One of my fondest memories from childhood is spending my summers in the world of books. When school was out for two months, all I could wanted was to retreat to the comfort of books. There were books on astronomy, travelling, science and every genre of fiction books a teenager could ask for. As I grew older, I also read widely in politics, political philosophy, macroeconomics and other areas that are subject to debate or less black and white I don’t know when I developed such a strong love for the written word. Books have always filled my life. The freedom to read and express my thoughts in a community of like-minded readers has always been a given, whether or not we agree. Reading is an enlightening experience. I cannot imagine I would be the person I am today without this unlimited access to books. Would I have been just plain ignorant and prejudiced? Unfortunately, for many people in my parents’ generation who grew up in China, they never had the same opportunity to read, think and explore.
Until their arrival in a Western country, my parents had never understood or experienced the freedom to read and think. Their lives were cut short by a dark period in China’s history known as the Cultural Revolution. My father’s formal education ended in high school. My mom went back to school in another country to finish her university education. From 1966 until 1976, they were told what to think and how to think by the government. It was a time when even relatives turned on each other. The scholars, if they were lucky, fled the country, and the others remaining were driven to madness and/or met their demise if they refused to cooperate. The only approved literature was the government’s ideology. As my parents relate their stories of suffering and being denied their right to an education, I am filled with a mixture of dread, sorrow, anger and sympathy. That political environment of China at the time has deeply affected them for the rest of their lives. It is not a subject that lends itself to much discussion. I think they want to forget about that episode like it existed only in another world, but it did happen in real life and turned their world upside down. When a country did its best at eliminating thinkers and writers from their pool of citizens, it is understandable that my parents would not have been able to access anything other than some political script.
In my formal Western education, I never studied China as part of any literary or history curriculum. Most of the world probably has never heard of this tragic period known as the Cultural Revolution. It is not something that China, with its display of wealth these days, would like to parade around. What I know about China is from living there in my childhood, reading books and talking to my parents and friends from their generation. Even so, it is only a superficial understanding of the past. For somebody who has only lived in peace times and grown up in a wealthy Western country, it is hard for me to fully comprehend my parents’ experience. I can be impatient and frustrated when my parents and I hold incompatible opinions or talk past each other. When my parents question what I read, I am frustrated at having to explain to them. When you see the world from their perspective, however, it is not a rosy world, not by a long shot. Now I understand why my mother is frightened by some of my reading material, no matter how innocuous, especially when it borders on new ideas. Her message to me is simple: do not challenge. To my mom, reading a bland novel is fine but not the heavy-weight material like politics, philosophy and anything that makes one question assumptions.
Books can open one’s eyes to a different world. It is an enlightening experience each time I open a new book. But hearing the stories of the people who have journeyed through tragedy and triumph is a whole different experience. Their life experience may not have afforded them what we take for granted as basic rights, and for two generations who grew up in different historical times, there are incompatible views. But these people can show us a dark side of humanity that our Western books and education may not have fully captured. Hearing their stories in real life is more compelling than reading in a book.