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We asked Jeannie to tell Lovereading4kids a little more about herself and her book One of Us.
I grew up in Hong Kong while the Cultural Revolution was happening a few miles away in China. Refugees from the turmoil over the border fled in large numbers to Hong Kong, often arriving with almost nothing, having paid all their money to ‘snakeheads’ or people-smugglers. I remember seeing whole hillsides covered in makeshift huts made of cardboard, mats and wood, and I knew that in typhoons sometimes they all got swept away. We had some friends who had come to Hong Kong to escape the Cultural Revolution, so from a young age I always wondered what it would be like to have to leave your home and go somewhere new where you had no roots, no job, no house.
I became an English teacher because I wanted to work in China. When I returned to the UK and started teaching English to people who had moved here, many of them refugees, I didn’t want to stop because the people I met were just so interesting. It’s always conflict that creates the need to become a refugee, and it’s also often a result of belonging to the wrong group. At first, I was sometimes very shocked by the stories people told me – of losing their family members, being captured and tortured, and very occasionally of terrible journeys fleeing a war-torn country. It made me realise that those who manage to escape and make a new life in another country are strong people – survivors, people who chose life and refuse to be defeated – and just the kind of people you want to make a strong society, surely. I also saw the huge value they often place on education so that their children go on to have great qualifications and make a very positive contribution. At the same time, in some newspapers I would see references to foreigners ‘flooding’ into the country, ‘swamping’ our culture and taking up resources. This kind of thing always makes me feel that these articles can’t possibly be talking about the people I meet every week.
In ONE OF US, K is a girl who is left without family; her parents were killed in a bomb during a time of conflict when K was only a child. When the uneasy peace process is threatened by a terrorist act and it looks like the civil war will return, K goes undercover in a Brotherhood school. The Brotherhood is a large minority who have been disadvantaged since a Brotherhood faction lost the last conflict. Since then, there has been a general assumption that all Brotherhood people are potential terrorists. K has only ever heard the official line story about what happened, so while undercover in the Brotherhood school, she hears the other side for the first time. Although she isn’t a prejudiced person, she finds it very shocking to discover that atrocities were committed by the ‘goodies’.
Like many survivors of conflict, K is much stronger than she would have believed possible. At times in my English class there have been students from countries currently at war with each other. But what has struck me is how rarely this is a problem, because the students have taken each other on face value, as human beings rather than members of a particular group. I find this hugely hopeful and I think it is the thing that we need to hold on to in times of fear and conflict – our common humanity.