可怜天下父母心: generation 80 and 90 go abroad

I tend to think that middle class Chinese parents have it good. Grandparents take care of young children, elementary school children go to school and can generally be pressured into doing several hours of homework a night, and older children hang out with their parents, not only out of respect, but also because they acknowledge that being with children makes parents happy. In fact, a visit to any park or mall, or even an ordinary bus commute suggests how well behaved Chinese infants are. One or two fuss, but most sit calmly on their grandparents’ laps or play with a water bottle. School age children get themselves to and from campus, attend cram sessions, and organize their homework.

Even after graduating from college, middle class children take care of their parents’ well-being. I know more than one member of Generation 80, for example, who returns home for weekly meals. Working Chinese children also arrange for their parents and parental-in laws to live with or near them in order to attend to parental needs. So common is the assumption of parental care that throughout Shenzhen, hospitals and shopping malls market themselves as places where children can express care for parents — arranging a mother’s dental appointment or family dinner, for example. Certainly, facilitating migrant remittances from Shenzhen to neidi and family network phone plans are huge sections of the financial and service industries. In other words, my experience has shown me the extent to which middle class Chinese children — even members of Generation 80 and 90 —  remain remarkably filial. Or certainly seem so when compared with their age cohorts in the United States.

I realize that mine is a minority position. Commentators in both China and the West have focused on how China’s middle-class parents work exceedingly hard to provide the material conditions for their only child to live well. These parents sacrifice all sorts of ambitions and desires so that their child can go a famous university. They also point out that since promulgation in 1980, China’s one-child policy has produced not a few “little Emperors (小皇帝)”, who in common English are simply “spoilt brats”. Now it may be that when two sets of grandparents and often a nanny orbit the lone descendent, some children become unreasonable. But not all. And certainly not the majority, who study hours as long or longer than their parents work to achieve academic results that will make their elders proud. Indeed, I am still impressed by the number of young Chinese people who make their parents’ dreams (rather than their own) their lodestar.

As I have begun to gather stories about generations 80 and 90 abroad, however, my perspective has shifted. I am beginning to realize the extent to which their parents have made these young people their life’s purpose. It is not simply that middle class parents bask in the glory of their child’s accomplishments, but also and more importantly, that they have crafted lives out of raising this child. These parents often confuse high grades with success and low grades with failure, or interpret independent thinking as “rebellion” and “intransigence”. Nevertheless, once their child successfully matriculates in an overseas high school or college, these parents suffer acute ” empty nest” syndrome, as we call it in the States not only because they realize that they will no longer be able to direct their children’s development, but also because they finally understand, no matter what and how they dream for their child, ultimately they cannot give their child a smooth and carefree life.

Yesterday, I helped a mother read and understand US insurance documents. Her daughter is in California and was in a car accident. The other party has filed for damages, and the daughter’s insurance company has begun to negotiate with the claimant’s lawyer. Ironically, the mother sold her own car so that the daughter could purchase a car, which she explained, “is more necessary in California than Shenzhen.” The daughter whose English is fine, but not strong enough to feel confident about her understanding of documents in legal English sent her mother digital copies, asking for guidance. The mother does not read English and used half a day to find a connection to me to make an appointment. After I explained the content to her, we came up with a plan of action and contacted the daughter, who is no doubt figuring out what needs to be done and doing it. Her mother, however, is in Shenzhen managing the anxiety of helplessness; she deeply wants to help her daughter, but cannot.

All this to say that am hearing the expression “take pity on the hearts of the world’s parents (可怜天下父母心)” differently, and perhaps more accurately. I used to hear it as spoilt parent moaning about a child’s attempt to establish a bit of independence. Today, I am better able to pity parents, not because their child received poor grades or has a stubborn streak, but rather because they would do anything to make their child’s life smooth and happy. Of course, that is precisely what they cannot do, and so they suffer.

Interesting cultural postscript: in Chinese, empty nests refer to lonely grandparents and the phrase “empty nester” is translated as 孤寡老人. Thus, when their children go and remain abroad, Chinese parents not only become empty nesters in the US sense of “children have moved out”, but also potentially in the Chinese sense of “old person without a grandchild”.

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