Mourning Boston, from half a world away
FORTUNE — At 8:02 on Saturday morning, April 20, the earth shook in central China. Yupu Zhao was asleep in his bed in Chengdu, 88 miles from the epicenter in rural Sichuan Province. He still felt it — he woke up fast — and once he got his pants on and went outdoors, Zhao did what any other Chinese twenty-something with a smartphone would do: He went straight to Weibo, China’s popular microblog.
At nearly the same moment, halfway around the world in Watertown, Mass., shots were fired as police converged on the second suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings. Zhao had a stake in those proceedings, too, and not just because he went to college in the States. Among the three fatalities was 23-year-old Lingzi Lu, a Boston University graduate student from Shenyang in northeast China. With Lu that day were two other Chinese nationals, one — Danling Zhou — who suffered a serious abdominal wound, though she is expected to survive. Zhou is from Chengdu.
As Zhao tracked his feed in those first few frenzied moments, half the posts were about what was happening in Sichuan. The other half were about what was happening in Boston.
Ordinarily, an act of public violence in the U.S. wouldn’t attract much attention in China, and what little it did might be cynical. As in, “Oh that’s just the United States,” is how Zhao, who is working for Fortune’s Global Forum conference, explains how many of his countrymen might have responded to past violent episodes, “everyone has guns.”
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If you’re looking for a sense of how Chinese officialdom, at least, views our quality of life, see “Human Rights Record of the United States in 2012,” published in the English language China Daily one week after the Boston bombings. The section on “Life and Personal Security” cites chilling (and accurate) FBI statistics on the scope of violent crime in America, and quotes New York Mayor Bloomberg, speaking on CNN in the wake of last summer’s shooting rampage in Aurora, Colo.: “I don’t think there’s any other developed country in the world that has remotely the problem we have.”
Writing from his personal Weibo account, an editor at the Worker’s Daily lightly chastised Cui Tiankai, the Chinese ambassador to the U.S., for visiting the injured student Zhou at Boston Medical Center on a day when 18 Chinese miners died and nine were injured in an explosion in a coal mine in Helong, Jilin Province. “The day when the dead and injured coal mine workers receive the same treatment,” he wrote, “will be the day that shows the people’s lives are equally respected.”
But clearly the Boston bombings touched many Chinese deeply, and I understand why. So many awful things happen in the world every day. It’s hard to keep them straight, much less absorb their full impact. A personal connection goes a long way. I learned that myself last week.
I live in Arlington, Mass., eight miles west of Boston. On the day that terror struck close to home, however, I was 8,000 miles away, on assignment in Hong Kong. I woke up at dawn on what for me was Tuesday morning, saw the ominous clutter of alerts on my phone, and was searching for my glasses when the phone started ringing. It was a friend calling from New York. Just making sure I was alive.
I caught up quickly, confirmed that everyone I know and love was safe, and then like you, probably, I spent the next few days tracking developments on CNN.
Normally, I work on Boylston St., about three blocks from the finish line. I could have been right there when the bombs went off, I suppose, although I usually avoid the crowds on Marathon day. It’s one of those Boston things I’ve never really warmed to, even though I’ve been in Arlington for nearly 25 years. My wife was born in Arlington. We raised our kids there. We’ll probably live there, happily, for the rest of our lives. And yet … Arlington, Cambridge, Boston itself — that whole Hub universe — has never really felt like home to me. Let me put it this way: I was glad (mainly for my daughters and my in-laws) when the Red Sox finally broke the damn curse in ’04. But I was elated when my Phillies won in ’08, even though I haven’t lived anywhere near Philadelphia since 1973. Boston, I don’t know. Just not my tribe.
Except it’s different now, suddenly different. Now that I’ve heard from friends who were close enough to hear the explosions. And now that I know that one of the victims, 29-year-old Krystle Campbell, lived in Arlington and used to be a manager at the restaurant in Cambridge where my wife and I sometimes meet after work. Watching Campbell’s mother struggling for words on the porch of her Medford home — “You couldn’t ask for a better daughter. I can’t believe this has happened. She was such a hard worker at everything she did” — while her son stood bravely beside her in a Red Sox hat, I was reminded of other mothers, other daughters, and other sons in my wife’s big Boston family. And the accent, of course; that unmistakable Boston accent. So strange to hear it coming over the airwaves in Hong Kong. Almost made me feel at home.
But having been in Hong Kong for the past two months, reading the local papers, traveling often to the Mainland, I realize I have a second, unexpected connection to the events in my hometown.
Three young Chinese women were standing near the finish line when one of the bombs exploded in their midst. One was unscathed. One was wounded. And one suffered a gruesome death in a faraway land. Five days later, on a Saturday afternoon at Fenway Park, the Red Sox remembered the victims and honored the first responders.
There’s a picture that was taken that day, of a dozen Red Sox all in a line. We see them from behind, anonymous to the uninitiated in their red-numbered home whites. Their caps are off. Some have bowed their heads while others are looking up at the scoreboard, at an image of a young woman with long black hair, parted in the middle, and a shy smile. “Lingzi Lu of Shenyang, China” says the caption on the scoreboard. “Age 23.” Half a world away, even as bodies were being pulled from the rubble in Sichuan, the picture went viral on Weibo.