Living in hiding

She doesnt want to use her real name, because shes afraid theyll find her. Zen, a Santa Rosa Junior College student who fled her life in China, still receives threatening phone calls.
She doesn’t want to use her real name, because she’s afraid ‘they’ll’ find her. “Zen,” a Santa Rosa Junior College student who fled her life in China, still receives threatening phone calls.
Sam Guzman

She’s not being paranoid; “Zen” still gets threatening phone calls to this day.

When she answers, a man’s voice says, “Don’t come back” or “I can catch you.”

Zen is a refugee from China who hasn’t seen her family in seven years. The Santa Rosa Junior College student fled her home country after her landlord extorted her business and then threatened to kill her or her family if she continued to fight for it.

Zen grew up in Guangzhou, China, where she owned a coffee shop. Smoke from cigarettes would fill her shop as customers sipped on their hot noodles, drank coffee and ate Russian tiramisu and homemade cheesecakes.

Zen and her brother invested all of their money into the shop for a five-year contract with the landlord. Only six months in, however, an employee arrived at the shop to find her key didn’t work.

The employee called Zen, asking her to come check the lock. The coffee shop was far from Zen’s house, but she hailed a taxi and met her coworker. Posted on the front door was a piece of paper from her landlord: “If you have any questions, call me.”

Zen called him, and he said he would no longer let her lease the store.

“Why do you kick me out? I pay money for you. That’s not fair,” she said.

He replied she was free to call the police, so she did. The officer told her, “This is between you and your landlord’s stories. I cannot fix that.”

Zen tried to take her landlord to court, but the judge agreed with police. Then, on an early winter morning in 2017 while Zen was living with her brother, he heard banging at the door. Zen was asleep, but the banging woke her. It was so loud that neighbors poked their heads out to see the commotion.

Three men stood at the door carrying long sticks. They shouted, “Let us in! And bring your sister here!” They continued for almost 10 minutes, until Zen opened the door. The men yelled, “If you go to court again, we will kill you!”

The Chinese Communist Party has long controlled the lives and rights of its citizens. It is heavy on censorship and suppressing freedom, including social media, journalism and political criticism. All media should reflect “absolute loyalty,” President Xi Jinping said.

That expectation extends to every Chinese citizen.

For example, more than 1 million Uyghurs, a mostly Muslim population, have been forced into re-education camps since 2014. There, they are forced to learn Mandarin and convert to the Communist Party beliefs. They are put to work in factories, toiling in abusive conditions with no breaks and little money. They can’t leave and are offered minimal contact with family. 

Zen managed to leave her native Guangzhou March 18, 2017. She first moved to Los Angeles, where she stayed with her cousin until a month later when she headed north to Sonoma County.

She rented a room from a friend until she moved to a neighboring town. Zen continues to work part time babysitting, dog-sitting and house-sitting. 

She didn’t have a license, so she called an Uber every morning to get to work. The same driver frequently picked her up. As it turned out, the two were neighbors. He eventually offered her free rides, and the two bonded. Her driver later became her husband.

In spring 2022, Zen started attending SRJC, taking ESL classes at Santa Rosa Junior College’s Southwest Center among other documented and undocumented immigrants learning English.

The director of daily operations, Hector Delgado, says it’s a goal to create a place where students of all cultures have the opportunity to feel safe and learn in a supportive environment.

“It makes me proud to know we have a district where we can help students feel welcome,” he said.

Zen said her teachers have been kind and understanding and the students have been helpful.

One of her instructors, Daniela Kingwill, said it’s her job to be aware that students attending the Southwest Center may have suffered trauma, and to be mindful and accommodating of them.

“A student may not always remember what you taught them, but they will always remember that you cared,” Kingwill said.

Zen hopes to improve her English so she can find a job in nursing. “This country gave me a lot,” she said. “I want to give just a tiny bit of service for this country’s people.”

In her free time, Zen trains to run marathons. Next month, she will compete in a 10k. She also has been learning photography, practicing with a digital camera from her husband. She and her husband love to go to Bodega Bay, walk around the Windsor Town Green and go on hikes together.

While Zen adjusted to her life in California, Chinese citizens were struggling under the country’s strict zero-COVID policies. Residents weren’t allowed to leave their homes, and food shortages were common.

On Nov. 24, 2022, a fire broke out on the 15th floor of a flat, killing 10 people in Urumqi, China. Locals blamed the fire on oppressive COVID-19 restrictions, and even more protests erupted. Shanghai police detained and beat a BBC reporter covering one of the events. Authorities confiscated phones and cameras from protesters, deleting all relevant videos and photos

In contrast, the U.S. has given Zen a first-time sense of freedom — and “the air smells wonderful here.”

The people of Sonoma County have also been nothing but gracious toward her. “People I don’t know still smile for me,” she said. “It’s great.”

Since she left China, Zen keeps up with the news and is active on social media, advocating against the Chinese Communist Party.

In her native country, Zen had her business taken away from her, forcibly and without explanation, while police and courts refused to help. She is determined to speak out against the Chinese Communist Party by telling her story and educating her American peers.