People say they never forget where they were when they learned of certain historical tragedies--the assassination of JFK, the Challenger disaster, 9-11. My earliest such experience, which marked me deeply, was of the Tiananmen Square incident. In Chinese it is typically referred to as 六四 (6-4) in reference to the date that the People's Republic of China resorted to military force to crush the pro-democracy demonstrations.
Though the protests had been going on for months all across China, I was five years old and oblivious. I had broken my ankle the previous winter, and spent what seemed like an eternity (but turned out to be less than two months) in a cast. Happily recovered, I had spent much of the spring rambling through the coastal shantytown on the outskirts of Keelung where we lived in temporary military housing.
I was sitting on the floor of the little concrete hovel I shared with my parents, doodling. The door stood perpetually open to admit the sea breeze that cooled steep seaward slope. My grandmother, visiting as she often did, and sat nearby shelling beans for dinner and watching news on our flickery television set.
I looked up from my drawings when I heard the news anchor say something about 'students'. Chinese children heavily identify themselves as students for various cultural reasons, so I was keyed to the word. What I saw had nothing to do with preschool. It was a video clip of the early morning hours of June 4th, when the ironically named People's Liberation Army rolled in to clear Tiananmen Square. It was a vision of darkness punctuated with fire and milling bodies, and then a line of troops.
The anchor described (in what was probably a recap of earlier news) the crackdown on the student protesters, and the uncertain death toll. I could not fully comprehend, but I stared raptly at the screen.
"Ni-ni," I said to my grandmother (in Chinese; I translated it as best I can remember), "why would the soldiers kill the students?" To my young mind, a students were children, and soldiers were kindly 'older brothers' who played with me when my father was too busy at the base.
"Those are older students," my grandmother said. "They did something the government didn't like."
I turned around and looked at her, wide-eyed. "What if I do something the government doesn't like? Will the soldiers come after me?"
"We do not have the same government as those students," she said wearily.
"But they're Chinese, too!" I insisted, not yet understanding the complexities of the Chinese Civil War, which ended in the ongoing stalemate of Taiwan's ambiguous statehood.
"Don't worry about it," she said. "We came here so that would not happen to you."
I looked back at the television screen, which showed an interview with a highly agitated eye-witness. For all I understood of geography, it hardly mattered whether Beijing was a world away or just over the next ridge. Watching the man on that screen, I did not find my grandmother's words very reassuring.