First-Year Text: The Bitter Sea by Charles N. Li

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Study Guide

  1. Why do you think author decided to give his memoir the title: The Bitter Sea?
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  3. Did the book’s written style keep your interest? What did you think of the author’s voice? What narrative strategies does he use to get readers emotionally involved with his story?
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  5. What do you think of the book having been written by a non-native speaker of English? Does it show in the language?
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  7. The author struggles with his obligation to his parents. What obligation do you have to your parents? What do parents owe children? Was his obligation to his father different than his obligation to his mother? Is yours? How did parenting styles and parent-child relationships depicted in the book differ culturally from those familiar to you? Did this book get you to rethink this relationship in any way?
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  9. What about Li Na’s relationship with his family felt familiar? (including parents, siblings, extended family) What felt alien to you?
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  11. How do you think Li Na’s relationship with his father shaped who he became? What about Li Na’s relationship with his mother? Do you think Li Na’s father can be blamed for the way he treated his son? Or was he simply acting out the traditional role assigned to patriarchs in mid-twentieth century China?
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  13. What reactions did you have to the physical conditions in which Li Na lived at various points in his life? Did any of them seem familiar?
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  15. What impact did the Chinese political system have on Li Na and his childhood? How aware was he, as a kid, of the influence politics exerted on his everyday life? Did Li Na’s response to the communists in Shanghai right after the fall of the nationalist forces surprise you?
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  17. What impact did the political system where you grew up have on you? Were you aware of what was happening in the country you lived in?
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  19. What can you glean from the book about a woman’s role in China in the 1940s and 1950s? Did you see any change over the time span covered in the book? How do you think it compares to a woman’s role in the US during that period? Did you find Li Na’s portrayal of his instructor in communist China to be in any way sexist? What did you think of her character?
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  21. Why do you think Li Na was initially sympathetic to the ideals of communism? Does the book offer an attack on this political system? Or do Li Na’s experiences simply reflect upon the particular strategies China employed in trying to institute communism?
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  23. If Li Na rejects communism, he seems equally to reject the pursuit of wealth and material goods, which characterize capitalism. What kinds of values, both personal and political, does he advocate?
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  25. Having confronted Western influences in the form of communism and British colonialism, before leaving China behind altogether to live in the United States, Li struggles to reconcile his inherited traditional Chinese culture with the western paradigm. Is he successful? Why or why not?
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  27. In The Bitter Sea, what makes for a happy life? Is it different for everyone? Does Li present wealth as an important factor in the quest for happiness? Which is more important, wealth or a sense of community? What connection, if any, would you draw about the relationship between happiness and freedom based on this book?
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  29. The author ultimately achieved a great deal professionally and personally; what accounts for his success? What did you think of the opportunity that finally brought him to the United States? Do you think his life would have been very different if that opportunity had not materialized by chance?