One in a Billion: One Man's Remarkable Odyssey Through Modern-Day China by Nancy Pine
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Sometimes I might say that I know something about China. Most of the time not. I started by studying the classical language and was (therefore) really peeved when the simplified characters now used on the mainland complicated my life. I've travelled there, and have even gotten somewhat deeply into the life, though mostly on a formal level. That level is harder to get beyond in China, I think.
Plus, I'm a reticent person generally, and not so eager to appropriate Chinese culture into myself. My interest was, rather, always cosmological; as in, their approach is different. I have been very satisfied by what I've learned over the years, though I have energy only for surfaces when it comes to a more in-depth study. I have a hard enough time to keep up with my reading in English. So much of our life here has stopped making sense to me.
I met Nancy Pine when I attended a presentation she did about her comparative research with early education in China and in the U.S. That presentation, as I recall, led to my collaboration with the team Nancy led for the Museum of Teaching and Learning, based in Fullerton, CA. I was working for the University there, arranging the curricula for academics from China who wanted to understand education in America; who wanted to get ahead.
I am not nearly so hard a worker as Nancy is, and despite my on and off again study of comparative education at the graduate level, I don't hold a candle compared to the light that Nancy is able to shine.
We met again in China where we delved more deeply into the pros and cons of language learning. As it does for children growing up, learning to read and write also destroys other routes toward understanding the world. Nancy maintains that she can see things that would go unnoticed were she struggling to keep up with the words. She proves herself correct in that observation!
And so how wonderfully ironic, that she connects with a man - an unassuming man with large ambitions that he can't seem to help - who felt compelled to master English. He started from the remote farm-town backwaters of China to which Chairman Mao and his colleagues retreated and regrouped before re-inventing China. No, before renewing China. Invention is a Western thing.
I have read quite a few scholarly works on modern China by now, and yet nowhere did I find a more clear understanding than by reading this book. That is even after many long conversations with the author herself. This is a book, then, which validates the work that goes into such a massive project. There is more to be gained by reading it than can be gotten in almost any other way. I doubt that you (or I!) could ever be taken in so deeply by life as it is actually lived. By schooling as it actually works.
Quite frankly, I think that this work should replace many of the analytical texts used in schools and colleges. It shows clearly how easily moves toward democracy are thwarted, but also how much one determined individual can do to make a change. But mainly it grants the reader a true and reliable sense of how life is lived in China. Even if there is more depth elsewhere - which I rather doubt - there is no better clarity.
An Wei is a man with far more integrity than he ever had ambition. He hardly tortures himself the way that the rest of us might, when he has to choose between staying back in his primitive home-town, and scaling the heights that he had glimpsed as translator for so many American stars. Staying back means primitive life, yet he gets to be the one to introduce computers, cell-towers, democracy even - to erase, however briefly, the ordinary people's frustrations which come from being far away from any center and forgotten.
Honestly, I wept through some of it. Not for the tragedy, really, so much as for the frustration and scant consolation and still more for the man's forbearance and determination. There is cosmology here for me. Humanity in place is cosmic; connected to eternity.
If you are at all interested to know China beyond headlines and angry certainties; if you are interested to know how life goes on, and renewal stutters along; if you are simply in need of a really graceful read, then I would highly recommend this book.
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