She looks much like any other elderly Chinese woman in Australian suburbia. Short. Greying hair. Perhaps a little healthier than average, a little more upright than most. But there’s nothing obvious to suggest her story threads back to another time, another country, a world of suffering most of us can barely conceive of.
My friend Li Zhen spent ten years – her entire 20s – in a Chinese labour camp. She was a newly minted high school graduate dreaming of university when local security personnel escorted her out of her family home at rifle point, away from her mother and four brothers, and into a life of internment, labour, and abasement before Mao’s totalitarian political culture.
Her crime? Dreaming of a life free from the draconian controls of the party. Foolishly, she had shared her half-baked, adolescent dreams with a group of friends, one of whom was a police informer. She was inspired by emotion rather coherent political belief. Her dad had spent most of the 50s locked up because he had been a railway official under the former regime – an experience that had left Li with little love of the new social order.
Although she suffered years of hard labour, humiliation and infantile indoctrination, Li didn’t suffer as much as many. She wasn’t in Jiabiangou in China’s northwest, for example, where an estimated 2,500 of the 3,000 inmates starved to death in 1960-61. Hunger was a constant for Li and her fellow prisoners, but supplies from her family kept her alive and reasonably healthy until her release in 1971. In the 80s she finally realised her dream of attending university by relocating to Australia as a mature-aged international student. She’s been here every since.
These days Li divides her time between suburban Melbourne and rural Victoria, where she has a house and business in a tiny country town. When I asked if she likes spending time in such a small place, she replies without hesitation, ‘After ten years in a labour camp, anywhere seems like heaven.’
Li is a kind, generous woman, but the experiences of her youth are never far from the surface. When she talks about the on-going situation in China her voice becomes louder and a palpable anger smoulders beneath her words. Beneath the anger lies lingering fear. Recalling her early years in Melbourne, she says she avoided virtually all social contact for fear of the Chinese authorities tracking her down. ‘My fear of the Communist Party was very, very deep,’ she explains. ‘It still is.’
Returning home through the placid streets of suburbia after dinner with Li, I pondered the millions of other terrifying, inspiring and sobering tales that must be lurking behind many front doors. Why are we so deaf to these tales? Sure, we get the odd celebrity bio-pic like Mao’s Last Dancer, but what about the ordinary people who have come to our shores with extraordinary tales and carved new lives as our neighbours, colleagues and fellow citizens?
I think we could do with hearing a few more stories from people we pass on the street every day. Not so that we can wallow in tear-jerking sympathy, or a sense of superior pride that we, in general, lead such comfortable lives. Greater awareness of the tales that make up our community might help us put contemporary Australia in some kind of perspective. Perhaps it would help us appreciate the stable, prosperous nation we live in, where the average person enjoys a level of personal freedom most on the planet would find unimaginable. Maybe it would make us think twice about the vulnerable people arriving on boats we lock up and self-righteously label ‘illegals.’ And maybe, just maybe, it would make us reflect a little more on the relative nature of ‘doing it tough.’
At the very least, a night with someone like Li beats sitting at home listening to the inane prattling of another celebrity chef on the telly.
Dan Edwards is a Melbourne-based freelance writer and journalist whose work has appeared in The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald, New Matilda, RealTime and The Diplomat. He currently is working on a thesis and book on China’s independent documentary movement at Monash University. www.danedwards.net