A book review of ‘Under Red Skies’ by Karoline Kan
Chinese millennials outnumber the entire population of the USA, and the world is fascinated by them. Seen as pampered little emperors and princesses who are glued to their phones and care only about themselves, this demographic aged between 19 and 35, are seizing back their own narrative and telling the world who they really are – beyond the screens, designer handbags and glitzy outfits.
For Karoline Kan, author of “Under Red Skies”, “it is easier to blame China than to understand it; it is easier to judge Chinese people than to get to know them.” The village-born migrant offers raw and sharp, emotive yet enlightening revelations about the circumstances in which China’s millennials have grown up in.
Kan chronologically condenses hot topics including but not limited to: China’s one-child policy, the hukou system, restrictions felt by her state-education from preschool to university, nuances of China’s relationship with the USA, interactions with foreigners in Beijing, culminating in her curiosity upon accessing a VPN, which ultimately leads her to break away her finance-bound trajectory, and head into journalism.
Above all, Kan’s memoir unveils her fierce spirit in overcoming adversity and insecurity – stemming from a childhood in which she was derogatively referred to as “the second”. Kan’s mother worked as a substitute teacher during the week, a position she risked losing when she decided to have a second child even though she already had a son. Through quick wit and luck, Kan’s mother avoided sterilization, and the family was able to eventually pay the 6000RMB fine by bribing officials to push back Kan’s birthdate to buy them more time.
“Mom was a pretty woman by Chinese standards, with big, smoky eyes and a small nose. … She was also a strong farmer. … She was small but sturdy, focused, and fast. While other women rested at the field ridge to drink water, Mom would continue treading the fields.”
Unlike Alec Ash’s Wish Lantern or Eric Fish’s China’s Millennials, this is the first English-language memoir from a Chinese millennial to be published in the USA. Descriptions of Kan’s mother and grandmother offer brilliant convictions of Chinese female determination – adding fire to China’s patiently growing feminist movement.
Kan’s interactions with her maternal grandmother denote how extreme intergenerational differences between Chinese daughters, mothers and grandmothers have now become. Her grandmother teases: “Today you girls have big feet, like you’re showing off your freedom … big feet are a good sign. It means that you will grow tall into your future”. Small interjections of humor are interwoven between emotive undertones – for Chinese grandmothers, education was not an option.
“My entire life was a secret competition with my brother – as if as a girl, the second child that cost my mom so much, I had to prove to her that I could bring as much or even more honor to her.” By relocating to a nearby town and accepting the family’s inferior status as “migrants” without an official hukou status, Kan’s parents worked day and night to put their children through education.
China’s floating population – the liudong renkou – which defined 245 million internal Chinese workers in 2016, is set to decrease as China’s government push for local administrations to make it easier for migrants, especially those with higher education, to attain hukou’s cities they were not born.
Comparisons between Kan’s cousin who stays behind in her hometown village to work in a factory, and have a child in her late teens, offer first-hand examples of rural areas being poverty traps and urban areas economic catapults.
Kan herself was accepted at Beijing International Studies University in 2008 – the year of the Beijing Olympics which saw China flex its new wealth to an eager outside world. Landing a job with That’s Beijing, an English-language magazine directed at expats, and later as a researcher for The New York Times’ Beijing bureau, her personal toils pick apart taboo areas of life in a first-tier Chinese.
Kan’s efforts in (eventually) finding a job show a dark side of China’s job market, revealing an existing and unprogressive attitude towards gender equality. “Employers filtered their CVs: male, check; Beijing hukou, check; good-looking, check; rich parents, even better. I had none of those assets.”
Whilst Kan goes on to have relationships with foreign men, when she arrives at university, she sees foreign students as “mysterious” … “I often heard music and shouting late into the night. They had a lot of parties. In the morning, we’d often see used beer cans crushed all over the ground outside their dorms.” Among non-Chinese students, workers and travelers denoting China as complex and difficult to understand, it is refreshing to see Chinese natives offer their reflections on how to adapt to their own new cities, and the glamorous lifestyles they come with.
Kan’s time in Beijing pushes her further away from her village roots. “I had lived in Beijing and thought I was somehow better. … I couldn’t decipher their gestures, facial expressions, and subtle tones. Somewhere along the way, we had become different.”