CUNY Macaulay Honors College at Baruch College/Professor Bernstein
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Category — The Bitter Sea

The Bitter Sea

The elements of Charles Li’s The Bitter Sea gave me a different perspective on daily life in a Chinese household. Growing up Chinese, I have had a different experience with filial piety in the sense that my parents, especially my father, cared more about me emotionally and cared for my successes academically. I do however sympathize with Li’s relationship with his father, as this relationship ended up defining his life. I feel that The Bitter Sea is a highly compelling story of a young man’s life facing and experiencing all sorts of extremes. He lived a life of luxury in his early years, and had everything taken from him when he moved to the slums of Nanjing. This dramatic shift in conditions should break a man, but for Charles Li, it was actually a transition that shaped part of his character.

One major theme is abandonment. Throughout his young life, he had a Nai Ma, or milk mother, who took good care of him and truly loved him. Then suddenly she was taken away from him. This abandonment by the Nai Ma put Charles Li into a deep depression as he wondered why she was taken away. Later on, Li had a best friend, Da Ge, who he did everything with until one day he just left. This provided more sorrow and loneliness as he questioned the unfortunate events that happened to him.

December 14, 2010   No Comments

The Bistter Sea: Bitter-Sweet, Voyage.

One person lived a life which he would recall as “the Bitter Sea.” If we compare our lives as a voyage on the sea that would define ourselves of who we are and where we are heading toward, Charles N. Li’s voyage is made through consecutive strikes of Hurricanes. However, those hardships are hard to be compared with a natural disaster. Despite the situation that Li has to deal with, he is able to make decisions over his life. Both the environment and his own decision paves a way for him to achieve maturity as an adult.

Once growing up as a son of the wealthy Chinese government official, Li becomes a street kid in the slum unexpectedly. After spending a year at the foreigner’s camp in the Communist China, Li realizes he has been used by his ambitious father who aims to regain his political strength through his son. Bitter yet sweet, his life is a restless ride on a roller-coaster that does not have an apparent destination. This quaky departure is solely based on the rigid and disfigured relationship between his father and him. Filial piety’s influence in China is beyond its meaning of philosophy. In this father and son relationship, there are no exchanges of affectionate words or eye-contacts. As if they have made a contract, Li and his father simply acting out their own roles. Li takes a role as an obedient, diligent and smart student, and his father as a provider of food and shelter.

Throughout his life, all Li wants to earn from his father is freedom. Li recalls that his years spending in the slum are the most delightful and unforgettable memory of all times.

Later on, Li’s encounter to Communist China’s restrictive atmosphere of controlling ideas elevates his inner conflict of raising his self-consciousness. At the end, he is able to step out of his father’s shadow and face the world by himself.

The pivotal moment for Li turning into adulthood is when he comes back from the Communist China and decides to be independent from his father. He financially, physically and mentally detaches himself from his father’s influence. As he prepares himself for another enormous transition in life of studying abroad in the United States, Li is able to understand his father for the first time and finally forgives him. He even embraces his father’s never-ending political ambition. Li decides to mend his disrupted relationship with his father at the beginning of his new life.

I do not believe Li’s present self is drastically influenced by either Chinese culture or Communism. Every person bears his or her own burden of life. Through challenges, a person is simply learning how to move from the past or flow with it. Nonetheless, I greatly appreciate Li’s story because he is volunteering to be a role model who assiduously and audaciously steps forward to face destiny and eventually, finds himself.

December 11, 2010   1 Comment

The Bitter Sea

Charles Li’s The Bitter Sea is a moving memoir that shows his rocky journey from youth into young adulthood. While the book focuses on his adolescence, it also explores aspects of life that are often difficult to confront. By addressing the hardships of parent to child relationships and political chaos in China, Li creates a memoir that embraces life as it is; filled with waves of both distress and happiness.

Regardless of cultural background, one is likely to identify with Li’s experiences. Friendship, loss, frustration, and discovery are all themes that play a role on his reflective story. Though the mood created by his various memories is often depressing, it allows one to truly step into Li’s shoes. As he provides vivid descriptions of events in his youth, one can almost feel the disappointment, joy, anger and eventually, the hopefulness that filled his life.

Though at certain points, it appears that Li was simply miserable, he creates a truthful yet fair portrayal of his earlier days. He shows that his father was a stern and detached figure, but at the same time, depicts him from two sets of eyes. By doing so, he creates a picture of his father and of his situation, as a whole, that is not completely biased.

While each chapter is organized in chronological order, one might notice that there is not always a smooth transition from one story to the next. This jolty feel to his memoir, however, is not necessarily a sign of unpolished writing. Rather, it mirrors how the actual events in his life took place; they were often abrupt and led to unexpected changes. Whether intentional or not, the relationship between his craggily told story and his rough life seem to make his memoir a powerful, real-life adventure.

September 25, 2010   No Comments

The Bitter Sea

The Bitter Sea is Charles N. Li’s touching coming of age story. At some points the book has a choppy feel, when it jumps back and forth in time without much of a flow, it is noticeable that English isn’t Li’s first language. However, the strengths of the story far outweigh the weaknesses and made this both an interesting novel to read and a very informative one, providing deep insight into the Chinese culture which I was curious about but never understood.

The most intriguing aspect of the book for me was Li’s description of Eastern culture. I’ve tended to generalize and sort of put all Chinese people into one “category,” but Li’s experience brought to light the sectionalism similar to racism that exists in different parts of China. I was shocked by how much of a difficult time Li had every time he had to move, I questioned how he could feel like an outsider in his own country.

Li also makes excellent comparisons between Eastern and Western cultures. He states that Westerners are all about the self whereas the Chinese focus on the group. Maybe I don’t quite understand how this is true because of my Eastern upbringing, I find the idea that Chinese people are all about the group when juxtaposed with Li’s description of his family whom he never showed affection with until he was an adult somewhat ironic. Li’s father says that family should never lend each other money because then their relationship becomes a business exchange, but I find Li’s relationship with his father when he was in school much closer to a business exchange: he delivered good grades in exchange for a place to sleep.

September 22, 2010   No Comments


Although most novels I read for school seem to be more necessity-based than willing choice, the novel The Bitter Sea became a surprisingly engrossing adventure into the life of another. The title itself brought to mind so much imagery: harsh surf, rough waters, and a deep feeling of the unknown—and the worry of being pulled underwater. As I continued my journey through the pages, I found myself becoming more and more rapt in each moment—which I found fascinating, considering that much of the novel consisted of concepts I was previously unfamiliar with, often even unaware of.

As I turned the pages (much more quickly than I had expected, to my surprise), I found myself becoming emotionally invested in what was happening to Li Na—something I had hardly expected from mandatory reading. It was a pleasant change to be able to relate to extremes that I normally wouldn’t find parallels of in my own life (as mansions or hovels have yet to become a part of my life, but we’ll see). And it was in this successful portrayal of struggle, inner conflict, and eventual triumph over both inner and outer obstacles that I found a truly wonderful read, and the inspiration to pursue the life I dream of as Li Na did–and to never take no for an answer.

September 21, 2010   No Comments

The Bitter Sea

When I first heard we had to read The Bitter Sea, which documents the author’s life in China from WWII to the Communist takeover, I was slightly disappointed. My last summer assignment was to read the Joy Luck Club; parts of that book took place at the same time and place as Charles N. Li’s book. As it turns out the difference between the two books startled me. While The Joy Luck Club was a work of fiction, The Bitter Sea was non-fiction. The Bitter Sea included details about the author’s time in China that were sometimes gruesome, heartwarming, and altogether unbelievable, while the Joy Luck Club , as a work of fiction, was missing some of the details that made China during that time come alive for me. Charles N. Li never tried to glorify Chinese culture or denounce it. He gave his honest opinion about what he saw, trying to see the situation from a variety of perspectives.

What is most interesting about The Bitter Sea is the relationship between Charles and his father. It turns out the relationships between the mothers and daughters in The Joy Luck Club were very different than the relationship between the Chinese father and his son in The Bitter Sea. Charles father seemed to be trapped in the traditions that come with Chinese Confucianism, while his son, trying to understand his father’s decisions, tries to forge his own destiny in a changing world where traditions are dying.  Charles admires his father and responds warmly when they start a relationship, but the relationship is complicated. They have a falling out when it becomes clear that Charles’ father used him in order to try to gain political favor in Communist China. Even through all of this, after obtaining a scholarship to Bowdoin College, Charles and his father rekindled their relationship.  The book really shows the strong familial bonds, that are part of Chinese culture, remain strong even through the worst of times.

September 21, 2010   No Comments

The Bitter Sea

The summer going into junior year of high school, I took up my first job so I could make that cash money flow. Except, the job wasn’t as glamorous as I had imagined. I somehow got a job as a “councelor” at an all-Asian Educational Camp. Or rather, Chinese summer school, starring the one and only non-Asian counselor, ME. I did not speak the language(s), I did not look like anyone they had ever seen before, and I was chosen to govern over a sea of 30-odd six-year-old kids took kindly to me.

Weaving and dodging through my classes, teaching English (and Spanish, that was interesting), Math and Science, I picked up on quite a few cultural differences. I forgot completely about this summer until reading The Bitter Sea, which instantly threw me back in the first paragraph.

Also, it helped me better understand where my students had been coming from, and their home life. I never really understood the strong ties between the family members, and how incredibly different the priorities are in Asian culture than in western.

Despite choppy narrative which may be excused by the author’s foreign nature, the book had a lot to teach me. It was difficult to get through, but I am very glad that I did.

September 21, 2010   No Comments

The First School Book I Actually Enjoyed Reading

Although this is not something I am exactly eager to admit, I am extremely closed-minded when it comes to the literature I choose to read. The only books I will read willingly, with a few strange exceptions, are always about Asian culture. So I was thrilled when, for the first time ever, a book assigned to me was one I would pick up off the shelf myself.

I began reading The Bitter Sea with high expectations. I was eager to read about Charles N. Li’s coming of age and the experiences he had in China’s most tumultuous time period. I was ready for excitement, shocks, and drama. What I ended up reading was none of that, yet in a way it was one of the most touching novels I have read in a long time.

During the initial discussion of The Bitter Sea, many criticized the novel for having a detached, unemotional narration throughout. Although I agree that there was a lack of excitement in the novel that many American memoirs have, I felt that there was an incredible amount of emotion in the story. From Charles desperately, and almost subconsciously, looking for a place to belong in the slums of Nanjing, to his first real confrontation with his father and the consequences it has on their relationship, I could feel his struggle throughout. I have found that in many Asian cultures, emotions are typically suppressed for the sake of the family or community. Therefore, the subtle rebellions and emotional confessions by Charles have even more significance.

The Bitter Sea does not provide a great life lesson or spiritual awakening. It does, however, cause the reader to think about their family, their role in society, and the way anyone can, if they try hard enough, accomplish their dreams. And that, to me, is far more important than excitement and drama.

September 21, 2010   No Comments

The Bitter Sea

Charles Li’s, The Bitter Sea, talks about Li’s growth in China with himself, his father, and his horizons. He grew up through the Communist takeover in China near World War II and his childhood was a tough time for him. Until he was 5, he pretty much was restrained and confined within the walls of his father’s mansion in Nanjing. He was prevented from seeing the outside world for a majority of his childhood and Li even goes to say how hating this confinement was his first childhood memory. It was a struggle living there for him because him and his father were never on the same page and much of his life circled around pleasing his father.

I think this confinement for Li is a major contributor to why that happiest time of his life was spent while living in the slums. When first forced into the slums, Li’s mother tells him and his siblings how their father constructed a sheltered world for all of them. She pretty much tells them that they were spoiled living in the mansion and now they’re getting a taste of how life really is. They’ll “have to learn to cope with squalor, poverty, and hunger.” But unlike his siblings, Li felt free for once in his life. He found happiness in the slums and that is something I truly admire about Charles Li. He made the best out of what he had. He admired the world around him and that’s all he wanted as a kid. He wanted to know what was beyond the tall brick walls of his mansion in Nanjing. I actually believe that his confinement early in life molded him into what he became later on in life. I think it made him appreciate the little things in life more and not worry about what people think of him. He always strived for his father’s approval and acceptance but I think after living in the slums and experiencing happiness, he slowly learned to accept himself and not worry about what other people thought of him.

I admire Charles Li’s outlook on the world and how he built his own life single handedly. He had a pretty miserable childhood and he worked to make a life for himself in America, eventually settling differences with his father in the end. When he steps foot on the plane to head to America, I think he reflects on the life he’s lived and the life he’s moving on to. With everything he’s gone through with his father, Communist takeover, and just his life in general, emotions set in and I think that is sort of a “bitter” feeling. Although he’s happy that he’s expanding his horizons and taking a step forward in life, I think he also feels a bit of an undying connection with China that he’s not completely ready to let go of and that he’ll miss.

September 21, 2010   No Comments

The Bitter Sea

The Bitter Sea by Charles N. Li is a captivating memoir that tells the story of his growing up in a China during the Communist takeover. Firstly, I would like to mention that the title confused me at first – I could not see a connection to the story itself. There was no bitter sea mentioned at all throughout the entire memoir and I did not have a clue as to what it meant until after I finished reading it. Charles N. Li did an excellent job in selecting the title because it gives the reader room to hypothesize and think about what is really meant. Every reader could have his own interpretation of what the title means to him or her. To me, the bitter sea is the sea of bitter tears that have been cried during the period in China that Li describes in his memoir.

Most of Li’s story is very dismal and, oftentimes, I questioned whether or not I wanted to flip the page and keep reading. The little bits of humor that he threw in here and there make the reader question whether or not Li is exaggerating the stories he tells. It is hard to imagine a person who is honestly able to talk about getting frostbite and endless diseases (that could make the strongest of humans suffer horrible pains and death) and later in his memoir look back at those times and claim they were the best ones of his life. Part of reading a memoir includes having only one view of what went on, and I understand that, but most authors admit that their memory could be fooling them or that some parts are exaggerated on purpose. Li does not do so, telling the reader that he, in fact, recollects all the events in their entirety and tells nothing but the whole truth.

What would touch any reader’s heart, however, is Li’s detailed relationship with his father. He takes us down the road of their relationship and we feel every bump and ridge, every high and low, that Li felt. Having a first-hand account of what the relationship meant to Charles and how he felt gave the reader his own sense of connection with the family. When he embraces his father for the first time, we the readers feel genuinely happy for him. When we discover that Li’s father betrayed him by sending him into a communist camp only to “test the waters,” we feel just as devastated and shocked as he was. He truly does an excellent job at taking us on this roller coaster ride that he calls his life, as though we were sitting right there in the front row with him.

Much like a roller coaster, we are kept in suspense of how the story will end until the big drop. In Li’s memoir, he keeps the action rising higher and higher until the last few pages of the memoir where everything gets resolved. One would anticipate an abrupt ending, but Li ended his epic story within a couple of pages and left the reader satisfied (and partially relieved) of how things concluded. Overall – it was a mighty fantastic read that left the reader with a great sense of fulfillment and a deeper insight into the history of China.

September 21, 2010   No Comments