Q&A with KAROLINE KAN

Karoline Kan

I am highlighting the heartfelt stories of ordinary Chinese people.

Karoline Kan is the author of Under Red Skies: Three Generations of Life, Loss and Hope in China. Karoline previously worked at That’s Beijing, Radio France International and the New York Times. She is now an editor at China Dialogue. Karoline has also contributed to various other publications including Foreign Policy, Roads and Kingdoms, The World Policy and The Anthill, writing from her perspective about Chinese politics, history, ethnic policies and other social issues. Karoline is currently based in Beijing.

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AP: Tell us about your family.

KK: My parents were born in a village near Tianjin, China, which was a 2.5 hour train journey to Beijing back then. My mom stopped attending middle school at age 15 to work as a substitute teacher. At that time, China didn’t have enough teachers so there was a need for many substitute teachers. They were paid less but worked very hard in order to be promoted as an official teacher. My dad used to be an outstanding student, but his primary schooling was paused during the cultural revolution.

When the cultural revolution ended, my father took the gaokao, which is China’s college entrance examination and was admitted into a very good university. My grandfather didn’t want him to go to medical school as being a doctor wasn’t perceived as a prestigious career back then.  Instead, he wanted my dad to choose a different university and find a job where he can sit in the office all day, like a professor or a teacher. My dad took the gaokao again the following year. However, the local officials said he was wasting educational resources and opportunities since he got in the first time, so they didn’t let him attend university. My dad tried to take the gaokao the third time, but people told him he was too old. He was only 21 or 22 at the time, but they said that he couldn’t retake the gaokao. He couldn’t go to university and that was it.  He had studied so hard independently, but there was no opportunity or future for him at that point. He thought he would be stuck forever in the village. I heard from my grandparents that my dad changed a lot after. At the time, attending university was the only way for you to get out of the village.

AP: What about your grandparents era, how have their stories affected you?

KK: I love the relationship with older female relatives in my family. My grandma from both sides never went to school but they have amazing stories. I don’t know how they could have such a good memory with all of those vivid details and told in such an engaging way. The stories are amazing, and some are often from Asian literature. It is so different how a man tells a story and how a woman tells a story.

In my grandparent’s village, there was a legend of this older man who went to Taiwan with Chiang Kai Shek in the 40s and was stuck there. One day in the 1980s, he showed up in the village with some gold rings for his family. He met his children for the first time in almost 50 years. When he came back, he found out that his wife died in an earthquake in 1976. There was a massive  earthquake in Tianjin, his children didn’t tell him about it because they were afraid. They decided to tell him when they meet and for those years, he had this hope of coming back to see his wife. The story haunted me for such a long time, and it inspired me to think more about how a common ordinary Chinese family could suffer so much, but their story is never really told. That story made a deep impression during my childhood years.

AP: What were your family’s economic circumstances in China during the Deng era?

KK: During the years of the Chinese people’s commune, every village has a tractor at the time, so they sent my dad to learn how to drive it. The people’s commune collapsed shortly after, and every family was given some private land to work on under Deng Xiaoping’s new policies. My dad worked as a farmer for some years. Mom saw the opportunities in town, so she opened up a kindergarten. There were also several years where my father worked in construction. It was a more prosperous time. In 1989, my parents decided to have me, the second child. This was during the period of the one-child policy. My mom lost the opportunity to be promoted to be an official teacher forever because of the decision. Every now and then, an official would come to the village and confiscate some private assets because someone broke the law. To me, they were a group of scary people because I didn’t understand what their job was like at the time. I just assumed that they were terrible people, just threatening.

Later on, we moved to a bigger town and mom worked at a private kindergarten. The main reason for the move was so that my brother and I could have more educational opportunities. The quality of the schools was so different even though the schools were only a few miles away from the village. All the best schools were from the town rather than the rural.

“I love the relationship with older female relatives in my family in China. My grandma from both sides never went to school, but they have amazing stories. I don’t know how they could have such a good memory with all of the vivid details, told in such an engaging way.”

AP: What was life like for a child in China in the 90s? What were your goals?

KK: As a child of the 90s, I was quite innocent. We moved from the village to a town where I didn’t have many friends. All my friends were left behind in the village. My family was discriminated in this neighbourhood because we were migrants — the local people assumed that we come to take their opportunities. They didn’t have that many opportunities, to be honest. Every weekend, I would look forward to going back to the village to play with my cousins and my friends. As a newcomer in school, I felt this kind of unfriendly attitude. I didn’t  grow up with the kids in town; most of them had already been friends with each other for a long time. I didn’t feel that I got along with them well and to compensate for that, I wanted to be as good or better than the kids around me to get attention from the teachers and the students. In high school, I realized I need to grab the opportunities to go to a good university to achieve my dreams.

AP: Speaking of dreams, do you have any thoughts on Hong Kong in the 90s?

KK: In the 90s, everybody was talking about Hong Kong returning to China leading up to 1997. I remember how people were so excited about Hong Kong’s culture. Every time my younger uncle comes back from Tianjin, where he was studying, he would sing Cantonese songs even though he doesn’t know the meaning of the songs. Hong Kong culture, to me, means modernity. A western culture. People thought of Hong Kong as a treasure, related to China but also so different. And Taiwan as well, it developed so fast in the 90s. 

AP: Did you work at all during your younger years? Can you explain how the Chinese education system works and your experience living through it?

KK: I didn’t work. Many parents do want their children to help them with work during the spare time, but my parents valued education and said to my brother and I that we don’t need to do anything, so we spent all our time studying. I felt fortunate that my mom even supported me on extra-curricular activities such as painting and the choir.

I feel that the Chinese education system is a way to weed out the students, those who they don’t think are qualified. It’s terrible, and it encourages people to drop out and leave the education system, rather than in the West where it’s a way to educate people. Western education gives people opportunities to find themselves and the jobs that are suitable for them. In China, there’s a metaphor to describe the gaokao, which is “an entire army trying to cross a river on a very narrow bridge”. Whoever doesn’t fit on the bridge will jump into the river. Whoever crosses the river are the lucky ones, the elites, who would have more resources than the rest who fall into the river.

It’s a cruel game since the first day we were in school. The first nine years of education were compulsory. That means that tuition was free, and everybody was supposed to be in school. Teachers don’t like it when kids drop out, and they would try to get them to return. From high school onward, it’s about the score. If you get the highest score in the examination, you will be accepted by the best high school.  There is another examination to go to college. Whoever ranks at the top gets to go to the best college. There isn’t an interview or a test on your personality. Social skills aren’t important. The only skill that matters is if you can write correct answers in a 90 minutes examination. There are six subjects. Different students study different subjects, but there are only two kinds. One is science, and the other is humanity. And I learned the sciences because my teachers said girls aren’t good at science. I wanted to show them that I can do science. I love history and politics, but I can also do science.

The last three years before college, my schedule was getting off class at 6.00pm and going to sleep at midnight. From six to midnight, all I did was studying and eating. I had 10 minutes of rest for every 45 minutes of class. That was my schedule, everyday. In 2008, a few months before my gaokao examination, there was a massive earthquake in Sichuan province where many people died, but there was also the boom in China because people were excited for the Beijing Olympic Games. The teachers and the parents were telling us to focus on studying so I was protected from all the distractions. And of course, romance is seen as bad and the most dangerous enemy to the teachers and the parents. We’re not supposed to date although everybody probably has a crush at some point. Nevertheless, everything in my life was focused on this single examination which occurred for two days in early June.

“There’s a metaphor to describe the gaokao, which is ‘trying to cross a river on a very narrow bridge’. Whoever doesn’t fit on the bridge will jump into the river.”

AP: Tell us about college life in one of the world’s biggest cities. What were the challenges? 

KK: After my gaokao exam, I chose a few languages as my university major — French, Japanese and German. I didn’t get into that department but instead, I was allocated to the financial department, which I didn’t like. That was such a disappointment for me, and I feel that my heart was sinking every day. It felt like the end of the world at the time. Details of the system have been changed a few times but for my year, we have to blindly choose a university and a major. After the gaokao exam and before the results get released, we have to choose a university based on our last year’s results and statistics. You get a whole guidebook about the different universities and the different majors they offer. I got into the university but not in my major of choice. I almost want to take a second gaokao and prepare for another year. Fortunately, my high school teacher told me that you don’t necessarily have to end up working in finance. College is a place to gain experience and learn rather than end up being an accountant. So then I accepted it and went to Beijing for four years of college.

I was quite nervous before going to Beijing as I’ve never lived in a dormitory. It is tiny, with six girls living in the same room. I was  worried as I didn’t know who they are and what to expect. I imagined that they must be elegant, sophisticated city kids from Beijing or Shanghai. I wasn’t sure about my Mandarin as I still have some accent. I was afraid of discrimination, as your accent reveals you and shows that you are different. Luckily, my roommates were friendly. It was a new world to me, with foreign students and teachers from America, the UK, Australia and Canada. We had movie nights, Halloweens and Christmas parties. There were new restaurants everywhere on the streets and plenty of foreigners from everywhere around the world. This was the post-Olympic period in Beijing.

There was a lot of international exposure at my university: foreign languages and culture, international studies. I was curious about the outside world, especially the Western world. I was so excited. I pushed myself to learn about the ideas I wasn’t familiar with. I wanted to experience. Maybe I was more curious than many of my friends in the same university. Later, when I think about this, it was more extreme for me since I didn’t come from first-tier cities, so it’s like jumping into a new world. My Beijing friends naturally got used to the development of Western notions and concepts.

AP: Did you have a fork moment in your life? 

KK: After graduation, I tried to go to Tsinghua University for a postgraduate program that again, required a nation-wide examination. By about the second or third year of university, it was clear that I wanted to learn about journalism. I didn’t have any relevant background, so I borrowed several books from the library, read every day and studied by myself. I didn’t have much time to prepare. The result wasn’t so bad as I ranked 11th nationwide, but the Tsinghua program only takes three people out of non-recommendations. The rest were from recommendations by their professors because of their background in journalism or English literature. Most of the students who applied for that course had undergraduate journalism background.

The internet development in China at the time gave me the impression that China was becoming a more free country in terms of freedom of speech. People talk about many interesting topics on Weibo every day. Liberal people have all kinds of ideas that they could discuss and debate. Nobody would accuse you of having western ideas. I was optimistic and thought this would be the future. I was sure China would be more open in the next 10 or 20 years. There were some very good newspapers in China talking about more democracy and political reforms. 

So at that time, I thought that was the future, and I decided to be a journalist because I enjoy talking to people and want to have their stories printed. I want to know them but with only a few months left before graduation, I didn’t have a job. Despite all the hard work, all I have is a dream. I want to be someone different, but then this is a reality I have to face, I don’t know where I’ll be the next month. I didn’t want to go back home.

AP: Did you stay and what happened afterwards? How did you get that first journalism job?

KK: I decided that I’d stay in Beijing or Shanghai and figure it out. I needed to have an income and pay rent, so I asked my mom to temporarily pay my out-of-college rent. Fortunately, I graduated on June 30th and received my first job offer a week before I graduated, I was so happy! The magazine is called That’s Beijing, and it’s an expat magazine that covers long-form writing in English. To me, it’s such a great opportunity because it’s what I want to do. I remember the interviewer asked me to come up with three story ideas within a week as homework. In the same afternoon, I went back to my dormitory and gave her six ideas. The next day she emailed me to say that the job is mine, she must have thought I was a crazy girl!

I remember the first issue of That’s Beijing that I worked on. I was so excited, even though I would only write one paragraph of about 200 words. It is a dream come true to see your work getting published. And from there, I gradually write short pieces of about one page then later to cover stories which were around 4000 words. I wrote a story about the Pakistani refugee community in Beijing, and that received a lot of good feedback. I think the most important thing I learned at That’s Beijing is that I can write in a foreign language and people love my ideas. I enjoyed my job at the magazine but after three years, I start to have doubts again.

AP: How did That’s Beijing lead you to the New York Times?

KK: At That’s Beijing, I had the opportunity to write stories and get published every month, sometimes people talk about my stories on Twitter. I soon have self-doubt about my abilities, and that my pieces were published in the magazine because they needed stories. My editors were nice to me, and I wondered if they liked my writing or because they knew me so they didn’t want to disappoint me by refusing my articles. So I started to pitch stories to different publications secretly because I don’t want to be refused under my name. I just wanted to test out whether my ideas would be accepted by a stranger who doesn’t know me.

To make it less awkward, I made up a different name and created a new email to pitch to a friend who was an editor. My story got accepted, so I was more confident afterwards. Still, I thought that to be a journalist, I must get some serious training working on daily news, I call it hard news. So I tried to find opportunities to work at a media company with more pressure and a tight deadline. Initially, I got a job at a Radio France International as a producer. I would plan the interviews, find the relevant contacts, do the interviews and produce them. 

From there, I learned from the foreign news circle in Beijing that the New York Times was looking for a Chinese reporter to join them, so I applied. The official title was a researcher, which a term normally used for Chinese reporters working at foreign media in China. The person who interviewed me had seen some of my articles, and he liked it very much. We did the interviews and some tests, the process lasted for a long time. I also came to their office and did a five-day trial. I remember when I got the New York Times offer, I was travelling near Tibet with my boyfriend and some friends. Again, this was a dream come true. Moments such as the first offer at That’s Beijing, a job at the New York Times, getting my agent and my contract with a publisher were huge days for me.

AP: Who were the people that have profound impact on your life? And how did you come to write your book?

KK: I had this idea of writing something, but I wasn’t sure what. There’s another moving story about a Japanese lady in my grandparents’ village. During the Second Sino-Japanese War, when the Japanese army left, she was left behind in this village and ended up marrying a local farmer. Due to politics, her family experienced a lot of troubles. When the relationship between China and Japan improved over the years, the Japanese government offered her to return to Japan. They gave her a pension and even helped her half-Chinese children to find jobs in Japan. But she didn’t go because apparently her husband somehow was not invited. So she said that he saved her life, so she will be in China until he dies. This family eventually left the village and went back to Japan in the early 2000s. I was so touched by the story of this family and my own.

My great grandfather was from a wealthy family, but he lost everything due to gambling. It turned out to be a good thing because when the Communist Party came, he lost nothing because he was no longer a landlord. My grandpa was also from a wealthy family, but he joined the Communist Party because he thought Chairman Mao was doing something good for the poor people. So he was the first party member in the village. 

All of these stories inspired me, and I want to write something about them. Later, I secretly pitched to other publications about these stories, and they got published. I received so much encouragement. A friend who had just published a book liked my writing and encouraged me to write a book. Again, I wasn’t confident and didn’t know where to start.

AP: What was the breakthrough moment for you on the book? And what’s your view on media now?

KK: My friend told me to write the proposal and helped me pitch it, so I wrote the proposal, he helped to edit it and then gave me the email address of a small Hong Kong publisher. I submitted it, but I didn’t hear or get feedback from them. So I thought maybe I’m not good or the ideas weren’t good enough. Later, the friend introduced me to Kelly, who is now my agent. They had met at a literary festival, and he mentioned me to her. We connected, and I sent my proposal to her and she liked it. That was even before I joined the New York Times. My agent pitched my proposal to many publishers and eventually, we got Hatchette in New York interested.  The publisher was interested in how Chinese people think about America. What do we think of American culture growing up? What do Chinese people think about Donald Trump? This book is facing an American audience, so they are interested in these questions. 

Although people complain now and then about journalists not being fair, I still think journalists, especially the liberal journalists, have a very good heart in helping the world and helping the less fortunate people. That has been my experience. Their mission is to bring truth to light. They are idealistic people who want to save the world, protect the environment and help the people who don’t have a voice get heard, and that is so important.

AP:  What are you working on now? What are your plans for the future?

KK: Right now I’m with China Dialogue. It’s a non-profit media covering environmental and climate stories relating to China. To me, it’s essential that stories are meaningful. Right now, every story I’m dealing with feels urgent. With environmental related stories, I think there is a need to publish it. I feel proud of the stories. I’m doing some freelance writing too. I hope to write another book but not this year.

I’m still thinking about applying for postgraduate studies in the UK, maybe a Masters in China studies. Last year I was thinking about America, but this year I’m thinking about the UK. Perhaps I’m paranoid, although the China-US dispute doesn’t directly relate to me, I hate this kind of cold war atmosphere. Europe or UK to me is the most attractive for now.

AP: This year is the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protest. Did they teach you about events like the cultural revolution and the Tiananmen Square when you were a student? Are young Chinese interested in politics and what are their thoughts on censorship?

KK: It’s not exactly true to say that young Chinese people don’t know about the Tiananmen protest. The official term in China is the Tiananmen incident or the student riot. We learned about it in our book, but it’s very one-sided, the way the government described it. The teacher didn’t want to expand too much because it’s not tested in the gaokao

Growing up, I always thought there’s something strange about it. The cultural revolution is supposed to be sensitive, but people still talked about it. So I figured Tiananmen must be more sensitive because you don’t hear it discussed much in public. It’s not convenient. It must show that there’s a different story — at least what you read from Chinese official newspaper is not the whole picture.  I think compared to many people, I’m more curious or interested because I’m a journalist and I’m interested in history. I know a lot of people who know about it, but that’s it and they are not truly interested or they don’t know what to do next after knowing about it, or they ask: what is it to do with me? But there are people who are not interested in politics anywhere.

You cannot say the whole generation is not interested in politics because a lot of people around my age, with similar interests in history, talk about Tiananmen. I also heard from students even younger than me who spend time studying overseas. Some of them stand closer to the Government’s official verdict because they kind of think, ‘The west think we are brainwashed, we are not. The West think because we come from mainland so we don’t know this but we do.’ It’s kind of like a being rebellious. It’s like, ‘You want me to behave in this way but I don’t want to behave in your way because you are bias. You don’t understand China.’ 

There’s a particular term to describe young Chinese people overseas who defend China and the CCP. They call them, xiaofenhong, or ‘the little pink’. You know the cultural revolution has the red guard, so it becomes the pink guards. The younger generation of red is pink I guess.

Working as a journalist, I could feel censorship is getting stronger everywhere. But sometimes I think it’s just me, whose life is about writing. When I talk to people whose job is nothing related to publishing or writing, they have a different attitude. They tend to be more optimistic. They think technology which could be used in censorship and surveillance is great, because it makes our lives so convenient. The CCTVs, the cameras out on the streets that are closely watching everyone make me uncomfortable and made me think that there’s no privacy, but many people think as long as you don’t commit crime, it’s fine and it’s great as it made the crime rate low. You can go to the street every night, no matter what time and feel safe.

I’m quite worried about where this is all going. What if one day, it gets out of control and whatever you said is being recorded? By reading the file, people in power could decide that you are a certain type of person, so deserve only certain social services or being denied to some fundamental rights —  such as taking the train or bus — because you are not deemed as ‘good’. It’s not because you committed a crime but because of what you said, your different political view, which lists you in an unfavourable category.

China is not exactly George Orwell’s 1984. It’s still very colourful, and people enjoy all kinds of entertainments. In private, people are more willing to accept new ideas like LGBT issues or an alternative way of living but just not speaking their voice in public.

AP: What are your thoughts on the future of technology and the direction we’re heading? Especially the China’s social credit system that Western media is trying to portray in an Orwellian way?

KK: China is not exactly George Orwell’s 1984. It’s still very colourful, and people enjoy all kinds of entertainments. In private, people are more willing to accept new ideas like LGBT issues or an alternative way of living but just not making their voice heard in public. More people are travelling abroad and know what life is like in other countries.  When Western reporters write about these social credit system surveillance in China, clearly they read 1984, and some people try to show that connection. And of course, they are worried. I don’t doubt they’re genuine when they write about it. Maybe they want to warn people that things can go wrong, so they try to present a worst-case scenario and choose all the worst details to make the picture more vivid, but it doesn’t mean that China is exactly like in 1984. There is always another story besides the news reports about China, a more nuanced, complicated, and sometimes more optimistic and friendly China.

AP: What do you want people to do after reading your book? What kind of society do you want to see for the world?

KK: I want people to appreciate that it’s more than just a story about an ordinary Chinese family or a Chinese person’s life, but to think about what kind of options Chinese people have been given and imagine if they are in that circumstance. What would they do? Would they do better than Chinese people? Before blaming China and Chinese people, maybe think about is it fair? Before blaming Chinese people for being “so rude” or “so strange”, you have to think about their past and culture, their political system, their experiences and their future.

The other day, I was in the busiest railway station in  London, and I find that people weren’t in a rush compared to China and weren’t grabbing seats because there were so many seats — everybody can sit down. While in China, people rush to the station and people would say, “Why do Chinese people are always in such a rush, can they just slow down?” China has 1.3 billion people. If they slow down, they probably would never catch up and would be left behind forever.

For example, if they take a train one minute late, they cannot just take the next train. Or if they miss the subway, it’s not only five minutes late. Once transferred from the subway to a bus, there’s already a long queue waiting, so after all the transfers, they end up being one hour late. That’s the system. Again, it’s like the education system, and you are either in the game or out. Many situations are like that.

I wish people would have more empathy not only for those in China but in any other country where they have never lived in or only heard from the news. People should put down their stereotypes and try to put themselves in the same situation. Would you have a better solution, or would you make a better choice? Would you behave differently?

“People should put down their stereotypes and try to put themselves in the same situation. Would you have a better solution, or would you make a better choice? Would you behave differently?”

AP: What advice can you give to other young Asian Pioneers?

KK: The first is in being confident, don’t blame yourself for being different. When I was younger, I thought because I don’t come from a wealthy, influential family, it must have put me in a backward place. You should trust yourself, and everything you have in your past could be an advantage. When I’m writing stories about the village, my relatives have become an exciting part of my book. So the first thing is to be confident and trust yourself.

Second, I think when you have an idea, you should just do it. Many people say they have a writing project but never complete it because they never start. Just start, write the first word.

Lastly, I think it’s important to find your root and try to get power from your origin. I heard some Chinese American friends say they don’t feel American or Chinese enough. While it’s a personal choice, I don’t think it’s shameful. You are different, and I’m sure it’s an extra added part of your identity that somehow will help you to be unique. Also, maintain good relationships with your parents and your grandparents who are still in Asia. They might have some wise advice, despite being from a different culture.

AP: Thank you so much for your time Karoline and best of luck with your next book interview!

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