Sunday, April 27, 2008

Grace Wang: Standing Her Ground

A Duke freshman from Qingdao, China, has stirred up world news in the last three weeks.

Twenty-year-old Grace Wang did this by trying to start a conversation between the two sides at a demonstration for and against independence for Tibet from China. On the evening of April 9, she was leaving a campus cafeteria and saw the two flag-bearing groups squaring off out on the main quad. She went over to check the situation out.

Then this young reader of Harvard Law School's Negotiation Journal decided to intervene, to get the two sides to talk. She had spent Christmas as the only Chinese student housed over the holiday in an apartment with three Tibetan students; it was too far for any of them to go home. Conversations with those three had been good and made her think that talking would be helpful for the two groups facing each other on the quad.

She wound up leaving the site under police protection. Now her parents in China have been forced into hiding. She and her parents are getting death threats. It's all a whole lot more than she had in mind.

But in an essay published in The Washington Post, she says: "I haven't shriveled up and slunk away. Instead, I've responded by publicizing this shameful incident, both to protect my parents and to get people to reflect on their behavior. I'm no longer afraid, and I'm determined to exercise my right to free speech."

I feel connected to this story. For one thing, when I taught creative writing at Duke last spring, a Tibetan student was in my more advanced class. I thought he had a lot of guts; just imagine taking an advanced fiction writing course in Tibetan.

Then too, forty years ago, I was a student at Duke making the same early evening trip Grace Wang was--between cafeteria and library--when trouble broke out. I wasn't involved in the campus demonstrations, but simply happened to come out onto the quad at the moment the National Guard entered the long drive up to the main quad and gassed anyone who happened to be there.

I remember running within the billows of eye-stinging smoke and seeing the narrowed silhouettes of others at a distance within the same yellowish cloud. I headed for what I hoped would be a building I could get into and breathe. I wound up in a men's dorm, stampeding with others down the halls until we finally came to a stop in a commons room, where the events outside were already on the national evening news.

I'll never forget the events of that dusk. And, for me, there were no death threats, no buckets of feces dumped at the entrance to my family's home.

Grace Wang wasn't angling for that either. And she may not have been thinking too hard about the possible negative fallout when she made her first move.

But her actions since that night--in staying public and making her story and her positions known--have been pretty courageous. She's now truly standing her own ground for freedom of expression.

(Information for this post comes from The Washington Post and The News & Observer in Raleigh.)

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mamie said...

I read about Grace today and had some of the same thoughts as you. My family has been involved in a situation where we had to act bravely in circumstances that were necessary but frightening and a threat to personal safety, and I know it is very difficult to stand tall in the face of fear and danger. I so admire her courage. Thanks also for sharing your story about how you became unwittingly involved in others' protests and what the consequences were, showing us how the unintended victims of such courage can be affected.

Peggy Payne said...

Probably the course of her life has changed radically as a result of this one move. In addition to any other results. I read that she seems quite calm and upbeat.

Can you share any of what you and your family went through, Mamie?

mamie said...

A member of my family was stalked by someone we knew. We felt very helpless because a) we knew him and his family personally, b) we were afraid of making him angry, c) we were sympathetic to his mental issues. However, the person WE loved was terrified and terrorized and in the end this had to be our primary concern. After four years of trying to deal with it through legal channels (there is very little one can do to really protect oneself in a stalking case) and corresponding with his family, we decided to pull all of our attention away from him. Release the situation as much as we could. And believe it or not, this is how we finally achieved a sense of peace and safety.

Peggy Payne said...

Four years!!! That's like a war. I'm glad you got through it with all safe. Living with that kind of threat for so long has to have been hard, requiring steady courage.