Teens may grimace at the thought of taking SATs, but they have it easy compared with the counterparts in China where millions of children are trained from a young age to succeed in school, all for the one-day gaokao, or university admissions examination. In her new young adult novel, Like Spilled Water—the title of which refers to the notion that daughters are not as valued as sons because they will leave their parents’ home after they marry—Jennie Liu tackles the anxiety and other ramifications centered around this exam.
Na is a 19-year-old vocational school student in a remote part of Shanxi province when her grandmother calls with startling news. Na’s brother, Bao-bao, has died. She returns to her parents’ home in Taiyuan. It had never been Na’s home; she has instead been raised by her grandmother back in the ancestral village while her parents invested all their resources in Bao-bao. Na has never known her parents very well and resented her brother.
Still, it’s never easy when a sibling dies. Na spends the bulk of the story trying to learn why Bao-bao took his life right after his gaokao results came back.
Whenever something like this happens, people associate the family with bad luck. The gossip can be ruthless.
Like Spilled Water stands apart from most young adult novels in English.
For all the teens who prepare for the gaokao, there are millions more that will never take it. In many parts of China, it’s not acceptable for girls like Na to take the gaokao or attend secondary school. It had been difficult enough for her to convince her parents to allow her to study at a vocational school, but after Bao-bao dies, they have her quit and take care of them during their mourning. An elderly woman in the family’s ancestral home agrees that Na should focus on more productive short-term goals, lest she become a “leftover woman”, or a woman behind the desired marrying age of 27.
It’s fortunate you decided she should quit school. It’s better to marry well than study well. A little education helps, but now the girls get ambitious about their education and careers and wait too long to get married and have children.
Liu incorporates the concept of leftover women throughout her book. Min—a neighbor of Na’s parents and a friend of Bao-bao’s before he dies—is a photographer working on a project about women who reject this societal pressure. Na helps translate the women’s stories into English, a subject she enjoyed—and excelled in—during middle school.
Some of the women are already leftovers, past thirty, and despite their brave words—I’m accustomed to being single; Tolerating loneliness is better than marrying the wrong man; Ma and Ba, I will support you even if I don’t get married—I see a vein of isolation running through them.
Na wonders if it’s possible to have it all: a career, a supportive husband, kids, and supportive parents. For the time being, her mother finds Na work aside her in a scrap metal factory. Surely there is more to life than this…
Liu takes on many of the social issues young people in China face today. Besides leftover women, gaokao pressures, gender disparities, and socio-economic disparities, she also writes with great empathy about LGBTQ issues in China, especially when it comes to fulfilling parental and societal expectations. In her author’s note at the conclusion of the book, Liu writes
Although homosexuality was decriminalized in China in 1997 and declassified as a mental disorder in 2001, the unofficial government policy is often expressed by the Chinese idiom, not encouraging, not discouraging and not promoting. With neither support to rely on nor open persecution to rebel against, the LGBTQ+ experience is painfully isolating, and understanding and acceptance of LGBTQ+ issues remain uncommon, especially in rural areas. No firm statistics are available, but experts estimate that only 3-5 percent of the country’s 40-70 million LGBTQ+ individuals are out of the closet, and as many as 80 percent of China’s gay men marry women.
Like Spilled Water stands apart from most young adult novels in English. It’s set in China with Chinese characters. It’s refreshing—and important—for young adult readers to have access to stories that may not be familiar and that are not rooted in the West.