They went to China looking for adventure, for someplace exotic, for a cheap semester away from home. They got their money’s worth, and more.
Amid tumultuous student demonstrations, loves were kindled and lives were changed in ways the American students never expected.
Of the 28 students studying in Xian during that spring semester in 1989, two married their Chinese instructors and helped them emigrate to the United States; several continued their travels, including one who went to the Soviet Union to experience another style of communism; and even some of those who came home immediately were drawn back to China months later.
“There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think about China. Not a day,” said Rose Brown, 25, of Tarzana, a CSUN graduate working in public relations. “When I came back, it made me so angry that . . . we live in this country where people take freedom for granted. There, people are willing to die for those freedoms.”
John Charles, who followed events from his office at CSUN, said the returned students were the most dramatically changed of any he had seen in his six years as international and exchange student adviser. “It’s so different from anything . . .,” Charles said. “It was just such a unique experience.”
Most of the students said they underwent deep changes in their outlooks, which they attributed largely to the pro-democracy protests and the moments of intense emotion and understanding that the events stirred.
The students talk animatedly about their gradual discovery that the demonstrations had begun in Beijing and in the town where they were staying, Xian: cancellation of the 11 p.m. English-language news on television, the sound of bottles breaking in dormitory rooms, indicating Chinese students were mourning the death of their beloved leader, Hu Yao Bang, posters going up around school criticizing Chinese leaders and, later, copies of photographs of a dead woman student shot through the head.
The excitement and electricity was the perfect backdrop to romance, said those who fell in love that semester.
Brown went with her boyfriend of four years, Chris Bush. The two graduated in June, were married in August and will enter the Peace Corps next year, partly because of what they witnessed in China.
“It was great being together and experiencing it,” Bush said.
Johnny Ng, 26, of Los Angeles, an ethnic Chinese who came to the United States from Vietnam in 1978, met a woman from the Soviet Union at a foreign student party in Xian. On Dec. 8, after months of paperwork and telephone negotiations, Marianna Lisvoskaya is scheduled to arrive in Los Angeles as Ng’s fiancee.
After the CSUN semester, Ng traveled throughout China, then spent a month with Lisvoskaya’s family in Uzbekistan. He returned to Los Angeles last January.
Of all the experiences Ng had during his travels, one of the most vivid is the evening he and Lisvoskaya went looking for a Muslim student demonstration in Xian, despite bans on foreign student involvement in protests.
“I said, ‘If I follow the protest, you have to leave because your embassy will pull you out of China immediately for something like that,’ ” Ng said. “She turned around and said, ‘No, if there’s a protest, I’ll go with you. . . . There is no way I want you to go alone.’ It was a really courageous decision.”
The students, especially those who stayed on through at least part of the summer, said they became far more politically aware in the aftermath of the student protests, when their Chinese friends became more fearful and less forthcoming.
“Prior to that, I was of the attitude a bit that a country’s political philosophy is their own and other people don’t have a right to interfere,” said Bob Hermann, 44, a graduate student at Cal State Long Beach who cross-enrolled in the CSUN program.
Hermann, a retired Burbank firefighter, was one of two students who married Chinese instructors. Hermann said his wife, Cong Xiao-Ping, was the first teacher of foreign students to go out on strike in support of the pro-democracy protests, which delayed until February her application to leave the country after their marriage there.
Now Hermann, who lives in Buena Park, is thinking about returning to China to teach, as he did while he waited for Xiao-Ping’s application to be approved.
“I was only mentally and financially prepared to be gone for five months. I missed my mother and my dog,” Hermann said. “But I wasn’t back here a month before I was ready to go back there.”
Like Hermann, most of the students contacted said they find themselves angered even today by things that seem to leave most of their friends unmoved, such as President Bush’s refusal to withdraw China’s favored-nation status with the United Nations.
“Before I went, I was totally unpolitically exposed,” said Jeannie Chott, 25, of Van Nuys. “But after the massacre, when the Chinese government would not apologize . . . when they said there was no tragedy, I was so furious.”
Despite orders from Chinese university officials not to take part in the demonstrations, several said they were swept up by the cause.
Daniel Guevara, 21, is Latino but said he blended in when he donned a blue Mao jacket and marched with a Chinese friend. “He would translate for me when I didn’t understand,” Guevara said. “The students were always voicing their opinions on things that they wanted: To be able to choose their own major . . . the freedom to date before their senior year . . . little things that we take for granted.”