Written by Samantha Hudson ’20
This blog post is written in response to Samantha’s trip to China with Professor Xinlu Yu in the spring 2018 3-week.
Across cultures and time, coming of age stories have captured the attention of all audiences. In the past 40 years, China, as a country, has experienced its own revelation of self identity. The young and old, the rich and poor—they have all faced this change head on. The result has allowed the world to watch as an entire culture transformed before our eyes. From the first day in Beijing through our last day in Hangzhou, encounters with Chinese citizens gave me and my classmates insight as to how the rapid change has impacted how individuals across generations view themselves within society.
A common group that we were able to learn from was our bus drivers from three different cities—Beijing, Xi’an, and Shanghai. Each of the bus drivers were around 40 years old and had kids going through school. Through conversations with our professor we were able to learn how they viewed the ongoing political and social changes. Despite their common disdain for changes such as abolishing the presidential term limit and merging the three largest state run media groups into one organization, their main focus is providing for their family and doing everything they can to help their children to succeed in school. It seems that this mindset is not uncommon for their demographic—one that vividly remembers the recent past, including the Tiananmen Square Massacre. Their generation had its hand at rebellion and they had to fold, they only hope for a better outcome for their children. As our bus driver from Xi’an phrased it, “When the government tells you it’s time to go to sleep, you go to sleep. When the government tells you it’s time to wake up and go to work, you wake up and go to work.” This cycle can be overbearing and tedious, but it has not prevented each of these men from finding meaning in their work. All three went above and beyond their jobs by offering advice, providing drinking water, and much more. Their self identity has found a home in their ability to do their jobs well and provide for their families.
On our last day in Beijing and during our time in Xi’an my classmates and I had the opportunity to interact with the retired community on a few occasions. We saw them during the early morning and in the evenings when they would gather in the parks for organized dance and meditation sessions. Additionally, when we visited the Temple of Heaven we joined them at one of the many public parks built for the aging community to help them stay active. Besides just exercise, many group games similar to hacky-sack and badminton were going on, and we were even able to join a few. The welcoming atmosphere of these locations and activities can be attributed the community oriented lifestyle that that generation was raised with. Rather than sit around all day, they stay busy by engaging with the world around them. Of course, this means that even the retired community does not miss out on a sales opportunity. All of the equipment being used for games was readily available for purchase. Our experiences with the retired community certainly displayed a more collective oriented mindset than some of the younger generations we met later on. Similarly to other cultures, the aging community seemed to link its self identity to its ability to stay healthy and to continue contributing to society in some productive way.
During our time in Hangzhou one of the formative experiences was our time spent with students attending a prestigious high school. Each of us was assigned a host sibling and had the opportunity to live with their family for a weekend. The very nature of the Chinese education system places an immense pressure on students. Even local students board at their school during the week, and while there do not have access to their cell phones or email. Their class days run very long, and leave little time for sleep or extra curricular activities. Within the classroom public criticism of individuals from teachers is commonplace, and grades are posted publicly. With all of this going on, it raises a question of what mindset the students hold in regards to themselves and their future. Conversations with my host sister and her classmates helped reveal some of these views. As for my host sister’s current stage in life, nothing could be more important than school. Her performance on every homework assignment and test reflected her own competence and the ability of her family to raise a successful and hardworking child. Unlike many of her classmates, my host sister’s parents did not pressure her into a certain course of study. Her interest in languages is her own to pursue, which will be a key factor to her happiness later on in life. Additionally, my host sister defied the stereotype of the Chinese being strictly money driven. While my host sister has a goal of attaining financial stability, she emphasized that she will not need an abundance of wealth to be happy. She hopes that her work will have meaning and that once she is financially stable, she will be able to help those around her and contribute positively to their well-beings. At only 17 years old, my host sister was also well aware that despite school being intense, she is being afforded an opportunity that many students of differing wealth will never have. We discussed at length the urban and rural divide that plagues China. She recognized that a rural student equal to her in all ways except location, would not be able to achieve the same level of education as her, as that the system is stacked against them. No amount of hard work can make up for the resources and support they will never be given. It is quite possible that my host sister’s views represent an anomaly. The encouragement of her family to pursue her passion and her own disinterest with amassing excessive wealth oppose the goals of previous generations and what we are told about the goals of her generation. If her views are shared by her classmates, even secretly, this could mark a turning point in self identity for the youth of China. Her family’s current financial stability, however, is not shared by the vast majority of China, leaving much of the younger generations still striving to meet the goals of their parents as discussed with our bus drivers. One could hypothesize that as the wealth gap continues to grow in China, the self identity of the younger generations will follow a similar division.
Our time in China allowed me and my classmates to interact with individuals across the spectrum of age and wealth. Political views and social engagements helped reveal how these individuals place themselves within society and what values are pertinent to their own well-being. As the aging generation finds refuge in their community oriented life-style, the middle aged generations remain concerned with simply providing for their families and setting their children up for success. The wild card of sorts, will be the youth of China. As they continue their education and enter the work force, their true attitudes towards wealth and governmental and social issues will come to fruition. Whether the result will be the status quo of passivity, or the rise of a new movement remains to be seen. One can certainly say, however, that self-identity is evolving in China and a point may be reached again where either systemic change occurs to meet the sprouting needs of the youth, or damage control will be done to starve the needs of their inspiration.