Folks in Shenzhen continue to protest the price of housing. This time, an armless beggar wrote the boycott call on the chest of a Generation 90s young woman. The interesting twist in this story? The young woman is from Hong Kong. I’m not sure how the protagonists’ collaboration ties into the ongoing re-structuring of a grassroots Shen Kong identity and deepening cross border integration (as opposed to official planning). Nevertheless, it is interesting to think about the implications of this protest performance: it took place in Lizhi Park, Futian, neither of the protagonists is identified as a Shenzhener, and yet this protest was represented in the press (晶报) as a Shenzhen story. Details, here.
Update (Mar 1): surfing in Youtube, I discovered a report that she had first tried to get a place to live by offering her chest as a pillow. However, the “price was too high” according to a man in the street.
The elevators in my building have three walls dedicated to advertizing; the fourth wall, so to speak, is a door. These advertisements change every week. What’s more, the advertisements in each of the three elevators are different. This means that every week, I encountered nine different sales pitches for appliances, cars, cultural events, family phone plans, and beauty makeovers. In short, the walls of my elevator promote a constantly changing version of the good home life, which is presumably affordable to those who live here – the catch is to make these life purchases desirable.
One of the latest advertisements for a beauty makeover claims to be able to remove all traces of acne and pimples. This advertisement disturbs me because its intended audience is Generation 90, teenagers who in addition are under the stress of the gaokao are being told they have no place to hide themselves and feel safe from prying eyes. Given the fact that most adults only notice a teenager when said teenager has blundered, the feeling of an ostrich unable to safely hide its head in the sand is probably spot on, if you’ll forgive the pun.
In English, I have understood the expression “to hide one’s head in the sand” to mean something like “avoid reality” or “avoid the consequences of my actions”. For me, being an ostrich has implied a kind of cowardice and a reluctance to take responsibility. In contrast, this advertisement focuses on being exposed – warts and all – to the gaze of others. In other words, the Mandarin interpretation of “to hide one’s head in the sand” focuses on a response to feeling ashamed – hide one’s face.
In other posts, I have spoken of the difference between lian (face as a metaphor for ethical sensibility) and mianzi (face as a metaphor for prestige and social power), what I hadn’t seen at the time was the way in which the emotional impact of these metaphors is cultivated through reference to actual faces. We effectively use shame to control the behaviors of others not only because we care about ethics, power, and other abstract values, but also because we have been taught to value some faces more than others and in the process become ashamed of our own.
Such is the cruelty of advertizing; it exploits cultural tropes for profit. More lamentably, when successful, the creative minds behind such symbolic manipulation are rewarded for their lack of lian by increased mianzi.
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.