China’s One-Child Policy: A Generation of Brats??


iphone 12.18.2012 457The social/cultural phenomenon of “tiger parents” is perhaps one of the most common associations that we make with Asian families these days.  While Amy Chua seems to be the origin of the term “tiger mother,” I have come to wonder whether or not the term is really an “Asian thing” or if it is just common among ambitious immigrant families who crave the American dream.  Sure, strict parenting is common among Asian families, and particularly among Chinese families.  But while observing Chinese children’s behavior while riding the bus, eating in restaurants or just waiting in line has caused me to reconsider what today’s Chinese parenting really is.  Ultimately, I have come to focus on how China’s One Child Policy has affected China’s current generation of young people.

After living in Shanghai and observing children in passing for the last three weeks, I recognize Chinese children’s academic diligence and yet what seems to be a struggle to uphold “traditional” social conduct.  I usually try to avoid using the word “traditional” to avoid connoting that cultures, traditions or behavior are either obsolete or superior, but it’s the best-fit word for what I am trying to conceptualize as social conduct based partially on Confucian roles and pre-One-Child-Policy notions of filial piety.  Based on Confucian values, the parent-child relationship is most simply described as one in which parents are responsible for their children’s upbringing and conformity to mainstream society, while children are expected to obey and someday care for their own parents as a reciprocation for their parents’ efforts.

I think there is still certainly a foundational value and adherence to the traditional parent-child relationship, but the actual fulfillment has definitely proven to be difficult as parents pour their hopes and efforts into a single child.  While I’ve read articles on how difficult it is for Chinese children to likewise successfully fulfill their parents’ dreams without breaking down or becoming depressed, it is clear that the One Child Policy has had an overarching negative impact on China’s generation of “princelings.”  A number of articles and papers have been written on the way in which Chinese children now revel in only-child indulgences.  Additionally, children are particularly spoiled as parents and grandparents (from each parent) shower attention, money and time on a single child—that’s a six to one ratio.  With six individuals eagerly investing in one child’s future, it seems that the traditional family structure has been inverted; where elders were once privileged over children, it seems that children are now privileged over elders.

While I haven’t been able to meet or observe any families or “princeling” children, I have noticed the subtle symptoms of the little emperor syndrome.  I’ve seen children burst into tears because their parents wouldn’t carry them.  On the bus, I have yet to see a child or person give up his or her seat (either out of his/her own conscience or by his/her parents’ instruction) for an elderly person.  On the plane to Shanghai, a number of students (myself included) mentioned that they were annoyed that parents allowed their children to run and scream through the aisles, even as people were trying to sleep.  Most of all, I see children in stores, mini-marts and restaurants pointing, wanting and getting—the inheritors of China’s growing consumer culture.  I’ve heard a number of other princeling stories from my international Chinese friends at Davidson.  One girl had a classmate who had her father do her art project for her in elementary school.

Every time I see and hear all of this, I wonder if parents and grandparents will ever be reciprocated for indulging their children to such extremes, or if children will develop an unrelenting dependency on their parents, not just materially and financially, but emotionally, spiritually and perhaps even intellectually.  If this is the case, the effects of the One-Child Policy on Chinese culture could be nearly apocalyptic.  I’ve questioned how China has countered the issue of a generation of little emperors, but it looks like the media and older generations’ reminders that princelings are “spoiled” are the two main counterattacks.  I remember during Ms. Guo Li’s introduction, she pointed at the back to her co-worker and gently made fun of her for being a part of the princeling generation; the girl giggled but was visibly embarrassed.  In preparation for Chinese New Year, some Chinese students and I were supposed to be in charge of preparing enough dumplings for a school-wide event in the 900 Room—however, because a number of them didn’t show up or didn’t know how to make dumplings, I ended up being the one to fold the majority of the dumplings and later clean the kitchen.  Needless to say, I was disgruntled and tired, but the students apologized to me profusely afterwards and definitely showed that they had a sense of shame that they either couldn’t or hadn’t helped that night.

Clearly, there is still a strong presence and sense of humility and shame among China’s young people, and I think this is rooted in the age-old concept of showing face and being able to express respect and sincerity in relationships.  Optimistically, I hope that concepts such as showing face are understood with age and that over-indulged children grow to be adults with a sense of humility and shame.  But realistically, I know that even the minor symptoms can turn into tremendous problems for Chinese culture at large.

Chee Gah Ngin: Many Places, One People

iphone 12.18.2012 898Before our trip to Meixian, I tried to refrain from getting too excited and from keeping high expectations.  But whether it was from keeping low expectations or identifying the strong familiarity between Meixian and Calcutta’s Chinatown, I fell in love with being in Meixian.  I loved the small-town feel, hearing Hakka everywhere, eating foods that I grew up eating, and just finally feeling like I was as close to home as I could get.  I’ve spent so much of my life being surrounded by people who are so culturally and ethnically different that it has been hard for me to truthfully say that I ever felt like I could call any place home.

But the by far most comforting thing about Meixian was the way in which locals received my father and I.  Unlike a lot of Hakka-Indians, Meixian locals weren’t surprised or even critical about the fact that I couldn’t speak Hakka or that I was raised in the US.  They were neither inhospitable nor pretentious about the way in which they received me, and that was such a huge relief to me.  I came to realize how common it was for overseas Hakka to come back and visit Meixian, not just for a cultural field trip but for a sort of spiritual duty.  For this reason, I think locals have understood the importance of recognizing and accepting self-proclaimed Hakka returners, and therefore have remained open to the Hakka transnational community.

One facet of our trip made me come to this conclusion.  After everyone went back to Shanghai, Fuji, my dad and I went on a mini-odyssey to find my family’s original village, Siyong, and my great-grandmother’s shrine to Pangu, the first living being and creator according to Chinese mythology.  A surprising fourth companion was our group’s driver—“Ron,” as he was affectionately named.iphone 12.18.2012 904

I’m still taken aback by how pivotal of a role Ron ended up playing in finding the shrine.  Other than also being Hakka, we had no personal connection to Ron.  However, he was willing to drive us out of Meizhou City into a relatively remote village to find our family and my great-grandmother’s old house.  But he did more than just take us back to our village.   He came into the house and patiently listened as our family received us and reminisced about long-gone family members and memories that were not his own.  The next day, Ron offered to drive us out to the mountain where my great-grandmother’s shrine was supposedly hidden.  While he could have waited in the car as we climbed up to pray, he instead trekked up with us.

Though my aunt must be in her mid-eighties, she was in unbelievably good shape as she expertly led our caravan of nearly ten people over rocks, tree roots, and narrow paths and ledges.  When we reached the top, I was surprised to find an entire temple.  It had once been abandoned, but my great-grandmother found it after a fortuneteller had advised her to pray to Pangu in order to restore the family lineage.  By that time, she had been desperate.  Our family had been one of the oldest in the region and had been living in the Meixian area for nearly 400 years.  Though she had had given birth to three sons, two of them had gambled their money away and eventually had to sell themselves into Chiang Kai-shek’s army to pay off their debts.  Her remaining son was my grandfather.

She walked nearly five miles and climbed up the mountain almost every other day just to pray.  Even after her daughter-in-law gave birth to sons, she wouldn’t let more than five consecutive days pass without visiting the temple.  And then the Communists arrived.  They wanted land; she gave over her land.  They wanted livestock; so she gave up her livestock.  And when the Communists threatened to execute her and her family anyway, people from surrounding regions helped her and my grandmother escape to India.  Though the temple was dynamited at one point, the shrine remained completely intact.

As we all made our way back down from the temple, the stories that my aunts and uncles and father had told me about Meixian and about how our family had survived were running through my head.  At the same time, I looked through the trees and heard the sound of construction and drilling.  There was a crane at the bottom of the mountain. iphone 12.18.2012 899

I wonder how long it will take before the shrine disappears, before we no longer have any family members in Meixian, and before we are re-scattered across the globe again.  While part of me is alarmed by this question, another part of me is oddly calm.  Almost all of our family members left China to resettle in India.  Some of them are now in Toronto.  Some are in Austria.  Some are in Taiwan.  Some are in Australia.  Some are in places as distant and completely random as Shelby, North Carolina.  And Hakka people are everywhere.  At Tonghe alone, I met another three students who are part-Hakka.  One of them was even a fellow Hakka Indian whose family had migrated to Sweden.

In Hakka, we have a common phrase that we use toward Hakka people or whenever we happen to run into each other:  “Chee gah ngin.”  This basically translates into “one people.”  It was used at the Toronto Hakka Conference, but I didn’t really understand what it meant then.  And then I heard it again at the conference in Meixian.  A Malaysian Hakka grad student had asked me, “Hey, do you know what ‘chee gah ngin’ means?”

Before she had asked me this question, I had told her about my family and how they had survived the internment camp, along with the majority of the Hakka community. We talked about genocide against the predominantly Hakka Chinese community in Indonesia.  She told me about discrimination against ethnic Chinese (many of these also being Hakka) in Malaysia.  Despite the hardships and discrimination that they have faced, Hakka people have managed to survive and keep their identity intact.

I was able to respond, “Yes, I understand what it means.”

The Suitcase Speech

As promised in my last blog post, I will be including my speech from the 50th Anniversary.  Okay, so I admittedly came up with this speech the morning of the event due to a combination of jet lag/my narcoleptic sleeping habits, other school work and the fact that I wanted to hang out with my family.  This is by no means verbatim and I added in a few sentences for the sake of clarity (I always get a bit nervous during speeches and end up making weird, cringe-worthy grammatical errors or forget to fully explain a lot of things), but here it goes:

Good afternoon.  Now that the program has dwindled down to the last speaker, I want to say a few brief words for all the young people here.  To begin, I’m so happy to see so many young people at this event.  I would like all young people and ex-internees’ children to please stand and accept a huge round of applause for being here to learn and remember the 1962 internment. 


Now, I’m not sure if all of you can remember the first time your mother or father told you about the internment camp, but I certainly remember the first time my father really talked about his experience during and after the camp and the first time I really understood the impact that it had on his life.

I remember I was in seventh grade, so I was about twelve or thirteen years old.  One day, I came home with a homework assignment.  The teacher had told us to imagine a scenario in which we were told that we had to pack a suitcase with only four or five item and explain why we chose those items; we would not be told where we were going or when we would be coming back.  I wasn’t too sure about what I would take, so I asked my dad. 

When I asked my dad about the items he would take, I was a bit surprised at how quickly he answered; he answered almost as if he’d been drilled with this question.  He listed the following:  a knife, a book, a change of warm clothing and some preserved food. 

When I asked him how he was so sure, he responded, “Because it did happen to me.  When I was a boy, someone did bang on my door in the middle of the night.  Someone did tell me that we had to pack our bags.  We weren’t told where we were going.  And we had no idea how long we would be gone.”

My dad then proceeded to explain the importance of each item. 

“In the camp, we had to go without knives once they were confiscated.  A knife is a very important tool.  Without a knife, it was hard to dig for roots so that we could burn firewood and stay warm.  Without a knife, we couldn’t prepare our own food; the camp would distribute huge chunks of raw meat for each barrack without bothering to ration it among the families.  A knife is more than just a weapon; it’s useful for everyday life.”

“If I could go back, I would have brought a book.  But instead, I wasted nearly three years of my life in that camp, learning nothing.  There were some young teenagers who brought books with them and volunteered to teach us young kids.  But all I remember is learning the alphabet for six months.  It was a huge waste of my learning years.  After I was released from the camp, I was so far behind in my schooling.  None of the good English schools wanted me; they said I was too behind and too old.  Even Chinese school was difficult; we spoke Hakka at home, not Mandarin.  The other kids always made fun of me and it was humiliating.  I remember one time, I couldn’t write some Chinese characters on the board and the teacher hit me and yelled at me in front of the entire class, ‘You’re not a Chinese.  You must be an ignorant Tibetan!’”

“I would have brought a change of warm clothes.  In the camp’s cold desert climate, it was difficult without warm clothing.  In the winter, my skin cracked and sometimes bled.  The Red Cross tried to bring us some clothing, but it was all too big and didn’t fit.  And then when I left the camp, I remember how difficult it was to only have one set of clothing.  My friend’s mom gave me a set one time, but I remember all the kids making fun of me, pointing and laughing, ‘Look!  Michael can’t even buy his own clothes.  See, he’s wearing Joseph’s old clothes!’  It was nice of her to do that, but I refused the clothing after that.”

“And finally, I would have brought at least a little bit of food.  I remember the train ride to the camp and the food rations in the camp.  I don’t know if anyone ever felt full; there never seemed to be enough food.  After we were released from the camp, it was even worse.  In the camp, at least we could depend on the rations, but after we were left on the streets, it was so hard to earn enough to feed all of us.  My mother had fourteen mouths to feed back then, and she sometimes only had five rupees a day for food.  Five rupees is nothing, and it was almost impossible to feed us all with so little money. 

Somehow, she managed it though. When I was young, I followed my mother around on her grocery errands, and she would often wait around the market until closing time when the shopkeepers were willing to sell her the unwanted vegetables and meat at a lower price.  Except on rainy days; on rainy days, the shopkeepers had no sympathy and would close their shops early.  Those were the days when I had to see my own mother quietly crying in the rain because she knew she wouldn’t be able to feed us all.”

After hearing my father talk so much about each item and what each symbolized in his life, I realized how much I took for granted each day while my father grew up with so little in his life.  It was impossible to forget that conversation with him.

I’m so glad that I can be a part of AIDCI and help them achieve their goals, but a challenge we have been facing is getting young people involved.  So I’m really overjoyed to see all the young people here.  I think it is our duty to our parents to work toward this cause and to work toward an apology from the Indian government.  They have sacrificed so much for us and they have suffered so quietly so that we could have all the things that they never had.  We ought to make a few sacrifices in return.

Before I left Shanghai, some of my friends thought I was crazy for going all the way to Toronto for such a short event.  But I didn’t want to miss it.  My dad told me I should never live with any regrets, so I’ve made it a goal to do everything that I can to serve AIDCI.  I could always use some help though, so please join the cause and help us out. 

No Regrets: My 20th Birthday in Toronto

AIDCI 50th ann

So as some of you may have realized, I was not in Shanghai for the past week. As crazy (and exorbitantly expensive) as it may have been, I decided at the last minute to fly to Toronto to attend the 50th Anniversary commemoration ceremony of the 1962 Chinese-Indian internment. While my dad gladly paid for the plane tickets, I do feel compelled to give a special thanks to Fuji and Rebecca for helping me navigate through the paperwork and thanks to everyone else who was so supportive of the idea.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been mulling over the topic of the paper that Fuji and I plan on presenting at the conference in Meixian. A topic that I’ve hoped to address in the paper involves generational discontinuity between the ex-internee generation and ex-internees’ children. Here, I am referring to an issue that the ex-internee organization in Toronto has faced: getting young people to become involved in the organization’s effort to appeal to the Indian government for a formal apology to those interned as a result of the 1962 Sino-Indian border conflict. As of now, I am the youngest member of AIDCI…and that’s by about 25 years. The majority of the members are about 60 years old or older. With a majority of them being senior citizens, this has posed two major problems within the organization: 1) keeping up with social media and 2) working fast enough to ensure that these elders feel some sense of justice before their lives end.

When I first began approaching the paper, I was leaning toward a pretty pessimistic conclusion about the organization’s sustainability. Over the past few months, I’ve been trying my best to tackle both problems…and admittedly, I felt like I was failing, especially after coming to Shanghai. I had been trying to keep up with the Facebook page, the website, the interviewee blog, and some correspondence/networking—but it was pretty difficult doing all of it on top of schoolwork and the experience of traveling. Additionally, I am terribly behind in terms of social media and, quite frankly, don’t completely know what I’m doing.

These past few months, a small part of me was frustrated that no other young people wanted to get involved in the organization and that the in-fighting within the organization would drive away the few people who wanted to help. A large part of me felt certain that things would stay that way. After all, Sheng, the second-youngest and by far most active member of the organization, had almost quit this summer after he got so frustrated with the organization’s in-fighting and lack of cooperation.

My father and I had initially decided that I wouldn’t go to the 50th anniversary. He saw it as an impractical expense and I had convinced myself that it wouldn’t be worth attending anyway. But a few weeks before the event, my dad asked me on Skype if I wanted to go. I was shocked that he had asked, but told him that I wanted to go. When I asked him what had changed his mind, he said, “I don’t want you to have any regrets in life.”

And that turned into a part of the brief speech that I gave at the 50th Anniversary. The speech was directed toward all the young people at the event, entreating them to honor and appreciate their families by taking up the organization’s cause (the speech will probably be in my next blog post).

IMG_4467I was so happy to see how many ex-internees’ children showed up to the event. More importantly, I was inspired by their involvement and interest in the event. My cousins and uncles showed up to the event, assisting in taking pictures, video recording, catering food, greeting guests and decorating the hall. I found out that some of them had even been helping out with printing tickets and fliers long before the event was held. My sister surprised me and came, too. Before I left for Toronto this summer, she wasn’t even quite sure about the purpose of my interviews.
aidci 50th ann 2After we finished our speeches and dispersed for the buffet line, two girls walked up to me with their mom and dad. Their mother told me in English, “We’re so proud of you! I told my girls they should be like you!” Their dad told them in Hakka, “Make sure you study hard, too. You could go study with Tchi-tchi (older sister) someday.” Years ago, I remember being a little girl in awe of Li Kwai-yun, a fellow Hakka Indian and a published author on the 1962 internment. I remember my Dad telling me similar things—to be like Li Kwai-yun and study hard and someday write something that would make a difference.


I don’t know if I’m living up to the expectations that everyone’s made for me so far, but I can definitely say that this was an amazing 20th birthday. I loved getting to be with my family in Toronto, but more than anything, the trip definitely provided the optimistic outcome that I was always hoping for.

A Pan-Chinese Identity?

So, I admit that I’ve been putting off a particular blog post for quite a while this semester.  Now that we are nearing our last weeks in Shanghai, I think it is appropriate to make some remarks about the pan-Chinese identity.


Growing up in small-town, middle-of-nowhere America as one of the only Asian-Americans in our town, I was aware of the idea that people perceived me as being part of an elusive “Chinese” identity.  When I was young, my father always took such great pride in being an overseas Chinese, and he tried to impart that sentiment on my brother, sister and I.  So in our family, there was an understanding that though our mother was from Pakistan and our father was from India, we felt a cultural connection to being “Chinese.”  While I grew up believing that I was characteristically Chinese, I now realize that there is so much grey area in trying to define what or who is Chinese.


The other day while Fuji was talking about his research after Dr. Rigger’s presentation, he mentioned that this trip to Shanghai started to affect his belief in a pan-Chinese identity.  Whenever I hear people speak of a pan-Chinese identity that manages to encompass all Chinese and overseas Chinese alike, I can’t help but find myself disagreeing.  If there ever was such a thing as a pan-Chinese identity, I don’t think it exists now, which has become a troubling realization to both mainland Chinese and overseas Chinese.


I came to this conclusion when Fuji asked me about my own self-identification preferences and when I spoke with the Taiwanese students at the DCPP meeting.  Because I am Hakka, the only reason I ever call myself Chinese is to conveniently link a culture to a place for those who struggle to conceptualize a culture that is not linked to a nation-state.  To Chinese mainlanders, I am willing to admit that I am a huayi (a person of Chinese ancestry), since my ancestors did indeed migrate from China.  In either case, I almost begrudgingly admit that I fall into the Chinese identity, and I’m sure others do the same.


What keeps so many huaren (overseas Chinese) and huayi from identifying themselves as Chinese?  The different experiences that huaren, Chinese mainlanders, huayi and China’s ethnic minorities endure add so much to their individual identities and have inevitably led to fragmentation among Chinese mainlanders and their counterparts.  This fragmentation leads to questions of what and who is really Chinese.  But this only further begs the question of who gets to define what is really Chinese.  Some mainlanders can argue that they get to legitimately define Chinese culture since they are of course in China.  Other mainlanders often comment that the Taiwanese or other overseas Chinese are more traditional, and therefore, more Chinese.  When I asked my father what he thought of the Taiwanese in relation to Chinese culture, he also commented that he believed their culture was more akin to the “real” Chinese culture; I responded by asking him if it really was more Chinese or if he just believed it was Chinese because Taiwanese culture happened to match up more with how he understood Chinese culture.


There is obviously disjunction in the Chinese experience across the world, making it impossible for a pan-Chinese identity to really exist anymore.