[Reader-list] A Chinese student at Duke

S. Jabbar sonia.jabbar at gmail.com
Mon Apr 21 09:42:00 IST 2008

Caught in the Middle, Called a Traitor
Washington Post[Sunday, April 20, 2008 14:20]

By Grace Wang

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

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.

The Chinese protesters thought that, being Chinese, I should be on their
side. The participants on the Tibet side were mostly Americans, who really
don't have a good understanding of how complex the situation is. Truthfully,
both sides were being quite closed-minded and refusing to consider the
other's perspective. I thought I could help try to turn a shouting match
into an exchange of ideas. So I stood in the middle and urged both sides to
come together in peace and mutual respect. I believe that they have a lot in
common and many more similarities than differences.

But the Chinese protesters -- who were much more numerous, maybe 100 or more
-- got increasingly emotional and vocal and wouldn't let the other side
speak. They pushed the small Tibetan group of just a dozen or so up against
the Duke Chapel doors, yelling "Liars, liars, liars!" This upset me. It was
so aggressive, and all Chinese know the moral injunction: Junzi dongkou, bu
dongshou (The wise person uses his tongue, not his fists).

I was scared. But I believed that I had to try to promote mutual
understanding. I went back and forth between the two groups, mostly talking
to the Chinese in our language. I kept urging everyone to calm down, but it
only seemed to make them angrier. Some young men in the Chinese group --
those we call fen qing (angry youth) -- started yelling and cursing at me.

What a lot of people don't know is that there were many on the Chinese side
who supported me and were saying, "Let her talk." But they were drowned out
by the loud minority who had really lost their cool.

Some people on the Chinese side started to insult me for speaking English
and told me to speak Chinese only. But the Americans didn't understand
Chinese. It's strange to me that some Chinese seem to feel as though not
speaking English is expressing a kind of national pride. But language is a
tool, a way of thinking and communicating.

At the height of the protest, a group of Chinese men surrounded me, pointed
at me and, referring to the young woman who led the 1989 student democracy
protests in Tiananmen Square, said, "Remember Chai Ling? All Chinese want to
burn her in oil, and you look like her." They said that I had mental
problems and that I would go to hell. They asked me where I was from and
what school I had attended. I told them. I had nothing to hide. But then it
started to feel as though an angry mob was about to attack me. Finally, I
left the protest with a police escort.

Back in my dorm room, I logged onto the Duke Chinese Students and Scholars
Association (DCSSA) Web site and listserv to see what people were saying.
Qian Fangzhou, an officer of DCSSA, was gloating, "We really showed them our

I posted a letter in response, explaining that I don't support Tibetan
independence, as some accused me of, but that I do support Tibetan freedom,
as well as Chinese freedom. All people should be free and have their basic
rights protected, just as the Chinese constitution says. I hoped that the
letter would spark some substantive discussion. But people just criticized
and ridiculed me more.

The next morning, a storm was raging online. Photographs of me had been
posted on the Internet with the words "Traitor to her country!" printed
across my forehead. Then I saw something really alarming: Both my parents'
citizen ID numbers had been posted. I was shocked, because this information
could only have come from the Chinese police.

I saw detailed directions to my parents' home in China, accompanied by calls
for people to go there and teach "this shameless dog" a lesson. It was then
that I realized how serious this had become. My phone rang with callers
making threats against my life. It was ironic: What I had tried so hard to
prevent was precisely what had come to pass. And I was the target.

I talked to my mom the next morning, and she said that she and my dad were
going into hiding because they were getting death threats, too. She told me
that I shouldn't call them. Since then, short e-mail messages have been our
only communication. The other day, I saw photos of our apartment online; a
bucket of feces had been emptied on the doorstep. More recently I've heard
that the windows have been smashed and obscene posters have been hung on the
door. Also, I've been told that after convening an assembly to condemn me,
my high school revoked my diploma and has reinforced patriotic education.

I understand why people are so emotional and angry; the events in Tibet have
been tragic. But this crucifying of me is unacceptable. I believe that
individual Chinese know this. It's when they fire each other up and act like
a mob that things get so dangerous.

Now, Duke is providing me with police protection, and the attacks in Chinese
cyberspace continue. But contrary to my detractors' expectations, I haven't
shriveled up and slunk away. Instead, I've responded by publicizing this
shameful incident, both to protect my parents and to get people to reflect
on their behavior. I'm no longer afraid, and I'm determined to exercise my
right to free speech.

Because language is the bridge to understanding.

grace.wang at duke.edu

Grace Wang is a freshman at Duke University. Scott Savitt, a visiting
scholar in Duke's Chinese media studies program, assisted in writing this

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