In all the headlines about China, the lives of ordinary Chinese people tend to get little attention.
That’s something journalist Karoline Kan wants to change.
She’s the Beijing editor of the website “China Dialogue,” and a former reporter for The New York Times. Her new memoir, “Under Red Skies: Three Generations of Life, Loss, and Hope in China,” is out this week. It’s the first English-language memoir from a Chinese millennial to be published in the U.S.
Kan might be considered young to write a memoir, since she turns 30 in just a few days. But as a millennial in China, she says she wanted her experience to be known.
“A few years ago, I read a few books done by foreign authors about Chinese millennials, and I thought, 'Oh, this is great. But I also hope there will be more Chinese voices,' ” Kan tells Here & Now’s Lisa Mullins. “So I think about that dream I had since I was a little girl like, 'Oh why not? Maybe I should start writing some personal pieces and see where it goes.'
“What I want to show is a part of what it's like in China, a glimpse of what a common Chinese family went through in the past 30, 40 years because I think it's a rare opportunity for people who don't live in that country to read those inside stories,” she says.
Kan starts her book with her birth in 1989. China was under the one-child policy, and Kan says, her parents already had a son. In order to hide the pregnancy, Kan’s mother moved around from place to place.
“If she breaks a law that means she would never have the opportunity to continue her job as a teacher registered with the government's system,” Kan explains. “So the first few months, she [hid] the pregnancy from her colleagues and her family. In the later months, she had to basically escape from one house to another, sometimes stay with relatives. Yeah, it was really tough.”
When she was born, Kan had to be registered and get a “houkou,” which is part of the system of controlled migration in China. It dictates where you live and where you can go, she says.
“The process for my parents to get me a houkou took a long time,” Kan says. “They had to pay a lot of money.”
When she was about 5 or 6 years old, Kan’s parents moved the family from their village to a larger town where their children could get a better education. But Kan says it wasn’t an easy transition.
“But because we didn't have a city houkou [or] urban houkou, that was an another struggle for my parents and us,” she says. “So we moved to a place where we didn't belong to that place, and people around us sometimes were not very friendly because we were newer. They thought we were coming to grab their opportunity, grab their jobs.”
It was also difficult growing up in a Chinese society that favored boys, Kan says. Teachers and family members would tell her that she would never “catch up with the boys” in school. She faced similar discrimination when she was in college at Beijing International Studies University, and when she started applying for jobs, Kan says.
“When you go to find a job, they imply or tell you that maybe we only want young man for this job, or you have to sign something to promise that you are not getting married in two years or having babies,” she says. “But this kind of thing just made me feel like Chinese women even today, there's a long way to go for us to fight for our rights.”
Kan was in college when she discovered feminism, which she says has “a negative color in China.” She was also inspired by her mother and grandmother who both overcame adversity at a young age.
“My mom always [tells] me that you shouldn't be afraid of anything, and there is always a way for you to fight and to finally achieve what you want,” Kan says.
But other Chinese millennial women, like Kan’s cousin who is married with a child and lives in the countryside, don’t have the opportunity to hear these voices, Kan says. They don’t know anything else. That’s why, Kan says, she wanted to write her memoir.
“[My cousin] was not privileged to find a way to have her voices heard,” Kan says. “I think it's also important for young Chinese women to stand out and tell their stories.”
Book Excerpt: Under Red Skies
By Karoline Kan
My parents always used to say I was a “strange” child. In the 1990s and early 2000s, when I was growing up in a northern Chinese village—and then in the small town we moved to—my favorite thing to do after school was to follow the adults around like a little tail and listen to them tell stories. They called me genpichong, or “bum beetle,” be- cause I stuck to them like glue.
No matter whether they were talking to me or to each other—whether it was my grandmother, mother, aunt, or the neighbor’s wife—I would always sit silently beside them, prick up my ears, and let my mind roam through the enchanting world of their stories. These women had little formal education, but the way they spoke was colorful and warm and delicately captured the moment. They talked in my grandmother’s dim kitchen, under a willow tree in our yard, or in my neighbor’s cabbage garden, their hands constantly occupied with never-ending chores like sewing patches, making soup, or clearing the table.
Some of the stories were mysterious, as though from a book of fairy tales. Weasels danced and imitated humans by singing in the village temple. River ghosts enticed villagers to jump to their deaths in the stream. Broom spirits held lanterns to light the way for people walking in the dead of night. The older women used spirits and ghosts to explain things they could not understand.
Then there were the real stories, which were just as fascinating.
My great-grandfather confessed to so-called “crimes” he had committed during the Cultural Revolution, such as reading and owning books written by Confucius or listening to the Peking opera, which during that time was disparaged as elitist and against the Communists’ spirit of revolution, which sought to fight against the old way of feudalism and bourgeoisie.
My grandfather used his hat to hide the rice he’d stolen from the public kitchens to prevent his children from starving to death during the Great Famine.
My uncles had destroyed people’s homes and tombs as Red Guards under Chairman Mao Zedong’s regime. I heard stories of how a relative had fled to Taiwan after the civil war but could not return home for over half a century, and how political shifts had prevented my father from at- tending college, which became his life’s biggest regret.
These were the first—and best—history lessons I ever had. And from these oral histories, I understand how my story is connected to older generations and to China’s past. In China’s history, one learns how ordinary lives can be upended by the political affairs of a nation. I learned how small changes to the fate of ordinary people could together alter the course of a country’s future.
My dream became to write about the people I knew and loved and to tell their stories, as well as to write my own, free from government censorship and the Communist Party’s narrative. I believe these stories deserve to be told, and I con- sider myself fortunate to have a platform to do so; many Chinese people never have a chance to make their voices heard.
For years, I buried my plan deeply in my chest. Almost all the memoirs I read in Chinese were about famous people. Nobody in my life had ever written a book—let alone a book in English. When I tried to sit my family members down for formal interviews, they would shrug me off. “There is nothing to say,” they protested. “Everybody has this kind of story.” They did not want to revisit the past; the right attitude was to focus on the future. They were afraid of saying the wrong thing or something that would get them in trouble, thanks partly to decades of censorship. So instead of going to them as a journalist, I listened to them as a daughter, a granddaughter, a niece, and a friend. We lived together, and their stories appeared in day-to-day gossip and arguments, the routines of daily family living. I had to be patient, and let the stories flow to me on their own, while still asking questions until I came to understand the truth.
The stories piled up in my diary, notes without a clear purpose. Then, before I realized it, they became a part of me. Now, years later, I can still see, smell, hear, and feel the days and nights when I learned and lived these stories: the light fragrance of the flowers of the Chinese scholar tree on spring afternoons, the orange light in my grandparents’ bedroom, the crying cicadas and frogs on summer nights. I wrote in my composition classes, at home, and at work.
I pitched personal essays to foreign newspapers and magazines like the New York Times and kept searching for the right home for the stories stored up inside me.
This book means more to me than just sharing stories about my family and myself, and what it means to be a Chinese millennial. Tens of millions of stories like ours make up the present-day complexity of what is China. Through these stories, I hope readers from all around the world can snatch a glimpse of how we came to be—of what our families went through to shape China into the country it is today.
As a Chinese millennial, I want to show the humanity behind the cold economic figures and classifiers associated with China, to reveal the emotions, choices, and compromises, the courage, love, and hope we share with people around the world. Like our counterparts everywhere, we defy single-word descriptions.
China has areas of rapid development but also miles of backwater. It is not only a global power but also a place where many still suffer from crippling poverty. Its technological advances make international headlines daily, but its rural schools still lack qualified teachers; and though we’re pledged to the Communist Party, Chinese people live for the next Hollywood blockbuster, just like everybody else. To understand China and Chinese people, you have to imagine yourself there, to think what you might do in the circumstances experienced by families in this book, to have lived through certain politics and cultural traditions shown here. It is easier to blame China than to understand it; it is easier to judge Chinese people than to get to know them.
But I believe the rewards for striving to do so are great—as are the risks for failing to try.
When writing this book, I often asked myself: Why should people around the world be interested in my stories about life in China? Some of the reasons are obvious: China has the world’s second-largest economy and is the number one trade partner for many countries. China plays a central role in international affairs.
The subtler reason is that the lives of young Chinese people increasingly overlap with their peers around the world. Young Chinese factory workers produce goods that are bought by consumers in America, Canada, and Europe. When the streets of Washington, DC, or Berlin or Vancouver fill for women’s marches, university students in China are inspired by them. We stand together in rejecting what society tells us is “right” and “wrong.”
The real China is not only comprised of the one shown in the daily news cycle.
In recent years, several books have been written about Chinese millennials, but mostly by foreign authors. I respect many of these, because they inspired me to write my own. Globally, the voices of young Chinese—especially those of young Chinese women—are often neglected.
I may have been born and raised in China, but I am constantly learning new things about it. This is my story and my family’s story. It is a story of China, and it is my honor to share my country with you . . . wherever you are.
From Under Red Skies: Three Generations of Life, Loss, and Hope in China, published by Hachette. Copyright © 2019 by Karoline Kan.
This segment aired on March 14, 2019.