Tag Archives: China

GRADUATES IN WONDERLAND: THE MISADVENTURES OF TWO (ALMOST) ADULTS by Jessica Pan and Rachel Kapelke-Dale

I have taken an unplanned blogging break this month. I was strong going into the new year, with 3 books finished in the first 10 days of January. And then… nothing. No posts and minimal reading. I blame a combination of work, snow, sick kids, ballet rehearsals and travel. But I am back, with a review. Thanks for bearing with me!

I just finished a book that I learned about in my college alumni magazine: Graduates in Wonderland by Jessica Pan and Rachel Kapelke-Dale. It is a modern day epistolary memoir consisting of email correspondence back and forth between Jess and Rachel, recent Brown graduates who are many thousands of miles apart but keeping their friendship alive and well online. Jess moves to China after graduation, somewhat impulsively, where she hangs out in the Beijing expat scene with another Brown classmate and finds work at a magazine. Rachel moves to NY, like many others from her class, and works in a gallery for a self-absorbed boss who causes her so much anxiety that she needs therapy.

Over the next few years, we follow Jess and Rachel’s professional and personal adventures. Rachel moves to Paris to pursue a master’s in film. Jess leaves a promising editing career to follow a boyfriend – again impulsively – to Australia. But the constant through all of this change is the honest, supportive relationship that Jess and Rachel maintain over email. They make reference to phone calls, but all the good stuff makes it into the emails.

There’s classic twentysomething fare here – the sense that everyone else has a life, but you don’t; the paralyzing fear of making the wrong career choice; wondering if you’ve found The One, and if you’re ready for that; and the feeling of being adrift without a geographic home base. Add in the language barriers and physical distance inherent in living abroad, and it’s easy to see why Rachel and Jess’ friendship was so important to them. They were living similar lives, only many, many time zones apart.

I enjoyed Graduates in Wonderland. There wasn’t much Brown in the book – they had already graduated, of course – but the book really brought me back to my early 20s, when I was dealing with some of the same issues. A friend of mine recently presented me with a letter (!) I had written him in 1993 when he was living abroad after graduation. It was not dissimilar to the emails in Graduates in Wonderland. I just wish I had more of those letters – email was not widespread in the early 90s!

I recommend Graduates in Wonderland to fans of epistolary memoirs and anyone who can relate to – and wants to re-experience – the uncertainty and excitement of starting out in the world.

RED SCARF GIRL by Ji-Li Jiang

Our January Mother-Daughter Book Club read was Red Scarf Girl by Ji-Li Jiang. This was probably the most serious and definitely one of the saddest books we have read for book club. It’s a memoir about the author growing up in China in the late 60s during the Cultural Revolution.

Ji-Li’s family had been relatively well-off before the Revolution, especially compared to other families around them. They all lived in one room – Ji-Li, her parents, her grandmother, and her sister and brother. But they employed a housekeeper and had nice things in the house. After the Revolution, they were considered to be a “bad class” because her grandfather had once been a landlord. Red Scarf Girl is a chronicle of the years of anxiety, fear, deprivation and pain that Ji-Li’s family suffered when the Communists targeted them as capitalists who had built a fortune on the backs of working people. Her parents were persecuted, her father was jailed, her grandmother was physically abused, and their apartment was repeatedly ransacked and looted by the Red Guard.

Ji-Li had been an honors student before the Revolution, and when the book opens, she is still trying to remain faithful to the party and obey the directives she is given in school. Over time, however, she becomes aware of the capriciousness and ruthlessness of the Red Guard, and when her loyalty to the Party is tested against her loyalty to her family, she chooses her family. Her disillusionment with authority, exacerbated by her disappointment with her schooling under the new regime, makes for a powerful coming-of-age novel about adherence to political views and the nature of sacrifice for one’s beliefs.

I had feared that the girls wouldn’t enjoy Red Scarf Girl, but I was pleasantly surprised by how many girls had read it and really thought about it. The subject matter was difficult, but it was easy to digest. We had a good discussion about how different characters in the book reacted to the harshness of the Cultural Revolution and what the girls would have done in Ji-Li’s shoes. We admired how brave she was, even as things just kept getting worse and worse. The Epilogue is worth reading, as it talks about how Ji-Li looks back on those years (she now lives in America). Rather than feeling angry at Chairman Mao and his government, she explains how her classmates and the families around her were brainwashed by Mao’s messages and believed that the Cultural Revolution was necessary for China’s survival. Her message – that without laws, a small group or even a single person can take control over an entire country – is just as relevant today, and we talked as a group about how important it is to preserve and retell stories like Ji-Li’s.

Red Scarf Girl was not an uplifting or easy read, but it was an important one. I am glad that we picked it for book club and that my daughters read it.