Wrote this essay in 2009 for a class I took called Literature as Peace Research. Inspired by Sheng Xue, who was McMaster University’s Writer in Residence in 2009.
Last night I came home smelling like an ashtray. It was the first time I didn’t mind the stench of cigarettes clinging to my hair. Twenty-five people were gathered at Sheng Xue’s house, chatting enthusiastically over a spread of Chinese food, wine, and Panda brand cigarettes imported from Shanghai. Among them were Sunan, a student on exchange from France at McMaster; Jack, founder of the first Chinese community newspaper in Toronto; Liuye, a Chinese language scholar; Kunga Tsering, the president of the Canadian-Tibet Joint Action Committee; Zuzana Hahn, a Czech-born artist; Michael Craig, a coordinator from Amnesty International; another Caucasian Michael, whose proficiency in Putonghua amazes everybody in the room; David Cozac, a former PEN Canada coordinator; Dick Chan and Gloria Fung, members of the Chinese Canadian National Council; and Sheng Xue, McMaster’s writer in residence, who, I am confident, is unknowingly shifting the course of my life.
In this story I am finding my voice.
Xue’s husband has come to fetch Sunan and me from the bus stop. When we arrive at their house, he takes our coats and gives us slippers for our feet. Someone is frying a fish in the kitchen; Sunan says that it smells like Chinese New Year. Indeed, the atmosphere makes me a bit homesick.
The living room is big and filled with fold-up chairs and people. Xue takes us by the arms and introduces us to everyone gathered inside: one group speaks Putonghua, and the other, English; all are engaged in lively discussion. The crowd here reminds me a bit of the family gatherings we have at my aunt’s house, which is a few blocks away, except my family doesn’t talk about politics and human rights. We talk about pop culture, and we gossip about the cousins and everybody’s in-laws. Xue’s house also reminds me of Anchises’ place, where, Cassandra narrates, “under the changing foliage of the giant fig tree… we began to live our life of freedom” (Wolf 93).
Congregated here is a mixed bag of people whose work I thought I had more or less understood from skimming the newspaper, even from listening to Xue’s speech at her reception. But it becomes clear that I have been misguided—that my understanding has been alarmingly insincere.
In my head two questions are resonating: “What kind of place [do] I live in? How many realities are there in [this world] besides mine, which I thought was the only one?” (20). Believe it or not, believe it and not: Xue is the first ethnic Han Chinese I’ve encountered in my life who speaks openly and actively against the Chinese government. How can this be, when all of the Chinese people I know in Hong Kong, my home, take pride in our faculty to embrace western ideals? But what ideals are these? Capitalism and consumerism: the right to make money and the right to buy whatever. But what about democracy and freedom? In my Hong Kong, life follows this basic formula: birth, education, marriage, career, retirement, death.
But I realize more and more that my Hong Kong is one of blinding privilege, where our friends’ parents own restaurants and hotels, yachts and islands. We don’t talk about Chinese politics because they don’t affect our stocks. Armed with blank cheques, credit cards, and connections, our convenient life-formula can play itself out.
I am seeing more and more that “[m]y privilege [has] intruded between me and the most necessary insights” (53). Like Cassandra caught up in palace life as a priestess, I am selfishly caught up in my life as a student trying to get my act together. But my meetings with Xue, along with this gathering in her living room, are slowly prying my eyes open such that I can see that the problem of human rights in China is entirely relevant to my experience as a Chinese person, and, more importantly, as a citizen of this world.
We are gathered here and now to welcome Jiang Weiping to Canada. He is an investigative journalist. He was imprisoned in 2002 for writing articles exposing the corruption of several government officials in northeast China. He was released from prison in 2006. PEN Canada worked to grant him passage to Canada this year. He arrives with his wife, Stella, fashionably late. Xue introduces them to everybody. His handshake is firm and full of resolve, although I am no handshake-interpreter. We eat. Except for the lamb rice, every dish on the table makes me painfully homesick.
After dinner, Xue asks everybody in the room to say a little something to share ideas. Jiang Weiping says he is pleased to be back in Canada and that it is vital that we continue our work in exposing the truth. (At least that’s what I think he says, because I am sitting too far to hear Michael, who is translating.) We go around in a circle. Zuzana tells us about the monument she is erecting in Toronto to remember the 100 million people who have died because of communism. The monument is a giant book that, when viewed from the side, is also the profile of a person speaking. A hand is trying to cover the mouth, but it fails, signifying the triumph of our stories. Next is Kunga, who tells us that Tibetan autonomy is vital to peace in China, and that he is organizing a dialogue between Tibetan and Chinese youth in Toronto, which will serve as a model for peaceful dialogue between Tibetan and Chinese youth in Asia.
Sunan speaks, too. What she says really pries apart my eyelids. I can’t look away. Her story has a similar shape to mine, though hers takes place in the heart of things: China. She grew up in Shanxi, and the life-formula prescribed to her is essentially the same as what has been prescribed to me. She tells us that before going to France to study, she had never heard of the conflict between Tibet and China. She also tells us that she had never met a Taiwanese person, nor even known that there was tension between Taiwan and China, until she went to school in Lyon.
Sunan says that after seeing a poster inviting everybody to Xue’s reception at McMaster, she did some Internet research and was shocked by what she read about the Tiananmen Square massacre. She had never read much about it before because the Chinese government has erased it from books, film, television, and the Internet. Sunan says she is grateful for having met Xue, for her friendship and for opening her eyes. It strikes me that, growing up in Hong Kong, my teachers had told us stories about the massacre, and I remember hearing one sensationalist classmate telling us about the possibility of missiles flying overhead from China to Taiwan. I’ve known vaguely about these things for quite some time.
Eventually, Xue asks me to speak, too. I apologize to everybody for my terrible Chinese. “Bu hao yi si,” I say. When you translate the phrase literally, it means “not good meaning.” Indeed, it is “not good meaning”; it is not good that I am a Chinese person who cannot speak Chinese. Michael translates for me when I say that I don’t know a lot about the human rights issues taking place, though I do know a little bit. And that I feel paralyzed because I’m not confident that I know enough to do anything. But I say that I realize that I’ll never know everything, so I should stop sitting on my hands, waiting, and DO SOMETHING ALREADY! I feel shamefully earnest when I speak.
This idea-sharing circle is life-affirming and inspiring. We are gathered here and now to “eat, drink, laugh together, [and] learn” (52); we are gathered here and now the way the cave community gathers on the slopes of Mount Ida. At first, I almost feel like an outsider because I am not actively involved in any organization, nor am I involved in any fight.
But then I remember: we are gathered here in this space. I am here too. Doesn’t that mean something? When Cassandra reflects that “there are no limits to the atrocities people can inflict on one another” and that “It is so much easier to say “Achilles the brute” than “we”” (119), I want to turn this inside out. I want turn to her and say, “Hey, Cassandra, there are no limits to the love and compassion people can have for each other, either, so let’s share this, too, pass it around, and claim it for ourselves.” The “we” makes us all accountable to one another. Which is why I’ll stop sitting on my hands and do something.
I don’t want to “put off living” (65). I don’t want to “[live] only provisionally” with the belief “that true reality still [lies] ahead of me”; I don’t want to “let life pass me by” (65). The message I am getting here and now from everybody in Xue’s living room is that we should act now, and that I should reject the life-formula prescribed to me.
Their message echoes Arisbe’s, who tells Cassandra: “There are gaps in time. This is one of them, here and now. We cannot let it pass without taking advantage of it” (124). We are supposed to fill these gaps of time by doing something. We are here, in this living world, and now, when we need to ease the suffering of our fellow human beings. It is our duty to defend the rights of others; it is our right to make a map of a better world. Cassandra realizes this shortly before she dies: “The world could go on after our destruction… Why had I allowed myself to suppose that the human race would be wiped out along with us?” (11). Yes, Cassandra, the human race will go on—indeed, it has gone on; the kind of world it goes on in depends on us.
The guests in the living room keep looking to Sunan and me and calling us the next generation. Our duty is to carry on their work, to keep their stories alive, to keep exposing the truth in the name of a just world. Kunga asks me if I would like to participate in the dialogue he’s organizing for Toronto youth. I tell him I’m probably leaving the country in July, but would love to attend if one should take place while I’m still here.
I had always imagined that activists gathered in dark cellars, silently and angrily, but the atmosphere here in Xue’s living room is anything but. Just like her! The living room is aptly named; this place is living, alive, lively, lovely, and it reminds me of Cassandra’s time in the caves by Mount Ida, about which she says: “our time [is] limited and so we could not waste it on matters of minor importance. So we concentrated on what mattered most: ourselves—playfully, as if we had all the time in the world” (133). Playfully, we are gathered here and now to “eat, drink, laugh together, [and] learn” (52).
I am blown away by how normal everybody is. These women and men who courageously put their lives on the line to safeguard our freedoms of expression and opinion eat chocolate cake, too. Xue’s eyes are permanent half-moons because she is always smiling; Jack’s face is red from laughing (or wine?); and I will not forget Dick Chan’s gums crammed with crooked teeth because he’s always laughing or smiling. This living room is filled with the “third alternative” that Cassandra comes to perceive: “the smiling vital force that is able to generate itself over and over: the undivided, spirit in life, life in spirit” (107).
On the bus ride home Sunan and I are talking. She says she never talks about politics when she’s at home; nobody does. She doesn’t talk politics because the Chinese Communist Party has made it so that the way things are feels natural and unquestionable, and because the CCP punishes those who dare question the status quo.
I remember Jessica telling me about her homestay in China, and about her host’s government and politics class, during which the students memorized passages written by Mao Zedong. I reflect on why my friends in Hong Kong and I don’t talk about Chinese politics in Hong Kong. We really have no excuse—thanks to Hong Kong’s freedom of expression, we know about Tiananmen Square, we know about China’s conflicts with Tibet and Taiwan, we know about the writers who are imprisoned for trying to expose the truth, and yet we close our eyes to it, as if the gross injustice China inflicts on millions of people isn’t our story.
But it is completely our story. We are in Hong Kong because of this injustice—our grandparents fled to here from all over China because of the merciless communist regime, which continues to thrive.
We can no longer be silent.
Up until now, I had viewed myself as voiceless. I didn’t think I believed in anything, or that I had opinions. But I do believe in—I’ve always believed in, but have taken for granted, I realize—freedom of expression. In this story I am finding my voice, the way Cassandra finds hers while recovering in the lively cave in the loving care of Arisbe and Anchises; she discovers “a silence into which [her] voice fit[s] … the space intended for it” (123). The space for my voice is here and now, right in this story. These words are gathered here and now to give thanks to the remarkable women and men in Xue’s living room whose spirit, life, and dedication to preserving our freedom to speak are, unbeknownst to them, helping me to find my voice.
Wolf, Christa. Cassandra. Trans. Jan van Heurck. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1984.