In 2010, when many of the 90s kids where applying for college, they were encouraged to become economically independent. Shame was also deployed, and recent college graduates who couldn’t find a job and continued to live at home were accused of “gnawing on the old folks (啃老)”. Of course, these were the same kids who were also accused of “being too rich for their own good (富二代)”. Continue reading
Last weekend I met two young men, 18 and 19 years old, who are filming interviews with and about “Shenzhen’s Second Generation”. We talked about the actual definition of a “Shen 2 (深二),” which I have tended to think of in terms of immigrant generations. In contrast, they were specifying the term also with respect to decades: they consider the 80s and 90s generations to be members of Shen 2, while 70s kids and millennials are not. They also noted that Shekou’s Second Generation (蛇二) is even more precisely defined; these are the children of utopian Shekou, who lived in the old China Merchants housing developments, and attended the original Yucai School.
So what defines Shen 2 kids? Continue reading
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”.
Opportunity in the post-Mao era — like all opportunity — has been a question of being in the right place at the right time. Below, I have translated a blog post, lamenting the fact that even if Shenzhen is the right place, it is no longer the right time; the opportunities are going, going, gone and if what remains are wage labor and education, even they are not enough for the poor.
Of note, the author uses the expression “poor second generation (穷二代)”, the direct opposite of the “rich second generation (富二代)”. More interestingly, he refers to “second generation farmers (农二代)”, as if the transition from farmer to urban resident was a natural progression. However, there have been generations of Chinese farmers — in fact, this is one definition of traditional Chinese culture. What then, we might wonder, is it about Shenzhen that gives rise to the expectation that each generation must do economically better than the last?
Shenzhen: Unfortunate Generation 80, Unhappy Workers, and the Hopeless Poor Second Generation
First of all, let me explain that my title refers to me. Perhaps you, who are reading this heading are one of the lucky Generation 80, the happy office workers. Or, maybe you’re one of the poor second generation or a second generation farmer but aren’t hopeless. If so, congratulations. My opinion isn’t going to be yours, its only representative of my thoughts.
Why is Generation 80 unfortunate? Continue reading
I’ve recently heard the phrase 羡慕妒忌恨 (envy covet hate) to refer to situations where another is happy in a situation that shouldn’t make her happy. For example, someone with a full-time job might envy-covet-hate a part-time worker who is happy with her situation – free time, low stress job, low pay, few high-priced objects. The point, of course, is that those with “everything” the new economy has to offer – prestigious jobs, upscale homes, and fancy cars – aren’t happy and thus envy-covet-hate someone who feels happy with her life. In Mandarin, this deep sense of satisfaction / contentment / happiness is called 幸福感 and friends are quick to point out, published accounts notwithstanding, Shenzhen has one of the lowest happiness indexes in China. Continue reading
Generation 90, as the teens born after 1990 are known, are reputedly even less socially responsible than the little emperors of generation 80. Not unexpectedly, Shenzhen’s wealthy second generation (富二代) is considered one of the most materialistic and selfish (最功利最自私) in the country. They have all (and yes making absolute generalizations about these teens is a national passtime) bought and then neglected to death goldfish and hamsters and bunnies and turtles; they all engage in competitive consumption, throwing out cell phones and laptops and gameboys as soon as a new model comes out; they all disrespect grandparents, ignore their parents, and only listen to their teachers when they are forced to. As a parent summarized the situation, “There are so many children today with great test skills, but are morally bankrupt (今天的学生功课好，却是个混蛋).”
Like all hyperbole, the stereotypes about Generation 90 carry grains of explosive truth. Most obviously, these stereotypes refer to rich kids, not the children of working families and definitely not the children of migrant workers. The parents of generation 90 think and spend in terms of 10,000s of yuan and not 1,000s (the working class) or 100s (migrant workers). These are kids who only have to face the consequences of their actions should their parents choose not to buy a way out for them. The most egregious examples are all school related: how much parents have spent to get a child into a top school; how much parents have given to a child for getting top grades; how much parents have spent when a child has been caught breaking rules.
In a country where the gaokao structures opportunity, it is easy to understand the resentment that fuels Generation 90 stereotypes. Resentment is further enflamed by the fact that even if these teens don’t test into a famous university, their families can finance a second chance abroad. I also empathize with the nervousness that infuses Generation 90 stereotypes. After all, these teens will hold key positions in the new world order; they are being trained as the next generation of political, military, economic, and cultural leaders and their parents are working hard to make sure that in this new world order China has a strong and respected position.
As a child of America’s postwar ascension, I share Generation 90’s conundrum. I was given puppies and hamsters, a top education, and access to key institutions. I was not only allowed, but also expected to make life choices based on desire and personal inclination, rather than on material necessity. My parents also worked hard to ensure that I would have opportunities to learn from, rather than be condemned for my mistakes. I don’t always like or agree with many of the decisions my students make, but I understand how difficult it is to unlearn privilege, especially when it doesn’t feel like anything but everyday life. Moreover, I realize that the wealth and prestige and opportunity that I inherited as part of GenX is the world that Generation 90 is struggling to overcome.