Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Chinese Generation Gap

British journalist James Palmer has written an interesting article about the generation gap in China, where the extraordinary social and economic changes of the past 30 years have intensified the usual grumbling between young and old:
In 2004, fresh off the plane in Beijing, I was asked to judge an English competition for high-school seniors. My two co-judges were pleasantly cynical middle-aged sociologists, both professors at Tsinghua University. After listening to the umpteenth speech about how China used to be poor, but was now rich and powerful, I remarked to one of them that the students seemed a little sheltered.

‘They don’t know anything!’ she spat. ‘They don’t have any idea about how people live. None of this generation do. They’re all so spoilt.’

It’s a view I’ve heard time and again over the past eight years, and one of which the Chinese media never tire. The young get it from left and right. This January alone, the jingoistic Major General and media commentator Luo Yuan condemned the young for being physically and mentally unfit, ranting: ‘Femininity is on the rise, and masculinity is on the decline. With such a lack of character and determination and such physical weakness, how can they shoulder the heavy responsibility?’ Meanwhile the writer and social critic Murong Xuecun blasted them in the US magazine Foreign Policy because ‘fattened to the point of obesity with Coca-Cola and hamburgers [ ...] the young generation only believes official pronouncements; some even think contradicting the official line is heretical. They do not bother to check the details’.
I once worked with a Chinese man born around 1955 who sprinkled his conversation with sentences like, "I don't mind waiting, I learned patience in the labor camp." I think you can see right away why the difference between an experience like his, and that of a young person growing up in the years of economic boom, would lead to friction. The old have always complained about the young, but in China the old really did have to suffer and struggle in a way the young have not, and the young really do have to navigate a completely different world with rules and opportunities their parents barely understand:
Zhang Jun, a 26-year-old PhD student, described the situation: ‘It’s not just a generation gap. It’s a values gap, a wealth gap, an education gap, a relationships gap, an information gap.’ Lin Meilian, 30, and a journalist, bluntly stated: ‘I have nothing in common with my mother. We can’t talk about anything. She doesn’t understand how I choose to live my life.’
Even when it is mainly positive, as that in China surely has been, rapid social change is disorienting and destructive of some things we value highly, especially family life.

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