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Jul '10

The Power of Parents in China

I’m always really fascinated with the stark differences between my western culture and the culture of my Chinese friends. One area where the differences are huge is how young adults relate to their parents, and the power the parents hold over their children’s lives.

In the west its common for parents to have a great deal of control over their kids lives – while they are young – but as they mature they certainly get more freedom… and once the kids aren’t kids anymore (maybe around 17-20) they pretty much have the freedom to decide what to do with their lives. Certainly when you’re my age (23) your parents don’t have control over whether you go out late at night, or who you date, or what you do with your free time… But here in small-town China it is the case… and the control goes even further.

This article is about the small town type of people that I live with. In larger cities like Beijing the mindsets are totally different and a lot less traditional so not all of this will apply.

The power!

At our school we have 3 Chinese Teacher Assistants (TA’s) and I heard a story from each of them about their parents control over them. Keep in mind they are all around the age 23-24.

After working together with our TA’s for about 4 months and inviting them to come out with us often, we finally convinced them to eat dinner and go to the bar with us one night. The night was a lot of fun, we had tons of laughs played some drinking games, and really all became better friends. The next day however our TA Echo told us she might not be able to repeat that kind of night with us again… because she had stayed out too late and got in big trouble from her parents. Again… she is around 23 years old.

Our other TA named Sukie told me she doesn’t have any desire to meet boys because she really doesn’t want to get a boyfriend. When I asked her why not she told me she doesn’t want a boyfriend, because then her parents will force her to get married to him.

And similar to the last case, my TA Phoebe told me she doesn’t want to ever get married because she doesn’t want to have kids. When I asked her why she doesn’t just marry a man who also doesn’t want to have kids she said it was impossible, because her parents want her to have kids… and her husband’s parents would want him to have kids… and they would simply have no choice.

That last one was too much for me to accept… Imagine bringing a child into this world… that you don’t even want… because your parents want you to have children. I can’t fathom it… and on top of that… imagine being a parent and telling your daughter who you know doesn’t want kids that she has to do it!

When I questioned Phoebe more about this and asked her why she doesn’t just do what she wants since it’s her life… and not her parents life… she told me it would be terribly selfish of her to simply do what she wanted instead of following her parent’s wishes. She would feel guilty about it and her family would look down upon her selfishness.

If you ask me… trying to control the lives of your adult children for your own amusement is the obvious selfish act.

When speaking with my TA’s about these things it really seems to me that doing your own thing doesn’t seem like an option. In fact, the idea of rebelling against their parent’s wishes doesn’t even occur to them. The mindset is… of course I have to listen to them… they are my parents, what kind of a person would I be if I didn’t? It’s my responsibility to my family to do what I’m told. The idea that their parents had their own lives to live… and therefore shouldn’t need to control their children’s lives as well doesn’t come up.

To us from a foreign culture the amount of control the parents have over their children’s lives seems ridiculous and unbelievable… and even more so how easily the children accept the control placed on them. But to them it’s completely normal and acceptable. It made me wonder where the drastic differences in ideas come from.

Where does it come from here in China?

I think this level of acceptance for the control parents have over their children here in small town China comes from a few sources.

Firstly parents tend to train their children into doing whatever they are told throughout life by making all the important decisions for their children as they grow. They try to make their kids life easy by taking responsibility for all their decisions with the mentality that they are old and wise and therefore know what’s best for them.

The children find it easy to allow their parents to make decisions for them because as they grow they are so bogged down with school work they have no time to come up with their own ideas, or to rebel against their parents decisions if they disagree with them. We have heard the government deliberately increases the schoolwork children get during the ages where children develop their own ideas and crave to take control over their own lives, therefore putting so much pressure on the children to complete their studies they are unable to deviate from the accepted path during this time.

In addition while in school the students don’t get many creative assignments that force them to come up with new ideas by themselves. After watching the movie avatar with my friend Angela she couldn’t fathom how American film makers could come up with such an interesting and creative world like in the movie. She then told me how in school they had never once… not even once in all their years of schooling, had the chance to write a story of their own. She was very surprised to know that through my years at school I had to write around 10 stories of my own. The evidence of this lack of creativity is very clear in the classroom when we ask high level English students to come up with their own stories. The stories are almost always very boring and repetitive… Even encouraging the kids to tell a story of their own imaginary super hero adventures is dull and uneventful.

It really just seems that in China new ideas are often shunned upon. It’s much more important for a member of society to do what he is told and to follow traditions than it is for them to think of new ways to do things or to come up with their own individual beliefs. (We even got in lots of trouble from our Chinese friend when we tried to modify a traditional Chinese drinking game to make it more fun!)

An interesting note is that the words for question and problem are the same in Chinese… so one might think… if you don’t ask any questions you won’t have any problems.

I believe that in China people are valued for being the same, fitting in, doing what their told, accepting traditions and keeping their ideas to themselves.

Where does it come from in the west?

While there are a lot more variations and exceptions to the norm in the west… in general I think the lesser control parents have over their children’s lives comes from a few sources as well.

In western cultures parents encourage their kids to live their own lives. Allowing your parents to make all your decisions is looked down upon and socially unaccepted. If you always do what your mommy tells you to do you will be made fun of and encouraged to live your own life. We are taught to make our own decisions, and see the results of them. We are often encouraged to make our own mistakes and learn from them. We generally get to choose our own path in life, like what we want to study in school.

While in school we are taught to think for ourselves and be creative. From a young age we are encouraged to write stories, share ideas, create new things, draw and to ask lots of questions.

Having new ideas are encouraged we are often taught there are no wrong answers as long as we are thinking. Coming up with a new solution to an old problem is rewarded and encouraged. We are taught to debate and to see both sides of a situation.

Generally people are valued for being unique and special. People see being average as the same as being boring. Countless high-school life movies show the ‘normal’ kids who have nothing special about them and don’t stand out in any way as the least popular and least liked. We strive for something more, to be great, to be exceptional and to be unique.

So Who’s Right?

Is there a right or wrong between our cultures? Which one is best for society, which one is best for the individual?

It’s easy for me with my western mentalities to think that our way of doing things is correct and the Chinese way is foolish… but it’s important to see the good and bad in both ways of living.

There are a lot of benefits to the Chinese culture and the way Chinese parents control their children. For starters children are instilled with a strong sense of responsibility towards their families. The kids will respect their parents, respect their decisions and respect authority in general.

In the west there is often a serious lack of respect for elders or authority in kids. Perhaps because children are encouraged to think for themselves they quickly assume they know what’s best and think they always know more than the adults who try to control them. There are tons of clashes between parents and kids in the west that just don’t happen the same way here.

In China the children are also encouraged to work hard and are encouraged to fit the model of the ideal productive member of society whereas in the west we often let kids make their own path and do their own thing which can lead to them being lazy and unproductive.

Freedom to pursue what you want out of life

In the end I think the most important thing to consider is that everyone in life deserves to be able to pursue their own happiness… to know what they want and to try to achieve it… and when kids are controlled so thoroughly by their parents that they don’t even want to risk getting a boyfriend in fear that their parents will force them to marry him then they aren’t free to try and pursue the happiness they want.

While there are a lot of good things about the small town traditional minded Chinese culture, the fact that a person isn’t free to do what they feel is best for themselves makes me think that it is holding them back from living the types of lives they want and deserve.

While there are some problems with how kids and parents relate to each other in the west, I think the freedom and independence children are encouraged to pursue will help them learn and grow as people to become successful productive adults in the future.

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