Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Chinese family life.

As a change from 'What I did on my holidays' here follows some more of what we picked up about the Chinese way of life.

It was very noticeable in Beijing that family groups often comprised more than one child who looked so alike that they had to be siblings. This we were told was because wealthy families do not have to adhere to the one child policy at it means they pay more in taxation, but that they can afford to do so. However, in central China it was a different story and the one child policy has been stuck to very strictly. With an aging population though inevitably there will be problems with the policy because the younger generations are expected to support their parents who can retire from the age of 50, and increasingly their grandparents as well.

In rural areas the government has allowed some flexibility in that if a farmer’s family has a daughter first they can have one more child in the hope that it will be a boy who can in due course take over the farming of the family’s land. Even in Shanghai – no ones idea of a rural area – the district government is saying that if a couple are both single children themselves, they can if they wish have a second child.

We met a woman on our boat who had triplets – two boys and a girl Result!

But what are the impacts of the one child policy on Chinese families? One of our guides had previously been a teacher of teenage kids. He quit because the behaviour of the children was so appalling – he said they were all so exceedingly spoilt. He went on to say that he himself had been totally spoilt when he was a child. He told us about a trip he made with his parents to Beijing when he was about 8 and he saw his first McDonalds. He could see all these children inside playing and he desperately wanted to go in and eat there. His mother pointed out that he couldn’t possibly be hungry because they had only just had dinner. He then proceeded to make the fuss to end all fusses and his indulgent parents caved in and he got his first ever Happy Meal. He didn’t touch the food as he was indeed not the slightest bit hungry, but he treasured the free toy for many months after the visit.

Our guide in Shanghai described the single children as generations of Little Emperors and Little Empresses. All completely and utterly indulged by their parents. BUT these children are also put under intense pressure to succeed because they will be expected to take care of their parents as they go out to work.

The pressure begins at kindergarten age where there are actually examinations for entrance to the best ones. Children of 3 years old are expected to know a minimum of 500 Chinese characters and to have some English.

In Shanghai the district authority recently put out a survey to see what it was that teenagers in the city felt would most improve their quality of life. 87% said ‘More sleep’, and they weren’t asking to be allowed to stay in bed till mid-afternoon. They spend all day at school and are given masses of homework on a daily basis. When they leave school they often get sent to Children’s Palaces – places offering extra curricular activities like music lessons, dance, art etc – and these places also give the kids homework. Our guide said that it is generally accepted that school students in the city will be doing homework till 2 in the morning, and will be up for school again five hours later. They also have activities at the weekends. She said the local authority recognises there is a problem with the physical condition of especially the young men – they are so busy with academic studies they do not get out to play sport or exercise and are a weedy bunch. What our guide said was that they were faced with increasing numbers of young people with very high I.Q’s but very low emotional intelligence at socialising just doesn’t happen. They start work and have no idea how to relate to colleagues.

Whilst all this pressure seems very unfair on the young people there are reasons behind it . As I already mentioned, the expectation on young adults is that they will support the older generations in their families (two families assuming a couple get married). The parents of people like our guide, Mira, have suffered extreme hardship during their lives. Mira was a child in the 1980’s and has always lived in Shanghai. Her family lived in one room three floors up in an apartment block. They had no kitchen and no bathroom. Chamber pots would be taken each morning to the nearest public toilet and sluiced out there. When they had a bath, heated water would be fetched from the ground floor of the block and carried up the stairs where it would be emptied into a tin bath. Afterwards the water would have to be carried back down again. This though was no hardship compared to what her father went through.

Her father was a student during the Cultural Revolution and was thus ‘encouraged’ to volunteer to go and do labouring work so he could appreciate the life of the Chinese peasants. He and his friends went to the province of Xinjiang which basically is as far away from Shanghai as they could have got without leaving China. It was a three day and night train journey to get there on a train with no seating, let alone toilet facilities. Upon arrival they were allocated space in what she described as barns for their living quarters and they were set to work on the land. There was a basic problem with the land in that it was on the edge of the Taklamakan Desert. Nothing could be cultivated there by experienced farmers so a bunch of students from a huge city were always going to struggle. He worked on the fruitlessly on the land for some 7 years before getting a job collecting firewood for the horrendously bitter cold winters (averaging -11 to -22 centigrade) ,from out in the Takalmakan Desert. This must have been fun.

Taklamakan translates as "The Desert of Death", "The Desert Into which He who Enters Will Not Return", "The Abandoned Place".
One of the largest 'shifting' deserts in the world, it once formed the greatest obstacle to be found along the Silk Road and fearful Caravaneers of old would skirt its edges, to the north or to the south, as they transported their wares from oasis to oasis and on to Khotan, Kashgar or Chang-an.

He went in a horse and cart – six hours into the desert and six hours back – every day for three years – on his own. Mira has asked him before how come he didn’t go stark staring mad doing that and his answer is that he knew he was so much better off doing that than he had been in the fields so he counted his blessings.

So anyway – no wonder he wants a bit of comfort in his old age.

Mira also told us displays of affection between parents and their child are very rare. She said she loved the way we kissed or hugged our children. This may also be a throw back to those raised during the Cultural Revolution as loyalty to the Party had to be placed above loyalty to the family and in fact for most of the week even senior Party officials lived apart from their families. Individuals feared being denounced if they were seen to be too affectionate to family members - even to their children. Saturdays were the day when a married couple could be together and the euphemism for making love in China is still 'Spending a Saturday'. I really don't know how though anyone could 'grow out of' being affectionate to ones kids.


naldo said...

Weird shit and very interesting read.

I can understand why China wanted to reduce its birth rate but it seems like the full impact of such masive social experiments is impossible to predict. The whirlwind may yet to be reaped in China.

Oh, and China seems as "Communist" as athletics are "Amateur".

Glad i dinnae live there.

Yorkshire Pudding said...

Genuinely fascinating.

J.J said...

Naldo - re the 'Communist' bit, all our guides seemed to idolise Deng Xiaoping and quoted him saying 'It doesn't matter if a cat is black or white, so long as it kills the mice'. So he was happy to take both a capitalist and a communist route to improve his country. But very hard to see much evidence of communism in the big city centres which seem a mecca to designer goods.

YP - I could have listened to these stories all day long myself. I'm now re-reading 'Wild Swans' and getting so much more from it having heard how the lives of people I met are reflected in that book.

12:50 PM