The New Made In China. Image comes courtesy of Wang Fengchen SS18, NYFWM
This article was originally commissioned for Temper Magazine.
Kids These Days
Respect your elders. Observe filial piety. That’s what they always say.
“Granted, I love my parents, I appreciate their hard work and I understand that they only want the best for my future. So why is it so “darn” dang difficult sometimes when it feels like a game of tug of war against someone who simply doesn’t get me or my decisions?”
If you are a 20-something adult living in China, this is your highly likely current state of emotional mind.
Let’s break out that checklist; just humor me.
- Halfway through your conversation with a parent, do you ever feel mind boggled by their view of the world?
- Do your parents and grandparents occasionally drop a seemingly racist comment…in public (SMH) or pile outdated dating and career-hunting conventions onto your shoulders?
- And as the “advice” starts rolling in, does the distance between you and the senior generations grow greater?
If you replied “yes” to two or three out of the above, just stop while you’re ahead. Now imagine these severed bonds within the context of a society where people were until rather recently thrown about by the tumble-dryer mash-up of Chiang Kai-Shekist, Confucian-Christian, Mao Zedong-ist proletarian/Marxist and Deng Xiaoping-ist “to get rich is glorious” culture. My head is spinning upon the mere mention of such tumultuous times. It — unsurprisingly so — boggles the mind how vastly different many of these “seniors” view the world, how differently they approach their goals, how differently they view money, ambition and quality of life.
Cemented within the context of today’s society, “Mom and Dad vs. Child” is an uphill battle for more reasons than one. Honing in on the state of China’s domestic habitat anno 2017, the so-called “economic big bang” is coming at a big price: The parent-child relationship, aka the forging of one banging generation gap.
One For All, All For One
Continuity was a thing of luxury for those born during the 1950s and 60s; the decade-long endured inconsistencies, accompanied by a “one for all, all for one” mentality, are what currently drives a major wedge between China’s older and on-the-rise generations. The gulf dividing both is more than generational. It is a value gap, a wealth gap, an educational gap, a relationship gap and an information gap.
What happens when people get red RMB bill signs in their eyes? They often naturally drink the Kool Aid and flock to the closest watering hole to fill up their buckets with gold and other shiny things. In places such as the United States, Europe, Australia and Japan, where economic glory is a tale of yore, the understanding for what it takes to become a successful person is fairly synonymous across all plains. The system in place is fairly predictable and fairly stabilized.
“We were taught to give to society; now they’re taught to get for themselves in any way possible.” It’s a dog eat dog world out there, true dat, and China is now a spinning top with individualism rather than collectivism as its center of gravity. No wonder there are so many complicated dinnertime discussions being brought to the table.
Those who spent their 20s laboring on remote farms and working towards the greater good are now raising children who assess their lives in iPads, travel and personal wealth. Better known as the balinghou (those born after 1980), this younger generation has been sheltered from experiencing hardships such as food rationing and was raised after the start of China’s “reform and opening”: Open the gates! Bring in the “imposters!”
Despite similar borders, their experiences were worlds apart. These disparities, when applied to the ambition of China’s young men and women, are at the forefront of many a relationship rift and possess the power to create some massive roadblocks. Such as?
“Lady talk” — always a good launching pad for discussion.
Women were allowed, and even expected, in the workforce, but also found themselves expected to birth many children in support of the revolution. You can’t have your cake and eat it too.
Life As A 80hòu
Mothers of the 80hòu (i.e. those born after 1980) are a true testament to the rapid evolution of China and a great example as to why and how there is such a large generational gap in place. These good women of China carry within the whole story, the details of which could keep you on your toes for hours. These women have seen it all. From traditional to revolutionary to modern day China, they’ve experienced a whirling number of shifts from oppression to liberation to oppression to ultimate collusion of the elements. Often confused by the strict and oppressive rhetoric of Mao, to the sudden “gold rush” and hint of liberal counter culture, to the happenings of Tiananmen and to the opening of commerce to the West, one might even consider it surprising they’re still standing. Now envisage this person trying to understand your college party ways and days, your desire for that unpaid but oh-so-get-your-foot-in–the-door internship at an advertising agency or your need for those Gucci mules. Right. Care to re-think your situation yet?
Although China was traditionally oppressive to women, despite the many negative repercussions of Mao’s authority and regime, he did manage to liberate women and provide them with rights only found in their dreams. There was a removal of the four “olds” — old ideas, habits, customs and culture — which was bad for tradition, but good for women. The marriage law of 1950 outlawed many harsh practices including arranged marriages, dowries, concubines and child brides. It also granted women the right to file for divorce. Way to go, M! But where’s the catch?
Women were allowed, and even expected, in the workforce, but also found themselves expected to birth many children in support of the revolution. You can’t have your cake and eat it too. That’s what they always say.
The ambitions of women today are not scoffed at. In fact, they are admired, especially by those mothers who were prevented from attending school, having a career and living their lives during the Cultural Revolution.
Blonde, Brown, Black, Red, … Female Ambition
Oh my. And having said that, we ask… What are the two things that really drive women — aside from a challenge? Why, it’s ambition and fashion, of course!
With ambition alive and well in post-Mao Modern China, but guaranteed employment swept from under their feet, women on the prowl for power-dressing, metropolitan-based jobs began migrating illegally from the rural areas where their families could no longer offer support into the country’s major cities. Especially due to the nation’s so-called “leftover woman syndrome,” these singletons needed to have impressive resumes if nothing else, to make them better candidates for working and wife-ing.
The ambitions of women today are not scoffed at. In fact, they are admired, especially by those mothers who were prevented from attending school, having a career and living their lives during the Cultural Revolution. In consequence of those unfulfilled dreams, they further project that desire for independent freedom onto their children. Nevertheless, if it looks and sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Despite a woman’s drive to have a successful career, family and filial piety are still cornerstones of Chinese society and are expected to come first. Subsequently, just as before, the burden is just as real today. Take dutiful note:
- “Filial piety is the root of all virtues,” as the saying goes.
- “Love what your parents love, respect what they respect,” instructs another.
- “Women are born with filial famine and ethical debt. Hence the purpose of their lives is to clear that debt,” one Confucian nationalist organization taught us in 1935.
We all know women can do both, but in the West, we actually have a choice. In China, on the other hand, the expectations to this day remain cumbersome and draining, like a constant game of generational “chicken”. Even the ownership of a house or an apartment has gripped both generations. Parents are willing to help pay for such must-haves as a means of extra leverage and financial bond with their children (mostly daughters) so that they will be taken care of into old age — a burden exacerbated by the one-child policy. The men, waiting their turn, are expected to afford an apartment prior to marriage as a way of proving “man can provide”, if you will. (There are mixed feelings on this approach vs. the having a so-called “naked marriage” (裸婚, luǒhūn) where love comes before money.)
The younger generation no longer shares the same priorities their parents do, but the guilt trip is so large that one could fill the entire city of Beijing with their cries. How do you be the leader of your own life, encouraged by your parents to succeed, make money and then, suddenly, just as you enter your mid-20s, find your self-tugged home under the unbeknownst pretenses that your career was really more of a “short lived gig”? In the United States, it is unheard of for an established businessman or woman to leave a job simply to return home as a caretaker for their parents in old age, hence the apartment in the city. One big happy family!
It’s evident that many of the hardships endured by the older generations have filtered into the psyche of their children. The tenacious, driven and determined spirit that shines deep within the 80hòu, both in China and abroad, is a direct reflection of the characteristics their parents developed from living under Mao’s “all-knowing” leadership. This is, after all, where their value of prosperity and relationships derive from. But then again, what a trivial pursuit for women enamored by that beaming light at the end of the tunnel, all the while stunted by the overarching and lurking guilt of becoming a housewife.
Like a cheaply manufactured fast fashion Gap piece, China’s post-1980 women are easily and understandably torn between the appreciation for life lessons and guidance and the lack of interest in contemplating how many houses to leave the future generation.
A quick back-track to a few years pre-Mao era. Women were allowed to wear some of the most liberating garb to date: Swimsuits, the qipao, provocative dresses…
Let’s Talk Fashion, Baby!
What of fashion, you ask? Let’s see where and how that comes into play.
A quick back-track to a few years pre-Mao era. Women were allowed to wear some of the most liberating garb to date: Swimsuits, the qipao, provocative dresses…All stylishly similar to the early 1900s in the United States. One could understand the mother’s predicament with current fashion given how Mao put on his “crown” and slammed down his “scepter” to defeminize women — who were rapidly forced to change gears. Out the window went those beautiful gowns, their femininity, and in the door walked the unisex Mao Suit, essentially a uniform used as a means of conformity and to hide their sexuality and unique character. The Gap avant-la-lettre, let’s say. This woman probably had the most amazing of qipaos, her Sunday best, on her hanger, only to have it chucked to the streets. And with that trashing, her identity minimized to a simple suit. It doesn’t take a socio-politico-psychologico genius to see how this carries no relevance towards the women of the 80hòu in today’s China. Nowadays, the new women of China once again embrace their femininity, power and sexuality through fashion. Power and success are paired with fashion as the ultimate power play: Unisex clothing is a choice, not a requirement.
Once thrown back into the garden of choice, the transition was not so easy. The damage had been done, but for the 80hòu, Mao Suits were a thing of the past, a museum window at the very most. Shopping was once again the doorway to individuality, to self-expression. They were liberated, free to spread their wings wearing a power suit from YSL and the flick of a Louboutin heel. This is a part of what it nowadays means to be in control. From little red books to little red soles… Things are a changin’.
Though the hardships of the Cultural Revolution are not something easily understood — neither by me, by you or by their children — the PTSD of such a national devastation is, well, devastating. Yet if there is one thing they can both get on board with, it’s money. The Chinese are often both emulated and slammed simultaneously for their wealth and materialism. Money is the common tie that binds, but the parents-in-charge are concerned that their children are not going the extra mile to become “wealthy and prosperous” — gotta love the standard Chinese Party rhetoric — fast enough rate and this they will do everything in their power to push them until they can push no more.
“I’m a pusher Cady, I’m a pusher”. Yep, yep, yep.
There is no doubt that capitalism (with Chinese characteristics, of course) is indeed progressing and succeeding, but the difference is how that wealth is obtained. For one, given their history, the 80hòu are astonished by the amoral attitudes many of their parents adopt when it comes to making money. Furthermore, “the priority for Chinese parents isn’t professional standing or public achievement, but money and security, regardless of what the job involves.” (quote, Aeon) Forget the “ he’s a docta” or “he’s a lawya” brimming-and-beaming-with-pride statement. Profession is of little concern to parents. All that matters now, is the cold hard change in their pockets.
This mentality affects that lovely dinner table discussion on what it means to define a career. When looking for such, we often times search for an opportunity to grow and are willing to climb the ladder one rung at a time. In corporate China, the 80hòu and beyond have learned to value this process; it defines their ambition. On the flip side, the older generation measures everything in perks, rather than opportunities, which is usually what one looks for in a job, not a career. To them, it is one and the same. Children are pushed by their parents to take up an offer for the money, rather than one that offers great returns in a future, far far away.