Because EF was a generous sponsor of the recent Shanghai Literary Festival, I got the opportunity to attend one day of the festival for free with other EF staff! I greatly appreciated this opportunity since I had the chance to listen to an amazing book talk by a remarkable Chinese author. Before diving into the author and her talk though, I want to share a little bit about the book talk's location in Shanghai where I teach English, because I found the location almost as interesting as the talk itself.
The book talk was held in a hotel near the Bund in one of Shanghai's most developed, yet historic, areas. The area around the Bund is full of history, and full of buildings from the 1920's specifically. So vintage art deco architecture abounds in the Bund. The hotel hosting the talk I attended looked historic from the outside just like all the other buildings in the district. The whole street in fact looked as if it had jumped from a photograph and onto the streets of Shanghai. Inside the hotel I felt like I was walking through the world of The Great Gatsby, with decorations from the 1920's plastering the walls and ceiling. The book talk itself was at the top of the building in the hotel's bar. I was surprised by the décor, which was more or less a feminist take on 1920's New York City. This was highly fitting it turns out because the talk I attended was given by a female author who had survived all the horrors of Cold War-area China.
The author was an elderly Chinese woman who had grown up in Shanghai before World War 2, survived the War while still living in Shanghai under Japanese occupation, and later left for China's far western province of Xinjiang on the border with the Soviet Union. The author's name is Margaret Sun, and her book is titled Betwixt and Between - A Memoir of New China. Margaret is quiet old, and she needed some help during the book talk because four years ago she had gone completely deaf when her husband passed away. Regardless of her age and her deafness, Margaret still demonstrated a great deal of energy and remarkable wit. She injected levity into almost every portion of her talk, and she really helped us to understand the comical levels of chaos Cold War-area China endured.
One story I remember her telling in vivid detail was about what motivated her to move to Xinjiang Province from Shanghai. The story began with Margaret recounting how her father had been hounded by the Chinese Communist Party after China's civil war ended, because he had worked for a foreign company in the past. In order to escape the same fate as her father, and the persecution of Communist radicals, Margaret joined a group of workers going to Xinjiang Province. Once there, Margaret lived the life of a peasant laborer alongside her ethnic Kazak neighbors. During Margaret's recounting of this tale, she informed the audience of her ability to speak English, Mandarin, Cantonese, and the Kazak language, which of course elicited surprise from myself and the rest of the audience. Margaret further elaborated on her time in Xinjiang Province, with her story culminating in her joining Xinjiang's top university as an English teacher of all things!
I was amazed! Even at this book talk, being given by a survivor of China's Cultural Revolution and Cold War-area upsets, teaching English was a theme. Even back during some of China's more turbulent times, Margaret had been able to take refuge in English teaching. It gave Margaret purpose, income, and status. I deeply related to her after this, and the stories she told of how uplifting English was for students in Xinjiang really touched me. I came away from the talk assured that I'd made the right choice by becoming an English teacher.