Beijing-based journalist Karoline Kan has dedicated a large chunk of her career so far to sharing the stories of ordinary Chinese people navigating a society shaped by huge cultural, economic and political change. Turning her focus inwards on her own family and upbringing, Kan’s debut memoir Under Red Skies: Three Generations of Love, Loss, and Hope in China recounts happenings from the past 30 years through her own eyes as a young Chinese woman, and delves deeper into China’s history via her mother and grandmother’s tales of struggle and triumph. Here, Kan discusses her motivations, challenges of growing up as a millennial in China and generational divides.
As a journalist, you write a lot about the lives of ordinary Chinese people for a Western audience. What drew you down this path?
I come from a working-class [background], I was born in a village and later my family moved to a city in order to give my brother and me a better education. The working classes who city people see as the ‘others’, they were my friends, neighbours and relatives… I understood the difficulties in their lives. Since a very young age, I knew I wanted their voices to be heard… I wanted to show their real faces, their real characters, rather than presenting them as the ‘other’. Most stories about China [in the Western news] are from cities. But life in Beijing or Shanghai is a very small part of China, it’s not representative – I always hoped there would be more stories from people living outside Beijing and Shanghai.
'It’s actually been my dream since I was very young to write about my family’s story'
What was it that inspired you to share the story of your own family?
Even though I think it’s relatively easy for me as a Chinese [journalist] to capture the stories of other Chinese people, I still think if you want that deeper look at the Chinese experience – especially amongst the older generation – you have to be close to them. In past years, it could be so difficult for Chinese people to really speak out about their real-life experiences or opinions because you could get into trouble… So, it’s not always easy to get in with a family or gain their trust.
To get authentic stories, I have the advantage of having many relatives in my family who like to share with me. And I’ve always found my own family’s stories so interesting – it’s actually been my dream since I was very young to write about their stories.
Image: courtesy Hachette Books; artwork: Janelle Chew
A lot of your memoir navigates your story of growing up in a rapidly changing China. What do you think are some of the biggest challenges millennials face in China today?
I think there are many frustrations. Like, when we were growing up, the economy was developing so fast, and we took it for granted that in China life would get better and better, we never really considered the alternative. But now, the economy is slowing down and I don’t think my generation feels well prepared for the possibility that it’s not going to get better...
Also, as China has developed, the gap between rich and poor has increased. Amongst my parents’ generation, it was much easier to change your life through hard work and education. But for our generation, and younger generations, it’s a lot more difficult.
As for culture and ideology, we grew up watching Hollywood films and listening to Western music – the so-called ‘Western culture’. At the same time, we have our families who are important to us [and less familiar with that culture]. Sometimes, the gap – culturally and otherwise – just feels so huge and the life we have is so different from our parents and grandparents that it can be difficult to communicate with our own families.
'Sometimes the generation gap feels so huge that it can be difficult to communicate with our own families'
Speaking of generational divides, what are some of the standout lessons – or rather new understandings – that you took away from delving into the stories of older generations in your family?
Well, when I was a little girl I didn’t understand why my grandmother didn’t have high expectations for me – or any granddaughter. I knew she loved me, but she just had more expectations for the boys… The way she loved her granddaughters and her grandsons was so different. It was frustrating – like she saw us as weaker. I thought if my brother can do something I can do it too, but my grandmother just didn’t believe it…
As my grandmother has passed away, when I was writing the book I talked to my mum and uncles [about her story]. I started to feel what life was like for her, and how women like her had little power and little say inside the family. Even though she loved the women in her family, [because of her context] she couldn’t determine what her own daughter or granddaughter should be given [in terms of] opportunities and resources… From her stories, I learned so much about the different treatment of Chinese women over time.