Thursday, October 30, 2014

Failing to be Free

Today I had a nice visit with a former student, Susan. She's had her times and trials but now she is doing well, and she is in love! It had been a long time since we'd seen one another and we had a lot of catching up to do. I was happy to make the trip into town.

On the way I stopped at a blood donation center. The first year I was here I tried to donate but left the center disappointed because of the language barrier. this time around I thought I might have to struggle a bit to understand all the questions, but was greeted pleasantly – in English! - by a lovely attendant  who presented me the anticipated questionnaire, also in English! And then I was told I would need my doctor's certification that my thyroid levels were in range before I could donate. I walked away encouraged that soon, I could be helping people get well with my healthy blood. 

And then, while waiting for my tardy young friend I met a nice young man name Lawrence, new to Wuhan. Initially taken aback at being hailed by another foreigner, a rare occurrence here, we engaged in lively conversation, and then exchanged contact details. Soon he hopped back on his bike and rode away, into this blue-skyed, delicious day.

Finally: a text message. Susan was here and wondered where I was. She described herself: “I have sunglasses on, and a black jacket.” That could have been any of the twenty or so Chinese in my sights who had black jackets on! That little joke aside, our reunion was joyful and our embrace heartfelt.

Susan comes from a traditional family. Her parents are both social success stories: mother working in the legal system, step-father a well positioned government official and father a prominent business man. They all felt their daughter was a failure, first for achieving a score on the National College Entrance Exam that would only permit admittance to a 3rd tier university (our school), and then for resisting their offer to pull strings for a transfer to a better university.

That came to naught anyway because, right around the time her government-employed mother and step-father intended to ply the university president with gifts to guarantee Susan's admittance, China launched its intensive crackdown on graft and favor-buying.

Immediately after graduation (from our school, much to her parents' chagrin), they forcefully persuaded her to return to her home in Suizhou. Susan had every intention of making her way in Wuhan. She has never felt she was too good to do what would be considered unsuitable work for a college graduate: clerking, cashiering and/or waitressing. She never got to try. Her parents cleaned out her dorm room while she was out, and held her possessions hostage until Susan capitulated. Enraged but choiceless,  she went home with them.

That is the root of Susan's past problems: a stifling parentage that left her absolutely no room to thrive or make decisions for herself. Her mother controlled every single aspect of her life, even sending her back to campus after winter break with a case of super sweet apple juice and the order to drink one bottle every day for good health. That I know of, Susan drank 1 bottle (and gave me one), and then never touched them again. She later confided that, after a particularly infuriating conversation  with her mother, she smashed every single one of those glass bottles.

For Susan and many other kids here, I am a safe outlet. Plenty have confided their worst troubles to me, knowing I could not (and would not) do anything other than be there for them. Initially, Susan resisted me. I approached her because she drew attention to herself with at-risk behaviors. Over time we bonded and I've had the pleasure to watch her evolve into a strong young woman who knows her own mind.

She is still angry, though. I noticed that today. “Your anger is good for you right now, dear. You need it to drive you into the life you want.” Although she doesn't come across as angry, I know it's there because there is a brittleness about her. She averred that she  is still angry at her family, and the reasons keep piling up. That she could say so with a smile shows how well she's come along since her 'crazy days'.

After being hied back to Suizhou, her mother set her to studying for a civil service exam a few months hence. Mom had pulled a few strings – not illegal under the new graft laws, to sign her up. Susan spent days at a time in her room, only coming out for meals. Sometimes she would go out for walks, which turned into runs, to blow off steam. In all, Susan remained in limbo for 9 months after graduation: no job, no social life, no prospects other than that test.

She bombed the exam on purpose. Now, with no hope of securing a government position and no job  suitable for someone with an associates' degree from a third rank university, Mom finally gave up.  Susan has been released to live her life as she saw fit. She hangs her hat in a trendy neighborhood just off from a popular hangout, works as a cashier in a grocery store and loves every bit of it. The one time Mom came to Wuhan to see her, she refused to go to Susan's apartment or visit the store where her daughter works for fear of humiliation: how can such a well-placed government worker have such a failure for a daughter?

How would anyone in Wuhan know that Mom is a well-placed government official?

As a parting shot, Mom said: “If you need money, I can lend you some. Just be sure to pay me back by the end of the month.” I believe Susan would rather starve than ask her mother, or anyone else in her family for anything.

Susan is a part of a growing group in China who are walking away from tradition: doing what the family wants/demands. While most young adults I know are still very traditional, more and more we're seeing a take-off from their supposed mapped out existence. These days, people do not want to knuckle under tradition when they have a flair for life. They don't want to find or be matched to a suitable mate, marry, have a child and settle into the life they are expected to lead.            

Susan failed the exam in order to make her family leave her alone. Intrinsic to Chinese society is the 'in or out' mentality. While most would not be as rigid as Susan's folk, it is quite common for a non-complying young adult to be rejected by the entire family, at least for a time. By failing spectacularly, Susan has guaranteed that no one from her clan will pursue her or make demands on her. Conversely, she will not be welcome at family gatherings, either. I don't think that bothers her in the least. She might come to miss her family eventually but I'm so proud of her right now.

New Friend Lawrence has already sent me several text messages with romantic overtones. I'm not sure he's aware I have children who are possibly older than him. I thought it was wonderful that another foreigner reached out, but when he said something about kissing me...

I'm not going to go there. I'll just stick with the joy at Susan's life explorations. 

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