Hidden Figures

Another post!  I was offered the chance to host the consulate’s book club in September, so I did!  At one of the officer’s suggestions we read Hidden Figures since they had screened the film in July.  For those who haven’t read or seen the story, the book focuses on the stories of the black computers who worked at NACA during World War Two and then contributed to the space missions when NACA became NASA.  In the author’s words, these women’s stories are worth telling not just because they are black and broke countless barriers with their bravery and mastery of mathematics, but because they are an integral part of the American space epic.


The movie, by contrast, apparently focuses more on one woman, Katherine Johnson, and her contributions to the Mercury missions where NASA shot John Glenn into low Earth orbit.

The club was a bit sparsely attended. 28 people signed up, but only five showed, and I was a bit over prepared having read the book twice and looked up notes on anything I could imagine being asked about like McCarthyism, the Civil Rights Movement, John Henry, whatever.

I tried to lead a discussion on the book, having prepared to talk about American race relations and whatnot, but since only one person read the book we kept it more in the abstract and the participants brought it back to China a lot. Go with the flow as it were.  It was quite the educational experience.  There’s the line in the book that women, and black women in particular, had to work twice as hard to get half as much.  Still true today, and most of the attendants agreed, but another brought up the point that at least for kids in rural China, they don’t even get the chance to put in the work, they have to work three or four times as hard to even get the chance to work twice as hard. (if that makes sense).  I also picked up that Chinese people are quite aware of their inability to criticize the government in public.  I suppose it makes sense for regulars of American consulate events to be a bit fed up with the Chinese government.

Another guy drew parallels between the women of the book: Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughn to name the main three, and Mulan, which I found interesting.  In response to my question of whether or not they could think of any stories in recent Chinese history that were similar and deserved to be told, the guy said that since until the 1980’s everything was planned to the last detail by the government, there was no chance for similarly revolutionary women to make their mark on Chinese history.  He, and the others, displayed that kind of apathy towards life that I’ve mentioned seeing all over China.

The other opinion that was brought up was that Chinese people feel that China’s getting stronger economically, but the “spirit” of the Chinese people hasn’t seen equal growth, meaning, in their eyes, Chinese people lack confidence in their country and are still stuck with a bit of an inferiority complex.  I see this too, and I’m quite happy when I see Chinese people proud of their country, but worryingly the government seems to be trying to counteract it with over the top propaganda and manufactured soft power.  (I read this great article a while ago about how soft power can’t come from the government and has to be made by a country’s people for it to have real meaning.  Worth your time if you have it.)

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I think I’ll end this post here with some shots from Harbin before I left.



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