I was in a lab in graduate school that had graduate students and post-docs from all over the world. While I was there we had people from China, Germany, Canada, Japan, Holland, Taiwan, Italy, Korea, and the US, and possibly a few other places. After reading Apologies Forthcoming by Xujun Eberlein, I wish I had taken the time to find out more of their background stories and how each person ended up there in that particular lab.
This collection of short stories by Eberlein focuses on China during and after the Cultural Revolution. They are powerful stories. Stories that leave you wondering how a country could put itself back together. It is a very timely release right before the Beijing Olympics when the attention on China is going to be intense. Can you imagine a ten-year period where all the colleges and most high schools in a country were shut down? Educated people were sent to the countryside to be re-educated. Teenagers were separated from their families and sent into the Red Guard or off to the countryside as well.
In a story entitled, “The Randomness of Love”, a seventeen-year-old girl explains why she is in the countryside. “ 'All other countries in the world have population flowing from the countryside to the cities: only China is practicing the opposite. Our population flows from the cities to the countryside. This is a creative revolutionary movement, and its historical significance can never be overestimated.' ” Fast-forward ten years later and this disillusioned woman is having trouble adjusting to her boring job and begins an affair with a married man. And, it seems to me that she is one of the lucky ones, surviving her insertion into the countryside near the end of the Cultural Revolution and making it to college.
Other stories are full of despair. The author draws on some of her own experiences during the Cultural Revolution, including the death of her older sister as a Red Guard. In “Feathers” a ten-year-old girl must pretend that her sister is still alive. She enlists the help of those who live around her so that her grandmother will not know. It seems a horrendous burden on a ten-year-old, yet amongst everything else that is happening you can almost see how a mother would allow it. Almost. The stories are dark, yet they are not without hope and they are definitely worth reading. Eberlein portrays not only the victims, but also those who served in the Red Guard or told on their neighbors. No one can escape being one or the other, or oftentimes both in these kinds of circumstances.
The Cultural Revolution, or rather, what is now known as Ten Disastrous Years, ended in 1976. That means the post-doc and graduate students from China in my lab must have lived through a portion of it. Maybe they lucked out and caught the tail end where they still managed to get a high school education and the tests to get into college were being restarted. Definitely their parents lived through this time. It is interesting to me now that we never discussed this and that to all intents and purposes we adapted to working in the same lab in the US despite our vastly different experiences. Is that the true power of education?
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