Sarah Backstrom’s one-year stay in China was action-packed, as the Chinese people were swept into a whirlwind of protests by the May 7 NATO bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, which killed three journalists.
Following months of United States domestic and international scandals, Backstrom — a senior in East Asian studies — experienced firsthand a wave of Chinese anger in reaction to the perceived attack on their soil.
The prevalent attitude in China toward the NATO bombings was incomprehension, Backstrom said.
The Chinese love America, she said. They listen to the same music as Americans, and they love Michael Jordan and the film Titanic, but many Chinese couldn’t understand why America needed to bomb Yugoslavia.
“At that time, I really didn’t know my stance on it,” Backstrom said.
Backstrom, who arrived in Tianjan on Sept. 3, 1998, first encountered Chinese reaction to the bombing the morning after when she went to buy vegetables.
“The vegetable man asked, ‘What country are you from?’ When I replied that I was from America, he began yelling at me,” Backstrom said. “I didn’t know at that point that he was talking about the bombing of the embassy.”
That night, demonstrations rocked the University of Nankai in Tianjan. Friends told Backstrom about the angry protests outside of the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. The night reached its climax when Backstrom’s mother called, crying, late in the night.
“I didn’t sleep much that night,” Backstrom said.
The following morning, Backstrom joined a group of Americans for safety. Soon, the demonstrations reached her dorm.
Roughly 400 students waved signs and chanted outside the dorm’s front steps. The demonstrators were not aware that Americans were staying in the dorms until a teacher waved an American flag out of the window, Backstrom said.
“I thought that was really stupid,” Backstrom said.
She decided then to leave the campus and sought solace with an American family off campus for the next three days. She kept abreast of the situation through friends, the television and the Internet.
“They all believed that America had purposely done this,” Backstrom said. “I wanted to believe what America said, but it wasn’t the time to raise the flag.”
The Statue of Liberty, covered in blood and holding a bomb with a leering skull, was one of the more searing images during the aftermath of the bombing.
“There was definitely a change in attitude toward foreigners,” Backstrom said. Signs calling for resistance to America began popping up along the streets.
Backstrom told people she was from Sweden to avoid problems.
Chinese television was graphic, by U.S. standards, in depicting the three journalists killed in the bombing and the damage caused to the building. The nation’s anger boiled over into protests.
A Chinese friend who had invited Backstrom over for dinner Sunday evening called following the bombings to cancel the invitation.
“She said, ‘Because your country killed three of our people, you should not come over,'” Backstrom said.
Across China, protesters surrounded and pelted embassies, burned American flags and chanted, “Down with imperialism.” Large demonstrations were held in Shanghai, Guangzhou and Beijing, and protesters set the U.S. Consulate in the southern city of Chengdu on fire.
China was not alone in its anger. Worldwide, countries expressed their disgust with NATO’s bombing mistakes. Across the United States, the embassy bombing amplified demonstrations and anti-war rallies.
Protests that, up until that time, had been a dull roar of disapproval of the war, became deafening as shouts for an end to the bombing campaign came.
The question of whether or not NATO knew it was bombing the Chinese Embassy was the focal point of the anger. Three to five precision-guided missiles hit the embassy, a five-story building in a prominent section of Belgrade. There was a large sign in Chinese along with a bright red Chinese flag atop the building, and it was listed in the phone book.
“You could understand it,” Backstrom said. “If you did not speak any Chinese, you would not have understood their anger — you might have felt it, but yet still not able to understand it.”
By June, the anger died down, and life returned to normal. This calm provided Backstrom time to reflect.
“You learn so much about being American; how you’re perceived, and what it means to be American,” Backstrom said.
The idea of free speech was much more tangible in China, she said.
“(In China) I’m used to thinking my phone is bugged, to watching what I say,” Backstrom said.
Throughout her stay in China, Backstrom said her American and Chinese friends supported her.
“My Chinese friends accepted me, loved me and made me a part of their families and culture,” she said.
The exchange between the Minnesota native and the Chinese families she came to know corrected a lot of misunderstandings and erased many misconceptions.
An Iraqi family in China also provided a bulwark of support. Backstrom came to know them while watching the U.S. bombing of Iraq on Egyptian television at their house. The relationship was cemented when the family comforted her following the embassy bombing. The irony was not lost on her.
“My Iraqi friends were comforting me, an American, in China,” Backstrom said.
Another source of strength was her faith.
“I believe God’s grace kept me sane and smiling through some periods,” Backstrom said.
One incident stands out as an example of the power of faith.
Months before Backstrom left Minneapolis, she and her friends arranged to connect over the telephone and pray. On May 8, one day after the embassy bombing, they connected.
“He knew the exact day out of the year when I would need encouragement,” Backstrom said, referring to God. “It gives you the faith to jump into things you wouldn’t normally do.”
Backstrom returned to Minnesota with a strong desire to return to China and gain new insights.
“China is a very complicated country, and the way it is now is due to circumstances we can’t even begin to understand,” she said. “I just want to understand and learn from (the Chinese) and gain from them the strength that America hasn’t caught onto yet.”
Sascha Matuszak covers international affairs and welcome comments at [email protected]