Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Family in China

This is an article I wrote for Meridianmagazine.com. You can view it here

It will come as no surprise to Meridian readers that family is important in China. Anyone who has read Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth will remember how family life is depicted. The protagonist, Wang Lung, fights to feed and protect his family in the midst of famine and war. His long-suffering wife, O-Lan births her children alone at home and then returns the same day to help her husband in the fields. His aged father lives with them, and when the family flees a drought, Wang Lung (following the Confucian ideal of filial piety) carries his father on his back. In better times, Lung and O-Lan, their sons, daughters-in-laws, their children, and even the wicked uncle and his family all live together.

A Nation of Shops

You can still see traces of this today. I am sure it still exists in rural areas although my exposure to this is limited. Rural China is changing. Few of today’s generation want to stay on the farm; many are migrating to the cities seeking new opportunities. And that is where I see today’s Wang Lungs. China is a nation of small shops, most of them run as family businesses. Many of them front out onto the street, open in the front with no door. Inside can be seen one of the family members manning the shop and helping customers. Behind a curtain in the back other family members are eating lunch, visiting, washing clothes or taking care of personal grooming. It is common for several generations to live upstairs above the shop. Children play underfoot and are tended by whatever sibling, cousin, or aunt is available. In a covered bazaar with many shops fronting out onto a narrow alley, some of the shops—one at this end, one at the other end, and one in the next alley—are owned by the same extended family. Once I was admiring a baby in one shop as it clung to its “mother,” but the next day I saw the same baby in another shop around the corner with its real mother. Another time when I was trying to pay for an item with a bill too large to cash, a small child ran up the street to an uncle’s shop to get change.

Grandpas and Grandmas

It seems that no matter how upscale a family gets, the family ties remain the same. There are many upwardly mobile families in China these days—young professionals on the rise. In nearly all cases, the mother works and the child (or children) are placed in daycare or tended by the grandparents. Many professionals in China retire in their 50s on a small government pension. Housing is hard to come by so it seems a natural thing for three generations to live together with the oldest taking care of the youngest. Every day on the streets of the city where I live I see a grandmother or grandfather gently shepherding a toddler along. It is a most endearing sight. In the morning I see grandfathers pedaling the family bicycle to kindergarten with a young child sitting behind. In the evening the flow is reversed, again with the grandparents providing transportation.

In the Words of My Students

I know little about the dynamics of family life in China. I suppose it may be the same as for any family in the West: a mix of joy and tears, arguments and reconciliation, high expectations and disappointments, stars and prodigals, Lamans and Nephis. But I do know there is love. It is revealed, unsolicited, in the bios and writing projects of my students. Each has filled out a card with his or her student number, name, contact information, and a little something personal about themselves. Guan Long (who uses the English name Lavender) wrote about her beloved Grandpa with whom she has lived since she was born. She added, “I love our family where I can feel more comfortable and happier.” Fan Shan Shan (Pheobe) writes, “We love each other very much, and as I grow up we’re more and more like friends.” Liu Xiao Xi’s (Alex) parents both work, one as a policeman and the other as a government employee, but she says, “Love and harmony are very important in my family, and I love my parents very much.”

When I asked them to write about their families, the results sounded like they had come from a Seminary class. Wang Zijia (Myra) wrote that, “My mother seems to be an angel sent by God. No words, no languages can express my feeling toward her. I think I will cherish the precious memory we have shared with one another forever.” And a similar sentiment was expressed by Xing Jie (Jessie) who wrote these profound words, “Family is where you get the power to move on.”

“I Am Their Hope”

In many cases it is on the backs of my young students that the family will move on. Families make an enormous investment in their children by sending them to a university. While it is obvious that the parents of some students are full partakers of China’s new prosperity—their children are taken to college in black Buicks (China’s new status symbol), carry laptops, and have braces on their teeth—it is equally obvious that others are sending their children to college on a prayer and a shoestring. Some students come from small villages. When describing his parents, one student simply wrote, “They are peasants.” I took this to be literal, not figurative. Having a child graduate from college is sometimes the key to upward mobility. Often the whole extended family will chip in. One student wrote about how her older businessman brother was funding her education. I was asking one promising young student about her parents. She said they were farmers, and it became clear further on in the conversation that the farm was very small, that there was no mechanization, and that the earnings were meager. Then most poignantly she said, “I am their hope.”

A Bitter Choice

In a land where retirement plans are not universal, children are indeed the hope of their parents in both the filial and financial aspects. Young people are amazed when they learn we have seven children, when they plan on having only one. But I was shocked when one young professional said she planned on having none. Early in their marriage, she and her husband had made a choice. Her aged parents lived with them and were totally dependent on them. The living quarters were small and cramped, and because of the crunch on housing this was not likely to change. They had decided that she had more of an obligation to her parents—to make their declining years comfortable—than she did to a future generation. They had arrived at this decision with full knowledge that the family line would end with them. In my experience, I find that while this attitude is not common, it is frequent.

From Dawn to Dusk

Maintaining a family unit economically is not easy. Chinese families work hard and long. This is particularly true of shop owners who always seem to be in their shops day and night. The idea of a weekend has little meaning for them, except that it may mean a spike in business since many professionals and government employees are off on the weekend. I know a man who runs a small copying business near campus. He operates with one copy machine and two computers out of a space that measures about six by eight feet. This is the family business. And he is always there. His hours are 8:00 am to 10:00 pm, seven days a week. But family is nearby. I see his little girl playing around his feet sometimes.

3 comments:

emily said...

Oh, I loved that article! You are a great writer. It definitely makes me appreciate all that we have here and that we do get a weekend!:) I look forward to them starting Monday morning! It was good to hear from you guys...it would be great to hear how you guys are doing! Love and miss you!

Carol said...

Thanks for sharing your experiences and all that you are learning over there. I enjoyed getting a glimpse of the life and values of the folks there. We really aren't that different, are we?

Leah said...

Again, I was touched by this article...Yes, Chinese people work hard and long, and diligence and perseverance seem to be passed down for generations as a personality of the nation. I suddenly think of my grandparents who had a bitter life, and I'd be willing to share their stories with you later when we get a chance......
Leah