Thursday, June 04, 2009

Remembering my Pen Pal

20 years ago, I was in sixth grade. My homeroom teacher was also my English teacher. She was a real b!tch, but on some level, I liked her anyway. Probably just because I liked English class.

But I digress.

Even though she was a real stickler and mean, she did have some good qualities. And she did arrange a really cool activity for us.

Her son was a recent college grad who was teaching English in Beijing. So one day, the two of them were talking and realized that they could collaborate. Her son's college-level Chinese students' English was about on par with the vocabulary and grammar of her sixth graders. (Sorry, any 6th graders out there.) So why not have the 20-somethigs and the 12-year-olds become pen pals?

Sure, it's not like we had many things in common. After all, there's a huge world of difference between these two ages. Many life experiences intervening. But still, I found it fascinating, and it gave Mai an opportunity to practice her English.

I was matched up with Mai, a 20-year-old who dreamed of being a teacher. I was thrilled when she sent me photographs of tourist locations in her homeland. I'm sure I bored her with my stories of dance competitions, but she was too polite to say so.

Our worlds were very far apart, but that's what made it so interesting. We couldn't get enough of hearing about each other's everyday life. Those letters went back and forth for more than six months. I eagerly awaited each letter.

I'm going to get all somber and depressing now. Sorry.

Anyway, today is June 4, 2009, which is the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre.

Beginning on April 14, 1989, protests led by mainly students and intellectuals took place in and near Tiananmen Square in the Beijing, People's Republic of China. The spark that led to the protests was the death of Hu Yaobang, a pro-market, pro-democracy, and anti-corruption official. The protestors agitated for democratic reform of the oppressive regime.

The movement lasted seven weeks, until tanks cleared Tiananmen Square on June 4.

I never received another letter from Mai. Most of my friends' pen pal exchanges had dwindled by then, but those who were still writing faced the same situation.

We never learned what happened to our pen pals. Part of the problem is that just a couple of weeks later, I graduated from 6th grade and didn't look back. Had this been 5th grade, I still would have been in the same school the next year, so even if I didn't have her as a teacher, I still could have asked her if she'd heard from her son what had happened to our friends.

Were they jailed? Were they even living? Was the government censoring all mail from college-aged Chinese students sent to the US?

Did she just get bored of her little American friend?

I'd like to think it was the latter. Sure, that doesn't exactly shed a good light on my 12-year-old self's writing skills, but I like that outcome much better than any of the others.

Anyway, if you're out there Mai, I miss you.


  1. Dude, you made me cry. ((hugs))

  2. What a fantastic post. I remember Tianamen well. So horrific. I hope that Mai is alive and well and that she has just as fond memories of her little American pen pal as you have of her.

  3. Interesting story. I hope she was okay.

  4. Wow, what a story, Amanda. I really hope Mai is okay!

    My guess is either government censorship or self-censorship. (At such times, people become very careful...)

  5. Oh goodness. I hope she's fine. And now I'm sad. And also, I feel bad because my posts are always so fluffy.

  6. Amanda Brice9:40 AM

    Gwen, don't feel bad that your posts are fluffy. Fluffy is good!!!!!

  7. OMG this made me cry. I'm going to just believe she got careful, but lives a quietly happy life... waiting for the freedom we all take for granted.

  8. Anonymous6:37 PM

    hm, i live there maybe if you want i can put some effort and try to track her down. let me know if i can be any help.