Yeyang Su shares her story, personal observations and reflections on being one of the planned “one-child” generation.
The Chinese Communist Party recently announced that China would amend its family-planning policy by increasing the one-child restriction to two children. Those of us who are part of the “one-child” generation are once again in the spotlight.
I was born two years after the “one-child restriction” was written into China’s Constitution. I grew up with an increasing sense that I, like others of the “one-child” generation, was born with a mission: to be a “quality” citizen“. This is part of education, and is reinforced through family and societal expectations. The state defines its children as, first and foremost, the generators of national wealth, guardians of aging populations, and carers of future labourers—expectations that are normalized into our mind and body. Everything else is secondary.
The expectations of others are so great that it is a daunting task to stop and think: “What do I want to do with my life?” I first had this thought about what I wanted out of life when busy with the task of applying for doctoral studies in biology abroad. For another month, I mechanically kept polishing applications. But from time to time, I sat in silence for hours, feeling total emptiness. Eventually I started to speak with others whom I trusted and believed would understand my struggle. Many were my peers with a similar social and educational background. I found I was not alone in questioning the future.
Over time, I walked away, step by step, from my “planned” life-path to study social anthropology. Increasingly, I brought worry, if not embarrassment, to my family and became an eccentric to many. It was scary then. It still is now.
It is scary because having deviated from the “planned” track I can never tell whether I am on the “right” track. It is scary because I cannot make my parents and grandmas understand and accept my decisions to change career paths and remain single. It is scary because I feel that I have to do this “self-searching” with all of the self-doubts, indebtedness and self-criticism of being self-centred, all by myself. It is scary because I see no way around this torment.
But I am not alone.
If one surfs China’s Internet world, one finds vibrant communities of LGBTs, single parents, free-lance professionals and artists, and other non-conformists exchanging their experiences and views about themselves and the world around them. Many of us “outliers” pursue our divergent lives quietly abroad or in big cities. Or, more simply, we live a double life. For instance, a gay and a lesbian sign a contract for marriage to create and maintain an image of a “normal” couple for their families. As many of my friends have commented: “one can always find a way to cope with one’s own problems.”
These same friends have told me not to overthink things, otherwise “it will drive you crazy”. I used to do just that. I now think: it is not OK to accept contract marriage, and thereby stigmatize single, career women; it is not OK to only be honest online, live a double life, and pretend that personal needs and preferences do not exist; it is not OK to stop caring for others’ suffering, only because struggling to pursue one’s own life is hard enough.
When I asked an English friend, Frances, for her opinion on this she said: “Isn’t it common to feel obligated to follow a life-path: to get a degree, a good job, a shining car, a cosy house, a partner and kids, then retire to some island and die?” We had a good laugh.
But the answer to her question is both yes and no. Yes, we are all constrained to tick the boxes in our lives, and “success” is largely defined socially and politically. And don’t get me wrong: there is nothing wrong with “ticking-the-boxes”, just as there is nothing romantic about my choice not to do the box-ticking. Individuals, especially young people, should be encouraged to explore and consider various life choices. We should not be restrained in imaging alternatives.
I believe in a society where everyone can aspire to maximize one’s life experiences and fulfill one’s potential. I wish this for all of us who are part of the planned one-child generation. Once we embark on our own distinctive lives, please let the others know: “it is OK to not follow the ‘plan’ and we are ALL in this struggle together.”
For more on this topic see: Reflections from one of China’s Planned Generation by Yeyang Su.
Yeyang Su is a Ph.D Candidate in Social Anthropology at the University of Sussex in the Centre for Bionetworking.