Wednesday, March 9, 2011


A lot of times I build entire entries around intriguing titles. I wonder what runs through your head at my sometimes odd appellations, and if you then get a chuckle or an a-ha moment when you read the entry and see why I titled it as I have.

In this case you will be in the dark until I explain the phenomenon described as ba-ling-hou (see pronunciation in title). ‘Ba’ is the Chinese word for ‘eight’. ‘Ling’ is the word for ‘zero’ and hou means ‘after’. Thus, ba-ling-hou means after ’80, and it refers to the generation born after 1980.

In 1980, China started opening up to the West, and started its forays into the capitalistic economic system. Children born after 1980 enjoyed a privileged upbringing, with more material goods and more food than their parents had theretofore seen or experienced. At the same time a social system emerged which entitled people to retire at age 55, thus freeing one or both sets of grandparents to be available to their grandchildren as needed.

The downside to this system is that the parents of ba-ling-hou children had to work doubly hard because they had their children to provide for, as well as their own future and their parents’ current upkeep. The new Chinese system did not account for what the retirees would do for money, and there is no social security in China. It is up to individual, and their family to provide for the elderly. Because the elderly did not have many financial opportunities prior to 1980, their financial resources are meager.

If we thought the middle class in America is stretching it, taking care of elderly parents and college-aged children, you should see how the ‘sandwich generation’ in China manages. They are under tremendous pressure to provide for two sets of parents and their child. Reports say that the stress is unbearable. Not only do they have the socially mandated obligations to their parents and their child, but they must also see to their future because there still is no social security in China. They will only have what they’ve managed to accumulate in their lifetime to live on in their old age.

Wait a minute, though. If they have to support their elderly, couldn’t they count on their children to support them? Isn’t that system perpetuated?

Well, that’s why ba-ling-hou is called a phenomenon, and why sociologists are so worried about it.

Having grown up entitled and with more choices than this society has ever provided anyone, the ba-ling-hou’s are not living up to expectations. Rather than being grateful at all they were blessed with growing up, they expect more and ever more for themselves.

Ba-ling-hou’s are restless and change jobs often. They own more clothing and luxury items than their parents ever dreamed of having. They marry later in life and sometimes opt not to have children. On the average, they have accumulated no savings and hold no real property, even though they have been out of college for up to ten years. Ba-ling-hou’s are as different a demographic as China has ever experienced.

You can see why sociologists are worried, right? Wait till I tell you about jiou-ling-hou. ‘Jiou’ is the Chinese word for ‘nine’; jiou-ling-hou means ‘after ‘90’, logically enough referring to those born after 1990.

Once the idea of material wealth sunk in with the traditional Chinese – as they watched the ever-widening chasm between having and not having grow, their parents decided that having is essential to a happy life. They were born in the ‘70s, just children at the time that ba-ling-hou were being produced. Now, as parents of the worrisome jiou-ling-hou generation, they are feeling the increasing pressure of taking care of their parents (still no social security in China) and providing for their children, now that things are getting more expensive. Education, food, healthcare, clothing, entertainment, luxury goods… all of the essentials, and all the things that a self-respecting member of Chinese society expects as a matter of course for their life.

I would venture to say that China just might encounter a bit of trouble, socially speaking. Don’t you agree?
I am friends with several ba-ling-hou: Ken and his girlfriend Della, George, Jerry, Li Xiang and others. I’ll use Ken as an example, because I know him best. He graduated college five years ago, and since then has held a series of menial jobs that sometimes didn’t even pay minimum wage (minimum wage in China is 900Yuan per month – not even a livable salary). He lives with his parents and has borrowed a great deal of money from his family for a business venture that went bust. He now wishes to travel abroad and marry his girlfriend, none of which is possible unless his parents fork over a great deal of money and real property for.

It is traditional for a man to provide an apartment as a condition of marriage before a girl’s family will agree to the marriage. Ken’s parents do in fact have an apartment available for them, but refuse to put it in Ken’s name for fear that he would sell the apartment to buy something he wants more at that moment, such as traveling. That apartment is Ken’s parents’ social security. Ken has proven financially unreasonable and unrealistic since his graduation so it is safe to assume that he would not be able to take care of his parents in the future. I can’t blame the parents for seeing to their financial security before accommodating their son’s wishes. Ken’s and Della’s wedding plans are now at an impasse: Della’s parents will not agree to the marriage and Ken’s parents will not surrender the apartment.

When I suggested to Ken that he get a better paying job in order to buy his own apartment and prove to his and Della’s parents that he is serious about his obligations to both parties as well as to his intended, he was shocked speechless. But then, he agreed that he should find a better job. And he has. He is now saving money… to travel abroad this summer.

What happened to getting married? Well, that’s the problem with ba-ling-hou: you just don’t know what they want or what they’re working for. It seems he is going to keep begging his parents to surrender their apartment, with no thought to their future.

Jonathan and Mary (see How Rude) are jiou-ling-hou, as is Hero, a computer science major here at the school. I’ve already divulged the first two kids’ arrogance and rudeness, but I’m afraid that Hero tops them in that department. He went so far as to suggest I should not try to eat with chopsticks, and he totally disregards the fact that I do not wish him to come by my apartment whenever he feels like it. It seems his goal is to learn better English, and he has designated me his personal tutor, whether I am in agreement or not. I have told him often to not just come by my house because I am usually busy doing something, even if I am just at home. That seems to fall on deaf ears. I’ve come to suspect that many of these kids, Hero included, understand English fairly well until something comes up that they do not want to hear.

I teach jiou-ling-hou. Every single one of those kids has a cell phone and they dress to the nines. They have money to burn, and they do burn it: eating out instead of eating mess hall food, going to KTV instead of hitting the books and the library, buying clothes and shoes and MP4s and music and downloading movies and playing games on their laptop computers.

If Ken, Jonathan, Marie and Hero are any example of the mentality of these younger generations of Chinese, is it any wonder that ba-ling-hou and jiou-ling-hou are scaring economists and sociologists to death?

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