The Long Beach City College (LBCC) Community Studies Project, partnering with the Historical Society of Long Beach, explored what they consider to be the under-researched history of the city during the third Long Beach Community Studies Conference on April 26 at LBCC.
Thirteen lectures highlighted aspects of the city’s past and present, with topics ranging from the history of the LGBTQ community in Long Beach to several refugees’ dramatic journey to freedom.
LBCC professor of history Mary Marki was the moderator for the panel “Refugees in the Neighborhood.” She said her goal was to capture and share the local oral histories from within the community of human struggle and resilience.
“You’ll never know who you’ll come across in Long Beach,” Marki said during the conference. “These stories are here, and they remind us how very fortunate we are.”
Two individuals, Laura Wan and Mihaela Mehr, have lived through extraordinary circumstances.
A child of cultural revolution
Laura Wan, a Chinese refugee, retired as the dean of the School of Business and Social Science last year. When colleagues started asking her what makes her feel good about her accomplishments, she said she gave it some thought.
“I realized that my life experience is what I cherish most,” Wan said.
Wan had just finished 9th grade, and the time had finally come for her to take entrance examinations and apply for high school. But in May of 1966, as the semester came to a close, Chairman Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution began.
Suddenly, there was no more school.
“I was 16,” Wan said. “At first, everyone was happy because there would be no examinations and no school. For a while that was freedom to us– we little teenagers.”
But by July and August the chaos started. The Cultural Revolution– the purging of all capitalist, traditional and cultural elements from Chinese society– had come to Wan’s door.
“My father was severely persecuted, criticized and captured,” Wan said. “They kept him in some dark room, and for weeks we didn’t know where he was, all because he was labeled as a rightist. They thought that he had taken up capitalist ideology.”
Those who had once been good neighbors suddenly turned on Wan’s family. In their building’s community bathroom, for example, the neighbors started to use her father’s towels to wipe the toilets.
“We had always been good neighbors, helping each other,” Wan said. “That kind of humiliation leaves you feeling so psychologically depressed. You didn’t know who you were. Overnight we became the enemy.”
Wan’s response at that time was to try and join the Red Guard, a mass paramilitary social movement of young people led by Mao, but was rejected due to a perceived bourgeois ideology– a consequence of her family’s black mark.
“I felt that I should be part of the Revolution to safeguard myself and to not again get persecuted,” Wan said.
But then her younger brother was beaten.
“About 200 Red Guards came, used a belt with a metal head and beat him with it severely,” Wan said. “He’s had knee problems.”
Her brother was only 14 years old at the time.
Wan ended up at a prisoners farm near Shanghai and the Yellow Sea where she spent more than four years digging ditches and growing cotton.
“They believe you must work to reform your habit,” Wan said. “It was a salty marsh that was very shallow. We didn’t have a roof. Most of us were young. Nobody knew how to farm and there was no equipment. We had some shovels and during the growing season– we grew cotton.”
About five years later, the Shanghai and Beijing governments called back their middle-school graduates from the fields to apply for education positions.
“I was brave enough,” Wan said. “I crammed for two weeks at that time, and I got admitted to the training class.”
After a year and a half, Wan became a middle-school teacher.
She had only had a training-class certificate, no degree, and at 29 years old, with a 9-month-old baby, Wan had to plan her next move.
“Nobody supported me in the family, and so I decided that I needed to go back to school,” Wan said. “I entered the National College, and I was so lucky that I was admitted. With that education I was able to come to the United States.”
In 1988, as Tiananmen Square took the world’s stage, Wan decided to attend Michigan State. She came to the United States with $40.
Working as a nanny, cashier and waitress in her first year in the United States, she’d managed to save $3,000, the first semester’s tuition. By the second semester she had started a graduate assistantship.
“I decided to stay,” Wan said. “I decided that this was a new horizon for me.”
Wan finished her degree in education and, more than 20 years later, retired as a dean.
“I think I feel good,” Wan concluded. “I don’t feel shameful to say that because last year, when I left, people said that I was a good dean and that makes me feel good.”
Across the Danube
Wan was not the only panelist who had transitioned from refugee to academic. When Marki announced that the second panelist, LBCC Italian professor Mihaela Mehr, had just earned her doctorate degree, Mehr shed tears of pride.
Her story began in Soviet-controlled Romania in 1981.
“Mihaela’s reality did not include Rocky Balboa,” Marki said. “Her journey to the U.S. is about her father risking it all to secure a life for his wife and child.”
Mihaela was 6 years old when her father disappeared.
“I was born at a time defined by events that are now difficult to imagine or perceive,” Mehr said. “My parents and my father, in particular, felt the consequences of this repressive regime on a daily basis, a regime that did not take into account an entire nation’s basic human rights.”
Political freedom was not allowed in Romania during the Communist regime. No freedom of the press or speech were allowed. Media were strictly censored and filled with propaganda. President Nicolae Ceausescu’s cult of personality was omnipresent.
“The cultural life was strangled by the political regime. History was falsified in the supposed newspapers, increasing the role of the Communist party and President Ceausescu in some historical events. Old books were not available in libraries in an attempt to hide the past.”
Mehr said that, because of the strict control of everything that was printed, there was a shortage of good books to read or compelling movies to see, even about things not related with politics.
As the Romanian economy plummeted, there were also shortages of almost all basic goods.
“I remember at one point, the only products on the shelf were tomato sauce, canned beans and canned fish,” Mehr said. “The president and the regime had the idea to pay off the national debt by starving its people.”
Mehr also remembers blackouts.
“They would cut off our electricity, and I remember those as a child because I couldn’t do my homework,” Mehr said. “In spite of all of the shortages and inhuman living conditions, propaganda sustained that the Romanian people were very happy to have such a good ruler.”
The Romanian news outlets were also ignoring the liberation events happening elsewhere in the Soviet Bloc. Mehr said that there was nothing in the Romanian press about the fall of the Berlin Wall, for example.
However, people were informed about the changes in Eastern Europe through Western radio stations broadcasting in Romanian. Radio Free Europe, sponsored by the U.S. government, and the BBC London Romanian program had a large audience in Romania at the time.
“I remember my grandfather trying to get reception to these stations,” Mehr said. “As a child, I must have been about 4 or 5, but I remember the words.”
Romanians were also watching the television programs of neighboring countries. Yugoslavian and Hungarian programs were very popular and provided information about the political situation in communist countries.
“Even when such programs were not very political, people were happy to see something other than official propaganda,” Mehr said.
Mehr remembered spending each New Year’s Eve at her aunt’s in Orşova, a Romanian city bordering Serbia, and she would watch programs from Yugoslavia.
“I also remember looking across the Danube and seeing so many more lights, so much more electricity, symbolic even to a child of so much more freedom across these borders,” Mehr said.
She paused to catch her breath before beginning again.
“It was this call to freedom from across the border that my father must have heard,” she said.
Her father, Nicolae Martinescu, embarked on a perilous journey to freedom on Dec. 2 1981.
“He left without telling anyone, not even my mother,” Mehr said. “He was afraid that she would be prosecuted by the regime if suspected that she had any knowledge of his plan to flee the country. He knew that if he were caught, he could be shot.”
He crossed the Danube on an inflatable boat, swimming part of the way.
He spent 25 days in a Yugoslavian prison before he was taken to a prison in Graz, Austria and shortly thereafter, moved to an Austrian refugee camp where he would spend eight months working different jobs and learning to be an electrician.
“He still remembers it like it was yesterday, and I see the emotion in his eyes as he tells me about the day he was given a ticket to Los Angeles,” Mehr said.
After spending more than 14 years in different communist prisons, Mehr’s father arrived in the United States on Sept. 2, 1982.
“He actually paid back his ticket in a few months as he started work,” Mehr said. “It is very much like my father not to take even a penny from anyone without paying it back as soon as he could.”
Mehr’s admiration for her father was clear.
“I had never told my father just how grateful I am for what he did, risking his life so that I may have a better life, so I would not be denied the opportunities that he was denied.”
She said she found the opportunity to thank him in the acknowledgment section of her Ph.D, finished incidentally on Dec. 2 of last year, the same day that her father left Romania 32 years earlier. She concluded with gratitude.
It reads, “I’d like to especially thank my father Nicolae, for his courage and sacrifice 32 years ago as he embarked on this perilous journey whose objective was to take him as far away from the hopeless reality of the repressive regime as he could go so that I would have the opportunity to partake in the freedoms and academic opportunities that he was denied.”
Both panelists expressed gratitude for the opportunities they have been offered since their arrival in the U.S.
“These stories remind us how we enjoy freedom and stability and security,” Marki said. “We are reminded that tragedy and turmoil are not circumscribed to the past– that humans suffer persecution, political chaos and civil war as we speak. My hope is that these compelling stories of human resilience coming from within our community will inspire our students who must overcome their own difficult stories and experiences and hardship.” ß