Listening to a score of young people’s true stories about life in China – working in a factory, researching corruption, losing a mother to labor migration – I heard familiar themes of change, injustice, mobility, the generation gap, artistic ideals vs the pragmatics of earning a living, youthful dreams balanced with family obligations. And yet these stories could only take place in China today and at this time.
That was my overall takeaway from the recent talk by Jill Hamburg Coplan at the Livingston Public Library . Montclair resident Coplan is a writer and adjunct journalism professor at NYU who spent the 2011-2012 academic year in in China on a Fulbright, lecturing at Beijing Foreign Studies University and traveling with her husband, two sons and students.
"I’m a journalist who listens to stories and received a wonderful opportunity to help a new generation hone their story gathering techniques," Coplan said. "Media in China is going through enormous change because of the flood of social networking coupled with the country’s economic growth. News will break first on Weibo (a micro-blogging website similar to Twitter). And I found it interesting that people don’t care that facts are not verified. They said, ‘We don’t care we are so excited to be high on information!'"
Coplan was brought to the Livingston Library by reference librarian Ariel Cooke, who noted that the trip took place at a very interesting moment: China is seeking people to help tell its story around the world. “My role was to help create a core of students who will tell the stories," said Coplan. "We learn from American voices telling about China. Now we can learn from Chinese voices.”
Here are a dozen things her student stories taught me:
It might be OK to question corruption. One courageous student wondered about a $5 million subsidy for livestock and trees that her village, officially "disadvantaged," was said to receive. She had the guts to interview the entire village about it, including the Party official.
Life after graduate school means strict economizing. Betty’s story showed life in bunk beds, seven to a small apartment with one bathroom, after graduate school. Single room dorms house 6-8 students. “Young people are finding work but not enough income,” said Coplan. “They wish for more fairness.” Many young people leave the country not for jobs but because they don’t feel they are getting a fair share.
Lucia told the story of an NGO (non-governmental organizations are novel to the Chinese) founded by investigative journalist Wang Keqing to help miners with black lung disease. Although some of the staff were initially persecuted for embarrassing the government, the organization is growing.
Looking at Confucius Institutes from her internship in New York City, Susan realizes the U.S. students there are learning more about Peking opera, silk, calligraphy and classical poetry than she knows and determines to rediscover her own culture. Is it the end of a tea culture, with prices in tea houses ten times higher than in Starbucks? “Are we failing to keep alive what makes us Chinese?” she asks.
Chinese senior citizens, displaced from the center and their old communities by Beijing’s outward growth pattern are accused of clogging up mass transit when they travel back to their favorite old spots at rush hour. A student “longs for days of making tofu with grandmother.”
Guanlin tells the story of a Beijing public toilet cleaner who lives inside a stall with his wife and grandchild. He takes the job for the free lodging in a 5 square meter apartment. There are no holidays and he is allowed to leave for one hour each day to buy necessities.
Residency permit injustice: A daughter is left with grandparents because her migrant parents cannot enroll their children in regular school where they work. She is lonely without a Mom.
In another tale an ill worker must leave his family to get medical treatment in his home village.
“It’s Hard But I Love Japan” explores the author’s love for the Japanese pop group AKB 48 and her admiration for Japanese creativity and technology despite her family memories of atrocities from Sino-Japanese conflicts in the 1930s and 1940s.
A rock musician struggles to balance her dream part-time while meeting family obligations. How can you be full-time counterculture in a nation where the single child is obliged to care for parents, and if married, two sets of parents?
During the great famine, parents fed kids first. Now a student’s parent works in a food factory seven days a week. Knowing that a meal might cost a day’s wages, the young adult is conflicted about wanting to buy a cool pair of shoes. The parent consoles, wanting to make child the happy. “My mother and her coworkers are on duty at 7 in the morning and stand on the fruit canning line till 10 or 11 at night, seven days a week. There are two half-hour breaks, for lunch and supper. The workers are supposed to go home at 6 in the evening, but given that the overtime pay increases from 4 yuan to 6, most of them choose to work until night. What can 6 yuan buy in Beijing? One-third of a hamburger at McDonald’s.”
There is a 15-year chasm between sisters. One labors in a rice paddy, goes to a makeshift school, marries. The younger sister comes of age when the country is opening up, attends a prestigious high school and studies physics. Older sister, working and with kids, seems happy. “I travel by air, but I feel life has stalled, this new and strange world, lonely,” says the writer. If you’re unmarried at 27, you’re a “leftover lady.”
A story takes us to Matchmaker’s Park, where anxious parents stand for hours with placards advertising their children to other anxious parents.
Afterwards, Coplan blogged, “Really wonderful afternoon in Livingston, which has a large Chinese immigrant population. Some came to get an ‘update,’ having been here for 25 years. Or they brought their kids, who don’t know China very well. Someone kindly emailed me later, “I learned new things about a topic I thought I had in my blood.”