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

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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’

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