“Do not make the family lose face”
I was born and brought up in a small village surrounded by mountains in a remote rural town of Hunan, a province located in the middle reach of the Yangtze River in southern central China. I am the eldest of two children born to my barely-educated parents. Shadowed by China’s one-child policy, my parents were farmers who needed more labour to earn their basic livelihood. Like many other farmers in that situation in the early 1990s, they were allowed to have a second child given that I, their firstborn, was a girl. The second baby was also a girl.
When I was three, my mother, during the seventh month of her pregnancy, was asked to abort her third baby, a boy. Despite the fact that my father and grandparents tried every means, like many other families at that time, to protect and hide her from local officials, the abortion was performed. Preference for sons was very strong in our village. Traditionally, it is boys who ensure that the family name and bloodline live on, while girls are usually absorbed into their husbands’ families. The failure to secure our family bloodline brought humiliation to my parents. However, this humiliation later motivated my parents to invest whatever meagre means they had in schooling their two girls.
My parents expected us to eclipse and overshadow the boys in our village, believing that this would make up for their lost pride. They kept telling me and my sister: “You are not boys, but you should not make the family lose face.”
At the age of 12, I started my life in a boarding school in our town. A year later, I had my first English lesson. In 2006, I was accepted into our town’s best high school, where I read a bilingual version of a classic work of English literature, Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. This stirred my passion for English literature. In September 2009, I enrolled in Shandong Normal University in Jinan, a city some 1,400km northeast of my birthplace, taking English as my major in the hope of landing a decent job after graduation. Instead of hunting for jobs, I resumed my tertiary journey at Fudan University in Shanghai in 2013, pursuing my Master’s in English literature. So far, I was the first in our village to go to university and to get a Master’s. I had not let my parents lose face. My sister on the other hand travelled the life road taken by most of the girls in our village. She quit school at age 15, and three years later married a young fellow from the neighbouring village. She then joined an army of migrant workers employed in a big but strange city. Her birth to two healthy, smart boys, has won my parents’ hearts. She has more or less saved their face, though in a different way.
After graduation in June 2016, I became an editor in a publishing house in Hangzhou. Participating in a project about foreign travellers to China, I gleaned fascinating stories by English women who travelled in my country from the 1860s to the 1930s. Impressed by their courage in challenging rigid gender binaries, breaking many boundaries in order to make their voices heard, I decided to do a PhD, focusing on Victorian women’s travel narratives to China and the entangled relations of mobility, emotion, gender and empire. Applying for an appropriate programme and scholarship was a journey full of ups and downs. Fortunately, I was awarded a University of Melbourne Research Scholarship, and my dream to study overseas came true.
Feeling at home in Melbourne
Then at last came my long-awaited day of starting my adventures in Melbourne. On 27th February 2017, I commenced my PhD in English and Theatre Studies, in the School of Culture and Communication at The University of Melbourne. I was warmly welcomed into my new life by a very relaxing lunch, kindly offered by my supervisor Professor Deirdre Coleman at University House. For the first three months, I had been sharing a small apartment with a Chinese girl. My first experience overseas was getting worse as I felt increasingly isolated. Deirdre sensed my loneliness. She recommended I move into Graduate House and introduced me to Parisa Shiran, one of her PhD students and a resident there. Parisa invited me to Graduate House for dinner. Thanks to Parisa’s help, I was fortunate in securing accommodation at Graduate House in May 2017. Since then my life in a foreign country has changed for the better.
Being part of such a friendly, convivial and vibrant graduate community has made all the difference to my PhD life. I have met and made friends with people from different countries, varied disciplines and across all life stages. They have filled my life with friendship, understanding and mutual respect. We have explored many bars, cafés, parks, gardens and fantastic scenic spots together in Melbourne on weekends; we have had many thought-provoking discussions about a large array of topics over delicious breakfasts and dinners, as well as many night walks; we volunteered together; we celebrated gender equality by participating in ‘HeForShe’, expressing our hope for a better world for both men and women; we shared our joys over many formal occasions such as the Diamond Jubilee Fundraising Gala, Christmas in July dinner and Christmas dinner, Chairperson’s Cocktail Party, Annual General Meeting and Party in May and the Ramadan Iftar Banquet. The Movie Night almost every Thursday has seen us scream out over horror movies, laugh our heads off over comedies and sometimes shed tears together. The Monthly Luncheon, College Table, Women’s Forum and Australian-Asian Association of Victoria’s events conducted here have provided me with ample opportunities to interact and network with brilliant minds from across the professions, inspiring me in various ways. I have also benefited a lot from the JobFocus Group. The English Conversation Corner has played an important role not only in improving my English, but also in enhancing my confidence and overcoming many of my shortcomings. The Graduate Union also provides graduates with scholarships and I am indeed grateful to have received two of them.
At Graduate House, I have come to know many great friends, all of whom have helped me in different ways. Dr Kerry Bennett, The Graduate Union CEO/Head of College, has led me on a journey of self-discovery. Her encouraging and empathetic words and actions have many times given me the power to deal with setbacks in my research and problems concerning interpersonal relationships. She cares for every resident here, protecting and looking after us like her own children. Professor Max Stevens has helped me expand my network, making it possible for me to know more people and immerse myself in local culture. Dr John Howes and his wife, Margaret, of Learningguild, an international educational and social movement based in Melbourne, have extended their warm friendship to me. They have guided me in learning English and enlightened me with many open discussions about ‘civilisation’, ‘education’, ‘character and personality’, ‘freedom of thought’, ideas of John Stuart Mill and many other topics.
These two, and other friends I have met during Sunday meetings, always welcome my opinion from a Chinese perspective, encouraging me to articulate my own voice. Ms Sheila Byard of the League of Women Voters Victoria, with her passion for gender equality and international relations, has shared with me much knowledge and insights, helping me to look at interactions between the British female sojourners and the Chinese people from a different perspective. I have been deeply impressed and inspired by her personality, her enthusiasm in empowering young women like me, and her passion in working for women’s rights. She also introduced me to Dr Deborah Towns and other members of the Melba Group, a group of women leaders from many spheres of influence in the Victorian community. All of them have extended their kindness to me. My friendship with Cr Mary Kelleher is also most valuable. She kindly offered me the much-privileged opportunity to share my developing project at the Annual General Meeting of the Australian-Asian Association (AAA). This chased away my doubts and made me see the significance of my research. Other people from AAA, including the President Lady Josie Blyton, always give me a most heart‑warming welcome.
I would like to express my sincere thanks to all these lovely friends who I have come to know at Graduate House. They have made a big difference to me. As a girl raised in a closed-off and far-flung village in China, educated in a traditional Chinese way, I came to Australia with a cultural package crammed with certain cultural notions and habits. For example, I was trapped by Chinese ideals of femininity without knowing how they have restrained me in many aspects; I didn’t dare to speak out, even in group discussions; I had deep fears around socialising; I lacked the courage to talk to people in higher positions; I didn’t have confidence in myself, my work and everything that I had done; I didn’t step out of my comfort zone to try different things. However, Graduate House and all my friends here have pulled me out of my comfort zone and led me on a journey to find out what I am capable of.
My project: Is transcultural friendship possible in the age of high imperialism?
Thanks to the most helpful supervision from Professor Deirdre Coleman and Dr Grace Moore, I am gradually refining my research project. So far, I am looking at narratives of travels made to China by a selection of Western women from the late-Victorian to the Edwardian era. I am making an interdisciplinary dive into the past to retrieve women’s nearly-lost voices in the history of international relations between West and East, between the British Empire and China. I hope to present a more nuanced picture in which, in the age of high imperialism, women’s narratives articulate varied forms of transcultural friendship and cooperation with Chinese people. Their travels and writings reveal a cosmopolitan vision that goes beyond narrow nationalism and imperialism, encompassing all humanity across boundaries of race, nation and culture.
Thanks to Graduate House’s Margaret Watson Travelling Fellowship and the Robert Heaton Research Support Award, as well as the Arts Graduate Research International Grant, generously provided by the Faculty of Arts, University of Melbourne, I made research trips to Cambridge, Oxford, London and Edinburgh in the UK from 18th August to 13th September. I also presented some findings from my field work at an international conference, ‘Borders and Crossing’, in Pula, Croatia, from 14th to 17th September. This was my first visit to Britain and Europe. Its influence on me is surely life-changing. My sincere thanks again for all the help and support extended to me by Graduate House, my supervisors and my dear friends here in Melbourne.