Here enters the second part of Barry Li’s recount. It’s the difficult one to do: critique and commenting on someone’s personal story, especially when it’s only just over three pages in length. I’m guessing we will probably learn more about Li from the rest of the book than just this section.
He’s 10 months old when he leaves his parents to live with relatives. He doesn’t live with them again until – I’m estimating rough dates here – about 14 years later to finish high school in Beijing. Is this normal? For an only child to be separated from his parents and live 2600kms away? It’s not uncommon in any case. I know of it happening just a few years ago: a colleague of my mum’s left her two-year old son in China with her parents while she worked as a senior nurse here in Australia and her husband as a teacher. It was seven years before the son moved to Australia also. The reasoning, passed onto me from my mum, passed onto her, was that it was easier to bring the son to Australia once his parents had saved up enough to support the lifestyle they wanted him to have. That boy now goes to an expensive specialist music high school to accommodate his high musical ability, is tutored privately several times a week and has a little brother. Is this a similar scenario to Li’s? He doesn’t say.
One could debate as to whether it’s right or wrong for children and parents to live like this. Hospital colleagues were aghast when they heard, saying the usual “I could never do that to my child” with passionate outrage. But is it all that different in theory to long term boarding school? My own father, like Li’s, also worked in mining. He spent half of my childhood living on mining camps, home this week, away the next. Distance is all the same when you’re a child; your parents are either there or not there. But I don’t feel any resentment for my dad being away or think of him as a bad parent for it – in fact maybe the opposite. He did it to give our family the life we wanted to live, and it’s only in the recent years that I’m learning how much it hurt him to be away, the hurt he kept hidden from me growing up. Whatever the reasoning, whatever the feelings, it seems Chinese families sacrificing family time for the sake of generational improvement is a common thread so far in this book.
And then, at the end of the extract is Li saying that “sending [him] to Australia to study cost the equivalent of 10 years’ salary of an ordinary worker in a typical Chinese city… and my parents did not hesitate for a second”. I cannot imagine my parents doing the same. They’ve of course invested a lot into my education (I’ve counted it up and I plan on paying them back – someday) but 10 years’ salary to be sent overseas for 4 years of study??… Perhaps the theme here isn’t a sacrifice of family bond, but just pure self-sacrifice. Little wonder so many Chinese students can be seen sitting at university later than everyone else if that’s the pressure that’s sitting on top of them. And it makes me wonder – what will it be like for the Australian born Chinese kids (I’ve recently heard them termed ABCs) when it comes to their education? Will their parents’ mimic what they had from their parents in China, despite ever rising costs? Or will they lighten the pressure to ‘better the next generation’ and be less overzealous with getting degrees, grades, promotions, accolades? Li has two young children in Sydney approaching school age; I wonder how he balances these two cultural differences?
Li doesn’t dwell on the emotional side of this part of his life. Instead the extract highlights what it’s like for a Chinese to migrate internally within China. He uses a Game of Thrones analogy, exactly what I was not expecting in a book like this: he compares his hometown as being far north of The Wall, and Suzhou as the extreme opposite – a city established in 500BC, an ancient capital and “the most educated city in Chinese history”. He doesn’t give it a Westeros name, but for the sake of the argument lets imagine Suzhou as Oldtown – the Citadel, being a major city, and not being south enough to be King’s Landing as all good reasons why. Li describes the need as a “fat wildling kid” – his words, not mine – to learn the Oldtown dialect and accent to fit in and repeat this over when he moves to Beijing (suggestions for a Westeros counterpart?) so that nobody picks him as an outsider. Following that, he packs up and moves to Sydney to assimilate once more as a university student.
Having had a similar experience of arriving in a foreign country knowing no one (I assume he knew no one, but perhaps the Beijing-Sydney international students’ links were strong even back in 2004), I can only hope that his English was confident enough to be able to order a Big Mac from an attendant with a strong ‘Straya accent and read the train station maps (I guess it probably was); all the other language stuff can come later as long as you’ve got those essentials down. Welcome to far South of The Wall.
Photo taken in Harbin, February 2017. Not a photographer – just going through the photos I have and finding a new purpose for them.