Last May while reading Baruch’s “Weekly News,” I happened upon an entry regarding the fall’s Freshman Convocation 2010. What caught my eye was a note that the book chosen for the entire Baruch College Community to read and discuss was The Bitter Sea: Coming of Age in a China before Mao by Charles N. Li. What a great idea, I thought, and requested and received my own copy of the book.
During the convocation on Wednesday, August 25, faculty, staff, and students will have a chance to talk about the book together. Also, that evening, the Baruch Performing Arts Center will present an abridged staged reading adaptation of the text. Although I don’t teach freshmen, I wanted to be involved by at least reading the book and sharing my insights here in my blog. Who knows? One day, I could have some of the current freshmen in one of my business classes.
The Author’s Note at the beginner of the book states that, “‘Bitter Sea’ is the literal translation of the Chinese expression ku hai, which means ‘life and the human condition.’” Reading this memoir is a way to understand life and the human condition in a different time and place.
The reason the idea of community reading impressed me so is based in part on the story of Li, a former dean of the graduate division and linguistics professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Prof. Li’s rendition of his childhood struggle to relate to his father and to find a way to express himself may not be literary genius. However, it is very definitely a way to gain insight into his search to find a self in very challenging circumstances that included abuse and ridicule from family, teachers, and the government. The professor’s book is a lesson in transformation, looking back at levels of neglect and ridicule while putting them in context of a culture and a period of time in his life when his parents had to find their own ways to survive during changing circumstances.
Another reason why the idea of a community reading impressed me is that at Baruch, faculty and students represent over 150 countries; it refers to itself as the most ethnically diverse campus in the U.S. Reading a story of the past puts those from another time and place into focus and helps to understand the history that the parents and grandparents of others had to endure in a different environment. Prof. Li was born around the time of the start of World War II. His father was a wealthy Chinese government official whose career was cut short by being sent to jail for treason. The wealth, cohesion, and relationships within the family were destroyed by waves of new political regimes. In 1945, the Nationalists led by Chiang Kai-shek assumed power; in 1948 while living in Shanghai, the Communist army took over the city. His parents settled in Hong Kong and his father thought of the idea to send his son to a Communist reform school, a place that tried to break the young man’s spirit and destroy his reason. Instead, it fed his determination to find avenues to leave China and pursue a college education.
At 283 pages, The Bitter Sea is not a long read. It is an interesting read and a worthwhile read to understand Chinese history and the learning path of a strong-willed, intelligent individual who was always, it seemed, working to be a leader. It is a good read for the Baruch College Community.