Home » on the street, simrat sharma's travel blog, society & culture

A countryside conversation: A heart-to-heart goes sour

By 24 June 2009 No Comment

The fifty-something woman with curly hair peered into my eyes and asked me in Chinese, “How old are you?” When I told her I was 20, she laughed good-naturedly and immediately drew me into a conversation about her life and family.

Recently retired, she lives in a senior citizen center in Yuxian, a small city three hours’ drive west of Beijing, where her life appeared like a dream in comparison to other Chinese retirees I had met in the capital city. The woman told me that her days were filled with dance classes and she spoke proudly of her two children living in Beijing.

To my delight, my new friend’s degree of candor quickly escalated. She started sharing the rather intimate details of her children’s lives with me. As fellow members of the center showed off flamboyant dance moves in a performance for our group, the woman told me about that her daughter had three children, a clear abridgement of China’s one-child policy. She then proceeded to outline her daughter’s medical history in surprisingly frank detail. Before coming into China, I had assumed that cultural norms here rarely permitted the discussion of intimate matters with a stranger, much less a foreigner. Her openness was as surprising as it was refreshing.

Suddenly, our conversation was interrupted by a solo performance by another retiree who earned oohs and aahs from the audience by dancing while performing some unexpected stunts with what appeared to be a fancy walking stick. When I turned back to my friend to continue our exchange, she appeared to have had a decidedly brusque change of heart.

The open, welcoming smile had disappeared. Instead, pointing to my notepad, she said sternly: “Can you scratch off the notes? I would like to tell you another story.”

I told her I would gladly write down another story but did not want to lose the notes I had. In a fit of agitation, she said, “No, No, No!”, reached for my notepad and proceeded to rip out the page in question.

The woman was adamant about keeping the sheet of paper although she let me copy down some information I needed from another interview attached to the back of the torn page. When I was finished, she guided my hand to my notepad again. “I want to tell you a different story,” she insisted.

Her second story provided an unrelentingly saccharine picture of her extended family. I politely jotted down this fairy tale version of her life, but frankly, I was disappointed with her sudden backtracking. I said thank you and goodbye. As I walked away, I couldn’t help but feel that I may scratched the surface of community happiness to something that was lurking beneath.

Members of today’s older generation in China remember the times before China’s Open Door Policy began to bring the country up to speed with capitalistic values as well as encourage some personal freedoms that tend to follow the drive of individual ambition. In the old days of socialism, one was expected to prioritize the society before the individual in a way that helped silence personal grievances.

When I think back of the incident now, I understand her need for erasing the story in my notes. Any shadow on her seemingly happy retirement through my use of her story could affect the life of her family in profound ways, at least in her mind. Freedom of expression was not a privilege members of her generation had had in abundance in their lives despite the economic improvement they had seen.

The openness and transparency in everyday exchanges with people has been a fairly recent phenomenon in China. Much like the shiny skyscrapers in the Beijing downtown skyline and the Kentucky Fried Chicken down the street from our hutong, free conversations about the law and those who may live outside it have emerged only within the last decade. It looks as if it’s going to take some getting used to.

Leave your response!

Add your comment below, or trackback from your own site. You can also subscribe to these comments via RSS.

Be nice. Keep it clean. Stay on topic. No spam.

You can use these tags:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

This is a Gravatar-enabled weblog. To get your own globally-recognized-avatar, please register at Gravatar.