My students wrote essays on paper so cheap and thin that it felt like the skin of an onion. The brittle pages tore easily; if held to the light, they glowed. The English was flawed, but sometimes that only gave the words more power. "My parents were born in poor farmer's family," wrote a young man who had chosen the English name Hunt. "They told us that they had eaten barks, grass, etc. At that time grandpa and grandma had no open minds and didn't allow my mother to go to school because she is a girl." Another classmate described his mother: "Her hair becomes silver white, and some of her teeth become movable. But she works as hard as ever." Those were common themes—my students valued patience and diligence, and they liked to write about family. National events often left them perplexed. "I'm a Chinese, but I feel it difficult to see my country clearly," wrote a woman named Airane. "I believe there are many young people are as confused as I'm."
Her teacher felt the same way. In 1996 I had been sent to China as a Peace Corps volunteer, and that was the first time I had lived in the country and studied the language. The only thing I knew for certain was that the place was bound to change. Deng Xiaoping was still alive, although there were rumors that he was in poor health. Hong Kong still belonged to the British; China had yet to join the World Trade Organization; Beijing had recently failed in its bid to host the 2000 Olympics. On the middle Yangtze, the government was building the world's largest hydroelectric dam, the Three Gorges project, and I was assigned to a teaching job in Fuling, a small city that would be affected by the new dam. The Yangtze was visible from my classroom, and with every glimpse I wondered how this mighty river could ever become a lake.
In the beginning much of what I learned about China came from reading the onion-skin essays, layer by layer. The past could be painful for my students—when they wrote about history, it was usually personal. Even a distant event like the 19th-century Opium War made them indignant, because the Chinese believed that such foreign aggression had initiated the country's long decline. When it came to modern disasters—the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution—they left much unsaid. "If I had been Mao Zedong," wrote a tactful student named Joan, "I wouldn't have let the thing happen between 1966 and 1976." But they refused to judge their elders. Eileen wrote: "Today, when we see [the Cultural Revolution] with our own sight, we'll feel our parents' thoughts and actions are somewhat blind and fanatical. But if we consider that time objectly, I think, we should understand and can understand them. Each generation has its own happiness and sadness. To younger generation, the important thing is understanding instead of criticizing."