When the news is real life

For some Chinese people, that stuff we hear about in the news or read about in history textbooks is real life.

I’m sitting in the office with a student. Students often come in to chat during office hours — this one’s in her early 20’s. She asked about us planning to eventually have another child, and then started casually telling me how she “was supposed to have a little brother” but the government wouldn’t allow them to “so they just killed it” in the second or third month of pregnancy. She says she doesn’t know the details, but “at that time it was very strict” and they couldn’t just choose to pay the fine for breaking the One Child Policy and have their second child (like some of my other, richer and better-connected students have). Then she went on wondering what it would have been like to have a brother.

It makes sense that she’s talking about it so casually. I’ve read enough about China (and heard enough of those horrible radio ads for “3-minute” “painless” abortions: “Oh no! I’m pregnant! But I just started a new job — what about my career?” “Don’t worry about it! You can just…”) to understand how these kinds of situations are so common that regular people like my student naturally talk about it like it’s no big deal. Of course, the fact that a person could discuss this kind of situation so nonchalantly only demonstrates just how extra horrible it is; the brutality is not just barbaric, it’s also commonplace.

It’s always interesting when the things you read about in the news and in history books suddenly appear before you in the life of someone you know. Like a sudden reminder that no matter how well we get along, the world my students come from is very, very different from my own.

A similar reminder happened in class two days ago — that’s two days before June sixth, a major but unmarked anniversary (I promise you know what happened in China on that day, even if you don’t recognize the date). I was facilitating a free talk session with about fifteen students. One of them was 32 years old and living in Tianjin in nineteen eighty-nine, another was 19 and living in Shanghai. Others were only children at the time, while some weren’t born yet. All they wanted to do was talk about the event, about what they remembered, what happened in their cities and what they saw — none of them were sympathetic to the gov. I wanted so bad to ask so many questions, but if it came out that I instigated or encouraged discussion of that particular topic I’d be risking trouble with my employer. I tried to steer the discussion elsewhere several times, and the students kept bringing it back. Anyway, it was interesting to see history come alive in memories and stories of my students. It’s easy to talk with them everyday and forget that they’ve experienced some crazy stuff and have all kinds of stories to tell.

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8 thoughts on “When the news is real life”

  1. Quite sad. Must be quite impacting to have these conversations with your students, and experience, like you said, the stuff you read in history books alive right before your eyes, in real people you are getting to know.

  2. So many similar stories… one friend was about to get a brother when the government stepped in, but his parents decided to leave everything, change their name, and move to a different city in a different province.

    It all sounded so normal and natural to him.

  3. History does surround you in China, and it is amazing what you’ll learn from the people around you. I’ve heard some extraordinary stories about June 6, including from people who currently work in the government and have surprisingly unusual opinions about it — and aren’t afraid to talk about it.

  4. Dear Sir And Ma’am :

    Life is indeed cheap in China at least if you’re not politically or economically connected.

    Great blog !! I will be linking your blog to mine. I think it’s good for my students to read what ” lao wai ” other than myself have to say about their country. If you have any objections to this please advise ASAP.

    Warmest regards


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