Stories Told to Expats

A good portion of expats, myself included, live in a bubble. We work with expats, we socialize with expats – not because we want to avoid the local populations, but because life is just…life. We come home from work, read the news, whinge a bit, and make plans for the weekend.

That said, I’m honored by the many people of Chinese heritage who have been willing to share their family stories with me. I’d like to pass on two stories (names are changed) and dedicate this post to those who have shared. Part of the richness of the expat educator experience is the opportunity to allow stories to change your worldview.

“I’m Planning a Reunion”

Mr. Li and I sat at a local pub. He had been kind enough to deliver me some curriculum documents for analysis. I figured I’d buy him a beer for traveling to a distant part of town. He insisted on Coke.

“It’s no trouble,” he said. After meeting with me, he was heading to an area of town where he grew up. “We’re having a neighborhood reunion,” he said.

“A reunion?” I asked. I knew the area comprised a large housing estate – dozens of buildings, each towering at least 40 stories high.

“I was very close to my neighbors,” he said. “We all came from families that were poor.”

I wasn’t sure how to respond to that. “But you’re very successful,” I said. “Your mom must be proud.”

Mr. Li looked down at the table, shook his head, and held up his palm to say, “No, no.”

I was quiet for a moment. “Tell me about your friends,” I said.

“We all came from families who escaped China. The government took all of our money. My aunts and uncles stayed in China. My father went to a camp. Mom took us over the border to Hong Kong.” He paused. “I was too young to remember.”


“My friends and I worked very hard,” he continued. “We became close. I am meeting with my friends to see the old neighborhood. To have a reunion.”

“Where are your friends now?” I asked.

“They work in Hong Kong. We take care of our parents. They took care of us.”

“Your mom must have some incredible stories to tell,” I said. “Did she share how she escaped?”

“She does not talk about China. She will never visit mainland China,” he stated.

As I walk the crowded streets of Hong Kong, I often find myself wondering How many of the people passing me are children or grandchildren of people who escaped the Cultural Revolution?

“I Can Speak to Your Class”

In a parent newsletter, I asked for a speaker I thought I’d never find. My students had finished studying the Civil War. One of our essential questions was this: If a state does not agree with the laws of a country, does the state have a right to form its own country? 

That question is applicable in an Asian context. I wondered if any parents could speak to the question of Taiwan and Mainland China from an unbiased perspective.

I received an email. A mother, Cherry, said, “I was born and raised in China. I moved to America. I have an American passport, and my best friends are Taiwanese. I’d love to talk to the class.”

She developed a Power Point, defining terms and telling the story from both sides.

“Can I take you to coffee to thank you?” I asked. Over coffee, my questions began, “Tell me what it was like growing up in China” and continued with “Why move to America?”

“I was in Tianamen Square the day of the massacre,” she said.

Stunned silence.

“I was there in the afternoon. I went back to my dorm that evening because I was tired. I woke up the next day. People started arriving. Some of my friends had pictures of what had happened. Students wanted to tell the story. They made a floor of ice in one of the buildings to preserve the bodies. They took pictures of bodies. Their cameras were taken. We couldn’t tell the story.”

Cherry went on to say that she will always love China. It is the country of her heritage – and her family. As she was in America, she met Mandarin-speakers from Taiwan who told her the story of Taiwan from their perspective.

It’s All About Perspective

This blog was inspired by a fellow blogger, who wrote about a lunchroom conversation revolving around the causes of poverty. I come from a cultural background that believes people can “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” and succeed if they choose. Those ideals are personified in the two stories I have recounted.

But I wonder about the families who didn’t escape. Perhaps some of Mr. Li’s and Cherry’s family members have applied for moves and waited the decades required to move to Special Economic Zones. Maybe they live in rural villages, impoverished.

I’ve worked with NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations) in China. While doing so, I have always followed the rules. The rules include not ever discussing religion, politics, or “the three T’s” (Taiwan, Tianamen, or Tibet). Because I abide by those rules, I am allowed to come into China to help with social work projects. I meet more people whose stories I’ll never know.

I teach kids to write because I want them to tell those stories. The last day Cherry’s son was in my class, I looked him in the eyes and said, “Promise me that, someday, you’ll write your mom’s story.”

I wonder…How many millions of stories go untold. And how many of us are honored enough to hear but a few?

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4 thoughts on “Stories Told to Expats

  1. My taxi driver has the best stories. Hong Kong is filled with incredible escape stories. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Janet, thanks much for this.
    As an M/MK (minister/missionary’s kid) who lived in Nigeria during the last half of the Biafran War and several years afterward, I wonder of the stories Expats do and do not tell the indigenes…

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