Before she came to Shenzhen, my neighbor taught middle school English in Heilongjiang. Her son learned well and came to Shenzhen, where he was able to use his skills. Indeed, his ability to speak with his American boss in English remains a source of pride for Teacher Liu. And like many who came to Shenzhen, he brought his mother as soon as he could. However, opportunities in California called him and now Teacher Liu lives in Shenzhen, alone, reading, watching TV, and taking walks in the courtyard. Her daughter calls, but doesn’t believe a foreigner can speak Chinese; I have promised to meet her the next time she comes to Shenzhen.
Teacher Liu decided not to return to Heilongjiang because she is older and the weather here is better. At one time, she thought she would take care of her grandson, but her son and daughter-in-law left and are waiting for a more opportune time to have a child. When I ask why she doesn’t join them in California, where the weather is also nice, Teacher Liu shrugs and says, “They’re good, the two of them. I don’t want to go.” Nevertheless, she is alone and lonely and desires a way of participating in the community. “If I had something to do,” she repeats, “then I could be useful.”
Teacher Liu’s loneliness speaks to me. In part because my parents are older and elsewhere. In part because I too depend on the goodwill of friends, rather than deep kinship ties. And also in part because I see something fundamentally human in her condition. The care she takes to dress nicely, to go for walks, and keep her apartment clean — the work is the work that makes us recognizably human.