KILLINGS, daily columns and blog —

Comment

The stories behind your neighbour’s front door

by Imogen , December 5, 20121 Comment

Photo Credit: Yellow Flowers Free Photos Art & Fun

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




  • http://www.iamverybusyandimportant.net Sophie

    I spent a good 4 years or so working as a journalist in regional Queensland. Because these communities were relatively small, it didn’t take long for the six degrees of separation thing to kick in when it came to doing human interest stories. I found out the posh mother of private school kids across the road dropped out of uni to live in an Israeli kibbutz in her 20s, and the old bloke who ran the corner shop was once a touring boxer.

Frances Abbott

David Donaldson

Why #whitehousegate matters

A few days after the release of the budget, in which the Coalition government announced it was spreading the burden by increasing university fees, cutting school funding, and cutting welfare for young people comes a story that confirms what many already suspect to be the nature of opportunity: it’s much easier to come by if you’re born into privilege. Read more »

money

David Donaldson

When does lobbying become corruption?

Whether it’s Clive Palmer buying his way into parliament, the recent, varied ICAC revelations of dodgy fundraising in the NSW Liberal party, or the refusal or inability of successive governments to effectively tackle powerful corporate interests in industries like gambling, mining, media, and junk food, there is a feeling among many Australians that democracy is up for sale. Read more »

cluster munition

David Donaldson

How to make treaties and influence people

In an era when Russia can annex Ukrainian territory, when the Refugee Convention is regularly flouted, and when nobody seems to be able to do anything to stop the carnage in Syria, it can be tempting to ask: what can international law actually achieve? Read more »

1560682_10153899026420591_499501666_n

Eli Glasman

Just a number: The literary world’s obsession with age

I used to be obsessed about what age I would be when I had my first novel published. I’d go on the Wikipedia pages of every famous writer I could think of to check how old they were when their first book came out. Read more »

winterson

Carody Culver

Jeanette Winterson’s sacred and secular space

It seems that people either love her or hate Jeanette Winterson, and sometimes that has less to do with her writing and more to do with the occasional controversies she’s regularly sparked since 1985. Read more »

Untitled

Veronica Sullivan

Adventures in reality with Oliver Mol

One of Mol’s recent pieces contains the line: ‘I want to put my bare ass on the cover of my book because not only will it make good promo but it speaks honestly about who I am.’ Read more »

The Tunnel TV review

Julia Tulloh

The Tunnel vs The Bridge: The ethics of TV remakes

A body is found in the Eurotunnel, neatly laid across the border between France and England. When police attempt to move the body, it splits in two with the top half in France and lower half in England. Read more »

1398878478_lea-michele-brunette-ambition-zoom

Julia Tulloh

How to be beautiful, according to Lea Michele

Lea Michele’s new book, Brunette Ambition, is what you might expect from a fairly young television and musical theatre star. Read more »

Mariah Carey

Julia Tulloh

Is she Mariah, the ‘elusive’ chanteuse?

Two weeks ago, Mariah Carey launched her fourteenth studio album, Me. I am Mariah…The Elusive Chanteuse. Yes, that’s the real name, and it’s hilarious not only because the title is so long and happily shameless but because Mariah has long styled herself as one of the least elusive pop stars in the pop music galaxy. Read more »

lead_large

Rochelle Siemienowicz

On Boyhood, parenting and the passing of time

Since its premiere in January at the Sundance Film Festival, film critics have been falling over themselves to lavish love upon Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. Read more »

wetlands_poster

Rochelle Siemienowicz

Lucky Dip Diving: an approach to film festivals

I wanted to let go of the grasping desire to watch everything and be part of every conversation. But with the Melbourne International Film Festival in full swing, anxieties arise again. Read more »

Happy Christmas

Rochelle Siemienowicz

Joe Swanberg’s Real Women

In Happy Christmas, the female characters are a pleasure to watch, largely because they’re so familiar in life and so rarely depicted on screen. Read more »

owl1

Connor Tomas O'Brien

Speaking with pixels

On the Facebook Newsfeed, it’s now possible to click a tiny smiley face inside almost any textbox to bring up a series of thumbnail images: an alligator bawling into a tissue, say, or a whistling fox dropping a turd, or a green owl vomiting rainbows. Read more »

hbo-silicon-valley

Connor Tomas O'Brien

Silicon Valley will eat itself

At a certain point in the lifespan of any subculture, fiction and reality start to blur. Members of the subculture begin to model their character and appearance on the idealised representations of themselves they read about or see on screen. Read more »

inbox

Connor Tomas O'Brien

Death to the Inbox

The primary source of our ‘email problem’ seems to lie in our belief that email is a vastly richer and more capable medium than it is. Read more »

Untitled

Danielle Binks

How to buy books for young adults

‘Excuse me, where are the boys’ books? I’m looking to buy for a 16-year-old.’ When I overheard this question while browsing in a bookshop recently, I felt insta-rage. Read more »

detail

Danielle Binks

Fan-Girling Over Super Heroines

The testosterone-fuelled BIFF! BANG! KAPOW! of classic comics can seem uninviting, filled with spandex-clad men and swooning damsels who hold limited appeal outside the stereotypical 18-35 year-old male demographic. But things are changing in the world of comics. Read more »

9780143305323

Danielle Binks

Australia Needs Diverse Books

The ‘We Need Diverse Books’ team is made up of authors, editors and publishers from North America, but the #WeNeedDiverseBooks hashtag and campaign has reverberated in youth literature communities worldwide. Read more »

Jabberwocky1

Chad Parkhill

The carnival is over

Jabberwocky, scheduled to take place last weekend, was the kind of festival that wasn’t supposed to fail. Read more »

Robin Thicke

Chad Parkhill

Why has Robin Thicke’s Paula flopped?

What, exactly, has caused Paula to sell so poorly that it has already positioned itself as this year’s most memorable flop? Read more »

splash

Chad Parkhill

Queering the Power: The Soft Pink Truth’s Why Do the Heathen Rage?

The Soft Pink Truth’s new album ‘Why Do the Heathen Rage’ demonstrates that despite their superficial differences, dance music and black metal have a lot in common. Read more »

2014-07-03-theleftovers

Stephanie Van Schilt

TV pilots: The good, the bad and The Leftovers

With the wealth of shows on offer, committing to a new TV series can feel like a big deal. It’s often during a pilot episode that audiences determine whether the program is appealing enough to stick with for the long haul. Read more »

Alg-90210-jpg

Stephanie Van Schilt

Sick-Person TV

The only upside to getting sick was the many afternoons I spent curled up on the couch at home, watching daytime TV. I inhaled the drama of pre-recorded episodes of Beverley Hills 90210 while playing with my Brandon and Dylan sticker collection (interspersed with sporadic vomiting). Read more »

The_Million_Dollar_Drop_logo

Nicholas J Johnson

Highbrow vs Lowbrow: Nicholas J Johnson defends Lowbrow TV

I can’t stop looking at Eddie McGuire’s smug, stupid face. It’s not my fault. It’s just I’ve never been this close to the man before, and it’s not until now that I’ve realised how oddly smooth and tanned his skin is. As if someone has stretched the orange bladder from a football over a slab of marble. Read more »