Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Interview with JoAnn Dionne, Author of Little Emperors

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Interview with JoAnn Dionne, Author of Little Emperors

JoAnn Dionne's memoir, Little Emperors: A Year with the Future of China (Dundurn Press, 2008), is about the BC-based writer’s experience teaching English to elementary school children in Guangzhou, China. In her book, she describes what it’s like for a North American to explore China, and she also examines how her students adapted to their rapidly changing culture. In a recent interview with Dundurn Press, Dionne discusses her students, teaching assistants, human rights, the Olympics in Beijing and the difference between her initial expectations of China and her actual experience.

DP:

Why did you go to China?

JD:

I was teaching ESL in Vancouver and my life was becoming pretty routine. I woke up one morning in early 1996, at the age of 26 and a half, looked around my apartment and thought, "I have too much furniture! I’m too young to have this much furniture. I can have this much furniture when I’m 36!"

I had already lived in Japan and Mexico at that point, and was still afflicted with the travel bug. I was getting restless for a new adventure, so I began looking into foreign working opportunities, mostly in Central and South America. Then, one Saturday morning, I saw a classified ad in the Vancouver Sun that simply said "Teach in China." I called the number, faxed my resume and went for an interview. A month later I was in China.

DP:

Where did you live in China?

JD:

I lived in the southern city of Guangzhou – perhaps better known in English as Canton – about a two-hour train ride north of Hong Kong. Guangzhou has always been a bit different from the rest of China, more rebellious and outward looking. This attitude is summed up in the famous old Guangzhou saying: "Heaven is high, and the Emperor far away." In other words: "We can do as we please. Who’s to know?"

People in Guangzhou speak Cantonese – a language quite different from the official Mandarin – and have always been mercantile-minded. Guangzhou was a main point of entry to China for European traders and missionaries in the 17th and 18th centuries, long before Hong Kong ever was. When the going got tough in China in the late 1800s, it was the people in the Canton region who emigrated to other parts of the world, taking the chance that life would be better someplace else. Dr. Sun Yatsen, who led the 1911 revolution against the Qing dynasty, was born in the nearby town of Zhongshan and schooled in Guangzhou. And when Deng Xiaoping encouraged economic activity in the 1980s, Guangzhou naturally re-emerged as a city of business and trade without any Special Economic Zone designation, the way cities like Shenzhen and even Shanghai were given.

When I was there in the late 1990s, Guangzhou was a huge muddy pit of a construction site. Now it’s a lot more refined, with shiny glass towers and an extensive subway system. And the food in Guangzhou is, and always has been, the best in China!

DP:

What did you do in Guangzhou?

JD:

I worked for a company that sent western teachers, mostly Canadians and Americans, into local elementary schools to teach English to grades 1 through 6. Ours were extra-curricular classes that the children's parents paid for privately, but were held in a regular school during school hours. The textbooks we used were based on Sesame Street, so it was a bizarre and funny way for east to meet west! But I really had fun sharing the characters that were such a big part of my childhood – Big Bird, Bert & Ernie, Cookie Monster – with the kids in China.

Rumour in the company had it that we were the first foreign teachers allowed into Chinese elementary schools since the 1949 Communist revolution. It's now quite common to have western teachers in elementary schools all over China, at least in the big cities. But I think my colleagues and I in Guangzhou were, if not the first since the revolution, definitely at the crest of that wave.

DP:

In the first chapter of Little Emperors, a lot of your initial expectations of China are shattered. Near the end of the chapter, while sitting in a McDonald's and looking out at Mercedes in the parking lot, you ask yourself "Where is the 'Communist' in Communist China?" What were you expecting?

JD:

It's funny reading that now because the glitzy, consumerist, capitalist, neon-lit China has been big news in the west for a number of years now. We see pictures of it in magazines and on TV all the time. Someone going to China today wouldn’t be surprised to see those things. However, back in early 1996, the country really wasn't on the western media's radar, nor was its rapid economic rise. I recall reading an article in a Canadian newspaper, not long before I went to China, about how happy the Chinese were to be getting refrigerators. It showed pictures of people in brick shacks and Mao suits admiring their new appliances. So this was the kind of thing I was expecting. Also, as a person who was 20 years old before the Cold War ended, I had some interesting ideas about what living in a Communist country would be like. I was expecting something quite bleak.

Then I got to Guangzhou and my jaw just dropped at the sight of all the construction, the McDonald’s, the 7-11s, the shops, the advertising billboards and so on. I thought, "Whoa! Something very, very BIG is happening here. Why haven’t we heard about this in the west?"

When I returned to live in Canada in 2004, there were lots of television documentaries and whole issues of newspapers devoted to "the rise of China." Finally! But I think the western media were about ten years late getting that scoop.

DP:

Did you know you were going to write a book about China before you went there?

JD:

Yes. I've wanted to be a writer since I was 13, and probably subconsciously long before that. Of course, things like finishing university and finding work to pay the rent got in the way of that dream for many years. Around the same time I woke up appalled at the amount of furniture I had accumulated, I also realized it was now or never if I was ever going to write. Part of the motivation for going away in 1996 was to have something more interesting to write about than my latte-filled life in Vancouver.

So I went to China knowing I wanted to write about it, but the question was "What?" Since the time of Marco Polo, westerners had been going to China and writing about it. It wasn’t exactly an original idea. Then one day in class it struck me: what I needed to write about was literally right in front of me. I had to write about my students – the amazing, funny, spirited future of China.

DP:

The title, Little Emperors, refers to China's doted-upon only-children, a result of the one-child policy the country adopted in the late 1970s to control its population. Did you witness any "Little Emperor" behaviour in your classroom?

JD:

Very little. I suppose there are stories and incidents in the book that could be seen as evidence of "Little Emperor Syndrome" – like the time an entire class coerced me into buying them ice-cream cones – but there were very few spoiled-baby tantrums or meltdowns. Sometimes the kids were noisy and a bit unruly, but that’s more because they were elementary school students and not necessarily "little emperors."

What surprised me the most about the kids was how confident and not-the-least-bit-shy most of them were. They could be very outspoken and opinionated, and they were always willing to give new things a try. I think that kind of confidence comes from knowing that your parents and your grandparents have your back one-hundred percent, that you are fully supported and encouraged in everything you do. The kids were also very supportive of each other. And they had very keen senses of humour. They were overall quite wonderful little human beings!

Actually, the title Little Emperors didn't come to me for a long time. I had written the manuscript under a couple of different working titles, none of which I was all that happy with. It wasn't until I was living in Hong Kong that the title came to me. I was working backstage on a Hong Kong Singers production of The King and I – a musical I had never seen before. Listening to the songs in that show night after night reminded me so much of my time in Guangzhou. In so many ways the stories are parallel: a young western woman goes to teach children in an Asian nation on the verge of great change. I decided then to call the book Little Emperors and I. That was later shortened by my editor to simply Little Emperors. When people ask what the book is about, I often tell them that, in a nutshell, it's a The King and I for the modern age.

DP:

What about the boy on the cover? Where did you get that photo?

JD:

The boy was one of my students; one of my favourites and one of the main characters in the book as it turns out. I took the picture with a beat up old Fuji point-and-shoot, a camera my mother had given to me for my seventeenth birthday.

I had a few shots left on a roll of film from a wedding I had been to the weekend before. I wanted to get the film developed on my lunch break, so I went down to the playground at noon to take a few pictures of the kids and finish off the roll. I took pictures of girls skipping rope, boys playing Ping-pong, kids playing basketball. Then I turned around and saw the boy, my student, with some of his friends. I pointed my camera at them and told them to smile. Just as my finger pressed the button, the boy put his arms behind his head and stuck out his tongue. Click. I was actually a bit angry – he’d ruined my photo! And it was the last shot on the roll! I think if I had taken the picture nowadays, with a digital camera, I would have probably deleted it and tried again. Luckily, I couldn't do that with an old Fuji point-and-shoot. I was quite surprised when the picture came back from the developer – it’s one of the best photos I’ve ever taken.

DP:

Little Emperors is about the kids you taught and the changes you witnessed while living in China, but it's also about three young women you met there – your teaching assistants. Tell me a bit about them.

JD:

Sure. The first woman I met was "Miranda." She was in her mid-twenties, stylish, and fed up with China. Before the 1949 revolution, her grandparents had been wealthy silk merchants, but when the Communists took over they were persecuted for being capitalists. The bitterness of this experience had passed down to Miranda and she was hell bent on getting out of China.

The second woman I met was Echo. We didn't get along very well. She really towed the Party line, yet, at the same time, she was very ambitious. I think she felt that being an assistant teacher in an elementary school English class was below her. Perhaps it was. She soon got an office job at a multi-national corporation – something more suited to her polyester personality!

The third young woman in the book is Connie, a funny, smart Tomboy who became, and still is, one of my best friends in the whole world. With her, all the usual barriers of nationality, race and language just came tumbling down. With her as my TA, work was no longer work – it was a day spent hanging out with my best friend. She is one of the heroes of the book!

DP:

Assuming that China still lacks civil liberties and basic freedoms, what was the most unsettling thing you encountered during the year you spent teaching there?

JD:

One day while walking home from work I saw two men get roughed up and arrested by two Public Security Bureau officers, right there on the sidewalk in front of me. It shocked me because I’d never seen anything like that before, except maybe on TV. Later, I realized that it was actually a very hands-on, low-tech arrest. Had the same incident occurred in the United States, the officers would have surely drawn their guns (or, in modern-day Canada, their tazers). But what was unsettling was when the men were taken away – where would they end up? What would become of them? China's justice system isn’t exactly known for its leniency.

I was also witness to quite a bit of media censorship – TV and radio signals from Hong Kong getting cut whenever a "delicate" news item came on, pages being ripped out of imported news magazines, that kind of thing. After a while, though, you get used to it and become a bit cynical. It almost becomes a joke – which is how many people in China view their media. But it did make me very sensitive to media censorship in the west – which is a lot more subtle and refined than censorship in China. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been perfect examples of this kind of censorship. We should know a lot more about what's really happening there, but we don't.

However, the most unsettling thing of all was the pollution. Until you see it and live in it every day, you can't believe how bad it is. And that's where we – the world – are headed if we don’t get our act together on the environment. It’s really scary. The pollution in China has a lot to do with its politics. No one wants to live under a belching smokestack or down river from a factory spewing toxins into the water. But when you have no channels to oppose these things, what can you do? If you get angry and protest, the army is called in with water cannons and tear gas. If you hire a lawyer to fight for you, that lawyer may get harassed by thugs or put under house arrest. Environmental groups like Greenpeace – which did so much to raise environmental awareness in western countries – aren’t allowed in China. To me, the pollution in China is probably the worst human rights violation of all because it affects absolutely everyone, not just the dissident few.

DP:

Little Emperors was published this year, the same year as the Olympics in Beijing. What's your take on that and the recent unrest in Tibet?

JD:

I don’t know why the International Olympics Committee ever granted the Games to China in the first place. In 2001, the year China got the Olympics, the Panchen Lama had already been "disappeared" for over six years. (He and his family were arrested in 1995, when the boy was just six years old. They haven’t been heard from since.) There were dozens and dozens of writers in jail. (China had and still has more writers in jail than any other country.) Why the IOC didn't make the release of these political prisoners a condition for granting the Games, I just don't understand.

I also think world governments and multinational corporations could have done more to pressure China over the last seven years. If any of the corporate sponsors had threatened to pull out for political reasons (in other words, shown some social responsibility), the Chinese government might have been motivated to make more substantial changes to the way it does things. But no. Multinational corporations and world governments are too scared of being cut off by China to stand up to it, and the Chinese government knows that.

I don't think an all out boycott is the answer. It’s too late now, and the athletes have worked too long and hard for their Olympic dream to deny them that. And I think there is value in sending the young people of the world to China. People in China can meet them and they can meet the people in China. I think that kind of interpersonal engagement is what opens peoples' minds, broadens their horizons and, ultimately, changes the world. Having said that, though, I think a diplomatic boycott of the Games is a good idea. There’s no need for the world's politicians to be at the Olympics this year. Their refusal to attend would send a strong message to the Chinese government without ruining everything.

In some ways, giving the Games to China was a good thing. China has opened itself up to intense world scrutiny, with the issue of Tibet at the forefront. My friends in the Tibetan activist community know that NOW is the time to get the word out and get the issue on the front pages of newspapers. The people in Tibet know that, too – that's why so many of them took the risk of speaking out and protesting in mid-March. A lot of Tibetans sacrificed themselves to get the world’s attention. On the other hand, China showed us how easily it can shut things down when it wants to – and all before the Olympics, when it's supposed to be on its best behaviour! I'm just worried about what might happen after the Olympics, when the country is no longer in the spotlight. Think about the monks' protests last fall in Burma. It was huge news, but faded out of the mainstream media and general consciousness pretty quickly. Where's the follow up? What happened to those monks?

JoAnn Dionne JoAnn Dionne has lived in Japan, Mexico, China and, more recently, Hong Kong – her home of five years where she worked for a time as an editor at Oxford University Press. Currently, she lives in Victoria, British Columbia, but grew up in Salmon Arm in the province’s interior.

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