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Prof Shares Experiences on Immigrant Upbringing

Teacher Education‘s Xin Li is a survivor.

Li, who joined CSULB in 2001 had a front row seat for China’s Cultural Revolution when she, her scholar parents and her brother were exiled to the Chinese countryside and left to plant rice while many starved to death. Li turned her hair-raising experience into a book titled The Tao of Life Stories: Chinese Language, Poetry and Culture in Education from Peter Lang Publishing in 2002 and addressed the spring 2008 Women’s Research Colloquium on “Immigrant Women’s Cross-Cultural Life Stories.”

Book cover art

The Tao of Life Stories details the immigrant experience of Li and five other Chinese women including her mother.She followed their journey as they transitioned from the horrors of the Chinese Cultural Revolution to a new life in Canada. Using stories, poetry and even a variety of Chinese knots, she demonstrates how it is possible to survive various social vicissitudes in their country of origin, overcome the hardships in their early years of immigration to the West, and make a life that is meaningful.

The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in the People’s Republic of China was a struggle within that nation’s Communist Party that brought it to the brink of civil war. Launched in 1966 by Mao Zedong, Chair of the Communist Party, the revolution brought wide-scale social, political and economic chaos before it ended in 1976.

“The hardship was way beyond our imaginations,” said Li of herself and the other women. “Each of us hung in there in different ways. We not only survived but we lived.”

While the stories of two study participants are incomplete, Li argues that this adds to their fullness by helping to explain the overall difficulties immigrants experienced in establishing themselves in a new country and in sharing their stories. Their courage and struggle can be forgotten easily.

Li grew up on a university campus as the daughter of two scholars. “There were times under Mao when scholars kept their social status,” she recalled. “But Mao put down the intellectuals for their capacity to question. During the Cultural Revolution, my parents were repudiated as anti-Mao, and humiliated and paraded in high-hats. They were sent to separate reform farms, and my 19-year-old brother and I at age 16 were sent to a ‘re-education’ camp in remote rural area, where living and working conditions were extremely primitive. No electricity, tap water, no sewage and not enough food. People died of starvation around me. I had no idea of what was happening in the outside world. All our information came from heavily censored newspapers that arrived two weeks late.”

One of the most heartbreaking days came when she was 13 and the Red Guards, the most extreme of the cultural revolutionaries, ransacked her family home. One of her book’s subjects, Li discovered later, was a Red Guard who ransacked people’s homes. “This woman’s family operated at high levels in the Chinese government,” she explained. “Her father was general secretary for the Chinese air force. While my family and I were living in a two-room dwelling, she lived in a guarded house served by a chef and a driver.”

Xin Li
Photo by Victoria Sanchez

But even this woman’s privilege could not save her. “She was trained to be a meteorologist and was one of the first people to know about the secret visit of Henry Kissinger in July 1971 to negotiate the historic visit by U.S. President Richard Nixon when she was present at the airport,” Li said. But two months later when Lin Biao, Mao’s designated successor, died in a plane crash after what appeared to be failed coup to oust Mao, the woman’s father and mother were accused of being Lin’s accomplices and imprisoned for alleged treason. The daughter was seen as being a match for Lin’s son even though they only met once. But she survived years of imprisonment to become an English-as-second-language teacher in the West. She found herself offering different kinds of support to her subject women when they were taking her ESL classes. One woman confessed to Li she feared her husband so much that she slept with a kitchen knife under her pillow. Li offered her own phone number to the frightened woman and used her influence with the husband, who also was her student. Another woman found herself trained as an engineer only to arrive in Canada and begin a career in food services. “She was the pillar of the family who supported her sick husband and her student son,” she explained.“One day, she asked me to teach her ‘dirty words’ so that she could answer back to bullies in her restaurant kitchen. I ended up teaching her how to say, ‘Mind your own business!’” Still another woman escaped China only to discover her husband living with a pregnant girlfriend. Li helped her find a divorce lawyer and even served as her interpreter.

She received her bachelor’s degree with a double major of English and education from China’s Southwestern Normal University. In 1988, she went on to earn her master of arts degree from the University of Toronto followed by her Ph.D. there in 1998. While working on her graduate degrees, she taught public school children as well as adults in Toronto. Li immigrated again in 1999 to the U.S., and joined CSU Dominguez Hills. There she received Excellence in Education Award for outstanding research. Since coming to CSU Long Beach in 2001, Li has been a frequent receiver of the Scholarly and Creative Activities Awards.

Li is proud of her book and its upbeat tone of survival. “As pioneers in their families, these immigrant women not only survived, they lived a life worth living,” she said. “Their stories are not about victims, but about triumph.”