My interesting new friend

About once a week I travel to a warehouse west of Toronto to pick up parts for a friend’s computer store. Last November a new guy, Tom, started working there as a shipper/receiver. He immigrated from China six years ago and has some interesting stories to tell.

Back in 1989 Tom was a professor at Beijing University. He was among the first 3-500 to go to Tiananmen Square and lobby for democratic reforms. He took part in the hunger strike but had to stop after 3 days due to severe abdominal pains. Tom lived with his parents on the outskirts of the city and on June 2nd, as troops moved through his neighbourhood on their way to Tiananmen Square, Tom’s father stopped a soldier and asked, “You’re not going to shoot them, are you?” The soldier replied, “I have to follow orders.” That same day Tom’s father went to Tiananmen to get his son out of there. Tom acceded to his father’s wishes and came home. On June 4th the massacre happened.

Tom talked about how Deng Xiaoping was to meet with the demonstrators and hear their grievances. Deng refused to take the paper with the listed reforms the students demanded. Tom said, “I never thought that he wouldn’t take a look. We just wanted to give him the paper.” Tom and the other reform-minded professors and students naively thought they could establish a dialogue with the government and were greatly disillusioned to find out that they wanted no part of it.

Tom was lucky; while he was questioned about his role in the demonstrations the government took no action against him or his family as no one else who was interrogated or tortured mentioned his name and he was let go. I think this is about the time he knew he had to leave China. :-/

So Tom started to teach himself English. Twice a week for 4 hours the teachers at the University had to read government propaganda. They were to sit in a classroom and read from a book or pamphlet but Tom surreptitiously had an English book on his lap and, with his head down pretending to read the propaganda, he taught himself English. And I tell you; this guy has an amazing grasp of the language! His vocabulary would put most native speakers to shame. He often asks me about slang and colloquialisms to round out his knowledge.

I have never met anyone who revelled in freedom like Tom does. Said he: “I can choose where I live, where I work and come home and listen to any music I want or read any book.” It certainly makes me think about the freedoms I have and take for granted. He keeps in touch with his family in China and they tell him to come back, that China’s the greatest, but Tom will have none of it.

Now for some controversial stuff. He’s a bit of an idealist and doesn’t like the way Chinese culture and customs have developed. Tom said that he has only one Chinese friend (in Canada) because he doesn’t trust Chinese people. I was taken aback with that and offered mitigating circumstances like the people having to grow up under repressive and corrupt governments but he was adamant. It does seem to pain him to say such things, but I guess that’s what his experiences taught him. Other things like the treatment of animals also upset him.

I wondered why he chose “Tom” for his English name. Thinking back to those days of 1989, with the “Goddess of Democracy” (Statue of Liberty) a rallying point for the demonstrators, and the words of the US’s Founding Fathers on their lips, I asked Tom why the he chose that name. But before he could speak I asked, "Can I guess?’

“Sure”, he said.

“Thomas Jefferson?”

Tom smiled and said, “No. But that’s a good guess.”

Indeed the answer was more prosaic. T.M. is his Chinese-to-English initials. “Tom” is common and short and he likes it.

So there.

Sounds like an interesting guy.

I’d have guessed Tom Paine.

Thanks Bob,

I hope you can share more about your friend.


Get him on the SDMB, I’m sure he’d be a hit. Another interesting viewpoint is cool, and with my completely unscientific guess, I would imagine that our number of Chinese dopers is kinda low.

Ha! , like Otto was somehow expecting Thomas Payne, but my goodness, your friend sounds a great guy, brave and resilient. All good to him! :slight_smile: And to his familly - one wonders how they are.

I had a friend , Angela, who was brought out of China in the early 60’s hidden under a tarp in a small boat. She too, had many thought provoking stories.
I asked about her name, since she had difficulty pronouncing it herself. She said she was offered a list of names and told to chose one. She chose the first one on the list. Her Chinese name was Su Wa, so she could have been Sue, but no one bothered to tell her that was an “acceptable” name.
I’ve lost touch with her. Thank you for bringing back a nice memory.

Wow. Thank you for sharing this with us. Very interesting indeed. What an awesome fellow.

{smacks forehead} Tom Paine is a much better guess.

Unfortunately, Tom is unable to spend much time on a computer. He says he gets terrible headaches after about 20 minutes and has his wife type any correspondence for him. I don’t know much about LCD monitors (what he has) but remember older CRT monitors can cause headaches in some people. Never heard that about LCDs though. I’ve given him my email address but he hasn’t sent me any messages yet. At the end of March my friend, who owns the computer store, is switching suppliers so I won’t be seeing him as often. We’re going to keep in touch though. I’m about a 90 minute drive from his home.

Speaking of his wife, she is Japanese and was a student at Beijing University. After graduating she went back to Japan and they kept in touch with each other for 3 years before getting married.

Apparently his family back in China is doing just fine. They’re working in a Serbian-owned factory there. Coincidently, Tom works for a Serbian-Canadian owned company here. He thought that was funny. Tom’s ancestors are from Manchuria in the area northeast of Beijing. He told me the name of the province but I’ve forgotten it. His family owned quite a bit of land but that’s not saying much since the land had a very poor yield for food or sustaining animals. Owning a lot just meant they could get by. I’m sure they were better off then many peasants but by the sound of it they weren’t even middle class. His Grandfather committed suicide when the Commies took over because he was denounced as a capitalist or some such.

I remember the second time I met him we were talking about Chinese history a bit when the topic came to the Tiananmen Square massacre. When he told me he was there I just had shake his hand again. He looked puzzled, almost like: “what’s the big deal?” But I remember those days well; watching TV as first eastern Europe then China tried to cast off the chains off a totalitarian government. Yes! Glorious days! And then, of course, the tanks rolled in.

You’re all are quite welcome. I’ve been meaning to post this story for weeks.

I should be seeing Tom next Tuesday, I’d be happy to take some questions with me.