which inspired me to reflect on my own views about the meaning of life. I had been a materialist, as all Chinese are taught to be, but now I could see that there's something more, that there's a spiritual side to life.

We talked a lot in those three weeks, and of course we spoke in Chinese. The Tibetan language isn't the language of instruction in the better secondary schools there and is in danger of disappearing. Tibetans must be educated in Mandarin Chinese to succeed in our extremely capitalistic culture. This made me sad, and made me want to learn their language as they had learned mine.

I was reminded of all this on the evening of April 9. As I left the cafeteria planning to head to the library to study, I saw people holding Tibetan and Chinese flags facing each other in the middle of the quad. I hadn't heard anything about a protest, so I was curious and went to have a look. I knew people in both groups, and I went back and forth between them, asking their views. It seemed silly to me that they were standing apart, not talking to each other. I know that this is often due to a language barrier, as many Chinese here are scientists and engineers and aren't confident of their English.

I thought I'd try to get the two groups together and initiate some dialogue, try to get everybody thinking from a broader perspective. That's what Lao Tzu, Sun Tzu and Confucius remind us to do. And I'd learned from my dad early on that disagreement is nothing to be afraid of. Unfortunately, there's a strong Chinese view nowadays that critical thinking and dissidence create problems, so everyone should just keep quiet and maintain harmony.

A lot has been made of the fact that I wrote the words "Free Tibet" on the back of the American organizer of the protest, who was someone I knew. But I did this at his request, and only after making him promise that he would talk to the Chinese group. I never dreamed how the Chinese would seize on this innocent action. The leaders of the two groups did at one point try to communicate, but the attempt wasn't very successful.


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© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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