Loyal readers of this blog will remember the student I mentioned a few posts back – in Bad Day or Awakening, whose mother was dissuading her from taking the IELTS test by telling her daughter that her English was not good enough. Occasional readers now have a point of reference and can go back and read that post so that this one will make sense.
That student’s name is Shelin. She is a beautiful, intelligent woman with very specific goals: she wishes to go to Graduate School in Hong Kong so that she can seek a career in the travel industry. Specifically she wants to work on cruise ships. Shelin has no desire to marry and have children; instead she wishes to see how far her own accomplishments can take her. She is the epitome of young Chinese women today. She realizes she has choices and chances, and she wants to take advantage of every one of them.
Perhaps her lack of desire to marry and have a child scared her mother into convincing Shelin her English was not good enough to aspire to such a life.
All over China this conundrum exists. ‘Traditional’ parents despair over the fact that their children are marrying later and postponing having children, if they even have a child at all. Grown children, although well aware that they embody the hopes and dreams and future security of their parents, still seek to establish themselves and pursue their own dreams. This is a huge problem, one that was not foreseen when the one-child policy was enacted in 1979.
A little bit of background: during the Great Leap Forward of 1958, when the Chinese were forced to abandon a bourgeois lifestyle and live in communes to produce food and develop industry, the leaders of this country noted that feeding the masses would be progressively more difficult if the population kept growing at the rate it was then growing. With only 7% of the world’s arable land feeding 20% of the world’s population, they foresaw disaster looming. It took 21 years to hit upon a solution to this dilemma: each family should only produce one child. Thus the one-child policy was born (pardon the pun).
As we now know, this policy has also revealed itself to be a disaster. With many families preferring a male heir to carry on the family name, baby girls were either killed at or shortly after birth, or, with the advent of amneosynthesis, aborted so that the parents could try again to get their coveted male child. To counter that, the Chinese government then outlawed amneosynthesis for the purpose of abortion and instituted what is called the Spring Thunder Project, a plan that pays dividends and gives incentives to parents of baby girls.
Over the years, parents have come to realize that having a girl child is actually better social security for them than a male child. Not only does the female not take her husband’s name when marrying in China, but there is now the option of according the grandchild its mother’s name. It is not a popular choice, I grant you, but at least this way the parents of baby girls have the hope that their name will live on. Another reason that having a daughter is better than having a son: females are more apt to care for elderly parents than are males.
One manifestation of the one-child policy is that now, there is a dearth of marriageable girls and all of the males of marriage age are scrambling to find a bride and bring honor to their family. Add to that the fact that women have more options and choices than ever before, and even fewer marriages are taking place in this highly populous country.
Now we come back to Shelin, the embodiment of her parents’ hopes and dreams. They are ‘Traditional Chinese’: they want their daughter to marry and they want a grandchild. Shelin resists the idea. They are at loggerheads about it.
So you can imagine that, when I met Shelin’s parents I expected a certain amount of venom for helping their daughter go contrary to their dreams. What I got instead was a warm and generous reception. I just keep on being surprised in my dealings here!
Shelin’s parents are both doctors. They live in a fine home with many luxuries. The first time I visited there the maid was cleaning house while Mom and Grandfather cooked dinner. Dad was away at a conference in Beijing and I did not get to meet him. The dinner was plentiful and tasty, and I was given the leftovers to take home.
Imagine my surprise, a few days later when I boiled that leftover chicken to make soup with and fished the chicken’s head and feet out of the pot! I nearly squealed in horror, and then giggled at the idea that I might have encountered that chicken head while dining with Shelin and her family. What would my reaction have been? I can’t even imagine.
Now that Shelin passed her test, her parents felt compelled to treat me to a meal in a fine restaurant, to thank me for tutoring their daughter into passing this exam. Unfortunately I did not know we were going to eat in a fine restaurant, so I set off to Shelin’s house wearing blue jeans and a random sweater… and of course, muddy shoes. In spite of my bum’s attire, they kept with their plan of fine dining instead of treating me to a bowl of noodles at a vendor’s stall – which would have been perfectly acceptable and more than was necessary.
What a sumptuous meal we had! There was roast beef and roast donkey (not bad tasting), dumplings, a pork and egg dish, raw vegetables, salad, a fine soup made of pork bones and lotus root. Deep-fried pumpkin stuffed with red bean paste, followed by sliced watermelon rounded out the menu. We drank tea and watermelon juice and tried to communicate over the language barrier. Shelin became our interpreter and our cell phones, equipped with translation software, saw hefty use during those three hours. Shelin’s father paid over 400Yuan for that meal. I nearly fell out of my chair at the cost of it.
After dinner they invited me to see their new apartment, as yet unfinished. It overlooks the Yangtze River, and you can see Hankou, the ‘happening’ part of Wuhan from their 11-th floor balcony. They confided that they are not going to move there anytime soon as they are already comfortable in the apartment they currently inhabit, which is very close to the hospital where they both work. I did not have the vocabulary to ask why they have this new apartment, and I still wonder why. An investment, maybe?
All while this merriment was going on, I was trying to figure out how to gift Shelin’s parents the humble bottle of wine I had brought them. I had originally thought to just set it on their mantle with the rest of their wine bottles, but I never entered their house. Finally, while in the car driving home, I asked Shelin how best to give them this gift. She said I should just give it to them, so I did. They refused it.
Apparently it is acceptable to refuse a gift in China, especially seeing as it is also acceptable to ask about how much money one makes. That was one of the dinner table questions I fielded and in Dad’s opinion, I do not make near enough money for my skill level. That was why they were compelled to refuse my gift and ply me with leftovers and gifts of their own.
It is difficult for me to accept all of this goodwill and veneration. How could I possibly pay them back or return the gesture, other than learning Chinese really quickly so we can have decent conversation?