Wednesday, May 1, 2013

"The Better Life Is Also Bitter"

As the days of the spring semester draw to a close, I’ve been working with many Chinese exchange students on their English papers.  Even though they took extensive English courses in China, they struggle with writing in English while thinking in Chinese.  They do, however, often come up with pure poetry.

Almost every student wants to stay in America after the semester ends.  They tell me the teachers are better here and more exciting.  Many say they will immediately request another student visa to return to the states for graduate school.  However, the rules in China are strict; they were allowed this semester abroad and now they must return home.  No exceptions.

One student, a film major, wrote a particularly moving piece about her time here and connected her experiences to her course reading of Lisa See’s Shanghai Girls (Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2010).  She found herself deeply moved by See’s protagonists, Pearl and her sister May.  The girls escape the Japanese bombing of their Chinese city and come to America.  They find themselves struggling to survive in this country, a place they find so different from their homeland.

My student shared her feelings about life in L.A.  Although the U.S. is different from China, life here for her is better.  She loves taking her camera and walking the streets of Hollywood or downtown, photographing people, places, and architecture.  She met a boy here, and their relationship has become close.  He supports her artistic endeavors, and she believes his love is unconditional.  Her return home will make their relationship difficult, so she is trying to find a way to stay when the semester ends.  In addition, she believes her artistic future is here, too.  The Chinese film industry cannot compete with Hollywood.

What she makes clear in her writing is her empathy for Pearl and May’s dislocation and the way they mourn for what they left behind.  Even though she loves her life, she misses her home, friends and family back in China.  Her life is now literally a world away.  To move forward, she must leave everything behind.

“I am not sure yet of where I’m supposed to be,” she tells me.  “I believe it is here in America, but Chinese government will not be happy.  And my family misses me, but they want me to have a better life, the life I have always wanted.”

The uncertainty about the future concerns her, but she will try to keep creating her future and following her dreams wherever they may lead.

She closes her Shanghai Girls essay with a poetic sentence.  Pearl and May hope, as she does, to find a better life.  Her friends and family wanted her to come to America for this reason.  But she knows there will be difficult days, mornings and evenings when she will feel the loss of home and loved ones like a wound that will not heal.  Still, the better life calls to her.  The paradox occupies her thoughts and makes a deep impression on me.  Her final words of the essay haunt me still:  “Sometimes, the better life is also bitter.”


  1. "Sometimes the better life is bitter." I like that line.

  2. The poetry sometimes sneaks up on you. Thanks for the comment and for reading.


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