One woman’s incredible journey through adversity
From growing up in China’s Cultural Revolution to surviving the CTV building collapse, Quin Tang has taken what life has thrown at her and come out on top. She tells Sarah Murray how hope got her through
TTo say life has been tough for Quin Tang would be an understatement. From growing up in communist China where her mum was killed by the regime, to walking out of a difficult marriage with her two young children, to surviving the 2011 collapse of the CTV building in Christchurch, Quin has had her fair share of hardships. Yet, despite all that she’s kept going, gaining four degrees, writing a book and turning her role in life into one helping others as a mental health clinician. And this year she has been recognised as one of Ziera’s six Unstoppable Women, out of more than 4000 entries.
“I was totally surprised to find out the news that I was one of Ziera’s Unstoppable Women,” says Quin, 55, about her recent win. “I feel very grateful and it’s really encouraging that my life story could be useful and helpful to other people.”
Her humbleness is apparent from the moment NEXT speaks to her at her home in Christchurch. She relates her life story, not filled with emotion, but matter of factly.
“My early life had a lot of disasters,” says Quin. “I was three when my mum was murdered by Mao’s Red Guards. They were like Mao’s young army – so basically a band of teenagers. My father’s workplace decided he was a very bad person to the country and to the party. My mother argued with them and that was very dangerous as there was no freedom of speech and no human rights. So she stood up for him and that cost her life. They took our home and a few months later my father was deported from Beijing to rural areas and made to do hard labour for about 12 years.”
It was 1966, and China had just begun the Cultural Revolution under leader Mao Zedong. It was a time which saw Mao call on the nation’s youth to purge the ‘impure’ elements of Chinese society. With her whole world torn apart, Quin and her sister were shuffled around different members of her extended family. Unfortunately they were often seen as just another mouth to feed, and on occasion she had to forage for food in the garbage.
“My early life was like a postcard – I was sent around from one strange place to another,” she says. “Basically I had no family. Sometimes I saw my father but then he would disappear again. I was never quite sure whether I’d see him again.”
But Quin was smart. And by reading, she realised she could transport herself to different worlds. Reading is what got her through those early years, and eventually helped her move to Harbin to study nursing when she was 17 years old.
“I didn’t like nursing. I just wanted to get away from Beijing. It was so difficult to get out as you weren’t really allowed to move around. The only option was for education. So that became my first escape.”
FACING THE CHALLENGE
For two years Quin studied hard, eventually moving back to Beijing to work as a dental nurse before changing to paediatric nursing. It came as a big surprise when she realised she enjoyed the job.
“Once I started working with people I thought ‘wow… I really like it’. People were suffering in
‘MY EARLY LIFE WAS LIKE A POSTCARD – I WAS SENT AROUND FROM ONE
STRANGE PLACE TO ANOTHER’
the hospitals and I liked to be able to support them in any way I could.”
Working in her favour was the fact that under Mao’s regime there was no gender division. As a woman you were just another one of Mao’s soldiers, which meant she was treated fairly at work. Family life however, was different. It was while working in the hospital that Quin, then 22, met her husband. “It was a challenge because with family life you were treated like a woman. You were a wife – you don’t talk, you don’t say anything, you just be quiet,” she says.
Despite difficulties in her marriage, Quin had a lifeline. An aunt had fled to Sydney and so in 1988 she helped Quin and her husband leave China. Quin made it to Australia and waited five weeks for her New Zealand visa to arrive so she could join her husband, who was going to study in Christchurch.
“I was so excited that I could leave Beijing. But I knew very little English. When I came to New Zealand I picked up the language through conversations, watching TV and reading books. Every day I picked up more English. When I moved to Christchurch, that’s when my new life started.”
But soon Quin realised she wasn’t happy in her relationship, and decided to leave her husband. It wasn’t an easy decision, and one made more difficult as she was 32 and had two girls under five. She was forced to go on the Domestic Purposes Benefit for a year, and then found a job working with people with intellectual disabilities.
“It was an unsettled life, I got a tiny flat at first, and we had to move around a lot.”
As during her early life, Quin realised that to go further she needed to educate herself. So she did just that, enrolling part-time at university. The hardest part was studying in English. But on top of that she found it incredibly isolating going to university as an adult. People would often ask her what she was doing there, and if she was in the right place.
It took four years before Quin finished her BA, majoring in psychology and gender studies. She went on to do a Master of Education, majoring in counselling, and a Master of Psychology, followed by a postgraduate diploma in health science, majoring in mental health.
“I just wanted to understand my life better – which seemed to be disaster after disaster,” she says of her chosen studies.
But managing her studies and looking after her children wasn’t easy.
“I would send the children to school, go to university, pick them up and have family time. When they went to bed I’d do my study. Sometimes I’d study until midnight, sometimes 1am or 2am. I never knew there was such a thing as a weekend as I just studied and worked. I’m still like that,” she says laughing. “I’m never finished.”
It’s no surprise then, that once she finished her studies, Quin started writing her autobiography, Half a Walnut Tree, waking early to get it done. Her selfpublished book was released in 2016 and details her eventful life.
“I felt I have a responsibility to put my story out, and not just mine, my mum and my father’s story. I don’t want the story to die,” she says. “It’s the history. You need to learn something from the history.”
A NEW OUTLOOK
One person who gave Quin inspiration was the Queen of TV, Oprah Winfrey.
“I used to watch her on TV when I was at university. Her shows gave me so much courage and confidence. The stories on her show made me realise I wasn’t alone. Lots of people have tragedy in their lives and to hear that gave me hope. We all go through something but we can also make something of our lives beyond the trauma.”
Those lessons she learned during that time of her life came back to help her when she faced another traumatic experience. Quin was in the CTV building in Christchurch, working as a counsellor, the day it collapsed in the earthquake in 2011.
“I don’t know how long I was trapped in there. I’ve got a dust allergy so the only thing going through my mind was to breathe and get out of there. Two construction workers pulled me out.”
After so many years of fending for herself, it was this experience that made Quin realise that even though she was the one trained to help others, she needed help too.
“That was a life-changing day. Somehow I miraculously survived. Before that I thought if I worked hard I’d be okay. I was very much independent and relied on myself,” she says slowly. “But after the CTV building collapsed I realised I couldn’t do it by myself. I needed help. I had to let people in and trust them.”
Quin found the support she needed was all around her. Neighbours, church, com-munity and her children all banded together to get her through.
“It blew me away. I never imagined I could let people in. Usually I would just carry on. But this time I couldn’t. I was falling to pieces. They’d say ‘I just want to know you’re okay’. It really moved me and that shifted my outlook on life. I’ll never go back to my old way thinking I can do it all by myself.”
Resilient? Yes. Unstoppable? Definitely. But Quin, who meditates every morning, is quick to shrug off compliments, saying the key is having faith.
“I always have this faith in life. Something will get better no matter what. Sometimes I feel a higher power there with me. When it’s really hard I always think it’s only temporary and that it will get better,” she says.
“My attitude has always been that I have nothing, so if I have one meal I was happy just to have that meal. Sometimes I feel frustrated with life and think, ‘Why does life keep doing this to me? But the other part of me thinks if I’m still here, there is a reason and I feel a strong urge not to give up.”
‘I ALWAYS HAVE THIS FAITH IN LIFE. SOMETHING WILL GET BETTER NO MATTER WHAT. WHEN IT’S REALLY HARD I ALWAYS THINK IT’S ONLY TEMPORARY AND THAT IT WILL GET BETTER’