The Good Women of China

Do you ever finish reading a book and think that perhaps you should start over and read it again; that there was simply too much to absorb the first time through? The Good Women of China: Hidden Voices was such a book for me, not because it was enjoyable or entertaining, but because it was moving and at the same time very disturbing.


From 1989 to 1997, the author, Xinran, hosted a radio call-in show, “Words on the Night Breeze” during which she invited Chinese women to speak about their lives. Broadcast every evening, the show became famous throughout the country for its unflinching portrayal of what it meant to be a woman in China. From the hundreds of women who phoned in to share their stories of forced marriages, Communist Party indoctrination, persecution and imprisonment, extreme poverty, shocking cruelty, and incredible endurance, Xinran chose fifteen, including her own, to share in the book which was only written after she left China. “At that time in China, I might have gone to prison for writing a book like this.” she wrote in the closing paragraph.

When we lived in China for a short time a few years ago, I remember how shocked some of my college age students were to learn how old I was. They told me that Chinese women my age looked much older. Knowing that life in China had been hard, I wasn’t completely surprised, but I started looking at the elderly women on the street and in the market more closely. I wondered how much older than me they actually were and what their lives had been like. Until I read The Good Women of China, however, could not have imagined what many them probably endured.

Xinran is six years younger than I am. Many of the women she writes about are my contemporaries. Their stories are powerful, gripping, and anguished accounts of inhumane treatment, sexual exploitation, torture, rape, hunger, and death often at the hands of Chairman Mao’s Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution of 1966 to 1976. All the while, I was going to school, starting my career, getting married, and enjoying a life of freedom completely oblivious to what was going on half a world away.

Later, during the 1990s and early 2000s, I had the privilege of being ESL tutor to an elderly Chinese gentleman. Ling Cong Xin, better known as Sunny Ling to his Canadian friends, came to Canada with his wife in 1987 to live with their daughter and her family. After we had been meeting together for quite some time, I tried to convince him that he ought to record his memories and experiences. At first, he was very reluctant to do so, but eventually he asked if I would help and so began one of the most exciting projects that I have ever had the privilege to be involved in. I recall Sunny speaking with contempt about the soldiers of the Imperial Japanese Army forcing women and girls in occupied territories including China to be their sex slaves or “comfort women” before and during World War II, but he never spoke of Chinese girls being repeatedly raped by their own countrymen during the Cultural Revolution. Sunny was a highly educated man who had at one time been an official in the Nationalist government. During the Cultural Revolution, many of China’s intellectuals were imprisoned or, like Sunny, forced to leave the cities and take menial jobs in the countryside. When we reached this point in his story he began to claim that his memory was failing him and our project came to an end. I believe that reliving the memories simply became more than he could bear. Like Xinran, he also expressed a genuine fear that if some of the things he told me about were ever published, the Chinese government might make life difficult for his relatives who still lived in that country. After reading The Good Women of China, I can’t help wishing that Sunny’s wife had spoken English and that I’d also had the opportunity to hear her story.

“These are stories that must be read. The lives of these anonymous women are so moving that when I finished reading their stories I felt my soul had been altered.”    Amy Tan

“Mao said ‘Women hold up half of heaven.’ Sadly, this remarkable book demonstrates that he was wrong. Women in China actually hold up half of hell. Xinran has written the first realistic portrayal of women in China. Read it, and weep.”   Jan Wong

The China conundrum

LogoIf I was to empty my closet of every item that was made in China, there wouldn’t be much left. 70% of the clothing, shoes, and accessories that I’ve purchased in the last year and a half (since I started keeping track) were made in China. None were made here in Canada. Why is this a problem, or is it?

As I’ve mentioned before, I want to be an ethical shopper, but it isn’t easy. Until now, my concern with purchasing items that were made in China has been the fact that it’s very difficult, often impossible, to determine whether or not they were manufactured in factories that are socially and environmentally responsible or sweatshops where workers are exploited and forced to work in unsafe conditions. Quite a few of my clothes are purchased through direct sales as opposed to retail environments. In those cases, the stylists or vendors have assured me that they sell only ethically produced garments. I hope they’re right, but I haven’t found any way to verify that and having lived in China for a short while, I know that you can’t always believe what they tell the rest of the world.

Now I have another concern. Following Augustine isn’t meant to be a political blog, but Canada is increasingly at odds with China and I have to ask myself, should that affect my spending habits? Should I avoid purchasing more items that are made in China?

For those of you who are not Canadian or who haven’t been following the news, here’s a bit of background information. On December 1, Meng Wanzhou, an executive with the giant tech company, Huawei, was arrested in Canada at the request of U.S. authorities who want to try her on fraud charges. She’s currently under house arrest in one of her mansions in Vancouver awaiting extradition to the U.S. China immediately warned of repercussions and there have been a number of those. Days after Meng’s arrest China responded by detaining two Canadians and sentencing another to death. The men have not been allowed access to family members or lawyers while in custody. Since then, China has placed trade bans on key Canadian products including canola. On Tuesday of this week, the country announced that it would halt all meat exports from Canada. Our country is one of the world’s largest agricultural producers and our farmers depend on exports. Needless to say they are hit hard by these developments and some are urging Canadians to stop purchasing Chinese goods.

So, back to fashion. Obviously, I’m not going to stop wearing the items that I already have, but should I refuse to buy anything else that’s made in China? I’m sure that I, one lone Canadian, won’t make any difference in the big political picture, but should I support a country like China with my clothing dollars? That’s a very tough question!

What do you think? I’d love to hear your opinion.

A different way to travel

We arrived home a few days ago after spending Christmas with family on the BC coast but we aren’t here for long! It seems we dropped in just long enough to experience some of the coldest days this winter has had to offer. Is it any wonder that I’m happily digging out our summer wardrobe and exchanging the contents of our suitcase for beach wear?

Much of our international travel has been done by the seat of our pants with a Lonely Planet guide in hand. Before each trip, I did lots of research. We always had a general idea where we were going and what we wanted to do when we got there but the details unfolded as we went along. This has led to many adventures and unforgettable moments including traveling the length of Vietnam by overnight bus and arriving in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) late on New Years Eve without a hotel reservation, being caught up in local celebrations and even accepting a ride with a total stranger in China. I wouldn’t trade those memories for anything but this time I decided that I wanted something easier, a stress-free vacation that I didn’t have to plan myself. After the year we’ve just been through, all I want to do is kick back and relax in the sun!

In late November, we did something we’ve seldom done before. We sat down across the desk from a travel agent and told him that we didn’t really care where we ended up; we simply wanted to go somewhere warm with a beach! We also favoured an all-inclusive vacation; one where we didn’t have to find our own way around or wonder where our next meal was coming from. We gave him the window of time available between my various medical appointments and let him do the searching.

“Let’s find you a non-stop flight,” he suggested. Thinking back to the many hours we’ve spent in airports and our unplanned 24 hour layover in Houston on the way home from Costa Rica three years ago, I readily agreed. He gave us some options to think about and we settled on a resort on Mexico’s Caribbean coast near Playa del Carmen.

We won’t have internet and our cell phone will be turned off. We’ll have TV, of course, but I’m not sure that we’ll bother to turn it on. For a little while, the world will get along without us. I’ve told a few family members how to reach us in case of an emergency but I’m praying that there won’t be any crises while we’re gone.

I’m going to immerse myself in the moment, soak up some sunshine and enjoy time with my hubby who, by the way, officially became a senior citizen earlier this week! Hopefully I’ll have lots to blog about when we get back.

Cultural surprises

Sheila has been with us for over two weeks already but she continues to be amazed by something new almost every day. In her eyes, my kitchen is a magical place. Most of the small appliances and gadgets that we take for granted are brand new to her. Like most Chinese kitchens, the one in her parents’ home doesn’t have an oven let alone a toaster, a bread maker or a food processor. Her eyes nearly popped out of her head the first time she saw me using my electric knife!

It’s not only the appliances that surprise her, however. Most of our food is also new to her. Though she’s familiar with a lot of the ingredients, we cook them entirely differently and even I’ve been surprised at how many convenience foods I use. We tend to eat a healthy diet avoiding a lot of processed foods but I do depend on things like pancake mix that are completely foreign to her. Breakfast cereal is also something she’s never eaten before. So far, Harvest Crunch, a sweetened granola with coconut and almonds, is her favourite. She’s accustomed to a spicier diet than ours and the ketchup bottle has become her best friend. In fact, she’s dubbed herself a “ketchupholic”!

The rest of the house contained many surprises for her too. Not unexpectedly, even though I’d explained the bathroom to her the evening she arrived, it took a flooded floor to remind her that the shower curtain must be inside the tub when you take a shower! That’s a common blunder for Asians when they first arrive on our shores as an Asian bathroom is basically an oversized shower stall and bathtubs are not common in China.

Laundry brought more surprises. Though we had a fitted sheet on our bed in China, Sheila had never seen one until we stripped the beds to wash the sheets! She thought I must have sewn the elastic corners myself. (In case you were wondering, fitted sheets were actually invented by an African American lady named Bertha Berman in the 1950s.) The clothes dryer also fascinates her as clothing is hung to dry in China.

That brings me to a topic that has been a big surprise to Richard and I. When we lived in China, we were amazed to see people in the street wearing their pyjamas. What we didn’t realize until Sheila came to stay is that Chinese people wear their pyjamas whenever they’re at home! Sheila only dresses to go out and immediately changes back into pyjamas when she gets home. Of course, if you’re just stepping out to run a quick errand, why bother changing at all? Sheila has been out with me more than once now in her pjs and I finally understand why we saw people walking down Little Street dressed that way!

While we continue to learn much about Chinese life from Sheila, it’s definitely been fun looking at our own lives through the eyes of someone for whom almost everything is brand new!

The job that never ends!

We loved our jobs in China! By far the most fun was the time we spent with the students who were preparing to come to North America to study but this is definitely the first time we’ve brought a student home with us!

Three of my former students are now in Ontario enrolled in ESL programs at their colleges of choice and preparing to enter regular studies there in January. Since they arrived in Canada, I’ve spent lots of time communicating with them via email, Facebook and Skype, consoling and encouraging the one who is having a very difficult time adjusting, cheering on the other two, answering questions and helping them find information on everything from yoga classes to how to make healthy bagged lunches!

Sheila is my fourth student to arrive in Canada and she’s presently sound asleep in our guest bedroom! We picked her up at the Edmonton airport last night after her long flight from China and she’ll be with us for just over five weeks. On January 2, she’ll fly to Windsor, Ontario to begin her studies at St. Clair College.

We encouraged all of our students to spend their first month or two in Canada in a home stay setting to help them adjust to Canadian life and to allow them to practice their English in a home where they would be immersed in the language. Sadly, both girls who chose that option found themselves in homes that didn’t meet our expectations; homes where they were left to fend for themselves and not incorporated into a family atmosphere. They probably would have done just as well or better living in a dorm. That’s not the sort of experience we want to give Sheila!

I’ve waited to start decorating the house and doing my Christmas baking until Sheila’s arrival so that she can join in all the fun. After all, this will be her very first Christmas! The whole family is coming home this year so she’ll experience all the noise and fun of a family celebration.

In the meantime, there are lots of other things we want to show her; simple things like a typical Canadian grocery store and things we take for granted such as how to use the myriad of small appliances on my kitchen counter. There are places we want to take her like West Edmonton Mall and sights we want her to see like the spectacular Rocky Mountains. We’ve also arranged for her to be able to visit our local high school to see and experience how different it is from schools in China.

Before we embark on a whirlwind of activity, however, we’d better let her sleep awhile longer and give her a chance to start getting over her jet lag!

with Sheila in China

with Sheila in China

Two questions

Whenever we arrive home from one of our overseas adventures, we face the same two questions and this time has been no exception.

  • Are you happy to be home?

My stock answer is “It’s always nice to come home!”

As much as I enjoyed China, I am happy to be back in Canada. We are so blessed and we take so much for granted here. I’m happy to be back where the air is clean. China burns roughly as much coal as the rest of the world combined and one of those smokestacks was practically outside our window. According to a recent study, pollution from burning coal has reduced the life expectancy of the 500 million people living in northern China by five years!

I’m very happy to have my kitchen back. Cooking on a single burner got old fast! I’m even happy to have extra people to cook for. We have a young family staying with us for a little while until their house is ready to move into.

Shopping at the street market was exciting at first but the novelty soon wore off and I’m happy to be wheeling my grocery cart through the aisles of my local grocery store again. I can read all the labels and I know where to find the things I want. Heck, I even know what everything is and I don’t have to look past the pig feet and the chicken feet to find the ground beef!

Of course, the best thing about any place is the people and we’re definitely happy to be closer to family and friends again. In fact, we already spent several days in Calgary with our daughter and her growing family last week. It was especially exciting for me to be able to accompany her to an ultrasound appointment where I got my first glimpse of our next grandchild! “Baby Pea”, so called because at just six week’s gestation he/she looked like a little pea with a heartbeat, is due in mid March.

And then there’s the other question…

  • What’s next?

People started asking this one before our suitcases were unpacked and we’d fully emerged from the fog of jet lag! The answer is simple… we have no idea!

We do have a couple of feelers out concerning possible short term mission opportunities but it’s far too soon to know if either of those will pan out. There’s a great big world out there and far too much of it that we haven’t seen yet so I’m sure we’ll figure it out. In the meantime, we’re off to Family Camp at Camp Harmattan next week where we’ll park the trailer beside the Little Red Deer River and enjoy a week of fun and fellowship. Then, toward the end of August, we’ll head for the BC coast where we’ll spend some time with my parents, our oldest son and our other set of grandchildren.

Home is a good place to come back to but as everyone in our small community knows, those DeBocks don’t stay home very long!

Real China

There’s China that the tourists see and then, just a few metres away, there’s real China. One of our table mates on our Yangtze River cruise, who had been to Beijing and Xi’an just as we had, mentioned that he was surprised at how clean and modern China was. That’s because you haven’t seen the real China, we told him.

Toward the end of our first day in Beijing, our tour guide dropped us off at a marketplace. It turned out to be a tourist trap selling low quality, over-priced goods and souvenirs; not at all the sort of place where real Chinese people shop. It held little interest for us so after relaxing for a little while in a nearby Starbucks, we went for a walk. Down a narrow alley, less than a block from the glitzy market, I stopped to use a public bathroom. It consisted of several metal squat toilets set into a cement floor. That’s all! No cubicles, no sinks, nothing but the squatty potties! I was about to take a picture when a local lady walked in so I hastily shoved my camera back into my purse and left. She was surprised enough to see a foreigner there; I wasn’t sure she’d appreciate or understand me taking a photo! That’s real China.

Later, as I mentioned in my last post, we spent an evening strolling East Nanjing Road, Shanghai’s famous shopping street. The crowds enjoying the music, action and glittering lights along this popular shopping strip were largely a mix of Chinese and foreign tourists. I doubt that many of the foreigners had any idea what they’d find if they wandered just one block to either side of the street they were on.

When we exited the subway, we accidentally took a wrong turn and found ourselves walking parallel to East Nanjing Road, one block over from where we intended to be. There it was dark and dirty and we had to walk around piles of old broken building material. It looked as if several places were being torn down or renovated. That didn’t bother me but the two men sleeping on the sidewalk in their underwear did! I’m pretty sure they were both breathing but I didn’t actually hang around to find out. That was the first and only time in our almost five months in China that I wasn’t entirely sure how safe we were but that’s real China.

Don’t get me wrong! We loved our time in China. It was an amazing adventure and I don’t regret one moment of the time we spent there but I wouldn’t want anyone to get the false impression that China is the shining face that it tries to put on for the rest of the world. It’s not third world but it still has a long way to go. As long as you’re willing to accept it for what it is, warts and all, it’s very easy to love though especially since its people are so warm and friendly toward its foreign guests.