Stories from Chinese Millennials – Interview with a Political Idealist, Part 1
Hannah Nation serves as the Communications and Content Director for China Partnership. She is studying Church History at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and works part-time doing international outreach for her local church, Christ the King Presbyterian, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Though I have been trying to engage Chinese students for a decade, I still find myself learning about the world from which they come. Recently, I’ve been conducting a number of interviews with students I’m particularly close to. None of these students are professed Christians, though they are all in various stages of spiritual seeking. All are interested in the Bible and the Christian God and have been variously committed to Bible studies while in the United States.
Sometimes in my interviews with these students, their answers are so familiar – the words they speak echo the scores of similar answers I’ve heard over the years. But at other times, their answers are truly surprising, reminding me that what I as an American can learn and study about China, the Chinese worldview, and the experiences of Chinese people will still never fully prepare me for the individuals I face. Everyone’s story is unique, even given the cultural similarities and traits I recognize. Over the next couple of months I plan to share some of the interviews I’ve conducted on this blog.
For this third interview (you can read the first and second here), I spent time with a dear friend I’ll call Keith. Keith is an idealist through and through, and he is on a deep and convoluted search for answers concerning the true nature of government authority, democracy, and the structure of society. Of course all of this is rooted in Keith’s own personal search for meaning, even though he is slow to bring his heady and intellectual conversation down to the personal level. Yet in his countless conversations with my husband and myself, this is often precisely where his searching begins – understanding the needs and challenges of China according to the mysteries of the human heart.
How would you describe your childhood?
I think my childhood was very simple. I am the only child in my family, so I was raised by my parents very happily. I don’t think I have any very bad memories in my childhood.
I did very well in school and was always considered a very good student.
Did you live in the same place your whole childhood?
Yes. We lived near to my father’s factory.
Actually I don’t think I have anything more to say about my childhood. I was just like any one of the millions of children born in the 1980s in China.
Let’s see if I can think of some more questions since I probably don’t know that much about Chinese childhood in the 1980s. What would a typical day look like in your childhood?
In junior school I would go to school at 7:30am and have four classes in the morning. Then I would play with my friends and classmates. I would go back home about 4:00pm and continue to play with my friends and do some homework.
Actually, how do you define childhood? What age do you mean?
Let’s say anything before eighteen years old.
Eighteen! Ok, I have more to say. I just thought childhood was before ten. But if it includes teenagers then I have more to say.
In high school it was so competitive. I think I spent almost all of my time on my homework and studying. Now when I recall my teen years, I have very few interesting memories because all my time was spent on homework.
Actually my father is taller than me, which is very unusual. But I think all of the work had a very bad impact on my height.
But I really did very well in school, so I went to a not bad college. But especially in high school I got very, very little sleep – maybe only six hours every day.
Was your high school in your hometown or did you have to travel to another town?
It was in the same town, but I had to bike for forty five minutes from my home to school.
What was your hometown like? Was it a big city or a small town?
It’s a mid-sized city.
My grandparents and aunts and uncles all live in the same town. I’m a local person. But I left my hometown at eighteen years old, so it seems a little strange now.
Did both of your parents work while you were growing up?
Yeah. They retired ten years ago.
Growing up what were you taught to believe in?
Yeah, this is an interesting question, because I think most Chinese students and young people will say that they were taught to believe in communism in school, but actually nobody believed this. It was just propaganda and everyone knew it. But my parents didn’t tell me to believe in any specific religion. I think most Chinese people, including me, did not have any special interest in any religion. Religious life is a very strange thing to me and I think to many Chinese people. This is part of the reason why I have been very interested in studying the Bible.
On the bad side, some parents will tell their children they should make money and money is everything. But my parents didn’t say that. They were not so greedy or materialistic. But I believe some of my friends have such consciousness about money.
Would you say they were taught to believe in money or just that it was very important?
In extreme cases money may be considered the most important thing for life.
What events in China have impacted you the most and why?
This is such a hard question. My memory begins from the 1990s. You know there is a very important event that happened in 1989, but I was only a very little boy. So I think it impacted a lot of Chinese people, but not me. I was too little.
After 1989 there have not been any very big events in China. If I must mention one I think… it’s really hard to say. Nothing has really impacted me. I always think life in China is so boring.
What is the happiest memory in your life?
I have asked myself this several times. Right now I think maybe my first love was my happiest time. I had a very short relationship with my first girlfriend. It happened in 2006, about ten years ago. It was my last year in college. At that time I didn’t think it was so beautiful, but now I think that was a very precious time, a very precious memory.
How did you meet her?
It’s a story.
I met her on a train going from my hometown to Shanghai, where I studied. She also studied in Shanghai, but she studied in another college. She was one year younger than me and was a friend of a friend. She we came together to go back to Shanghai at the beginning of the semester. That was my first time meeting her, but I didn’t start to pursue her at that time. I was too busy, because I was preparing for the entrance exam for graduate school. The next year I had passed the entrance exam and I had more time to do something else, so that spring I called her and asked her if she wanted to take the same train with me again and some other friends and she said yes. That’s when I began to pursue her. But it was only for a very short time – only three months. But because it was my first love it was very impressive.
What is the saddest memory in your life?
I think the saddest time happened after my graduation from graduate school. My first job was working as a civil servant in government. But soon I discovered it was a very boring job and because I worked in a confidential department, my freedom was limited. I was restrained from traveling abroad and from traveling to other provinces. So I decided to quite very quickly and it was really a war to quite. Both of my parents and all of my relatives rejected my decision. But I still insisted on quitting.
After I quit I went to Beijing. It was 2010 and a very cold winter in Beijing. I had no job and I had to live in my cousin’s living room on her sofa for seven months. I had no idea where my future was going. That year was a very tough year. It was my saddest time.
Do you regret that decision?
It was tough. Maybe I shouldn’t say it was a sad time, but it was really tough.
Have you been able to make peace with your family about the decision or does it continue to be a problem?
Actually my mom opposed it the most. As soon as she got the idea that I really wanted to quit, she came to Shanghai from home and I fought with her for one month. Finally I won and I think it was very much worth it. Because after that war my mom realized that I had grown up. She realized that I have the right to make decisions by myself. So after that I made some other decisions, like going to do a PhD, and my mom still disagreed with me, but she knew that she could not change my mind. So she expressed her opinion, but she didn’t oppose my decision like she did before.
So there are no serious fights between my parents and me right now. They have decided I can make my decisions by myself.