SAN FRANCISCO — The Chinese student sat nervously clutching a fluffy white stuffed animal in a boarding area at the San Francisco International Airport. Outside, on the tarmac, sat an Air China 747, ready for departure to Shanghai and then to Beijing.
The student, who asked not to be named, was eager to see his wife and child for the first time in nearly a year. In the name of love, he was returning to a country that now gave him serious doubts.
"We don't know what is going on," he said as he pondered for a moment the possibility of not boarding the plane. "Some people back home say everything is safe, but I just don't know."
While thousands of students, tourists and bureaucrats are pouring out of China to escape the upheaval there, a much smaller number of Chinese are making the opposite trip back home.
For some, like the business people who came for a few weeks to buy and sell in America, the decision is easy. This is simply the last leg of their trip, and they will be home soon.
"Our work is finished, and now we have to go back," said one business executive, wearing a Mack Truck souvenir cap. "There is nothing else to say."
But for some students and teachers who prepared to board the flight Friday--a departure date chosen months ago to coincide with the end of their school programs--the decision to go back home was made much more difficult by the violent events of the past week.
Some have taken active roles in the United States to support the student demonstrators in China, and they are now worried they may suffer the consequences at home.
Others are simply anxious because they don't know what is happening back home and are afraid they are flying into an unpredictable maelstrom.
"On the one hand, we don't know what is going to happen in China," said one student preparing to board the flight to Shanghai. "But my wife is still there. We are torn between two worlds."
There were about 140 passengers making the trip on Air China Flight 984, filling about half the plane. With the exception of three journalists from a Brazilian television network, all the passengers were Chinese.
In the boarding area, smoke swirled in the air as passengers puffed on cigarettes and gazedoutside the large window at the jets and runways.
The duty-free shop nearby was mobbed earlier as passengers bought their last American candy and cigarettes to take home.
Xu Qingyao, 46, a teacher from Sichuan province who had been studying for the last nine months at Goshen College in Indiana, was one of several who were anxious to be on his way to China.
"I'm longing for home and my family," he said. "I am ready to go to work for the country."
Xu said he watched television reports on the killings in Beijing's Tian An Men Square but does not believe everything he saw.
"I think everything is fine," he said. "I don't think the situation is the same as what the foreign media has shown."
One elderly couple waiting in the boarding area said they believe this is a good time to go home.
They said they had been in America for the last six months, visiting their son, who is a student in Pittsburgh. The day before the flight, they called their family in Beijing and were told the conflict in the Chinese capital was beginning to settle down.
They had the option of delaying their flight for a few more weeks or even months. But the man said: "What difference would it make? Who knows if things would get better or worse?"
His wife added: "Our home is in Beijing. Our whole family is there. We have to go back sometime."
One student, who would only give his last name, Li, said no matter what the situation in China, he had already bought his ticket and was committed to returning on the flight.
Visiting His Girlfriend
He was traveling to Shanghai to see his girlfriend, who had been apart from him for three years. He said he hopes to marry her upon his return to China.
"No matter what is happening, I am going home," Li said. "I feel I will be safe."
But even those who said they felt safe conceded that the situation in China could change rapidly. In the boarding area, a vague paranoia filled the air.
"Please don't use my name," said one man.
"Please don't say anything about my parents' situation in China," said another.
"We really don't want to say anything," said one business woman.
Just after 4 p.m., a voice transmitted over the loudspeaker announced that Flight 984 would soon be boarding. A mass of blue and gray suits rose. The passengers began toting their carry-on luggage toward the boarding gate.
The student who had been considering delaying his return to China rose and began collecting the things around him. In about 14 more hours, he would again be back in his homeland, where he taught in Sichuan province before taking nearly a year off as an exchange student at Goshen College.
He bundled up the white stuffed animal for his child and lined up at the boarding gate, with everyone else.