Four years ago, the Beijing Summer Olympics gave westerners a peek into China and its society. American born Susan Conley takes a closer look at the country’s society during that time in her memoir The Foremost Good Fortune. In the book, she discusses the displacement of thousands of Beijingrens to make room for the colossal arenas that would be needed, the prevailing attitude of the Chinese towards foreigners, and the distinction between communist China and modern China.
Conley explains that she and her family resided in Beijing for two years. During which time, her husband was assigned the task of persuading state-owned banks to institute credit-rating systems. She, her husband, and their two sons, six year old Thorne and four year old Aidan, called an apartment in a newly renovated area of Beijing home, not far from the construction site for the upcoming 2008 Summer Olympics. She tells how migrant workers were sent in from the countryside for the project and slept in tents. General stores like Jenny Lou’s carried foreign goods supplying such items as Pepperidge Farm cookies and Honey Nut Cheerios, although the cheerios were $10.00 a box with the exchange rate.
There is a sense that the Chinese fleece foreigners as Conley describes when she and a friend visit the Great Wall of China. A guard demands that they pay an additional fee to visit another section of the wall. Conley also broaches being over-charged for a Buddha head and a necklace with a charm in the shape of a dragon made out of jade. This dominant attitude of the Chinese towards foreigners is presented in a good natured manner by Conley.
She also observes the adjustments which her sons must make in this new environment. Some are easier than others as demonstrated by the boys ability to correctly pronounce the subtle intonations of the Mandarin language. Meanwhile other transitions are much harder inclining the boys to hold onto their homeland by identifying with Americana elements. Aidan, for example, develops a fetish for Johnny Cash and Thorne sings songs specific to America like “This Land Is Your Land.” In China, the boys discover the differences in religions, the importance of numbers and what they symbolize to the Chinese, and they become fixated on death. Everywhere they turn in China, the images seem to remind them of death.
The boys foreboding outlook is magnified when Conley is diagnosed with breast cancer and is flying between Beijing and Boston for tests and procedures. It is a life-altering moment for Conley which she treats as another bump in the road that she must overcome. Once she does, it’s back to normal looking after her family and household.
It is also during this lull that Conley recognizes the differences between old China and a budding China. It’s China’s youth who are Buddhists and go to temples to worship the deity. The elderly Chinese have no religion, an edict by China’s former leader Mao Zedong. It is the Chinese youths who want to talk about life plans and express their thoughts and feelings verbally, which the generations before them were never allowed to do. Conley describes an awakened China has made the 2008 Summer Olympics possible in Beijing.
Her memoir provides readers with the background that motivated the Summer Olympics in Beijing. By viewing her family as a microcosm of the bigger picture, she shows avenues that connect China with the western world and rifts that need mending. Her look at contemporary China is candid and makes the reader see the country beyond what’s been said in the press about its government’s national and global policies.
Though there are still demonstrations of oppression in Conley’s view towards the Tibetans and the Yunnan villagers and topics like Tiananmen and Falun Gong/Qi energy are forbidden to be open to discussion, but even these barriers are on the path to extinction with the global community’s criticism of such censorship. It becomes as no surprise that the images her sons see around Beijing remind them of death.