A Better Life

Dan’s childhood hardships and the search for a better life

essay written by Eric Zhao

Dan Han entered the world into a humble family in 1965. Throughout her childhood, she dedicated herself to help her parents raise her three sisters and one brother. When she entered school, every moment was spent on her schoolwork and house work. Yet under such strain she was still able to do well in school. Because of such a harsh childhood, she vowed to achieve a good life. Han was successful in China through hard work and eventually landed in the United States to make a better living.

   Born to a relatively average family on September 14, 1965 in the province of Ji Lin in the district of Yi Tong, Dan Han was the oldest daughter of five children. When she was six, her first sister was born. One more sister followed a year later, followed by a brother in 1976; and finally another sister in 1977.

   Needless to say, from a very young age, she was faced with the responsibility of taking care of the family. In this way, Han’s life was both “simple and complex”. The work laid out was straightforward and simple, and all she had to focus on was to watch over the family and survive. Besides making food for her family, she just as often had to prepare food for the chickens and pigs. When her sisters got into trouble, she had to help them out. With the growing number of family members, life quickly became complex.

   When she attended elementary school at eight, there was not one moment of rest. School began at 7:30 in the morning, and usually had four or five classes before lunch. These classes were the core classes and consisted of studies of Chinese and math, and sometimes history. The school didn’t provide lunch, so during the one hour given, Han had to go home quickly and eat, before having to rush back to attend afternoon classes. Afternoon classes were assorted miscellaneous sessions usually about geography or art. Right after school ended at 2:00 pm, Han had to return home and prepare dinner. “Right when I got home, I had to prepare the wood, and when the food was cooking, I did my homework.“ After five years in elementary school, Han moved on to junior high, where she studied for two years before moving on to high school. Although she first failed the entrance exam, she studied hard and breezed through the three years of high school with top grades. Han’s childhood ended when she entered college, at which point she decided to move out and make a new life for herself.

   Finishing junior high and high school at the top of her class, Han attended the prestigious Zhong Shan college in Guang Zhou at the age of eighteen. The city, Guang Zhou, was entirely different in every way to what Han was used to. Even the Chinese, which was spoken in an alien dialect was confusing, as Han remarked: “I couldn’t understand one word that was spoken.” No doubt an exaggeration, it still implied a diverse culture and environment in China. This was contributed mainly by the fact that the two cities were so far apart. At that time, transportation was slow, so the trip took a time of over fifty hours. Having never ridden a vehicle for so long, she became succepted to motion sickness. Finally arriving in Guang Zhou, Han discovered a totally different environment. The weather was almost the opposite of what Han was used to, the cold, snowy winters and the mild summers of her home. In Guang Zhou, the winters were extremely cold and rainy, while in the summer, the temperature swings to the opposite end, and the days were dry and hot. Han moved to such an unfamiliar place to study was probably due to Han’s childhood. Living and growing up in the slums of society gave her a yearning for something more exciting and eye-opening. She also had a certain fascination for palm trees. Ever since Han saw those palms blowing in movies, she decided to see them for herself, as palms grew in abundance in Guang Zhou. At Guang Zhou, she earned her degree in double E (Electronic Engineering), and eventually took a job in checking electronics’ quality.

   The drastic difference between the environments of the two cities shows the variety of cultures and tradition of China. However, there are several key morals and values that most Chinese would take as their own. One of which is to respect elders and care for the younger ones. Paying respect can come in many forms, but usually end up as basic deference to either their wisdom or experience. Throughout 5000 years of Chinese history, the Chinese have developed strong family relations, which is one of the most important and long lasting values of China. Many holidays and celebrations center around the idea of family. Each year, when winter is at its end and spring around the corner, people throughout China enthusiastically celebrate the first traditional holiday of the year, the Spring Festival. In the past, when the Chinese people used the lunar calendar, the Spring Festival was known as the "New Year." It falls on the first day of the first lunar month, the beginning of a new year. After the Revolution of 1911, China adopted the Gregorian calendar. To distinguish the lunar New Year from the New Year by the Gregorian calendar, the lunar New Year was called the Spring Festival (which generally falls between the last 10-day period of January and mid-February). The evening before the Spring Festival, the lunar New Year's Eve, is an important time for family reunions. The whole family gets together for a sumptuous dinner, followed by an evening of pleasant talk or games. Some families stay up all night, "seeing the year out." The next morning, people pay New Year calls on relatives and friends, wishing each other good luck. During the Spring Festival, various traditional recreation activities are enjoyed in many parts of China, notably lion dances, dragon lantern dances, land-boat rowing and stilt-walking.

   Another major celebration is the Lantern Celebration. The Lantern Festival falls on the15th day of the first lunar month, the night of the first full moon after the Spring Festival. Traditionally, people eat sweet dumplings during this festival. Sweet dumplings, round balls of glutinous rice flour with sugar filling, symbolize reunion. During the festival people display multicolored lanterns on the street and courtyards, and stroll around admiring them at night, hence the name "Lantern Festival." Some places also hold evening parties for people to guess riddles written on lanterns.

   Government in China was unstable and had no real leadership, until the intervention of Mao Zedong. His actions greatly changed the country that Han lived in. In the early 1960s, Mao was on the political sidelines and in semi-seclusion. By 1962, however, he began an offensive to purify the party, having grown increasingly uneasy about what he believed were the creeping "capitalist" and antisocialist tendencies in the country. Mao believed that the materialistic ideals had been restored to the peasants and others were corrupting the masses and were counterrevolutionary. Mao launched the Socialist Education Movement in 1962 and lasted to 1965, in which the primary emphasis was on restoring ideological purity and intensifying class struggle. In connection with the Socialist Education Movement, a thorough reform of the school system, which had been planned earlier to coincide with the Great Leap Forward, went into effect. By mid-1965 Mao had gradually but systematically regained control of the party with the support of Lin Biao, Jiang Qing ( Mao's fourth wife), and Chen Boda, a leading theoretician. Mao and his supporters attacked a wide variety of public figures in 1965. By mid-1966 Mao's campaign had erupted into what came to be known as the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, the first mass action to have emerged against the CCP apparatus itself. Mao felt that he could no longer depend on the formal party organization. Red Guard activities were promoted as a reflection of Mao's policy of rekindling revolutionary enthusiasm and destroying "outdated," "counterrevolutionary" symbols and values. Mao's ideas became the standard by which all revolutionary efforts were to be judged. The "four big rights"--speaking out freely, airing views fully, holding great debates, and writing big-character posters --became an important factor in encouraging Mao's youthful followers to criticize his intraparty rivals. The "four big rights" became such a major feature during the period that they were later institutionalized in the state constitution of 1975. The radical tide receded somewhat beginning in late 1967, but it was not until after mid-1968 that Mao came to realize the uselessness of further revolutionary violence. Viewed in larger perspective, the need for domestic calm and stability was occasioned perhaps even more by pressures emanating from outside China. The Chinese were alarmed in 1966-68 by steady Soviet military buildups along their common border. The Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 heightened Chinese apprehensions. In March 1969 Chinese and Soviet troops clashed on Zhenbao Island border area. The tension on the border had a sobering effect on the fractious Chinese political scene and provided the regime with a new and unifying rallying call.

   Having lived a difficult life, Han was determined to work hard and achieve a better standard of living. This was probably the reason she took her studies so seriously, and as a result attained high grades and scores. After seeing the completely different world of Guang Zhou, Han realized that the world was complex and full of adventures. This contributed to her desire to move to the United States with her husband. Together, they wanted to provide a good life for their children and have them open their eyes to other places. “I came here for my family. I came here for an even better life,” she said. There was also more work opportunities in U.S., and in 1999, Han left behind her roots and traveled to a new country.

   In high school and throughout college, Han had studied Japanese, mainly because she thought that it was easy, since Japanese and Chinese share some similar characters. Han reflected, “Both Japanese and Chinese have similar words, so I thought it would be easy. As a result, when I really started to go deep, I ran into trouble“. However, as Han studied more deeply into the language, the difficulties rose exponentially, and eventually Han no longer had the time to study Japanese. Because she had not chosen to learn English, she was then at a great disadvantage. Having nearly zero experience with the language, Han could not even navigate through the airport. Because her husband had left one year earlier, when Han came to the U.S. with her son, she was mostly alone. There is a saying in China: “can’t find north” implying the state of being completely lost. When Han’s husband met her on the airport, she asked him what the word on the sign, which appeared repeatedly, was, and was stunned to be told that it was north. This traumatized and stimulated her. Han felt completely and absolutely lost in this strange new country, but she was firm and determined to learn the language and assimilate.

   When Han arrived, through the use of the methods of gestures and guessing, she plunked down to study English. While in Ohio, she attended free adult schools. However, this didn’t prevent her from being dazzled and awed by the new country that she was in. Like a long term tourist, Han visited famous places, and because nearly everything was new, she just as often visited the common fast food restaurants.

   After the initial language shock, Han experienced profound cultural differences that resulted in a feeling of loneliness. Han was accustomed to the food in China. Generally, if she did not cook, there will always food to buy in the markets. Here, though, Han was unfamiliar with the “convenient” cuisines. Han commented on the meat that “it was so uncooked that there was still blood.” Having just arrived in the U.S., Han did not possess excess money. She and her family couldn’t eat out on the regular bases, and when Han did go, all the food looked unappealing.

   “But the traffic was very good,” Han commented. Having lived in China, Han was accustomed to the cramped lifestyle. The traffic system wasn’t smooth and many people ignored it. Here though, every vehicle obeyed the laws, and transportation was simple. There was almost no place that she could not go. This way, Han saw many monuments and museums. She thought each country had its unique scenery and she felt no bias in that respect. However, the environment was far better. Due to generations of industry as well as the massive population, most cities in China were polluted. When Han arrived in the U.S., one of the first things she noted was the superior air quality. Han lived in the U.S., but her heart was still in her home country. When Han was growing up, she developed strong family bonds and became close to her family members. When she moved to the U.S., Han was suddenly surrounded by strangers. This, coupled with the fact that she knew almost nothing about the country led to a feeling of loneliness. Even though she eventually made new connections and friends, she was unquestionably more comfortable when she was back in China.

   In America, there were some traditions that were very different than what Han was used to. For example, Americans value self-reliance. Everything a person does will be held accountable to only to him. The person will make his own fortunes, and if he can do it with the less help, the better his success. In China, family members look out for each other and help each other out. Chinese children thus tended to rely on their parent somewhat more. Most Chinese parents who immigrated to the U.S. watched over their children more, and this is something that hasn’t changed much. Nevertheless, Han quickly became familiar with the American lifestyle, and began to live according to it. There was no point in holding too tight, and Han remarked, “Well I guess I just have to do it their way.”

   From her arrival to the U.S. until now, Han has become used to the way of life in the U.S. Although a very different country, she was able to absorb the culture to a degree. No matter how long she would live in America, Han would still feel a sense of lonesomeness. However, Han did achieve what she hoped for when she moved here; a better life.


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