Book Review “Only Hope: Coming of Age under China’s One-Child Policy”

319an3jQyyL._SY300_I’m writing a term paper on the strategic fertility behaviors under China’s One Child Policy, which means I’m starting to write about this subject again. A casual search at Duke library’s website led me to a wonderful book by anthropologist Vanessa Fong on the psychological well-being of singleton children in China.

As the author points out, the “one-child” policy embodies a cultural model that requires reduced fertility and increased per capita investment in children for modernization. Urban residents in Dalian, the city where Fong did her field research, seem to have internalized this model and agreed with the rationale of the birth control policy.

Demographic theorists argue that parents in urban environments are likely to want fewer children because children cannot contribute much to family income though they cost a lot of time and money. Then a natural question would be: does fewer children lead to higher quality of children? The answer is ambiguous.

Undoubtedly, singletons enjoy more resources and care from their parents because they have no siblings to compete with. The unlimited supply of parental care, combined with an aspiration to live a “first world life”, prompted many teenagers to spend heavily on brand clothing, video games and entertainment, and gift exchange. This became a burden for low-income parents who could barely make ends meet.

Being the only child in the family also means enormous pressure to “be successful”. While singletons enjoy all of parents’ resources when they are young, they have to take the full responsibility of taking care of their parents in the future. Since education is considered as the primary way to climb up the social class ladder, singletons are pressed hard to excel academically. Some break down in such pressure, as suggested by the rising suicide rates among Chinese youth.

Compared with their parents’ generation, singletons enjoy a lot more privacy and have a much stronger preference for private space. Many of them do not know how to defer to others, and it can be hard for them to adjust to new environments. Having lived in the school dorm since I was 12, I have witnessed how many “little princesses” transformed into considerate, caring young women that always take others’ perspectives into account. Living in the dorm creates a sibling-like environment where interpersonal skills are learned through constantly resolving conflicts. But singletons who have been sheltered by their parents might find it difficult to forge cooperative relationships when they enter the society.

It is fair to say that the “one-child” policy has empowered girls. Girls in my generation no longer have siblings to fund and are therefore able to accumulate more savings for personal development. The marriage market also works in favor of the girls because of the skewed sex ratio.


Trans-Pacific Melodies: music from China

Tonight’s performance by China National Orchestra and Carolina International Orchestra was amazing. The repertoire is below.

1. Festival Overture (节日序曲), composed by Shi Wanchun.
2. Moon Reflected in Erquan Spring (二泉映月), composed by Hua Yanjun.
3. Swan (天鹅), composed by Liu Dehai.
4. Listening To the Wind (听风醉月), composed by Wang Ciheng and Wang Shi.
5. Three Stanzas of Plum Blossom (梅花三弄), ancient music.
6. Silk Road (丝绸之路), composed by Jiang Ying.
7. Percussion Concerto (夜深沉), composed by Chen Yi.
8. Autumn Night (秋江月夜), composed by Hao Weiya.
9. Fishermen’s Melody (渔舟唱晚), Chinese classical.
10. Folk Song from the Changbai Mountains (长白山歌), composed by Feng Xiaoquan.
11. Folk Dance of the Yao Nationality (瑶族舞曲), composed by Mao Yuan and Liu Tieshan.

3, 4, and 8 were really nothing special. But Silk Road was such a blast! The sound of the Chinese flute (Dizi, 笛子), combined with Erhu (二胡) and Pipa (琵琶) , painted a vivid picture of the prosperous businesses on Silk Road. And you as a listener is right in the picture. How amazing!

I also refreshed my memory about traditional Chinese instruments and saw some new ones. For example, Konghou (箜篌) has a very nice, gentle sound. I have never seen this ancient instrument before, but it surely fits the melody of Three Stanzas of Plum Blossom (梅花三弄). Only if the performer didn’t miss that one note!

I was very surprised that the performance was ended with Nv Ren Hua (女人花), a pop song performed by the famous Hong Kong singer and actress Anita Mui (梅艳芳). It turns out that Dizi and Erhua go perfectly with the melody. I have found Erhu a very versatile instrument throughout the performance. Getting back to work now!

What can education bring you?

I discovered this wonderful website Why Poverty.  It contains a series of poverty independent documentaries on poverty-related topics. Among them, “Education, Education” by Weijun Chen (director of Please Vote for Me) focuses on private colleges in China. Highly recommended to anyone who wants to know more about post-secondary education in China. Here’s the abstract.

How do you choose a college when you’re the first person in your family who can read? Or pay for it when 4 years of schooling costs sixty years of income? What is it like to join the “ant-tribe”, the 2 million newly graduated Chinese who, every year, can’t find work?  And what if the only job you could find involved selling education to other students, even if you knew it was worthless?
Tell us what you think. Nelson Mandela once said “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world” but is its value undermined when, like in China, it becomes a commodity?

You can tell an information asymmetry story. Rural students are not as well-connected and informed as their urban peers. Most of them, when faced with college entrance decisions, simply went through the list of schools and picked whichever sounds nice. Private colleges can easily win the trust of parents through carefully designed propaganda. The high value of college degrees and the low probability of getting admitted to top universities drives a wedge between supply and demand of higher education. Without an underdeveloped market for professional colleges, private colleges (enterprises in nature) emerge as a seemingly good alternative. These private colleges extract money from uninformed students without teaching them useful skills.

The number of private colleges has increased 30 times in the last decade. Each year over 2 million graduates do not find jobs.

Just as printing more money makes money valueless, the increasing number of college graduates intensifies their competition for jobs. People are getting more education at higher ranked institutions, most often only to signal. Universities are categorized into several levels. Students from lower levels often have to get a master’s degree from a higher ranked university to increase their bargaining power in the job market. And those graduates from no-name private colleges will soon discover painfully that their degree is just a piece of worthless paper.

I would love to explore this topic more in the future.

A flavor of democracy

What is democracy? Many of us might struggle to come up with an answer. The documentary Please Vote for Me depicts a democratic voting process in a third grade class at Evergreen Primary School in Wuhan, China. Will a group of third graders know how to vote? Well, I started watching the movie with this doubt, and it fades away as the story unfolds. Afterall, voting in primary school classroom is really not that different from one in the adult world.please-vote-for-me-poster

As the teacher emphasized, this election of class monitor is designed to be democratic. Ironically, the first (implicit) round of the election seems to contradict this claim: three candidates for class monitor were chosen by the head teacher. Note: they are not nominated by the students. How the head teacher came up with these candidates is the single biggest secret in this election, although one can make an educated guess by observing the profession of their parents. The incumbent, Lei, was confident boy and always anxious to maintain the order of the class. He had been the class monitor for the past two years. Lei was faced with two challengers — Cheng, a chubby boy who was very good at public speaking, and Xiaofei, an introverted girl struggling to establish her self-confidence.

Not surprisingly, the game between the three candidates turned into a competition of maneuvers between their parents. Cheng’s parents taught him to play nice in front of his opponents while spreading rumors and creating chaos when necessary. He also fully utilized his outstanding public speaking skills, winning cheers and applause during his speech. By contrast, Lei adopted a “hands off” approach at first. “I’ll let my classmates make their own choice.” he said to his parents. But after he found out rumors were dissolving his power base, he felt the urge to make up for it. He invited all his classmates to take the monorail, which was a luxury in Wuhan then (I can testify as a native of Wuhan). Lei quickly won the support of many classmates by this sincere move.

The debating section was probably the most hilarious part of the movie. Somehow it reminds me of the American presidential debate. Well, of course you can argue the latter contains more sophistication and is (seemingly) more civilized. I remember Cheng criticizing Xiaofei:  “you eat too slow”. My reaction was: “What? As girls we are supposed to eat slow!”

The movie made me think about what I went through as a candidate internal vice chairperson of my undergraduate university choir. We twelve people, the newly proposed executive committee, went through a two-day overnight campaign to prove that we were capable of the job. Choir members and past executive committee members relentlessly asked us about our year plan (literally every detail of every single function) and our budget. This campaign was definitely a challenging and unforgettable experience. Two lessions were learnt: 1) You can never convince others if you doesn’t know your arguments perfectly well, and 2) you only need the majority of voters to win an election.

While the movie seems to focus on behaviors of the candidates, it records reactions from other students as well. I wonder what thought process the other students (the voters) went through to choose their future monitor. For the past two years they had been assigned one and they seemed to be doing just fine. When you place the “sacred vote” in their hands, will they hold onto it or disregard it? Will they know the importance of them — the voters — as independent entities affecting the distribution of power in the future? These are open ended questions for educators to reflect upon.

This movie is available on NetFlix. Thanks to Marc for recommending.

A heart devoid of love — thoughts on documentary Last Train Home

There are 130 million migrant workers in China. It is the biggest human migration in the world.

This is the opening sentence of the documentary Last Train Home . This movie follows a typical rural household in Sichuan, China for three years and tracks the changing migration and life decisions of household members.

Last Train Home

This is a typical family in rural Sichuan. Both parents were working in Guangdong province, a popular migrant destination in China. Once every year, they took the train back home to celebrate Chinese New Year with their daughter, Qin, and their son, Yang. Qin and Yang lived with their grandmother. Qin appeared to be very mature for her age.  Apart from school work, Qin also had to feed farm animals and tend to crops. She was also skilled in joking with grandmother and creating a warm atmosphere in the family. Since her parents have started working in Guangdong when she was a baby, she barely remembers the time they spent together — there is not much to begin with.

In the first year, the New Year dinner was peaceful. The parents brought Qin a brand new cellphone and Yang some new toys. They urged Qin and Yang to study hard:”You can get out of here and be successful only if you study hard and get good grades. Don’t be like us. We would have earned a lot more if we were more educated.” The children nodded absent-mindedly. Unfortunately, or maybe expectedly, Qin dropped out in the second year. She pursued the same path as her parents — migrating for work. In a manufacture factory in Guangdong, she sewed and packed clothes everyday, while making friends and dressing herself up at the same time. When asked about why she dropped out, she answered “I don’t find school interesting. It’s not useful at all.”

Conflicts burst out in the third year. When Qin was working in another city in Guangdong, she didn’t contact her parents often. Nor did she feel the need to. She dyed her hair, bought new clothes, and tried to make herself look as hot as other city girls. This year at the New Year dinner, she challenged her father, saying he had no power over her because he never cared about her. The family went through a serious fight in which both parties lose. Qin only became more detached from her family.

At the end of the movie, Qin became a bartender in Shenzhen, a metropolitan city in Guangdong. She was dancing disco in a crowd, with the usual absent-mindedness on her face. You can hardly tell her apart from the urban girls with heavy make-up and hot skirts. Qin’s mother was considering going back to home to take care of her son. But this would mean her husband will have to work harder and send more money back home.

I have relatives like Qin and Yang, who suffered and are still suffering from their parents’ migration. I remember a woman working in a charity agency for rural children’s welfare once talked about left behind children: “These children have never been loved. When they grow up, how can we expect them to love others? How can we expect them to love the society?”

I could hardly stop crying as I was watching this movie. If you are Chinese and you are away from home, you will find sentiments throughout the movie. I was especially impressed by the movie’s great depiction of the snow storms in 2008.  This movie is also a great source for people who want to know more about internal migration within China. Many thanks to Daniel Xu for recommending.

By the way, the title of this post is adapted from A Heart Full of Love in Les Miserables, one of my favorite musicals.

Struggling on your own? A reflection on Chinese education philosophy

A recent New York Times article writes about differences in Chinese and American learning philosophies. Here is NPR’s report on this topic.

The simplest way to summarize her findings (Jin Li’s) is that Westerners tend to define learning cognitively while Asians tend to define it morally. Westerners tend to see learning as something people do in order to understand and master the external world. Asians tend to see learning as an arduous process they undertake in order to cultivate virtues inside the self.

Jin Li’s arguments make a lot of sense to me. The Chinese education values hard work and sees it as the only way to perfection. But perfection itself is loosely defined. In the Chinese context, it is more about excelling others than exploring the truth. Rankings are constantly posted and a tension between peers is always present. As I see it, the Chinese education places too little importance of teamwork.

Critical thinking ia another missing link in Chinese education. The lack of critical thinking of Chinese students is especially salient in graduate school. In my first semester’s seminar class, I simply felt reluctant to ask questions. My mind seemed to be accepting whatever it encountered, without ever asking “Is this true” or “Why is this so”. This weakness in critical thinking may have stemmed from the reverence for authority in Chinese culture. In a classroom setting, the teacher is the authority. Teachers are painted as knowledgable and superior figures offering guidance to students. Students are therefore supposed to follow the lead and work hard towards perfection. A fundamental fear of authority prohibits the development of our critical thinking.

My mentor, a senior business executive for a large company, once mentioned how hard it is to find a good executive in Asia. Senior leadership roles require much more than only completing the assigned tasks. “Hong Kong education is better than the mainland,” he says, “but it’s still far from satisfactory in terms of building up people’s leadership and teamwork ability.”

I’ll end my discussion with a joke I saw a couple of days ago. “A typical discussion session in *** (a university in France) works like this: French students identify the problems. Then German and Chinese students solve it. British students tell jokes when people are tired. Finally, American students present their project in front of the class.” It may be exaggerating, but there’s certainly some truth in it.

Thoughts from documentary “A Bite of China”

I have been watching a documentary of Chinese food: A Bite of China (link). Highly recommended to those who understand mandarin. The delicate filming and insightful illustration reminds of my childhood in Hubei province, and make me more aware of the Chinese’s deeply rooted attachment to the land.

The vast territory of China has endowed Chinese people with a wide variety of potential food sources: from pastured animals to home-grown plants, from the coarse northern wheat buns to the delicate southern rice balls. Generations of Chinese people have adopted methods suitable to specific geographical environment to make the best out of nature and sustain a large population.

China strides over four time zones and its land encompasses the most heated areas near the equator extending all the way to near Russia. Regional differences are huge, so are the diets in different areas. My hometown, Wuhan, is located in the middle of China. The province of Hubei (where Wuhan is the capital) is called “the province of a thousand lakes”. The abundance of water leads to the wide cultivation of rice as the main grain and fish as a major source of animal nutrition source. We have fried fish, boiled fish, salted fish, steamed fish, fish balls, fish dumplings, and even fish noodles! It was not until I left my hometown did I realize how much reliance I have on fish.

For northerners far from the open sea or internal river networks, fish is more of a luxury than an everyday dish. The cold weather in the north makes preservation of food an important issue. Vegetables are salted and preserved throughout the winter. But it also means that an average family can only afford a limited variety of vegetables in colder climate. This is less the case now thanks to the developed transportation.

In this modern era, mechanical production has substituted human labor in food processing, and the cultural elements along with home-made traditional food is fading. The making of traditional local foods can rarely been seen, with the majority happening among the elderly in the countryside. City dwellers have neither the time nor the interest to know the origins of our beloved food and I doubt if they appreciate the efforts by farmers to cultivate the land. Still, it is a relief to see the values of family and unity being passed down, with the delicate food we have.