Haitao Fan is a member of our 2011 cohort. Her recently published book, Life Begins at Thirty (China Machine Press, 2016), profiles her time studying in OHMA and became an instant bestseller in Mainland China. In this post, Haitao reflects on her writing process and commitment to building the oral history movement in China.
As the first Chinese student who graduated from OHMA, when I returned home from the U.S. in 2013, many members of the oral history community in Mainland China approached me and expressed interest in learning about the program’s pedagogy and curriculum. After sharing these initial conversations, I began to see that there are many academic differences between the two countries and still so many mysteries to unravel about how to bridge those divides.
Chinese scholars in the field of oral history are eager to learn advanced research methods and explore how OHMA set up this very unique program. To them, Columbia University is a top example of what they are looking to develop in oral history education. I began to feel as though I had the responsibility to import what I learned in OHMA, making it accessible not only to academics but also to the general pubic.
As I writer, I felt that publishing a book was the most efficient way to realize this vision, so I began writing my first words down in April 2015. After months of development and seven publishers competing for the manuscript, Life Begins at Thirty was published in March 2016. The book received much attention in social media and by the oral history community in China, even making it onto the bestseller list for three months! It also encouraged a public dialogue about how Chinese women can continue to build their lives and lean in after their twenties.
Life Begins at Thirty describes how I came to America as an established writer and why I chose to study oral history. The middle three chapters describe the lessons I learned in OHMA and the interesting projects I experienced during my two years of study. I use detailed stories to shape my chapters, including my introduction to the Columbia Center for Oral History (CCOH), interactions with our humorous and knowledgeable professors, and discussions with classmates from a variety of different backgrounds. Many readers have told me that they are fascinated by CCOH’s September 11, 2001 Oral History Projects, touched by the stories of the paramedics and artists invited to speak in our classes, and inspired by the diversity of the oral history form. A full picture of my life in OHMA is outlined in the book.
In the months following publication, my wish to popularize the concept of oral history in my home country and to lead young people to record the spirit of China has grown even stronger. I’ve proudly learned that three Chinese students will join this year’s new cohort and that one more is about to graduate. Life Begins at Thirty begins to answer some of the questions prospective students may have about OHMA. I hope that it will inspire a new group of young people to become interested in engaging in oral history practice.