In Beijing this past November, my creative writing class read Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie. It’s a play about family abandonment, the interactions and spoiled dreams of an American mother and two children trying to survive the Great Depression.
My Chinese students relished acting in this play. The girls, especially, enjoyed the central character, Amanda Wingfield, a mother who clings to memories of suitors and hopes for her crippled daughter, Laura. Tom, Amanda’s son, loves Laura, but is forced to put his writing ambitions aside to support the family with a lowly job at a warehouse. Tom is poetic and bitter; his father abandoned the family long ago. Laura is so fragile that her only friendships consist of a menagerie of tiny glass animals she keeps polished on a living room shelf.
What will happen to Laura when a gentleman caller, Jim, finally shows up to woo her? And what will happen if Jim – or Tom – escapes the oppressive Wingfield household and flies away?
My students followed every word of The Glass Menagerie as though it were a transcription of their own lives. I was puzzled. The drama seemed so far removed from the time and place of my affluent, generally happy students who are part of Beijing’s privileged second generation, the fu er dai. What was the connection?
I learned it in fits and starts.
During the fall semester two of my best students – both girls – revealed that they had attempted suicide; one came within a hair’s breadth and was hospitalized for depression. Several students’ parents had divorced because of long-term affairs. One student became pregnant during the term and had to make a life-changing choice. Several became severely ill: one with tuberculosis requiring surgical intervention and withdrawal from school; another with chronic gastritis; another pneumonia. It seemed as though illness not only haunted my classrooms, but that many students were living extraordinarily stressful double lives. Read more