My previous posts about conversations (in Chinese) with Chinese locals have been pretty popular, so I thought it was time to again record for you a few snippets of interesting conversations I’ve had in the past few weeks.
On the plane from Singapore to Beijing I was seated next to a nice man from va small town Shandong province. I was one of the last people on the plane and he was really enthusiastically helpful, getting up to put my bag in the overhead locker for me and just being generally nice. When we sat down he marvelled over my good Chinese and we had a nice conversation. (Later he insisted on getting my meal even though I was already sort of sleeping by then – he put my tray table down and grabbed my meal and asked what drink I wanted, lovely guy).
As we talked he started to share his story. He had been working in Singapore for the past 6 years, for a company that creates molds. His job is to take the client’s requirements, sketch it out, and make a wooden model of whatever it is they want to mold, which is then used to create the mold. (He showed me several photos on his phone of his work). During those 6 years he had visited China a few times, but never for more than a month at a time.
When he left for Singapore, his daughter was 6 years old. Now he was flying home for good, to a 12 year old daughter who barely knows him. He moved to Singapore to earn more money – to send it home to her. He was moving back to China so that he could be with his family – so again, with his daughter in mind. And yet, the night before he left, his daughter told him on the phone that she doesn’t like it when he’s there.
He said he could understand this – his daughter doesn’t remember him living with the family. She’s used to it being just her and her mother, and so her father’s presence seems intrusive to her. Yet it was clear that her words had really distressed him. He was afraid that his daughter would resent him now that he was finally going to be home with her. I tried my best to say something encouraging; my heart hurt for him. He was such a lovely guy, who loved his family, and was walking into great uncertainty. I hope things are well with him.
My first week back I had a rather infuriating conversation with a taxi driver. We covered a few common topics of taxi conversation. Here’s a condensed version of his side of the conversation:
You’re not married? You should marry a Chinese guy. Nationality isn’t as important as compatible personality? Well that’s probably true. But it’s smart to get married. You haven’t bought an apartment? Well you should. Of course you can afford it; you’re a foreigner, you have lots of money. Your salary here isn’t high? Just bring money in from your country. What do you mean you don’t have money in your country? I know, you should marry a Chinese guy, that way you can get a bank loan and buy a house. What do you mean that’s not a good reason to get married? What’s wrong with that? It would be beneficial to you both. Oh! But make sure you marry a proper Beijing local, with a Beijing hukou. You have to be careful, so many people are coming to Beijing from outside the city, they make the city so crowded.
Then he went on a long rant about the problems with people coming to the city from the countryside, and then said “You know, the same as in your country, and the cities there.” I had to explain that there is no hukou system in Australia, which he found unbelievable. He seemed slightly condescending as he said that in Australia everyone must go to the cities with no controls. Then I said I know of no other country with a comparable system, which absolutely flabbergasted him. He went on a rant about how China as a whole but especially Beijing can never get rid of the hukou system or the city will be overrun with outsiders. Sigh.
For most of the past week I stayed in Shunyi with a girl from my youth group while her parents were out of the country. They made their driver available to help me get around so I was able to have quite a few chats with him. He’s a lovely, bubbly, chatty sort of guy. We talked about a lot of things, but I want to share some of our last conversation with you.
We were talking about cultural values, in particular as they relate to families – the differences between what is normal/expected in Asian families and Western families (China/Australia, to be specific, but the generalisation fits a lot of countries). I was explaining a little of how different Australian families look, compared to Chinese families, and the underlying value of independence. That many parents of adult children think it’s important to let their children make it on their own; and that many retired people would rather live independently, even in a retirement community, rather than live with and be cared for by their children. Not all, of course, but as a general rule independence is valued and encouraged.
He told me that while he doesn’t live with his parents, he lives in the same compound. Whenever he gets home from work he calls his mother to tell her he’s home, and on his day off he always goes round to their house for a meal – if he doesn’t do these things his Mum would get mad! His take is that it is the duty of parents to care for their children, but this care does not end as early as it might in a Western family. He said that most Chinese parents will financially support their children through college, paying for rent and buying them everything they need. Many will save to buy an apartment for their sons, as a place to start their adult life and raise a family.
I told him about a Chinese friend of mine who worked her way through university by working at a coffee bar on campus, and how she was very embarrassed by this, even though her Western friends thought her hard work was commendable. He was not surprised. He said that this would cause many people to lose face, or feel embarrassed, because it meant their family either could not or would not support them.
Also, while it is the duty for parents to care for children, this care is reciprocated later when adult children care for their aging parents. A retired couple would expect to live with their child’s family, who would provide for their needs, as is their duty. This care and dependency is natural and normal to the Chinese, he said.
He said that if an adult child did NOT respect, speak well of and look after his parents, he would be publicly shamed, especially in a small community like a village. He said that if he were to neglect caring for his parents his friends would poke fun at him, to show him his error.
It was an interesting conversation, especially having read “The Geography of Thought” a few months back. It’s an example of coming at a situation from totally different angles. Both systems work, according to and revolving around a specific cultural value (whether independence or familial care).
Well, that’s it for now. Hope you found it interesting!