Frog In a Well

I was always a dreamer.

I was born on the banks of the Yangtze River in Nanjing, China. Although I grew up in the residential compound of my mother’s factory, and all my friends were the children of workers, I had dreamt of becoming a journalist. I saw myself grasping a pen to write beautiful, compelling things. Instead, at the age of 16, I was grasping a toolbox and mother’s ‘iron rice bowl’ – a job for life in a state-owned factory. Be grateful, nagged my mother. She considered her early retirement a great sacrifice on my behalf.

Yet in the repressive routine of guarded compound and political meetings, I felt miserable. The factory was a mini Communist state of its own, housing workers in identical blocks, feeding them in dining halls, washing them in bathhouses, and indoctrinating them at cinemas. I often felt I was like a frog, trapped in the bottom of the factory well.

I sought escape and enlightenment in reading and writing poems, and I began to teach myself English, ignoring the laughs from my colleagues who called me ‘a toad who dreams to eat swan’s meat.’ What I learnt was not just ABCs but Western culture and values. While at the factory, I translated English documentaries for TV stations and even embarked on a project of translating an American novel. The walls of the well were shrinking down towards me; the light of other people’s experience brightened my life. I began to wear stylish dresses and strange glasses to show my individuality. I even dared to pursue sex.

On a fine summer day in 1988 inside the Forbidden City, I bumped into a blue-eyed Oxford student at an ice-cream queue inside the Forbidden City. It must have been fate that brought together a Scottish farmer’s son and a proletarian worker’s daughter.

The following June saw the Chinese government’s brutal crackdown on the student-led pro-democracy movement. We had agreed to travel together along the Old Silk Road. Against advice from family, Calum set off with his backpack. At my factory, however, I was being interrogated for organizing the biggest demonstration among workers in Nanjing in support of the Tiananmen Square protest. As the planned date approached, I faked a mental breakdown. With the sick-leave at hand, I hurried to Xinjiang, where our romance blossomed.

In 1990, I went to England to join the man I was madly in love with. My grandma, who had brought us up, cried and cried when my airplane roared past Nanjing airport and shot into the edge of sky. She blamed herself for failing to change the way I held my chopsticks – far towards their ends, which meant, in her reading, I would go a long way away from home.

While waiting table at a Chinese restaurant, I went along to Calum’s classes and joined the Student Union’s debate. The stimulating intellectual environment encouraged me to pursue my childhood dream of studying journalism.

Three years later, we returned to China. I started my career by assisting foreign journalists. However, I grew frustrated with my role as a ‘fixer’: apart from setting up interviews as instructed, I always did my best to offer my suggestions and opinions, yet I didn’t have the final say. So I decided to become a freelance journalist and write my own stories for Western publications.

I focus on very human stories which reflect the changes sweeping cross the country or how China’s ‘little people’ fight to better their lives: physically and emotionally displaced migrants; laid-off workers or kidnapped wives. My features, many under the pen name Lijia MacLeod (I was hoping that a foreign name might give me, until recently, a Chinese passport holder, some protection) have been published in South China Morning Post, Far Eastern Economic Review, Japan Times, The Independent, The Guardian, Washington Times, Newsweek and the New York Times. In 1999, with Calum, I co-authored China Remembers, an oral history of contemporary China for Oxford University Press.

The publication whetted my appetite for book writing. I guess writing is always the way I make sense of my life: since I was young, I have developed the habit of writing a diary.

One day in 2000, as I chatted with my writer friend Peter Hessler over a bowl of dumplings at a Sichuan snack shop in Beijing. I causally mentioned my factory story. He suggested that I should write a piece for the ‘personal journey’ page of The Asian Wall Street Journal. I followed it up. When many friends, who had presumed that I had come from a wealthy family and gone to university, read the article and asked why I didn’t write a book about my experience at the rocket factory, I thought: why not?

The market is flooded with memoirs of Cultural Revolution but few are set in the 1980’s. It was a time when China began to recover from its traumatic past and began to make changes – the time China became what it is today. I felt that I have had a compelling story to tell which illuminated that transition.

My memoir took many drafts and many years to complete. It proved to be a much bigger undertaking than writing a few feature stories, since book-writing demands you to invest every bit of your being, your mind and your soul. Of course, I was struggling to write in a language which isn’t my mother tongue. I am ever so grateful to many people’s gracious help, in particular, my then husband Calum and my mentor Ian Johnson.

In 2004, I fulfilled another of my life-time dream – to become a proper student at a proper university. My MA was in Creative and Life Writing at Goldsmiths College, University of London, making me the most well-educated person of the Zhang family.

For that, I know my dear illiterate grandma will flash me one of her dimpled smiles, from heaven above.

The MA programme, which I loved every minute of, encouraged me to venture into writing a novel. I had started to write short stories and essays back in the factory days and the occasional ones were published in various newspapers and magazines in China. Now I have just finished my debut novel Lotus, again in English. It will be published by Henry Holt and Company in New York and represented by Becky Sweren ( of Kuhn Projects, a leading literary agency in U.S.

Set in modern day Shenzhen, China, the ‘city of sins,’ the novel follows the story of Lotus, a young sex worker, and Bing, a photojournalist. As the story unfolds, the couple finds themselves torn, like the city itself, between past traditions and modern desires.

I currently live Beijing with my two daughters, and work as a writer, columnist, social commentator and public speaker, all of which I love with equal enthusiasm.

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