Socialism is Great! by Lijia Zhang
The title of this book comes from a Mao-era refrain sung to engender national pride. What it is actually about is a young woman's coming of age in the 1980's in a large city in China.
Lijia is near my age, and I really loved reading a sort of parallel story of what a girl on the other side of the world was doing while I was over here in America trying out for plays, learning to drive and living in relative luxury in a huge old house on a tree-lined street. I could choose what I wanted to do, where I wanted to go and who I wanted to see. I rode my bike because I wanted to, not because it was my only mode of transportation. This young woman really did not have those freedoms. Between the expectations of her family and the environment of post-Mao China, her options were very limited-she had to work in a big factory, fight for the opportunity to get higher education and had little choice in where she lived, yet she saw more to both her own potential and that of her nation. Of course, we also had things in common. She tells about her relationship with her sister, her various loves and losses, how she liked to dress cute for outings, and loved to go out and explore with her friends.
It was stunning for me to read about the tenacity and strength of character it took for this young woman to be true to herself and have dreams of her own within a system that specialized in quashing individuality and handing out state-mandated dreams, then expecting people to be happy with their lot. Lijia tells her story with passion, honesty and attention to detail. She finds beauty among the ashes and recovers from devastating losses. Part of her journey was a single-minded effort to learn English, so this book is not a translation. Her command of the language is impressive, but it retains something in the syntax and word choices that subtly reminds the reader that this is not an American voice. All the better. Because she tells this story in a simple way, with no thought of self-aggrandizement, she actually becomes heroic in her small victories. She won both my heart and my admiration. If I ever met this woman, I would want to be her friend.