Feb 08, 2012 01:15 PM

The Chinese Glass Menagerie

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.

The Suicide Enigma
In my science writing classes we were studying the impact of suicide on the Chinese population.  Official estimates of suicides numbered 287,000 in China last year, making the act of saying goodbye to oneself the fifth-largest cause of death in the country, and the number one cause of death among young people.  Twenty years ago, Chinese women, especially rural women, killed themselves 25 percent more often than men (just the opposite trend is seen in Western countries, where men off themselves three times as much as women).  Today, however, the suicide ratio by gender in China is closer to 1:1, with nearly 60 percent of all suicides involving the ingestion of lethal pesticides, according to Dr. Michael Phillips, a Canadian psychiatrist at Shanghai Mental Health Center who has studied and published about suicide in China for 25 years. 

My students were interviewing Dr. Phillips in Shanghai via Skype. Some of them were aware that 21 Chinese children had suffered lethal attacks this past year by men who had appeared deranged or suicidal, but had not been treated for their mental illness. They were probably not aware that doctors have diagnosed more than 100 million Chinese with mental illness using the Chinese Criteria for Mental Disorders-III, and that a 2009 study by the British medical journal  The Lancet put the number of mentally disordered in China closer to 173 million.  Of that number, 16 million are considered severely ill, according to 2009 National Center for Mental Health statistics.
My students had many questions. Why was Phillips so interested in suicide?  Which kinds of Chinese women were more prone to suicide?  Why were the rates so high?

"In fact, against what the press keeps saying, suicide rates in China have remarkably dropped 50 percent in the last twenty years," said Phillips, who conducted the largest worldwide study ever on the causes and types of mental disorders in China, examining 62,000 cases.  His assessment was published in 1999 in the The Lancet and became the statistical foundation for China's first draft Mental Health Law, the first part of which was introduced by Health Minister Chen Zhu in late 2011.   The law, 26 years in formation, will attempt to rectify and improve mental health care quality and access in China, although some of its provisions remain controversial.

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