What might a book about Mexican migrant workers in Canada mean to kids in Shenzhen, China? I wasn’t sure. But when a teacher asked me to Skype with her students about my book After Peaches, I was excited to find out.
The kids had read the book as part of a unit on migration, and their teacher used it as a springboard to talk about migration issues in Shenzhen. In our hour together, I learned that their city was founded in 1979 as an economic hub, and it’s often considered a meeting place between East and West. People have moved there from all over the world, and all over China, to find work and do business.
As it happens, the people who arrive in Shenzhen face many of the same issues that my characters faced in After Peaches: language barriers (and that goes for people from other parts of China, too, as each region has its own dialect), the challenge of finding well-paying work, and the struggle to ensure that employers respect their rights as workers. There are other challenges, too. I learned more about the hukou system, where Chinese people are considered official residents of the place where their parents were born. They are entitled to education and healthcare only in their place of residence, and if they move to another part of the country—like Shenzhen, for example—education and healthcare are very hard to get.
We talked about how cultures blend because of migration. Many of the students in the class speak at least three languages. One girl explained how her family carries on Mongolian traditions while living in Shenzhen. A boy talked about the culture shock of arriving from rural U.S. to a bustling city of skyscrapers. “Up is still up, and down is still down, but everything in between is different,” he said. It’s one of the best descriptions of culture shock that I’ve ever heard.
Together, we agreed that some issues around migration are the same the world over. And that’s got me thinking about the value of stories. When I wrote After Peaches, I never imagined kids would be reading it in China ten years later. If asked, I would have said that such a specifically Canadian (and Mexican) story would have little to do with life in Shenzhen. And obviously, I’d have been completely wrong.
So here’s to sharing our stories, no matter how specific. Wherever we live, and whoever we are, we all have something in common, and stories to share.
Thanks to the students and teacher who shared their stories with me yesterday!