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The difficult art of letting go

中国日报网 2014-04-02 10:40





The way some Chinese parents shower love on their grown-up children can be smothering, but from an outsider's perspective it may look like a black comedy eliciting laughs and tears in equal measure. When you spot a Mickey Mouse actor at a public recreation area, who do you think is inside the costume? A child, perhaps? No, it's an adult because the figure is much taller and moves about with energy. Never in my wildest imagination would I say an elderly woman.

But Yang Zhiqiao is 75 and retired. She dons the Mickey Mouse costume in Luoyang, Henan province, to earn some pocket money from passersby, which she saves for her son. "My son is 40 and is still single. I don't want to be a burden to him. I want to help him financially so he can get a wife," the Henan native says.

According to an unrelated news story, parents in a Beijing suburb are getting up at 5 am each day and standing in line for the shuttle buses. The early birds have developed this habit not for themselves, but for their grownup children, who work in downtown Beijing. The youngsters have to spend four or five hours each day commuting and their parents chip in by waiting in line for them so they can squeeze in an extra half-hour's sleep.

These two examples are among the more exotic things Chinese parents do for their children, but they are a perfect reminder of the generational ties that bind a Chinese family. The parental sacrifice is traditionally embodied in a type of melodrama in which the mother, in a desperate attempt to find money for food or school tuition for her children, starts to prostitute herself. This secret is inadvertently discovered by one of the children, who feels ashamed and blames the mother. In the end, the truth dawns on him and a feeling of gratitude gushes out of his heart.

There are countless versions of this tale in Chinese cinema or other popular art forms from the past century.

Is it an equivalent of a mother in the United States who forsakes her career and turns into a soccer mom? Or is it sacrilegious to make this cultural comparison? Parents everywhere love their children, but the manifestation of that love can vary from culture to culture. What is considered acceptable in one country might be perceived as outrageous mollycoddling in another.

When I first went to the United States, I was flabbergasted to find that parents would charge their college-age children for the phone calls they make while at home on holiday. I guess that situation no longer exists as now each one is equipped with a mobile phone and youngsters do not need to "borrow" their parents' handset. But no matter whose phone you use, you are supposed to pay your own bills, as is demonstrated in the HBO TV series Girls, in which Lena Durham's character, a recent college graduate, is kicked off the cellphone family plan by her parents. Chinese parents' overindulgence of their children goes beyond the "little emperor" phenomenon, but it is exacerbated by it. Parents harbor a desire to pass on what they have to their children, be it wealth or social status. It's somewhat like an aristocrat passing a title to the younger generation. And some will resort to corruption to ensure that their children enjoy the ill-gotten fruits of their parents' positioning or work. This may be illegal but in many minds it is not unethical, at least not as unethical as squandering money on trophy wives or concubines.

There is no one right form of parents-children dynamics. What's over-protection in one culture may be the norm in another. And these things evolve with time as well. While US parents are obliged to raise their children to the age of 18 and see them through college, their Chinese equivalents take it upon themselves to take care of further needs, which include buying an apartment, finding a spouse and taking care of the grandchildren. That's why the 75-year-old Henan woman took on the ad-hoc job of a street performer, a notion possibly alien to her for most of her life. She did this so she could afford a daughter-in-law. She must have thought it was her responsibility to ensure her son was financially capable of getting married.

What if there is no financial issue involved and her son simply does not want to walk down the aisle with anyone? Any Chinese beyond the age of 25 who is not married or does not have a regular date may face the experience of constant nagging from their parents.

In the old days, you were not supposed to have a date while in college because that would interfere with your study. But once out of college you were supposed to find the right person and start a family, possibly within a year or two.

For whatever reasons young people in China are pushing back the age of marriage either out of choice or out of necessity. Some want to experiment with more possibilities, while others are simply intimidated by the urban dating scene or are holding out for the right person to appear. The pressure these people's parents apply can be suffocating. And in turn, their parents have to field nonstop hectoring from their friends and neighbors: "Is your son or daughter married yet? When is he or she getting married?"

The same pestering is repeated from the time one is married to when an heir is born. "Does your son or daughter have a child yet? Isn't he or she beyond the best age to give birth?" To be a grandparent is a big deal in China. It is considered the ultimate familial bliss to live under one roof with three or four generations, even if only during the New Year holidays.

The escalation of generational conflict reaches a crescendo when a grandchild is produced and the traditional way of child-rearing clashes with the new way. Yes, you can expect parents to be unpaid baby sitters, but the implicit cost is that you give up your method of bringing up a baby or the part of it that does not conform to your old folks' beliefs. Of course, every family is different and not every parent is domineering to the point of turning love into torment. Some move to Hainan, China's equivalent of Florida in the US, or go on extended tours around the country or the world. But, so far, they are still a minority.

And one should not place all the blame on the old generation. Many youngsters actually expect or even welcome such treatment from their parents. They develop a sense of entitlement when their parents pay for their big-ticket purchases and go on scouting expeditions for potential in-laws.

Do you think standing in line in the wee hours for their children's commute is ridiculous? Wait until you hear of old folks who get into matchmaking games in public parks not for themselves, mind you, but for their children. I wonder what will come next.

In the old days, parents would even hide outside the bridal chamber and listen to what was going on between the newlyweds. As soon as they got a chance, they would sneak in and check the bed to see if there was any blood. They had to make sure the bride was a virgin.

Maybe it's a bit too cruel to mock such behavior. It's more cultural than moral. If you step back and look at the whole picture, all the things described above were done because parents cared for their children. There is the art of letting go that is largely elusive to the old generation. If you tie your children too close to you, they are not going to fly very high.

By Raymond Zhou ( China Daily )










































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