Older Chinese, especially those now in their fifties or sixties, often seem like immigrants in their own country. They have that same sense of disorientation, of struggling with societal norms and mores they don’t quite grasp, and of clinging to little alcoves of their own kind. In their relationships with their children, they remind me of the parents of the Indian and Bangladeshi kids I grew up with, struggling to advise their children about choices they never had to make. Yet for all the dissonance that geographical dislocation creates, the distance between a Bangladeshi village and a Manchester suburb is, if anything, smaller than that between rural China in the 1970s and modern Beijing.
Immigrants often have a stable set of values from their home culture from which to draw sustenance, whether religious or cultural. But for the children of the Cultural Revolution in China, there’s been no such continuity. They were raised to believe in the revolutionary Maoism of the 1960s and ‘70s, and then told as young adults in the late 1970s that everything drilled into them in their adolescence had been a terrible mistake. Then they were fed a trickle of socialism, rapidly belied by the rush to get rich, and finally offered the hint of a liberal counter-culture in the 1980s before Tiananmen snatched it away. In the meantime, traditional values condemned as ‘counter-revolutionary’ in their youth are being given a quick polish and propped up as the new backbone of society by the authorities.
The young get slammed for their supposed materialism, but it’s a set of values their parents hold more dearly still, since the one constant source of security for their generation has been money. Money — at least the fantasy of it — has never abandoned them. ‘The Chinese love money,’ the PhD student Zhang told me, ‘because it has no history’. Having gone through the gangster capitalism of China’s rush to wealth, the older generation’s bleakly amoral attitude toward how to get by can shock their children. Huang Nubo, a poet, rock-climber and billionaire property developer, now in his fifties, has been one of the few people to talk about this openly, speaking of the ‘devastated social ecology’ in an interview with the Chinese magazine Caixin. But Huang is a rarity, and cushioned by his own wealth; far more parents are concerned that their children aren’t doing enough to get on.
While immigrants dream of their children becoming doctors, lawyers, or professors, domestic Chinese ambitions mostly lie elsewhere. Doctors are poorly paid, overworked, and unpopular, thanks to a flailing and corruption-ridden medical system. Lawyers are bound to the vagaries of the ever-shifting judicial system. Professors earn marginal incomes and rely on outside work to get by. The priority for Chinese parents isn’t professional standing or public achievement, but money and security, regardless of what the job involves.