Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Two harrowing childhoods

These are two very different childhoods, but ones you would not wish on your worst enemy. I'm talking about Lang Lang (growing up as an only child in China) and Janice Galloway (whose older mother, during pregnancy, thought she was the menopause and the child was thus welcomed into the family), growing up in Saltcoats, Scotland.

In his autobiography, Lang Lang (born in about 1983) describes how parents in China invest all their hopes in their only child. He sure got to feel that! His father always wanted him to be Number One - in a country where at any one time, 50 million children learn to play the piano! Thus Dad devoted his life to making sure that his son became the Number One. This meant making his boy practice all the time. The father attended his lessons, later, at the Central music school in Beijing, the father spied on the lessons of other children to such a degree that the other teachers began to complain about him. At one stage the father, in his despair about the son's progress, held him over the balcony rail of their block of flats and wanted him to commit suicide; when that failed, he wanted the boy to take pills.....Once Lang Lang 'failed' as a pianist - he came only 7th in a competition.  If Lang Lang did not practice enough or make enough progress the father would not allow his mother, who in a distant part of China earned the money that kept them all afloat, and who was sorely missed by her son, to visit the child.

Life in China was always about competitions, winning the local one, the national one, an international competition....the family raked together enough money to send the boy and his family to Germany for a competition, then to Japan....Later Lang Lang got a place to study in the US. He arrived clutching a piece of paper listing the next competitions he wanted to enter. His teacher told him that this was not the way they do it there...so he knuckled down. When, after his US breakthrough, he wanted to play a concert in China with a major US orchestra, the Chinese authorities nearly refused him to come - on account of him having won no further competitions. At the press conference on arrival they asked, effectively 'so what exactly is it you have done in the US?'. 

Was it worth it all? Of course he now has all the trappings of a glittering life-style, and he has been able to side-line his father in the US, what with Dad's English being not so good. But he has also suffered from severe depressions..... a condition which he may have been able to overcome thanks to having to take an enforced break after a hand injury, when he suddenly realised there were other things to life than playing the piano.

It's harrowing stuff, well-written (by a ghost writer) and unputdownable.

Janice Galloway's life in Saltcoats, on the other hand, was quite different ('This is not about me', described as a memoir-cum-novel). An unexpected, and it seems, unwanted child born in the mid 1950's (her mother tells her at the age of 4 for the first time that she wishes she had not been born), she grows up with her mother, her abusive and drunk father (until that age) and a sister who is about 20 years older and a nasty piece of work. The mother flees from the marital home when Janice is 4 and finds shelter in the tiny attic of her doctor's surgery which she cleans in return. The attic is so small that when the bed is pulled out there is just a tiny bit of space for the mother to move around it. Then the sister returns from her broken-up marriage and joins them there.....(it never becomes clear what exactly has happened to the sister's son).  Later the father dies and the family returns to the family home, an 'architect-designed' council house.

I'm not sure what makes the sister tick. Is it sibling rivalry - for a 20-year-old? She seems to be totally selfish, and constantly bullies and trips up little Janice, who quickly learns to keep her head down. Keeping her head down seems to be the central theme of her life - living at the doctor's she has to be quiet when he has surgery, quiet when she accompanies her mother in her cleaning rounds, and quiet at home when her sister, Cora, sleeps. So when she starts school, she is good at being 'good' and quiet - and her world is totally rattled when in a gym lessons the children are told to run around and pretend to be an aeroplane, and to make a noise. She cannot deal with this and refuses to participate. Later her mother is called into the school and told that Janice seems to have some problems; the school suggests, among others, that Janice should see a psychologist - the mother refuses, angrily. Little Janice finds some solace in singing, which she and her mother do well, and in writing, especially in forming beautiful letters.

The book ends around the time she finishes primary school. For me it was very evocative, given that I know Saltcoats, West of Scotland culture and the language spoken there. I just wonder how many other children there grew and grow up like this (though in many cases now parents in her mother's situation might not care about their children being noisy or quiet or anything).