China with Polish Characteristics

Features

A word of explanation, before you get smothered with text – although I don’t do it often, I reallly enjoy writing longer pieces about China, and in general about people and places I have been fortunate to visit. While it’s practically impossible to share things like that on a blog (I am going to start a proper website in the near future), I would like to give you a sample of something more serious than silly blog entries. What follows below, is an extract from my article on the “little emperors” – the young Chinese generation shaped by environment of one-child policy – which I wrote a while ago. If you enjoy the piece and would like to read the entire thing, feel free to drop me an e-mail (sidan12@gmail.com). Best,

Kris

1. The juvenile dynasty

Imagine, for a brief moment, that you’re a foreigner living in China. And then try to picture yourself in a commonplace situation – as you’re walking down the street, eating in a restaurant, riding somewhere on the train, you run into a young Chinese couple with their child. After a brief spell of shyness, you exchange smiles, courtesies and then the attention inevitably shifts to the little precious one. Following the spirit of ‘Carpe Diem’ the parents begin prodding: Lai, lai, shuo ‘hello’, pointing at the foreign ‘uncle’. Naturally, the child wants nothing to do with it. He or she looks at you with terror and turns to run. “No, no” say the parents, embarrassed and laughing. “Go on, talk to the uncle” As the child tries to reason with them, a strain begins to appear in their faces. “Say ‘hello’, didn’t you learn it? Go on, say it” they repeat with worry, and then with exasperation. The little one is left with no leeway – he is to learn.Today’s Chinese children can truly feel the pressure of the developing country on their shoulders. One could argue that it was always so, for throughout the years of Chinese history the resources were always scarce, leaving people in secondary position to the land they lived on; leaving them to endure hardships and hunger at the whim of heavens in a tradition as timeless and keen as Taoist poetry. It would seem that currently there is finally plenty to eat while the people in the cities are growing in wealth and power. With countless kids brandishing cell phones, laptops and toys of mass consumption, the Old Heaven finally appears at a man’s bidding. But despite that show of affluence, the developing economy still thrives in somewhat of a hollow glory, unable to properly sustain more than a fraction of its population. Concrete opportunities, places in good schools, fulfilling and well paid jobs are all severely limited and happiness is for many like an elusive dream – a promise which could slip away as easily as the good harvests did in the centuries before.The population control policy implemented 30 years ago – each woman allowed to bear only one child – turned out to be a double edged sword. While the birth of Chinese children took a turn for more reasonable, the parents themselves evolved in an opposite direction, spinning out of control like semi-professional DJs on a Friday night. In a Chinese society, steeped in a tradition where few things are as important as a family, suddenly all of the unfulfilled ambition, pride and hope of two generations has been given only a single chance – one, frail human being at an apex of the family tree. And as if in an anxious storm, the grandpas, grandmas, uncles, and parents, all swept down in a rush of breathless attention, taking on the upbringing of the only child like a family sport, the 21st century Olympics if you will, with each household vying for the gold. To be on the receiving end of such confederation meant to be smothered with love and pressure, and as the result the children often grew up in a selfish, busy, and stressful environment.Thus the unofficial nickname for the single kids in China today – the Little Emperors – turns out to be a truly apt one, even more so than one would expect at a first glance. The children grow up used to thinking only about themselves, with their needs, with almost every whim, being indulged and catered to. But just like the factual emperors of the times before, they are trapped in their lives by all of their faithful and ever vigilant retainers – a full blown family court with strict expectations, terms of schedule, and code of behavior. Thus the children live in a both free and at once tightly controlled environment, an isolated golden cage, wielding substantial power yet being slaves to their privileged circumstances.And while the family lives and childhoods run amok, the final effect, the sum of benefits and wounds inflicted, is as hard to predict as China’s future itself. But if once again, one will look to history for a clue, it shows unequivocally that for 5,000 years China was, for the most part, its old self. Families always strove for glory, but also for stability and contentment. And Chinese people, no matter how high or low, always grew up to be family people, living out their ordinary lives. While the current intensity and ambition are made to measure with our times – fast and cruel development, mirage of opportunities and churning vats of money – one wonders how the current generation will come to terms with itself. In a confused stream of hope, care, senseless pressure, and failed expectations it’s not easy to be normal.

 

2. On Sichuan Earthquake

Below is another short article written during the national mourning period, soon after the May 12 earthquake. Looking back, it’s incredible how Sichuan managed to put itself back together and move on. I’ll try to write more on the reconstruction efforts in the months to come.

 

At 2:28 pm life across China falls still with intense emotion as the next three minutes are spent in memory of the earthquake victims. In the streets, cars come to a halt with horns blaring; the people stand with their heads bowed, or like on Tiananmen Square, break into frenzied, anguished chanting. But even as the country slowly begins its mourning, the tragedy in Sichuan continues to unfold, with people braving the deadly aftershocks to put their broken lives back together. What’s unusual about Sichuan’s reconstruction, however, is the speed, courage and power with which ordinary Chinese have involved themselves into the rescue operations.

“I definitely feel sad, but also really proud,” says Wang Chen, a leader of an NGO dealing with AIDS education in China’s middle schools. “Without prodding from the government, everyone started doing things for people they don’t know. If you look at how much people reacted, it’s hundred times more powerful then nationalist demonstrations after Tibet.”

Indeed, as China’s president and prime-minister mingle among the rescue crews and flags across the nation fly at half-mast, thousands of people are donating their blood and money in support of the victims. Until recently, convoys of passenger cars and delivery vans loaded with food, clothes and water were seen around the provincial capital of Chengdu as countless donors tried to deliver help to the disaster zone.

“The roads were so crowded no car could even turn,” says Mary Wang, director of studies at one of Chengdu’s private English schools. “We had five or six groups who went to deliver aid, but they couldn’t do anything. It’s professionals that are badly needed and we just get in the way.”

“As individual people we don’t have enough influence or strength to lift such a burden,” adds Yang Mei, a law student at Sichuan University. “We might be united through genuine compassion, but long-term support from the government is essential.”

Others, however, believe that the response is a mark of a new social awareness and commitment going well beyond the spontaneous aid drives. China has a long history of covering up its scandals and hushing up national problems, and the uncommonly open coverage of its earthquake disaster might have galvanized people behind the cause more than ever before.

“Places like Dujiangyan were completely destroyed, of course we have to help,” says Zhao Qun, Chengdu branch manager at the Marsh insurance company.

“People’s thinking is changing,” says Fang Hua, a volunteer from Chengdu who distributed aid in Mianzhu, where 90 percent of buildings were leveled to the ground. “Life is not as materialistic and money driven as before. There is real care about the others.”

“Our generation has hope because of how people responded,” adds Wang Chen. “I’m not a doctor, I don’t have the expertise, but in a few months students [in the disaster zone] will need teachers and we can organize volunteers for that. Thanks to the information revolution, we’re connected by variety of tools, cameras, internet and our generation is much more prepared in terms of helping with a crisis or fighting poverty than our parents’ generation.”

For now, as People’s Liberation Army clears away the rubble and struggles to establish basic living facilities, the aftermath of earthquake maintains a haunting grip on people’s everyday reality and their future.

“I lost an aunt in Yingxiu,” says Yang Mei, her voice breaking. “She was sleeping indoors when the earthquake struck – moments later, the whole building was flattened.”

“It’s heartbreaking to think about all those people,” says Zhao Qun, recalling the three minutes of mourning she and her co-workers spent in silence. “No one was prepared for it.”

 

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