Hukuo (户口) in China

Earlier this semester, my classmates and I learned about Hukou (户口), a household registration system in China. In her article “Foreign Marriage, ‘Tradition,’ and the Politics of Border Crossing,” Constance D. Clark introduces and describes Hukou:

Hukou was a system of social control created by the Communist Party, which segregated the entire Chinese population into a two-tiered rural-urban ranking of privilege. Statuses of “agricultural” or “nonagricultural” meant that a person born into an agricultural family had no opportunity to convert to nonagricultural status and was therefore denied benefits allocated to those in the cities such as housing, medical insurance, food allotments, and pensions (Cohen 1994; Potter and Potter 1990). In many ways, the package of urban welfare came to be understood as socioeconomic rights that were the property of urbanites. (Clark 1999: Kindle Locations 1394-1398).

From my understanding, Hukou is a government instrument for manipulating and controlling the movement of people in China. The word Hukou is comprised of two separate characters: 户 and 口. Independently, 户 carries the meaning of family, and 口 carries the meaning of entrance or gate. So, the combination of the two characters is a fitting description of the structure. Without approved official documentation, a person cannot legally enter and establish a life in another province or town. This barrier has been and continues to be problematic for Chinese citizens, particularly those living in rural towns wishing to move and work in exciting and economically thriving cities. Moreover, the difficulty of transferring Hukuo registration has made the city the “preferred place to live and… a steadfast destination of desire for rural dwellers and exiled urbanites” (Chen 1999: Kindle Locations 133-134). Thus, the increasingly high population densities in Chinese cities, like Beijing and Shanghai, should be expected.

Before learning about Hukou, I took “the freedom of geographic mobility” for granted. In America, the government does not directly control the migration from countryside to city. In fact, the transition from small town to big city is a popular theme romanticized in novels and movies. During my childhood, my family moved every few years according to my father’s job and economic opportunities. Hukou would have restricted my father’s career and my family’s chance for economic prosperity. Chinese college students are facing this restriction of Hukou during their job hunts after graduation (Hoffman: Kindle Locations 757-758). If graduates do not get their Hukou registration transferred to an economic center, such as Shanghai, then they are forced to look for job opportunities in their hometown. This can be extremely disheartening for college graduates from small towns, since better, higher-paying jobs are located in larger cities.

The subject of Hukou surfaced during an interview with Ms. Li (李), a migrant farmer on Chongming Island. Recently, Ms. Li’s son returned to their hometown in Anhui Province to attend high school. When asked why he did not attend a high school on the island, she clarified that his registration was in their hometown. Therefore, he could only take his university placement exams in Anhui. Ms. Li hopes her son will find a job outside farming and recognizes the importance of an education for his future. Thus, staying on Chongming was not an option for her son. Additionally, Ms. Li mentioned her son’s desire to attend university in urban Shanghai instead of Chongming. As mentioned earlier, life in a larger city is economically and socially more attractive. Chongming Island is the least developed region of Shanghai. Ms. Li’s son is simply another illustration of the rural population’s longing for city life.

(Ms. Li is pictured above; population density map provided by china travel guide)

There and Back Again

It was not until I returned to Taiwan after spending a month and a half in Shanghai that I really discovered just how different the cultures on the two sides of the Taiwan Strait are.

Or, to be more accurate, it was not until I found myself acting in accordance with Shanghai culture (and against Taiwanese culture) that I began to realize the gulf.

In broad daylight, on the fairly busy Linsen North Road in Zhongshan District, Taipei City, I found myself stepping out to cross the road during a lull in traffic, at a point roughly equidistant from the two nearest crosswalks. As I did so, I had 5 revelations in rapid succession:

  • This is really rather stupid;
  • This is quite lazy;
  • This is probably illegal;
  • This is what people do in Shanghai, and;
  • This is not what people do in Taipei.

A month and a half spent in Shanghai, with its unique traffic patterns for both pedestrians and drivers had desensitized me to the sensibilities about traffic I’d learned growing up in the United States (as in, it’s probably quite stupid, not to mention illegal, to jaywalk). When I began to cross a busy street in Taipei I realized that jaywalking is not generally considered acceptable behavior there, as it is not generally considered acceptable behavior in the United States.

I discovered many further differences between Taiwanese culture and Shanghai culture over the next few days. “Night culture” was perhaps the most starkly different. Shanghai, which is often considered a “global” city, quickly shuts down after about 8:00 PM. Bars and nightclubs remain open, and it’s possible to find vendors hawking fried rice or noodles as late as two in the morning, but these are not really pervasive parts of the culture. Outside of the small areas of the city with a high per capita presence of nightclubs, the streets are almost silent at night. A garbage collector might roam the streets, picking up trash, but he’s invariably alone; a late night public bus might cruise its route, but it’s invariably empty; Family Mart or Lianhua Supermarket might be open 24/7, but, invariably, no one walks in during the late-night hours. For the average Shanghainese, night is a time to remain at home.

Taipei stands in stark contrast, with night culture is omnipresent. Night markets, the pride of the Taiwanese tourist industry, remain crowded by locals and tourists alike until 11 PM; college students stumble out of KTVs well after midnight; old folks sit around outside chatting until all hours of the night. Even late at night, the city still feels alive – while New York may be called the City That Never Sleeps, Taipei actually feels like the City That Never Sleeps.

Food culture also differs significantly between Shanghai and Taipei. In Taipei, friends connect over food on a regular basis – food is the basis for a large portion of Taiwanese social interaction (for really great examples of this, see the movies Eat Drink Man Woman and Au Revoir, Taipei, in both of which food is a central plot element). Food is also the primary focus of most Taiwanese domestic tourism. Whenever they go somewhere new, the main thing Taiwanese people do is try the special local treat (the variety and sheer numbers of these local delicacies is truly astounding for an island the size of New Jersey). In Shanghai, however, food does not seem to carry the same cultural significance. Oftentimes it can be nigh impossible to find something to eat during non-peak hours!

My analysis of Taiwanese culture undoubtedly carries a heavy bias, as the year I spent living there was highly formative for me, and I will likely always have an abiding love of the island and its people. We’ll have to wait for my classmates’ reflections on their time in Taipei to get a solid comparison of Taiwanese and Mainland culture. However, I think it really is fair to say that significant differences exist between the two, regardless of relative strengths and weaknesses. While these differences are not an insurmountable barrier, they do have the potential to inhibit unification, and culture is something that leaders on both sides of the Taiwan Strait need to be cognizant of.

If You Give a Mouse a Cookie: Reading with Angelina

When we first arrived in China, my classmates and I expressed our interests in connecting with local Shanghai people. Shen Yi Fei, a professor at Fudan University, suggested pairing each of us with a young Chinese student for English language lessons and practice. This arrangement would reward both parties; Davidson students would experience more cultural immersion and the Chinese family would receive a free tutoring service.

I met my “Chinese family” this morning. They picked me up from my apartment and brought me to their home, so I wouldn’t get lost using the public transportation. The mother, Ling, and her sister, Emma, were more than welcoming. For the remainder of the semester, I will be helping Ling’s daughter, Angelina with her English speaking and reading skills. Angela is a third grader who enjoys math, playing with her friends and watching movies. We already got off to a great start today. Angelina read dialogue passages from her English practice book. She also read two of my own childhood favorites, If You Give a Mouse a Cookie and Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Listening to her struggle with the longer or trickier words made me think more about the process of learning a language. After reading the three books, she was exhausted, and I could relate. My brain always seems to hurt after Chinese class or any intensive readings. Thinking, reading and speaking in a different language is tiring. So, we called it a day. Plus, it was Angelina’s birthday, so we didn’t want to make her read too much.

While I was at Angelina’s home, I noticed different signs of a Chinese family. For instance, Ling prepared snacks and tea for my visit. She kept on offering me more and more snacks, which reminded me of my mother scooping more and more food onto my friends’ plates back home. When Ling asked if I wanted a banana, she peeled the banana and placed it into my hands before I could politely decline. Additionally, the family’s car had a decorative hanging of Guanyin, also known as the Bodhisattva of Compassion or the “Goddess of Mercy”(Palmer 2011: 107). Guanyin is a venerated figure in Chinese popular religion. These are just two of the most obvious observations I made. I hope to learn more about their family and family traditions over the last ten weeks I have in Shanghai. Today, I learned that Ling is a judge in Shanghai and Emma is a banking and finance lawyer. I think it would be interesting to hear their stories and opinions about women in the Shanghai workforce. On Wednesday night, I will return to their home for another visit. 

Yeye and Nainai

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As the saying goes, life is all about “seeing and being seen.” There are plenty of people to see in Shanghai: the rich, the young, and the fashionable. They are the up-and-coming stars of Shanghai’s future. Chairman Mao is a distant memory to them, and communism has always meant “capitalism with Chinese characteristics,” as Jeffrey Wasserstrom calls it in China in the 21st Century (97). When I am out and about, though, it is not my youthful peers that catch my eye; it is their parents and grandparents.

The aging generations of China have experienced a great deal in their lifetimes. Many experienced the Cultural Revolution. Some were part of the Great Leap Forward. Some even saw the establishment of the Chinese Communist Party. In a city with so much emphasis on the future, the aging generation is living proof of the city’s tumultuous history.

Families are ever important in Chinese culture, and children traditionally support their parents as they age. Adult children will often send home weekly paychecks in gratitude for all their parents did for them. However, with the aging group of One-Child Policy babies, sometimes called “Little Emperors,” it will be harder and harder to support the aging generation of Chinese grandparents. For each only child, there are four grandparents to support. The pressure to succeed monetarily ever increases on the “Little Emperor,” or grandparents are left without a retirement plan.

Besides age and money, the digital age also separates the age cohorts. In most countries with internet access, there is a distinct divide between those with internet and those without. The internet can offer a wealth of information, but the elderly generation is often the slowest to adopt new technologies (as makes sense). In China, the divide is even wider because of the “Great Firewall,” a term referring to the Chinese government’s internet censorship (Wasserstrom 86). VPNs and other proxy servers can go around the firewall, but that technology is limited to the savvy. So, in such a futuristic, technologic city, the elderly are often left without the internet’s information.

Before coming to Shanghai, I thought that aging in China must be pleasant. In conjunction with Confucian principles, the ancestral line is cherished and respected; however, in a city that adapts so quickly to the waves of the future, it seems that the attitude towards the elderly is changing as well. I rarely see a younger person move to give their seat to an older person. People push past each other roughly, regardless of age. Maybe these examples are just cultural differences in manners, but they could also be signs of deeper cultural changes. As Wei Laoshi told me, adult children still send their parents money, but it is often out of duty and obligation, not necessarily love. With the tide of Western culture infiltrating Shanghai, I wonder how the aging generation will fare. Will the younger generation still hold onto their Confucian reverence, or will the aging generation be left behind as the youthful generation embraces their individuality?

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You Came to Shanghai Single…

This past Tuesday night Benito and I attended a Chinese wedding; contrary to popular belief we weren’t the wedding.  The cousin of the kid he tutors was getting married and the family invited him to come along.  He did not want to go alone and I thought it would be a great opportunity to observe the differences between American and Chinese weddings so I agreed to go with him.  Five o’clock rolled around and Benito and I were outside in our wedding attire waiting on his family to come pick us up.  When they got there we all piled in the car and headed into the city.  The first difference I noticed occurred before we even pulled away from the dorms.  The family was not dressed up that much and Benito and I looked as if we were attending a pretty upscale event.  We secretly worried about being over dressed but there was nothing we could do about it at that point so we sat back and enjoyed the ride to the wedding.

When we got there the bride and groom were taking pictures with the guests as people arrived.  The family we were with shoved us in front of the camera with the happy couple, yet did not take a photo themselves.  The bride and groom looked at us as if to ask who we were and what we were doing at their wedding but did not say anything.  We proceeded into the seating area and took a seat at the table that was set out for our family.  Upon being introduced to the other family members at the table one couple got up and left, I guess they did not want to sit with the foreigners.  During my whole time in China thus far, that evening was the first time that I was the only white person in the room.  As I stated earlier it was a truly a humbling experience.  I got lots of looks from the other guests as if to ask who I was and what I was doing there, but no one said anything to me and they all seemed to be okay with my presence. Once the bride entered I knew that I would no longer be the topic of conversation anyway, so I was okay with the added attention for a little bit.  After a few minutes of small talk and lots of puzzled looks from the people around us the ceremony began.  The ceremony was unlike anything I had seen before.  Rather than the traditional Western practice of the father walking his daughter down the aisle to the waiting groom, the lights went out and the groom began to sing to his bride lit only by a spotlight.  After a few verses the bride came in escorted by her father and met the groom in the middle of the aisle.  The groom kept singing, knelt down on one knee and seemed to propose again.  Her father gave his daughter’s hand to the groom and then the two proceeded to the stage.

The rings were brought down the aisle by the maid of honor and then the emcee for the evening read the vows as the two attempted to put the rings on each other.  I say attempted, because the groom reached for the bride’s right hand first and tried to put the ring on the wrong finger before she pulled her hand away and everyone burst into laughter.  Once the rings were successfully on the correct fingers the two kissed and then walked back down the aisle to clapping and cheers.  At this point everyone returned to their tables and began to eat dinner.  Throughout the evening the bride and groom returned multiple times to the stage to pour a wine waterfall, share a glass of champagne, cut the cake, and toss the bouquet.  The later of which I was forced to participate in.  Being one of the few unmarried girls at the wedding I was told I had to go on stage to try and catch the bouquet.  As I stood on stage I fervently prayed that the bouquet would not come in my direction, as I did not want the bride to have to say that some random foreign girl caught the bouquet at her wedding.  Thankfully the girl next to me caught it, but what followed was even more nerve wracking.  The boyfriend of the girl who caught the bouquet was called on stage and had to propose to her in front of everyone.  I can only imagine what would have happened if I caught it and Benito was forced on stage.  We joked about how we would have broken the news to Fuji if it had happened as one of his favorite phrases from this trip has been “You came to China single, you will leave China single.”

Compared to the bouquet scare, the rest of the evening was fairly calm.  We watched and laughed as the guests participated in trivia and drinking games.  Everyone seemed to be having a great time.  The newlywed couple came around to every table and toasted with the guests while the bride lit cigarettes for all the men.  When the bride reached our table she did ask “你是谁?”  After the mother explained that Benito was her son’s English tutor and I was his classmate, however, she seemed happy with the answer and greeted me warmly before moving on to the next table.  The family was a ton of fun to be with.  The son won multiple prizes from the trivia game section of the evening and the grandfather won one of the drinking games.  The guys filming the wedding joined us for dinner and were very interested in what we were doing in China and if we were having a good time. The grandparents kept trying to have conversations with us in Chinese and most of them worked out well.  After we regretfully informed our table that we had class the next day, Benito and I were able to get away with only a few celebratory bijiu shots.  The family we were with was great and I had tons of fun at the wedding.   They were very helpful in explaining who everyone was and what was going on.  The wedding was not only a fun and relaxing evening, but also an exciting cultural experience and one that I am not soon to forget.

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