Real life dreams

Updated: 2011-07-29 08:01

By Yang Guang (China Daily)

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 Real life dreams

Beijing-based author An Dun focuses on "ordinary" people in her works. Zou Hong / China Daily

A journalist is chronicling the true stories of 100 ordinary, yet representative, people in a 10-volume book series. Yang Guang reports.

Everything about Cao Yulan's life changed the instant the electrical pole crashed down on her mother's head during a violent thunderstorm.

In the bleak mortuary, Cao pressed the faces of her younger brother and sister to her, so they wouldn't see their deceased mother shrouded in a white sheet.

The 12-year-old's siblings were so terrified that all they could do was sob and clasp their big sister's legs.

"I felt like I'd grown up overnight," she told author An Dun. Cao then fell into a long silence.

Cao is from Henan province's rural Xinyang and is now 26. She is one of the 10 protagonists in Real Life Stories of Migrant Workers and Urban Transplants, the latest installment of An's signature oral accounts collection.

An, a Beijing Youth Daily newspaper journalist, interviewed the migrant workers as representatives of the 100 million people who, like them, have moved from the countryside to the cities.

Her mother's death left the father as the only breadwinner. Cao had little choice but to quit school to grow tea and care for her siblings, then 6 and 8.

Her father remarried a year later. He and the family's stepmother allowed the two younger children to further their educations on one condition - that Cao paid for their tuitions.

"But even if I worked like a dog, I couldn't make enough in our village," Cao says.

Real life dreams

At 16, she packed a small cloth bundle and left for Beijing. She has worked as a tea salesgirl and a babysitter, among other odd jobs, over the past 11 years. Her last job before giving birth to her daughter was managing a breakfast stand.

Cao says she used the best flour and oil to make the cleanest food to counter the stereotype that Henanese are lowlifes.

The brother she supported is now a postgraduate medical school student, and her sister is a nurse.

"People should spend their lives doing what they really want," she says. "What I wanted was to help my little brother and sister grow up to live better lives."

She is pleased to have succeeded and says she will now devote herself to her daughter.

"My husband jokes that I have lived for others my whole life and never discovered myself," Cao says.

"It's true. But could anyone really discover herself any other way?"

An says she is deeply moved by Cao's honesty, dignity and self-sacrifice. Her voice trembled slightly when she shared Cao's story with the audience at the book launch in late June.

"In fact, every protagonist in the book has the same virtue," she says.

The book, available in both Chinese and English, is the third installment of The Chinese Dream Series - a project supported by China International Publishing Group's New World Press - that presents contemporary China's various dimensions to the world.

The project, which began in 2007, will tell the true stories of 100 contemporary Chinese from all walks of life in 10 volumes, with An as the interviewer.

The first volumes, respectively published in 2008 and 2009, are Real Life Stories of the Common People in Contemporary China and Real Life Stories of the Young in Contemporary China.

An believes the "Chinese dream" is longing for, and pursuing, a better life against all odds. Her personal history fits this definition.

The 41-year-old decided early in life that she would become a journalist, because she has always enjoyed talking to people and chronicling her observations.

She was trained as an auditor and worked in accounting firms, advertising companies and government institutions before becoming a full-time homemaker at age 26.

One day, she saw a recruitment notice in the Beijing Youth Daily.

"I was really self-effacing because I hadn't worked for a while," she says.

"I wanted to become a journalist and gain social recognition with an identity other than that of a housewife."

She took the qualification examination and completed an internship but was ultimately turned down for having been out of the workforce for too long and for lacking journalism experience.

But the newspaper's deputy editor-in-chief read a story she had written about the lives of four homemakers, and called An to tell her she was hired.

Since 1997 she has been a regular contributor to the newspaper's biweekly column Oral Accounts, which mostly deals with love and marriage among ordinary people.

She initially found it difficult to find interviewees, as few people were willing to share their private lives with strangers.

She waited outside a marriage registration office for days, looking for a divorcee who was willing to talk. Finally, a young man smoking by the roadside agreed.

In 1998, she published Absolute Privacy, a collection of her columns. It was the first book of its kind and an instant hit. An no longer has to seek interviewees. They look for her. She is fully booked six months ahead.

The writer insists on focusing on "small potatoes".

"If not for my interviews, they might never have the chance to have their stories known by others," she says.

An is now working on the series' fourth installment - Real Life Stories of the Artists in Contemporary China.


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