The last time I wrote an article of this title was my first year in China, when everything was so new and remarkable, I was writing at least 2 articles a week. My verve hasn't slowed down any, but other things have come to the forefront, such as: working more than I did when I first came here, a broken leg, floods, and becoming inured to some happenings which, at first glance do not seem inane.
Meanwhile, I've had time and now, enough knowledge of Chinese culture – that Little C aspect, as it is known in sociology circles, to expound on deeper mysteries of life in China. Specifically, children.
I've long admired how children seem to be the focus of life in China. My students' driving goal is to marry and have a child. Parents play with their children, grandparents parade them around. Grown children sometimes live within the family fold even after university graduation or marriage. Being a teacher – my life's work consisting of working with children, I cannot fail to notice that, for my students, 'home' is their only focus and desire.
So, what is it that binds these children of all ages to their home and families, and fosters the desire for nothing more than to propagate the family line?
“Your child is your child for life.”
That is not just a prevailing attitude in China, it is a firm belief: once you have a child, you will always have that child. That's not so unusual: in America it is common to refer to one's last-born as one's 'baby', no matter how old that child is. Everywhere in the world, people refer to their offspring as sons and daughters, even if such son/daughter is in their 50s or older. What makes it so unusual in China is that that progeny is treated like a child for his/her entire life.
It is not uncommon for parents in China to cook and clean and do the laundry for their grown children. And further: instruct them on career and money matters – going so far as to find them suitable employment, a suitable mate, buy them a house and maybe even a car. In short, everything parents do in China, they do for their children.
That's actually another cultural norm.
But is that in fact the case? Let's look no further than China's 'Left-Behind Children' phenomenon. These are children who are left in their villages while parents go to the big city for work. By that I don't mean some high-powered, executive job, but a position as a migrant laborer. Their life is brutal and basic, earning little and living in extreme poverty, in squalid conditions. Nevertheless, it is worth it to them because they send all of their money home, for their child. They get to see their child maybe once a year, during Spring Festival.
You might wonder why they don't simply take their child with them when they seek work, as migrant workers do the world over. The reason for that is China's household registration policy, called Hukou (pronounced 'who-co'). I will talk more about hukou in my next post.
What does such a parental absence mean for a left-behind child? Probably the biggest impact is the feeling of abandonment. I see it in my students, who have attachment issues – they are constantly fearful they will be left behind or overlooked, thus they cling together and to anyone who will spare them time and emotion. On the other end of that spectrum, there are students who shun all attachments or approachments, possibly believing there is no sense in forging bonds, only to have them inevitably broken. Trust becomes a huge factor, with most of my students either being wary of being cheated, or being so overwhelmingly trusting that they believe everything everyone tells them.
One dear girl genuinely believed those fellows at the train station when they said all they wanted to do was go home. She couldn't leave her place in the ticket line, so she gave them her bank card and told them her PIN. “They said they only needed 100 Yuan, and would be right back!” she lamented to me later.
I see abandonment issues in at least 2 of my colleagues' children. One boy was left in the village for the first 2 years of his life and, according to his mother, the custodial grandmother failed to bond with him, leaving him mostly to play games on the cellphone. Now he has speech problems – the granny did not talk with him or interact with him much. He cannot bear to be separated from his mother, and he acts out if he believes a separation is imminent. He is unmannered, undisciplined and as angry as he can be. Another little boy was left in the care of his father while his mother went abroad for an admittedly excellent work opportunity. This tyke now appears to shun all females, even those who don't look a thing like his mother – like me.
None of this is even remotely paradoxical or oxymoronic, but the following is:
Perhaps this is only my personal definition of effective parenting: one should work oneself out of a job as quickly as possible. Thus, one should teach a child how to care for him/herself at the earliest opportunities. How to prepare food, wash clothes, keep house, manage time and relationships. How to make decisions and good choices, learning right from wrong, and all of the other important moral teachings I believe is every parent's duty to pass on to their child.
Except for a few, isolated cases, I see very little of that in China. 'Helicopter parents' – ones that hover and tend to their child's every need are the norm, here. Some kids never learn how to make a choice or decision, judging by my students' inability to do so. One of my freshmen assignments is for them to give a speech on their thoughts of university life. Invariably, I will hear shock and betrayal at having to learn how to wash one's clothes, make one's bed, and trying to figure out when to take a shower – because there are no parents around to do it all for them or tell them what to do.
Thus to me, it is very puzzling that, if every parent's duty is to do for their child, wouldn't that child be better served in being taught life skills, rather than having everything done for them until they are of such an age that they end up in a quandary because they don't know how to do for themselves?
Respect is high on the list of Chinese must-haves. Respect for authority, repect for one's elders... but it seems respect goes only one way in China: up. Seldom is anyone young in age or lower in social rank respected.
Well, that's true in just about every country, isn't it?
In China, it goes beyond respect and way into veneration, but apparently not for youths, and not (formally) for one's child. I say that because, at any given time, a family elder may intrude on that child's life, no matter how old or what stage of life s/he is. I know young adults who are resentful of parental/familial meddling, but powerless against it. Such meddling may include the choice of mate – witholding permission to marry, for example; where to work or where to live.
And that would be another paradox: if parents and their extended families work so hard to raise and launch their children, why don't they respect their child for the man/woman s/he has become? Isn't it actually the opposite of respect to treat someone as though they were incapable of managing their life?
Wouldn't you consider it oxymoronic to care for someone to the point that you stifle/cripple/hobble them?