Flushing Chinatown is one of the largest and fastest growing ethnic Chinese enclaves within New York City. Since the 1980s, numerous immigrants from mainland China, especially the north, settled here. They also brought authentic Chinese cuisine. Different styles of Chinese cuisine are ubiquitously accessible in Flushing, and you could even see the relatively obscure Dongbei style of cuisine indigenous to Northeast China, historically also known as Manchuria.
Li Jia Yuan is one of many Dongbei restaurants on the Main Street. On a windy day of mid-October, I went there to meet two Chinese exiles, Xiang Xiaoji and Jin Yan, who came to New York City in 1989.
Yan was originally from Harbin, the capital and largest city of Heilongjiang, one of three Northeastern Provinces, and Li Jia Yuan is one of his favorite places in Flushing. The authentic Dongbei flavor, waitresses who speak local dialect, and menu written in Chinese together comprise his dim memory of home, and eating here is his way to relive the life he left behind and will never get back.
“I spent most of the last 26 years in Flushing. Here is the best Chinese food, and that’s all I need. I won’t eat western-style food, if I doesn’t have to. Why do I need to go somewhere else?”
When Yan left China in 1989, China has implemented the policy of gai ge kai fang (Reform & Opening up) for 11 years but was still recovering from damages caused by the Cultural Revolution. Food variety was limited, and foreign cuisine was rarely accessible in China, which caused a totally different and less flexible eating habit. A person's food preference sometimes could be very persistent, especially when the person leaves his native culture at a fairly older age. When it comes to one’s political belief, it is also true.
Yan and Xiaoji are both exiled because of their roles in the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. With the help of the Operation Yellow Bird, which was a Hong Kong-based operation to help the Chinese dissidents who participated in the Protests to escape arrest by the Chinese government by facilitating their departure overseas via Hong Kong, they fled to Hong Kong, where they were arranged visas and flight to the U.S. They have never returned ever since. Even staying in the U.S., democracy movements of China was still a career they never gave up.
Li Jia Yuan has several private rooms as a privilege providing for regular customers. In one of the private rooms, they were expecting me. This is a tiny room without any window. The space was big enough for five people. Except Yan and Xiaoji, who I was supposed to meet, there was another young man who is probably at my age also in the room. Later, I knew that his name is Marvin, and he is a graduate student in Maryland. He came to meet his idols in person. On the table, except eggplants and bean curd skins，there were also stir-fried pork livers and large intestines, which were rarely seen somewhere else in America.
“Why you want to meet us? Are you interested in democracy movements? Do you want to be one of us?” Yan asked me while picking up food with chopsticks.
“I studies journalism in the U.S., and I have been a journalist in China for three years, so I think I am more interested in observing.”
I briefly introduced myself and some works I did before, including one journalistic project that was censored by the government.
“Why didn’t you organize the participants to demonstrate on the street? You have the charisma to organize a group of young people and lead a project, so you should have used that charisma to make an impact.”
“That’s never my intention. I don’t think I have the right to ask anyone to take a risk for something that will definitely fail.”
“She did the right thing. She was realistic about her own abilities and didn’t want to do something that is beyond that. What’s wrong about that? You couldn’t persuade others to do something they themselves don’t recognize.” Xiaoji, who was quietly listening to our talk, suddenly interrupted our argument.
Yan didn’t refute but said, almost to himself, with his head shaking, “What a pity. Such a good opportunity.”
Realizing the political divergence, we knowingly switched our conversation to irrelevant topics. The dinner eventually ended with discussions about food and how persistent their dieting habits have been during the last 20 years, sometimes awkward silence.
However, I accidentally made an interesting progress. They were actively looking for an interpreter to go with them to a forum at the beginning of November, and I seemed the most qualified candidate at the moment. They asked, and I said yes.
It was around 9:30 p.m., when we walked out Li Jia Yuan. On this cold night, there were few people walking. Marvin drove Xiaoji and me home. While waiting for him to pick up the car, Xiaoji and I started talking on the street, shivering.
“Do you miss China?” I asked.
“Of course. In the first ten years, I dreamt of nothing but China.”
“Have you ever imagined how your life would be different if you didn’t go to Tiananmen Square?”
“I was studying international law at China University of Political Science and Law, so, if not 1989, I am probably working as a government official in China, with a decent salary and an apartment.”
“Have you ever regretted? I mean, from a normal standard, the life you are living right now seems…eh…” I was struggling with the wordings. I was not sure how to appropriately say it without offending him.
He said for me, “You mean, if not 1989, will my life be better now? My social status will probably be higher, but I will definitely not be as happy as right now. So I’ve never regretted. We did the right thing, but I have to admit that we were not politically mature enough back then.”
Nov. 21, 1989 is the day Xiaoji and his wife landed at New York City. After 26 years, his memory was still so vivid that he could recall the exact day and other details without any hesitation.
“How can I forget? We came with almost nothing. My wife and I each was given $100 by the Operation. Except the clothes we wore and some necessary certificates, that’s pretty much all we had.”
Fortunately, Xiaoji was able to live in the dormitory at Columbia University, where he obtained his LLM two years later.
Compare to the life he had in China, hiding from place to place and worrying about being arrested all day, living in New York City is really not bad at all. The only thing could be called a problem is contacting his family in China.
“In the 90s, communication was not as convenient as today, and it cost much more. Calls to China was $5 a minute, I remember. I called back every two months. Every time, we could only talk two to three minutes, so I had to prepare a draft, outlining the most important things I had to address on the phone. Most times, we wrote letters, about twice a month. Usually, when my parent got the letters, they have already been opened, but that’s fine, because we only wrote about daily life.”
In 1992, Columbia University conducted a study project on "China and Constitutionalism", which was supported by the Henry Luce Foundation, the National Endowment for Democracy, and the United Daily News Foundation. The object of this study is to compare different constitutions and draft a feasible proposal for China. After graduation, Xiaoji became part of this project, and he left in 1994, one year before the the project officially ended.
“This project was somewhat up in the air. I didn’t see it goes anywhere. Chinese government definitely won’t take it, and, even within the team, we couldn’t reach an agreement, so what’s the point of all these?”
Xiaoji wanted to do something meaningful, and he wanted to make some real impact, but there was really not much he can do without being in China.
In Enemy of the State, a story Zha Jianying wrote for The New Yorker in 2007, her brother Zha Jianguo, an activist who was arrested for founding a party in China insisted not to leave, and he cited the predicament of exiled Chinese dissidents in the West, who have lost their political effectiveness in the post-Tiananmen era, to supported his argument, “Once they leave Chinese soil, their role is very limited.”
This exactly spoke out the embarrassment Xiaoji was facing all the time. Before 2009, he worked as a full-time dissent and part-time lawyer. Every few months, he paused his work at an American law firm and went for researches and conferences in different countries. He himself couldn’t remember how many event he has attended between 1994 and 2009.
“The democracy movement is something you could fully devote, but you could not leave it aside, neither. Because you know whatever you do makes no difference, but you have no choice but keep pushing. It has been part of your life. It’s frustrated, sometimes,” Xiaoji said to me in his own law firm, which was founded in 2009. When his daughter started her middle school, he realized financial pressure and his responsibility to provide a decent life to his family. He decided to settle down. Now he is an immigrant lawyer, handling Chinese immigration’s case, in particular. There is only one person, Xiaoji himself, working in the firm. Ever year, he deals with 200 cases.
“I wanted to get my life together first. I don’t want my opponents see me living in shabby conditions. Da Xue (Great Learning) reads that a person with virtue should XIU Shen Qi Jia Zhi Guo Ping Tian Xia (cultivate oneself, keep one’s family in order, run the country well, and bring peace to the world). I messed up the order before, and I wanted to get it right now.”
November 5, 2105 is a normal business day for Xiaoji. After companying his client to the hearing, he rushed to 33th Street to catch a bus, operated by Eastern, a Chinese transportation company, heading to Washington D.C. He had an event to attend. Because of the trial, he has missed half of the agenda.
The event he was running to is the forum I was asked to help, the inaugural China Forum, hosted by the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation. This forum brought together scholars from both China and the U.S. and policy makers in D.C. to have a better understanding of real China in the areas of trade and economics, foreign policy and security studies, and political development.
The aim of the forum was to build an alien of anti-China forces to lobby in the Congress in order to put pressure on Chinese government by influencing America’s China policy. The conference room was filled with Chinese dissents and anti-China republicans. I asked Xiaoji, “Why Republican?” As a lawyer, he himself voted for Democrats, instead. He replied, “We don’t really have the right to choose. We’re the one being picked, so it depends on who is interested,”
Xiang Xiaoji came as a famous victim. He has had this label since June 4, 1989. So did Wang Dan, Wang Juntao, Su Xiaokang, all the names that were censored in China.
“To be honest, I am not that interested in their discussions. I have heard too much, and there was nothing new. I almost slept through the whole event. What need address has been addressed 20 years ago. In addition, what differences could these scholars’ discussions in a conference room make?”
However, he showed interest in working with conservative think tanks in D.C. to lobby in the Congress and influence the policy makers. This is the only meaningful thing he could do overseas, in his opinion.
“I always have political passion. If I was in China, I would have been a politician for sure. But here this opportunity might be the furthest I could reach.”
A conference like this is more like a reason for a group of old friends to reunion. These comrades with shared experience and memory have formed strong bonds of brotherhood. They live in different parts of the U.S. and does not have much contacts, but you can tell they are emotionally close. On the dinner table, they recalled details from the Square and stories on the way they fled while drinking Mao Tai (one of the best Chinese liquors).
“I still remember the first time I saw Su Xiaokang in Hong Kong. His hair was so messy, and his clothes are dirty.” Both Xiaoji and Su Xiaokang burst into laughter, and then all the rest, including me, started laughing. I didn’t know what came to his mind, but looking at Su Xiaokang’s appearance, who was sitting opposite to me, I imagine it should be hilarious.
I could imagine the old days was always the topic of dinner table conversation. After 26 years, the misery they all experienced eventually turned to something they could joke about over dinner, and this dinner drove Xiaoji here. The warmth, belonging, and acceptance he felt in this group was nothing to replace.
Dating back to November 1989, when 32-year-old Xiaoji hid in a speed boat fleeing to Hong Kong, he departed from Bocca Tigr to Hong Kong, passing Lin-ting Yang. Coincidently, Lin-ting, in Chinese, also means being left alone without help.
In 1279, Wen Tianxiang, a scholar-general in the last years of the Southern Song Dynasty, after being captured by the Yuan armies of Kublai Khan, refused to convince the remaining Song forces to surrender, and he wrote his classics "Passing Lin-ting Yang” on Yuan’s ship to show his determination. He used this pun in the line “Lin-ting Yang Shang Tan Ling ting” (To sigh my helplessness and loneliness on the Ling-ting Yang). After more than 700 years, when Xiaoji passed the same area, this poetry came to his mind.
Wen Tianxiang is seen as a populous icon of patriotism. His "Passing Lin-ting Yang” ends with Ren Sheng Zi Gu Shui Wu Si, Liu Qu Dan Xin Zhao Han Qing. (All men are mortal, but my loyalty will illuminate the annals of history forever.) In some way, Xiaoji could relate. He has a heroic complex, and he sees what they did on the Square heroic deeds just has been defeated by the cruel reality or regime.
In the 1970s, the Czech dissident Ludvík Vaculík wrote “Heroic deeds are not appropriate to everyday life, Heroism is acceptable in exceptional situations, but these must not last too long.”
In the post-Tiananmen are, when real-life problems chased after him, he gradually became down-to-earth, but he paid an extremely high price to learn the lesson.
“My parents passed away in 1993, but I couldn’t go back and arrange their funerals. This will be the regret of my life. There is nothing I can do to make it up.”
Two thousand and nine is the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Massacre, Xiaoji was invited to attend commemorative events in Hong Kong. He was refused to enter at the airport, however. After being detained for five hours, he was deported.
“That’s not surprising, but I was still very excited. That’s the closest I have ever made to home after 20 years. My flight flew over the Arctic and China during the daytime, so, from the north to the south, I saw the silhouette of mountains and rivers from high in the air.”