Previously: After migrating to Australia, I begin teaching English at a vocational college. My students prompt me to write a collection of refugee stories. A former Australian prime minister grants me the first political interview of my life and launches the narrative arc: Chapter 1 Truc’s story from Vietnam, Chapter 2 Carmen’s story from Romania.
Chapter 3 China
In the foyer of a school hall, I mention to a Chinese language teacher that I am reading the English translation of Soul Mountain by Gao Xingjian. With effervescent energy, she tells me about other Chinese literary works.
‘What do you do?’ she asks.
‘I am writing a book on refugees,’ I reply.
‘Oh,’ she says, ‘I came as a political refugee.’
She agrees to tell me her story. Months pass before we meet again, on the last day of the school year. She leads me to her office and I practically have to jog to keep up with her.
In a small room lined with bookshelves, she apologises for not meeting earlier. She’s been so busy, teaching and looking after the many full-fee paying international students from China at the school.
We talk for over an hour. Language tumbles out of her, phrases in quick succession, as if the words are trying to keep up with her mind.
Before I leave, she says that she would like to remain anonymous. I can understand why, but it’s always a challenge to come up with an alternative; it’s no small thing to rename a person. Furthermore, her name had been chosen with great care. Her mother, a well-educated woman, eschewed popular Communist names of the time such as hóng, red; qiáng strong; zhàn stand.
Instead, she turned to an esteemed local artist who chose two characters. These two Chinese words put together means ‘nice dancing geisha girl’. This became her given name and it contrasts delightfully with her family name, a word that means ‘strength and steadfastness’.
‘I love my name. It is very Western. I still use it today,’ she says.
Fortunately, she solves the anonymity dilemma in our second interview. She tells me that she once went by the name Josie, an English transliteration of her title – Miss – and her family name. It was common, she says, in the olden days for rural women to be given a nickname only. Apart from their family name, which they inherited, they were not given a proper name and their birth might not even be formally registered. If referred to formally at all, they would be known by their title and family name.
She used the name Josie when she was an illegal visa over stayer, or, in her words, hēirén, literally, black person. In China, the term is sometimes used to refer to migrant workers who move from rural areas to cities for work. Because they do no have the correct paperwork, they face many problems. For example, their children cannot go to school. Sometimes, they cannot even open a bank account. In Josie’s case, however, she moved from Australian cities to the outback, hoping to avoid immigration officials and potential deportation.
Josie was born in Xiamen, southeast China in1965.
Her grandparents cared for her from the time she was eleven months old. This was in part due to the chaos of the 1966 Cultural Revolution, but also because Josie’s mother had been posted to another city for work. Josie was much loved and, with her parents’ stable income, she had good food to eat and nice clothes to wear.
Among her earliest memories is a dark, damp room in her house where her father grew white fungus. It was a crop that grew in the total absence of light, its gelatinous frilly fronds commonly served as a dessert with medicinal properties. As a young child, Josie wondered why her father never stepped out of the house. Young and handsome as he was, he never attended any social or political gathering.
One day, her grandparents bought her to a huge parade. There, Josie saw angry people fighting. Through a huge loudspeaker, a voice announced that a bad person had been sentenced to death. Later, Josie discovered that this bad person was her neighbour, an intellectual. His crime? A different opinion, a way of thinking different to the official version of reality and truth.
Another time, outside the school gates, Josie saw a young man, full of life. The next day, he was dead. She observed the crowd gathering around his corpse, wrapped in a straw mat. Why were people so drawn to violence and death? Perhaps it was because there was nothing else to do, nothing else to watch; the only entertainment permitted was eight state-sanctioned plays.
Chairman Mao’s third wife, Jiang Qing, was an actress by profession. She repurposed traditional art forms such as the Peking opera and ballet for the communist cause. Theatres, she said, were places to educate the people. It was unacceptable for emperors and scholars to dominate the stage. So she commissioned revolutionary operas with titles such as Red Women’s Detachment, Songs of the Long March and The Girl with the White Hair.
But political spin is thin gruel. A whole underground community of readers sprang up and sustained themselves on books passed around surreptitiously. In toilets and in secret places, they read Chinese translations of Western classics or love stories about right-wing intellectuals by anonymous Chinese writers.
By this time, Josie’s mother had returned from her teaching
post and had had two more children. Despite her busyness, Josie’s mother was
always reading. Because books were so scarce, each person only had a few days
to read a book. So Josie and her mother would copy entire books by hand. By
copying the text onto carbon-copied paper, they could reread the book and circulate
it among friends. Sometimes they collaborated with others and shared the
copying load. Once done, the thin pages would be collected, arranged and sewn
up into a book.
‘What sort of books did you copy?’ I ask Josie.
This is part of the serial online release of Refuge. To be published Friday 24 May 2019: Refuge #13 Lady Camellia and Mother Hubbard. Subscribe to get links to new instalments delivered to your inbox.