Live free or die: An essay by Amanda Caterina Leong

By Amanda Caterina Leong

Summer 2015 was when Stefan and I drove out from the West for the East. I was barely twenty and he was twenty-three, old enough to drink without a fake ID and still make decisions based on experience. Stefan and I met in Berkeley where he was an exchange student from Germany. We lived in the same dorm, him two floors below, played intermural basketball together for our dorm team and studied together for too long hours in the International House library while being hyped on too much caffeine. By the time finals ended, we celebrated by renting an overpriced paper white Chevy Malibu and alongside with our tent, sleeping bag, stove and propane tank, decided to head off on a road trip across the country for 45 days.

Photo by Amanda Caterina Leong

By the time we were in Maryland, we had already gotten lost in the Mojave Desert, low on water, experienced sandstorms in Lake Powell that made me see Stefan as a deer leaping through sand to catch our tent carried away by the wind, had shot too many AK-47s in Dallas only to end up fearing them because it was so easy for a 16 year old to buy a Hello Kitty gun, had stopped by Atlanta just so we could see the eternal flame of Martin Luther King Jr.’s eternal hope for a world of justice, peace and equality for all mankind, had screamed at each other all the way in Key West, hoping that Cuba could hear our frustrations, him leaving me staying, pulled over and made love in nowhere and too long Virginia.

But Stefan was most excited to be in Maryland.

“I can’t wait to go take hater photos in front of the NSA headquarters after this,” he told me as we parked our Malibu in front of the National Cryptologic Museum. The museum had just opened ten minutes ago.

When we were in Berkeley, Stefan majored in computer science. And all I knew was that he wasn’t interested in developing apps or big data. He was interested in the idea of freedom—online. Berkeley was where he wanted to proceed with his interest. After all, apart from being the best school in the nation for computer science, Berkeley was where the Free Speech Movement had begun during the 1960s.

My friends had laughed too loudly in the Mario Savio Free Speech Movement Café and told me Stefan was paranoid when I told them how he asked me to install PGP after I sent him an email asking him to be my date to our dorm’s boat party:

“Concerning your email, emails are sent completely in plaintext and everyone can read what you write and there are certainly some people who do it. So can you please install end-to-end email encryption so that I can answer you encrypted? The tool for apple mail is and here is one of thousand videos on how to install and use it You can find my public key under my usual email address. If you are stuck or have questions ask. Stefan out!!+”

Nonetheless, I did what he requested and he said yes to being my date. Later, we watched the Bay Bridge blink before us—watching us watching it, Stefan told me why privacy mattered so much to him. Being German carried the legacy of being in a state of hyperawareness—of guilt from Hitler’s Nazi Germany, of surveillance from East Germany’s Stasi police. Stasi informants were found everywhere in everyday life in East Germany: schools, hospitals, apartments, families, and marriages. Eavesdropping and informing on everyone was completely normal—and not many were coerced into doing so. The Stasi perfected the art of Zersetzung, a term borrowed from chemistry that means biodegradation. “At one point, you start realizing that the state knew everything and anything about you and you start censoring the thoughts you have in your brain. You’re scared, so you stop thinking—you don’t think. You degrade. You do as you are told. This is how oppression won in East Germany.”

Oppression is still winning today. Summer 2013 was when Edward Snowden exposed how the NSA has been carrying out global surveillance through a program they developed called PRISM. When the Snowden incident happened, Stefan had just started his master’s degree in computer science in RWTH Aachen. RWTH Aachen is one of Germany’s best universities for engineering and computer sciences. He wanted to become a professor in computer science. He wanted Germany to grant Snowden political asylum because just like Snowden, Stefan believed in thinking without fear and keeping his thoughts to himself, for his self. After all, this was “a right in a country of liberal democracy like Germany.” Stefan thinks that freedom is found in privacy that is in turn found in encryption—to be able to use mathematics and software development to keep your thoughts to yourself.

The National Cryptologic Museum is located adjacent to the NSA headquarters. As we entered, the receptionist, a little old lady asked us whether we would like a tour guide. Stefan agreed. She asked Stefan whether he was Scandinavian, being blonde and skinny yet still too tall for the average American male. Stefan staunchly declared he was German. I was surprised. After all, he had always been reluctant to tell people that he was German. When strangers tried to make conversation about his 6 ft 5 frame, he usually opted for, “We’re from Berkeley,” or remained stubbornly mute till I filled in his origins.

When our tour guide came for us, I realized the reason for Stefan’s sudden German pride. The National Cryptologic Museum is home to seven German Enigma machines: Commercial Enigma; Enigma T; Enigma G; Unidentified; Luftwaffe (Air Force) Enigma; Heer (Army) Enigma; Kriegsmarine (Naval) Enigma—M4. The Enigma Machine became the backbone of the German military services, used to encrypt tens of thousands of tactical messages throughout World War II. “You have no idea how gigantic the number of mathematical permutations for every keystroke is,” Stefan tells me.

Photo by Amanda Caterina Leong

As I watched Stefan in the National Cryptologic Museum fanboying over the fact that he is holding a German four-rotor Kreigsmarine Enigma machine in his hands, I realized how I had never seen him that happy—it took me three months to get him to sustain a casual dinner conversation with me, another two to become my friend and then my too-brief boyfriend.

Before we left, Stefan asked the guide whether he we could take pictures of the NSA headquarters. “You could, but I don’t think the folks over there would be very happy.” Looking back, I wish I had taken a photograph of Stefan, too tall, slightly scared, but cutting across the bushes defiantly to take pictures of the NSA. The click of his shutter, a middle finger against surveillance. For freedom.

Stefan left early August after our road trip. He had gotten an internship in a small online privacy protection advocacy group based in Berlin. Before he left Berkeley, he gave me two books to read when he was gone: Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and Jeremy Scahill’s Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield. He wanted his freedom. He wanted to be part of a system that, instead of controlling, helps people to have control of their own lives.

I was devastated when he left. But thinking back, I guess he wanted to give me freedom. Free to be myself without him, free to know what I wanted to do next after senior year, free to pursue my dream of becoming a writer, free to write what I wanted. I left Berkeley for Dartmouth late summer of 2016 to start my Master’s in Creative Writing. This was the first time I’ve been to the New England area, to New Hampshire, the “Live Free or Die” state. It was also the first time I saw a presidential candidate on television, plastered on every news media, openly bragging about sexually assaulting women, possibly dating his own daughter, calling Mexicans “rapists and murderers,” and regaining freedom for America through banning Muslims. He became the 45th President of my country. Two months later, I was walking down the Main Street of Hanover, early evening, when a guy walking past me called out “nigger.” I was confused since I am of Asian descent. Perhaps he was drunk, perhaps he had bad eyesight, or perhaps he had mental issues. Either way, he was exercising his freedom of speech, just as what our President Trump did. Freedom to hate.

In the grad student housing where I lived, one of the girls in the house opposite to mine told me how she didn’t see Dartmouth as a “safe space” for her to freely express her views on being supportive of Trump. Her roommates and classmates were hostile towards her views on healthcare, on women’s rights and white privilege. They talked her out of the dining room back into her room when she said that she wanted to base her final thesis on diversity found in whiteness.

They blasted her with their comments on Facebook when she posted the status of: “When your ‘highly advanced’ class discusses how Trump supporters and Fox News watchers are uneducated and brainwashed by the media…Ivy league education = not an objective one (where is the objectiveness)”. For that, she drove back home to Rhode Island every weekend so that she could be free—from thinking differently, from being wrong, from people of difference, from ever making a difference.

Three weeks ago, I met an old couple when my friend and I were unloading groceries from our zip car in Dartmouth’s Dewey Parking Lot. Deb and Michael. Michael is a Dartmouth and Tuck Business School Alum. They were interested in knowing how the zip car works. But after noticing my Berkeley sweatshirt, Deb was more interested in knowing why Berkeley students are always violently protesting on TV.

Milo Yiannopoulos, former Breitbart editor and professional troll who talks about defending pedophilia, and outing undocumented students in Berkeley to ICE; Ann Coulter, another Breitbart writer who talks about how “‘Immigrant Privilege’ drives Child Rape Epidemic.” Both pulled out of giving their talks in Berkeley.

“Isn’t the whole point of freedom of speech to listen to both sides?” Deb asks. After all, we did start the Free Speech Movement. Mario Savio gave this famous speech on the steps of Sproul Hall on December 2, 1964:

“We’re human beings! … There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious — makes you so sick at heart — that you can’t take part. You can’t even passively take part.”

But I’m less eloquent than Mario when it comes to talking about freedom. Over Christmas break, I got a postcard from Stefan. He told me he was traveling across South America (Peru, Columbia, Venezuela, Brazil) before starting med school in Münster next spring. He wants to become a doctor in order to inherit his dad’s practice. He didn’t mention anything about freedom online or his plans for the future of freedom in Germany. The last line of his postcard said this:

“Sorry when you expected another answer, but that’s all I got for you, because running’s all I’m good at.”

I never wrote back. But I like to think Stefan would be proud if he knew what I did. After all, he did also give me the freedom to change—but I’m not going to keep it. I ask Deb whether she is willing to listen to someone explain why they want to kill her. She says no. I ask her whether she is willing to give her child money to try drugs in order to realize that drugs are in fact harmful? She says no. When you know people are trying to kill you, you either run or fight back. When your child is curious about drugs, you show them pictures of decaying meth heads or call the cops about some drug dealer lurking outside the school gates. Drugs are bad. It’s a fact. And this is exactly how Berkeley students and I feel about living in the era of Trump when people like Milo Yiannopoulos and Ann Coulter are given power to spread hate and oppression across the country.

You fight for their flight. Live free or die.

Amanda Caterina Leong is currently a creative writing major in Dartmouth College. She grew up in Lisbon, Macau, Hong Kong, California and Indiana. Her works have appeared in The Chicago Review of Books’ Arcturus Magazine and The After Happy Hour Review. She can be reached at

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