She could do anything she put her mind to.
Straight A’s in high school, acceptance to the Schreyer Honors College, a financial analyst job after graduation. Double major and double minor; semesters abroad in Paris and Beijing. She was the sort of person her family loved to brag about, someone who knew what she wanted and worked constantly, unerringly, until she got it.
To that end, she had quit her job in July and moved to Paris in August to pursue a master’s degree. She loved France for as long as she could remember.
Long high school nights were spent listening to teach-yourself-French CDs — methodically repeating every phrase, intoning every inflection and driving her younger brother, her “frère” as she called him, up a wall.
And there she was on Nov. 13, in the city she had long dreamed of calling home. She went to the Centre Pompidou Library at 8:45 p.m. to study. Adjacent to the library was the National Museum of Modern Art, where she and her family had cheerily mocked postmodern art during a vacation six years prior (a painting that consisted of nothing more than a solid blue canvas was a particular source of amusement).
The library closed at 10 p.m. She moved to a Starbucks to continue studying. The streets were thronged with young Parisians making their way through the city: just another Friday night. When the Starbucks closed, she walked to Gare Saint-Lazare station to study some more.
She checked her Facebook feed. Someone had posted about an ongoing terrorist attack. She read more: three confirmed attacks, explosions outside a soccer stadium, a death toll that kept climbing. Sirens wailing. Streets awash in red and blue lights. Hostages held at Bataclan theater, less than two kilometers from the library where she had studied.
She decided to go home.
The 11:40 train to the suburbs was packed. Friends called and texted and Facebooked her, asking if she was okay. She sent a message to her parents on WeChat, telling them she was safe. The messages kept pouring in. Her frère, via Facebook, at 1:14 a.m.: “Hey sister I talked to mom so I know you're okay. Anyway, just wanted to say that I love you.”
Her response: “thanks frère! love you too! i cant wait to see you again during christmas break!”
One a.m. became 2, and 2 became 3. Like millions of others, she stayed late into the night, trying to understand what had happened, her face illuminated by the warm glow of her laptop.
When she woke up there were soldiers on the streets. Hundreds of them, sitting in armored trucks and manning makeshift barricades. None of them looked older than 20. She saw tires in flames and the burnt out husks of cars. She could make out tank tracks smeared across the road.
The night before, June 4, 1989, she and her husband had fallen asleep to the sound of tanks. They lived in a farmer’s shed near the fourth ring road, east of central Beijing. He worked at a factory and she worked at a research institute. Every day she sat through a four-hour bus ride to and from work. Sometimes the buses were so packed she had to wait for the next one.
She had worked hard her whole life: straight A’s in high school, acceptance to a university in the capital, a research position after graduation.
She met her husband in graduate school. They were poor enough to live in a farmer’s shed and not own a television or telephone; they were ambitious enough to dream of moving to America.
When they woke up and saw the soldiers on June 5, they had no idea what had happened. They heard rumors, though: that Tiananmen Square had been cleared of the student protesters who had camped there for months, that there had been gunfire, that people had died.
They stayed inside and didn’t talk to anyone. They were afraid. They started to panic. What had happened the day before? What would happen tomorrow? Would things ever go back to normal? Everything was shut down: no buses or subways ran, no restaurants were open and no one went to work. It was as if someone had pushed the pause button on an entire city.
And they sat in their shack and waited.
A few days later, when life started to regain some semblance of normality, she headed to a dian bao da lou, a telegraph building, near Tiananmen Square. Her workplace was near Tiananmen and throughout the spring she had seen huge crowds occupying the space. Now, it was empty.
She waited in line to send a telegram to her parents. She didn’t feel particularly concerned about her family; she just wanted to let them know. Telegrams were charged by the character, though, and since she was poor, she tried to keep it as short as possible:
“Have you heard from Xiaomeng?”
I hesitated. It had been a month since I had contacted my sister. “No, not for a while,” I said.
“Do you know if she’s okay?” he asked. “You know, with everything going on in Paris.”
Then I remembered: the TV at the HUB-Robeson Center showing footage of a terror attack in Paris. My sister attending grad school in Paris.
Oh my god.
“The school she goes to is in a suburb,” I said. “She’s not in the city. She’s fine.”
But was she fine? How did I know? How did I not make the connection? How did I watch news of a terror attack in Paris, shrug my shoulders and then meet up with a friend for dinner? What kind of brother was I — that a friend of hers immediately put two and two together when he saw the news while I, her own flesh and blood, saw the news and stuffed my face?
I called my mom. Was Sister okay?
Yes, she said, Sister is fine.
She had received a message from her on WeChat. Sister should be safe in her apartment now.
I logged onto Facebook and sent my sister a message at 7:14 p.m. I told her I loved her, that I was sorry for not messaging her more regularly, that I would pray for her. She told me she loved me too, that she was sorry as well, that she would pray for me.
I went back to my room and Skyped my mom. I told her I felt terrible: that I had failed as a brother, that I didn’t even think of her when I saw the news and that worst of all I couldn’t see past myself. That while my sister was safe and sound there were dozens of families that were irrevocably broken. Yet, I didn’t feel relief, only an inbent spiral of self-hatred and guilt, that I was a fundamentally selfish and loathsome person. I felt terrible for feeling terrible.
She said: it’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay.
She told me about sending a telegram to her parents after the Tiananmen Square massacre. Months later she went back home and her parents told their side of the story. Unlike my mom, they owned a TV and saw the news about Beijing. They tried calling her workplace, but no one knew where she was. Days passed and they still didn’t hear from her. They were about to send their two sons, my uncles, to Beijing to look for her when they received her telegram that was as short as possible.
Were they angry at her?
Of course not, my mom told me. They were relieved. But my mom felt terrible.
“At that moment I didn’t think about how much my family cared about me. All I thought about was myself. I was young and naive. Looking back, I realized how stupid I was. To let my family go through so much heartache, all because of my selfishness,” she said.
Mom was at home, Dad had gone to a hotel in Limerick, Pennsylvania for a conference, Sister was in her apartment and I was in my dorm. Behind my mom I could make out family photos on the shelf: Sister in her cap and gown, Sister beside the Lion Shrine, me and Dad and Sister in front of the Notre Dame during our vacation in Paris, the whole family smiling in our living room.
My mom and I talked late into the night. Our faces were illuminated by the warm glow of our laptops.