I come to Barry Li’s book, The New Chinese: How They Are Changing Australia, with a little bit of background knowledge of China and the Chinese, having studied Mandarin for several years at high school and university, and having been to China four times, most recently having lived in Beijing for eight months. What I’m searching for here is something that fills the gaps of my knowledge, such as the difference between the psyche of Chinese people in China and the Chinese people in Australia. I’m certain there must be one; the world of urban Australia dining on breakfast until early afternoon, coffee and chatter spilling out onto footpaths sometimes seems realms away from the myriad of China’s alleyways, where tiny ‘hole-in-a-wall’ restaurants serve noodle and rice dishes without ceremony; where a central subway train arrives at least ever six minutes and bank cards are nearly obsolete to mobile payments; where large sections of the community still purchase fresh produce every day from local outdoor markets, the refrigerator used scarcely. I’m having trouble adjusting back to Australian life even after just a short time away – how does one who has lived a majority of their life in China transition to life here, or is it not so much of a step? That’s what I’m reading to find out.
Li’s book opens with not the start of his own story, where we all believe our own story begins, but with that of his parents. His parents, hailing from Heilongjiang province (probably most famous to the outside world for the Ice Festival in the capital, Harbin), survive through the Cultural Revolution and his father is smart enough and fortunate enough to pass the notorious gao kao – the newly reinstalled university entrance exam. (This year’s gao kao took place last week across China – check out the systems put in place to help over 9 million school leavers take the test https://www.thatsmags.com/beijing/post/13965/explainer-gaokao.) Li’s parents’ story starts to sound uplifting – “they could now focus on rebuilding their lives through hard work [now] allowed to own ‘more than average’” – if it wasn’t for two big factors: children and environment.
The one-child policy often appears, from a West perspective, as a sorry manner in which to address a population issue, but here Li offers an objective look at the law preventing him siblings: “…honestly, [my parents] probably didn’t want another child anyway… The only thing on people’s minds then was to grow enough food and to earn enough to escape poverty. Having more kids could only slow them down.” That mindset simultaneously seems self-sacrificing and heartless to value children in this manner, but it makes me again appreciate the incredible rise of China if, less than thirty years ago, a couple earning a higher than average wage could only afford one child, and now that one child’s own family lives in Sydney. This is not just Li’s story: this is the common story of countless families across China, working tirelessly to provide a different life for the next generation. True, it’s not just the Chinese with this philosophy, but the jump of living expectations between one generation to the next in China is just inconceivable in comparison to the steadiness we’ve experience in places like Australia.
Environmental damage appears to be a relatively recent – and now persistent – worry on the Chinese mindset. The Economist last week published a report on China’s polluted soil, highlighting the impossibility of cleaning up 250,000 square kilometres of contaminated land. But it’s not just the environment itself that’s the concern – it’s the effect of the hazardous surroundings on human health. I remember the days when I saw signs at self-serve checkouts limiting baby formula containers to four per customer and being confounded as to why that was being put in place. I’ve also seen stores in China, the size of my lounge room, that only sell imported baby formula tins, stacked all the way to the ceiling and realised how much of a commodity foreign health products are, not just to the elite but to farmers and shopkeepers and teachers as well. (One of those baby formula stores was along a small market street in Lingshui, a rural county on the island of Hainan. The shop was dusty, but those tins certainly sold.) The smoking problem is one Li announces that he won’t discuss much, but it’s certainly true that it’s common in China – I would even say that it’s a norm, for men at least. If you’re travelling to China for the first time expect to breathe in second-hand smoke from your taxi driver, from the ambulance driver, from the guy selling you street food. Don’t be surprised if someone lights a cigarette in a restaurant directly below a no smoking sign. You might even witness a father tenderly teaching his three-year-old son how to stub one out. One enterprising expat in Beijing thought he would sell canned smog as a novelty item http://www.thebeijinger.com/blog/2016/10/12/smoggy-beijing-air-now-canned-you-conveniently-take-anywhere. Sounds bizarre, but it’s a joke on the legitimate market in China for bottled air from cleaner places. Li mentions the knee surgery his father has needed, due to years working underground, but I’m certain he has more worries for his parents than that.
Again, that’s more than one Chinese man living in Sydney’s story. How many other Chinese Australians share the same concerns for their family back home? The jump forward into his generation was a positive one, but Li’s not ashamed to admit that it had a costly price. His father’s story covers the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution and pushes forward into the new age of China. It’s inspiring and frightening the rate of change in one generation only – but it’s a transition we need to know of in order to understand China’s present position today.
Photo taken somewhere in Heilongjiang province on the train journey from Beijing to Harbin, February 2017. Not a photographer – just going through the photos I have and finding a new purpose for them.