Wild Swans – Jung Chang

A friend recommended this book and told me another friend liked it very much too. And so I embarked on this swan journey …

Although this is an autobiography, I read it, bearing in mind that it is still a construct. A fairly easy read in chronological order, peppered with introductions of new characters as well as detailed explanations of past events in recounting mode. Many things tend to make more sense in retrospect, and this can been seen in this rearrangement of all the seemingly trivial happenings to portray a negative impact of the prevailing ideology at that time, set against the historical backdrop and breathtaking scenery of China.

I wish and I wish … my history texts in school were this interesting! If so, I would have swallowed the texts up in no time remembering all the vivid descriptions without having to memorize them consciously. The engagement of this text comes from a very personal level, and that is what makes me relate to it strongly. For me, it has a similar effect, as The Woman Warrior – by Maxine Hong Kingston – did. Perhaps for a man reader, he might be less able to understand the sufferings of the women, being discriminated in the different eras, differently but discriminated all the same. Now, don’t shoot me for that line. The keyword here is “perhaps”.

Is this a story just about women then? Definitely not so; it is also about ideology, beliefs, conditioning, education, kinship, love and freedom. All these are not isolated chapters but rather, they are all intertwined to bring readers a touching story, a story in which the characters in real life had been forbidden to breathe a word to anyone for decades.

For an ideology of a single individual to affect millions of people, the people have to believe in that ideology, and that is achieved though conditioning. In an alarming manner, the scenes painted in the story show the extent to which people can be manipulated to act upon and live by. Surely, these people had had basic analytical abilities? I believe they did, but an excellent strategy of withholding information, giving vague instructions, and instilling fear of punishment due to disobedience created a fog for these people. Not only were they unable to analyze anything, they were in constant fear of falling out of line, when the line was not even drawn explicitly.

In face of such an environment, it is heartening to read that the parents were able to be firm in providing a quality education which included concrete values with multiple areas of interests. From the depictions, it appeared that the upbringing was strict but choices of interest were left up to the children to decide. I cannot help but compare this attitude in modern times. It seems the opposite now, in the sense that children have no concrete values to abide by but also little freedom to choose their areas of interest. Which is better for the children, I wonder?

Now let’s shift the focus to the characters. Kinship and love – two very important things in life – are displayed in the characters of the mother and grandmother. Both characters – to me – represent a strong feminine voice, soft amid the chaos, yet loud in their perseverance. The kind of bursting energy and the extent of self sacrifice that can be found in both characters are really admirable. This is especially so for the mother whose self control and resilience are beyond my imagination. I feel very much for her when I read that she actually talked for hours into the tape recorder years later. How can anyone stay sane with so much emotion bottled up inside for such a long period of time? To be honest, I wouldn’t know how to survive if I were to be thrown back in time to that era.

Whenever I think of the character of the father, I feel very sad. His end has to come, not because he does not deserve happiness, but because he cannot see light in the breaking of the new dawn. He had lived all his life for his belief but was stifled by it when he realized all that he had done wholeheartedly for the greater good only resulted in inflicting harm on himself and his family. His vision of a new world never materialized, but I hope he found peace, wherever he might be.

This swan journey has been a fulfilling one for me, one in which I truly experienced the feeling of being choked by lack of freedom in life. How can happiness be found in a place where there is absolutely no freedom, not even in thoughts?


Mysterious stranger who refuses to buy anything

Have you heard of a “mystery shopper”? It is supposed to be a freelance kind of job, whereby one will be paid on assignment basis for going undercover to check out details of particular stores, restaurants or products. Details could be prices, service levels, cleanliness and many others. Sounds fun yeah? Wait till you try it out for yourself. Evil laugh.

My friend saw this advertisement for “Mystery Shoppers” with a stated $10 per hour and so we decided to check it out. First of all, we had to attend this mandatory training course to learn all the tips and tricks of going undercover. Did we get paid for the training you ask? Fat hope. Our traveling time and training time were at no cost to our “employer”.

At the training course, we were told to install this application in our mobile phones. That application was for us to capture in the prices, pictures and comments of the items we were supposed to investigate on. Quite a modern style but our “employer” even saved money by avoiding printed forms! And we, as “employees”, had to provide our own gadgets (and battery life too).

After the training, we were told to do a test before we were eligible to take on real assignments. (yes, that meant working for free). The test consisted of ten line items to check. Not very difficult you think?

Well, if they were beauty products or groceries, I would have done them quite efficiently. But these were electronic products, with long and complicated part numbers. For example, two refrigerators may look similar but upon careful comparison, there may be a slight difference in specifications and hence they would have different part numbers (only one different character in the long part number).

Unless you have a fantastic memory, it is not likely that you can just walk around in style and note down the prices without comparing the long part numbers, character by character. It is of course doable, but at the rate of 40 cents per line item, you will need to note down the prices of 25 items to hit $10 an hour. That means you have 2.4 minutes per item, which includes hunting for the item, putting all required information into the application, and fending off helpful salespersons without rousing suspicion. Does this still sound fun to you?

Specific stores for these assignments were not stated, but we were encouraged to visit the larger stores so that the probability of the item not being in store was reduced to its minimum. Any transport reimbursement? Not at all, except for very specific rare conditions. So unless you happen to stay next block to a superstore, the $10 per hour will have to cover your transport cost and time. And even if you stay next block to a superstore, how many times can you visit the same store without being recognized as the mysterious stranger who refuses to buy anything?

Classes for art for disguise anyone?