Monday, August 22, 2011

A Tiger's Heart. The Story of a modern Chinese Woman. A Memoir by Aisling Juanjuan Shen

As the title of this memoir states, this is the story of one woman's struggles to rise out of grinding poverty and circumstance in China during the latter part of the 20th century. Shen began writing her memoir in her second semester at Wellesley College in Boston as a way of dealing with her past. The title is a reference to the author being born in the year of the Tiger and being "nothing but trouble" - "a tiger coming out of it's den".

Aisling Juanjuan Shen was born in 1974 in Shen Hamlet, a small rice farming village in the heart of the Yangtze River District. She grew up there with her parents and her younger sister, Spring. Aisling was determined not to have the poverty and back-breaking work in the rice paddies that made up her parent's life. She studied hard and received her associate degree and became a teacher - the only option open to the daughter of poor peasants in China. She was assigned to Hope Middle School in the town of Ba Jin in Wujiang County but it didn't take Aisling long to determine that she did not want to spend the rest of her life living there. So she signed a contract giving her her freedom for 3 years while the school would collect her pay and have her pay a five thousand yuan annual penalty.

"Since 1949, when New China was founded, every governmental worker had been guaranteed an unbreakable iron bowl into which the government put just enough food to keep your stomach full. Most people chose to stay on the dry land, with their bowls. You might find gold and silver in the ocean; but if you couldn't swim, you would be lost."

Shen headed south first to the city of Guangzhou where she lived with Wang Hui, a teacher she met in Ba Jin. When this relationship fails and she cannot find a job making a substantial amount of money, Aisling Shen decides to leave for LongJiang and finds a job at LongJiang Enterprises Group working as a secretary. Throughout the remainder of the book, we follow Shen as she moves from job to job, city to city throughout southern China, gradually becoming a part of wealthy Chinese society in Xiamen. Her life consists of daytime shopping and barhopping at night. But through all this Aisling Shen is deeply unhappy and disturbed.

Both Aisling's family background and the vast changes to society in Communist China contributed greatly to how she lived her life and the decisions she made. By her own account, her father was cold and withdrawn towards her. They rarely talked to each other and he considered her useless. Likely because of her own poor relationship with her father, Aisling slept with many men as she struggled to leave behind her life of poverty and become self-supporting. She slept with married men and was the mistress to several men, all the while not really understanding what motivated her to pursue bad men. All she knew is that she wanted to be loved and wanted companionship. Eventually, she learns more about her past from her mother and is able to put together the pieces that help her understand herself better.

Her description of her abortion after a one night stand with a married man is particularly heartrending. Shen didn't want the abortion but did so because despite China's doing away with the Old China, a pregnant unmarried woman was considered a "broken shoe". She tries to convince the man to let her keep the baby and that she "didn't really want to end this small life inside of me." Interestingly, Shen never connects the abortion and it's trauma with her promiscuous behaviour afterwards, despite the fact that she mentions the abortion changed her forever.

"In the poisonous silence of those lonely nights, I saw that I was splitting into two people. By day, I was an elevated and upright teacher; but when the sun went down, I became an anguished, angry girl who just wanted to destroy everything, including herself."

Shen's descriptions of shady business transaction are a window into the graft and corruption in a China emerging on the world economic market. The communist system replaced Old China with a system just as class driven as the past. Shen documents how difficult it is for young people to work their way out of poverty to a better life.

Readers interested in modern China will find A Tiger's Heart both fascinating and tragic.

Book Details:
A Tiger's Heart. The story of a modern Chinese woman. A memoir. by Aisling JuanJuan Shen
New York: Soho Press 2009
309 pp.

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