When she handed me the notebook her nervous expression betrayed her inner feelings. Looking back on it I can only imagine the terror she felt. I’m sure she felt, quite correctly, that if she was caught giving me the notebook she would have been in some serious trouble. Luckily it looked innocent enough. A student handing a professor a spiral bound notebook isn’t exactly a revolutionary act. She even took the step of writing “English” on the cover in both English and Chinese. One look at the interior, written in firm characters, saw a story in Chinese.
She had told me during the class break she had some work to give me. I assumed it was some assignment that she had forgotten to do that I was blanking on. The downside of teaching several huge lectures is it can sometimes be hard to keep them straight when you’re on the spot. After class she waited until all the other students had left. I had erased the board and was finishing the coffee in my thermos. She came up to me and in a low voice said here it is. I looked in the notebook and noticed it was full, every page front and back with thousands of simplified characters.
“Teacher” she trailed off, but made eye contact with a ferocity I was not used to. “Can you read this.” She was speaking english which seemed the wrong language for the conversation.
“Um,” I flipped through the notebook, “It’s in simplified characters. I looked up at her. In Mandarin repeated myself. “I..”
She cut me off “Teacher please speak English.”
I raised an eyebrow almost instinctively. “ I can read traditional Chinese well, but simplified, I can if I have access to the internet or a dictionary to figure out the characters I don’t know.” My voice sounded sterner than I wanted.
“Can you please read this and rewrite it in English. It is very important.”
I looked at her. Her eyes were wide and afraid, burning with some unknown passion.
“This is a few hundred pages, it would take months to translate. I can read it, sure, but if you really wanted it translated well, you should contact someone far more skilled than I.” Again my voice sounded hard, professorial, but not the right tone for the moment.
“Teacher, I can’t trust this to anyone. I need to give to,” she paused, “someone I trust. I trust you. Please, help me.”
My mind raced. I had no idea what could be in the notebook, but I’m guessing it’s something that would get both of us in trouble.
“What sort of things are written in here?” I probed.
“About my life, about,” she paused “about China.”
“What about your life and China. Is this a biography and a travel guide?” My tone was wrong again, but she seemed unfazed.
“Biography yes, travel guide no.”
“Now let’s say I flew on an airplane with this notebook and the security guard saw it, would that be bad?”
“Maybe.” She looked at the door almost instinctively. We were alone but she didn’t seem comforted.
I cut to the chase, “Could the information in this notebook get me in trouble.”
“Yes. It could.”
“Could it get you in trouble?”
“I think it already has. I can’t be sure though.”
“What is this about?” I spoke emphatically as I felt my heart rate increase.
“The People’s Government.”
I paused and looked down at the notebook and made a decision that I’ve thought about every day since then.
I looked up at her and saw tears welling in her eyes. “Please” she said.
I put the notebook between the two textbooks on my dest and slid them into my bag. I kept looking at my bag arranging things.
“ You never gave me this notebook, you’ve never spoken to me outside of listening to my lectures, we never had this conversation. Is that clear?”
“Thank you,” she began to say.
I looked at her, I wanted to be tough, but empathy overwhelmed my soul. “Good luck.”