At 7:01 a.m.on November 15, 2013, I woke up and read the following CNN breaking news alert on my phone: “China to relax decades-long one child policy, state-run media say. The nation will also abolish labor camps.” My entire body slumped over. I remember suddenly understanding, in an entirely visceral way, where the term “it hit me like a ton of bricks” comes from.
These two sentences brought up an entire lifetime of emotions. You see, my parents met each other in a labor camp. I grew up in China under the one-child policy. Today, I’m a 33-year-old woman living in Atlanta, Georgia. My husband and I have a beautiful one-year-old son and a dog. I have a job I love, working in innovation at Turner Broadcasting. I’m also a really happy, silly person. Believe it or not, my playful nature stems from these unlikely beginnings.
I grew up in mainland China in the 1980s. For as long as I can remember, there has been one constant in my life: every single day, without fail, my mom and dad mention their “10 lost years.” Their story is burned into my memory.
Beginning in 1968, educational institutions in China were shut down. As part of a socialist re-education program under the Cultural Revolution, 17 million urban youth were “sent-down” to work in rural communes, state and military farms and inner Mongolia. Life in the camps was difficult and conditions were harsh. My mom and dad met each other as laborers on a mountainside tea farm, far from home.
For many of these people, four words encapsulated their experience:
We were the oxen.
Those 17 million kids are called China’s “Lost Generation.” When my parents left Shanghai, they were 18 or 19 years old. By the time they returned, they were nearly 30. It’s a story I know all too well. However, in some ways I know nearly nothing about that long decade, because there is much they do not talk about. By the time I was born in 1980, the government had already instituted the one-child policy.
I am part of an entire generation of only children.
My family had the fortunate opportunity to come to the U.S. in 1990, and in some ways we never looked back. In the 23 years since moving to America, we invented and reinvented ourselves in order to adapt. Being playful helped establish my American identity. Despite my parents’ history, or perhaps because of it, I experienced a happy childhood. I consider myself lucky.
As a classically trained violinist, I now prefer playing an electric instrument with indie bands and experimental groups – not surprisingly, I find that I’m drawn to transforming traditions.
As evidenced by my engagement photos, I’m lucky enough to have found someone as equally playful.
I am continually working to infuse a sense of play into both my work environment and my city. Last year, I helped to transform a staircase at the CNN Center into a giant playable piano keyboard. And this year, I’m working on a number of fun projects aimed at inspiring individuals to see the entire city of Atlanta as a playground. Creative possibility abounds when people – especially adults – remember to play again.
After reading the story last November, it seemed there was little discussion in the media about the labor camps or the one child policy. However, the story remains fresh in my mind. When my children are old enough (I will never have an only child), I will teach them to never take freedom and choice for granted.
Our story has a happy ending, despite the unlikely starting point. It is not a coincidence that I love to play. My mom and dad lost 10 years of their lives and 10 years of play, but in the end, they made up for that lost time with me.
Watch Karyn’s TEDX Talk