The UPS clerk loaded the boxes into his truck yesterday.   They will be unpacked at the Hoover Institution in Stanford University and placed delicately into an archive that bears my name — the Suellen Zima Archive.  They are deserving of this honor because these hundreds of letters written by my Chinese students over a quarter of a century are not only precious, but also historical.  Since my time in China spanned before, during, and after the Tiananmen Square demonstrations, they eloquently and personally speak of the hopes, fears, insecurities, and dreams of the generation that pushed for change, and who then had to keep their balance on the roller coaster ride that put them on.

Along with the letters are my photos of my early years in China, and the letter writers as they looked in and around 1988.  A 12 minute DVD shows what I put into the archive, and why.   The book I published in 2006, “Memoirs of a Middle-aged Hummingbird,” has a place of honor in the archive, as does a digital Chinese translation of the book.  Hopefully with more to come from others among the letter writers, one Chinese friend sent me all my letters to him that he had saved.

I made copies of only a few of the letters among the hundreds to keep as personal mementos.   What struck me again was how much each letter was like a visit with the person — just the two of us together.  Although I couldn’t read all the letters beforehand, I did touch each one individually before it went into the carton.  As the clerk carried the boxes to his waiting truck, I felt a sudden, swift pang of loss.  However, some things are too important to keep to oneself.  I am grateful these letters, and mine to them, nurtured our relationships way before computers and cheap phone calls made keeping in touch easier.

I particularly like the fact that I will not know who will read these letters, or how what I and  my friends wrote will move researchers to a deeper understanding of the China of those years by those who experienced it.  And, the letters preserve for posterity the fast-disappearing art of letter writing.


Out of sheer curiosity because I knew nothing about it, I went to China in 1988.  It changed my life.  It changed my career to teaching English since this was an excellent way to get to know Chinese people without knowing how to speak Chinese.  It was a time machine into the Third World.  It was a very personal introduction to a very different culture.  It gave me a large number of Chinese friends, and it made me grandmother to 7 Chinese children in 6 families.  And now it has given me a way to preserve forever some of China’s recent history.

I moved to other Asian countries (Taiwan, Macau, Bali, Korea) after 1988, but returned 16 times to China.  With no option for e-mail in those early days, I nurtured the relationships with many letters.  They replied with many letters, describing what they were doing, what they were thinking, what they were dreaming about, where they were going, how they were coping with the fast paced changes in China during the past quarter century.  I was middle-aged when we met.  Now, they are middle-aged, living lives none of them (or probably anyone) would have predicted in 1988.

Since letters have always been precious to me, I saved them.  Now that I’ve reached the age where I need to decide what to do with what I have saved, I worried about their fate.  I knew that the personal histories written through their often poetic and intimate words were stories that deserved a broader audience.

The word, “archive,” had never meant much to me except perhaps for an image of a dark, far-off place for little-known storage.  And then another author who had done extensive research for her books told me about archives used for research, often housed in libraries at universities.   A librarian at a local university recognized immediately that mine was a unique collection for modern Chinese history.  She referred me to Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.

The Hoover Institution at Stanford wants them and is now waiting for my carefully saved letters to arrive.  Along with the letters will go an English print copy of my book published in 2006, “Memoirs of a Middle-aged Hummingbird,” a digital copy of the book translated into Chinese, and photos of the letter writers I’ve saved over the years I’ve been visiting China.  They also welcome any letters from me that my Chinese friends might have saved and would like to add to the archive.

I’m learning more about archives now — the acid free environment where the letters will be kept, the fact that I am donating the letters but still retain ownership of the collection, the protection that will be provided for the proper use of the letters by researchers.

I can’t think of a better place for the letters to me from the friendships I nurtured to remain important and useful long after I’m gone.  In fact, it’s rather fun to speculate who will be reading these letters and books and what they will make of them.


June 8, 2013

Ah, the ironies of life.  I studied advertising copywriting when I was an undergraduate.  I liked playing with words and found it innocent, creative, and fun.  However, when it came time to decide on a job, I questioned myself, “Do I want to spend my time trying to convince people to buy things they don’t need?”  The answer was clearly “no,” but little did I suspect at that time that advertising would become the totally pervasive, absolutely intrusive thing it has become today.

When I was doing a Master’s in Social Work, I did a research paper on the eventual role of  technology in being able to keep track of what was happening in mental wards, down to being able to anticipate problems in the ward.  It  predicted various technologies that would eventually replace face-to-face therapists.

The computer Hal made us very uncomfortable when he tried to wrest control from humans.  But that was only a movie, right?

When I lived in China in 1988, I was invited to the homes of my students.  There were no televisions in the village homes at that time, but there was a radio station broadcast into each home.  You could neither change the station, nor turn it off.

My very first foray into the computer was something called “WebTV.”  The television was the screen, and there were ways you could connect the TV and the web, such as being conveniently told when programs or actors would be aired.

With my blog, I learned the word “monetize.”  AdSense would put ads around my blog.  My writing was only the carrot to draw people to click on ads that would be the moneymakers — mostly for the advertisers, of course.

Self-publishing became a huge industry, making it possible for just about anyone to publish a book.  That made money for the self-publishing companies, but the marketing and social networking done by the author was what either sold the book or let it languish in digital no man’s land.

There were many clues along the way.  But now it’s more than 1984.  It’s more than Big Brother.  It’s more than the push-button world of the Jetsons.   Whether it’s heads of state speaking at summits, watching tv programs interspersed among the ads, or trying to find the blog sandwiched among the ads, it’s all about monetization — and beyond.

Jaron Lanier, a researcher at Microsoft, offers his perspective in the book, “Who Owns the Future?”  He invents the words, “Siren Servers” and applies them to Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, and automated trading algorithms that lure us in.  “An amazing number of people offer an amazing amount of value over networks.  But the lion’s share of wealth now flows to those who aggregate and route those offerings, rather than those who produce the ‘raw materials.'”   He would like to find ways to right that wrong.

Change is good.  Change is bad.  Change is confusing.  Where are we going?  Whom do you trust?





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