Curious kids

Of course all kids are curious and their growth depends on exploring the world. That is not what I meant though. It is that whenever I see a child in China I wonder about its social makeup. The one-child policy in China was implemented in the 1980s and has just ended. As a result, two generations of children have grown up in a tapering family tree. The rest of the world continues to have uncles and aunts, cousins and brothers and sisters, nephews and nieces. Not in China. If both your parents were single children, then you have no uncles or aunts, no cousins. You and your parents have no brothers or sisters. Your parents have no nephews and nieces. And it is not just one or two isolated families, it is the only way of family for everyone in China. Forget all about the extended families of old sagas or Crazy Rich Asians. This loneliness is the reality of China. My mind works overtime at the simple sight of children playing in a park.

Fossils in language

I’m familiar with words for relations within the large extended Indian families, the single word that expresses whether your grandmother is from your father’s or mother’s side, the clear difference between your father’s elder or younger brother, the lack of such a differentiation for his female siblings, the lack of differentiation between an older sibling and cousin of the same sex, and so on. When we got married, and The Family and I slowly learned these words in another Indian language, we also found the interesting occasional differences. For us these relations are living and important, they affect our social ties.


When I started learning Chinese I was not surprised that there is an equal variety of words for elder and younger sisters and brothers, for uncles and aunts, based on the order of their births, for grandparents. But in China these are linguistic fossils. For two generations there have been no siblings. A lost taxi driver in Wuhan will call out Meimei (meaning younger sister) to a passing woman to stop and ask for directions, in startling contrast to one in Kolkata who will call out Didi (meaning older sister). But these are synthetic uses. Very few in China have siblings: gege, didi, meimei, jiejie, or uncles and aunts: bobo, jiujiu, guzhang, gugu, yima, or cousins. On the other hand, walking in a park you will keep hearing the words yeye, gonggong, nainai, laolao as children call out to their grandparents. Changing the structure of families is a genuine cultural revolution, a complete break with China’s own past. But language is tenacious, the fossils of these relations remain.

Beijing fathers

fathera fatherb

Beijing seems to have many fathers actively doing their part in bringing up children. Here are two who are involved in taking care of their child while the wife takes the grandparents into a temple to pray. It is impossible to compose the photo when you take shots like this, because you do not want to distract the people from what they are already doing. As you can see, both fathers noticed me.

What China has more than any other country in the world is people, and it pays as a tourist to concentrate on them.

Daily lives


In ancient China the emperor was the ultimate teacher. Next to the old Confucius temple in Yonghegong is the Imperial college, where the emperor would teach ethics to monks from the throne in the photo above. However, even earlier, in Marco Polo’s time a traveler could learn from anyone. I find that is even more true today.

Friday was the last day at work in China, and there was a relaxed sense of winding down. We went for lunch in little groups. I was in a knot of people with two of our hosts, in a very relaxed mood. Talk came round to children and their education. One of our hosts had a boy and the other had two girls.

The one with the boy was concerned about the future: she had to put aside 100,000 RMB a year for his education. But isn’t education free in China? Only if you send children to school in your own neighbourhood. She wanted a good education, so the school she’d chosen was in the university area. She could either move there, which would be more expensive, or pay for the school.

Moreover, as we had discovered some time earlier, it was common for the boy, or his parents, to pay for the wedding. Talking to my colleague I had the impression that there was more to it: the parents of the boy were supposed to set up house for the new couple. I joked about buying a flat outside the 6th ring road, currently the limit of the city, because the city would probably have an 8th ring road by the time the boy was old enough to marry. It turned out that this was not a joke, she had already done that. Were they far-sighted parents of a two-year old boy? No, this was common in middle class China.

My other host told us a modern Chinese saying: parents of boys were supposed to be construction bankers, parents of girls were investment bankers. The sex-ratio in China is heavily is skewed towards boys, so both of them agreed that this expense was inevitable, the market correcting social imbalances. They were aware that India also had significantly less girls than boys, although not as bad as China. So they were puzzled why in India the parents of the girls still had to pay for the wedding. I did not talk of the wide-spread violence against women in India; I had not seen or read much like this in China, but my experience is short and the news in China is never complete.

We talked about expenses in general, and both my hosts stated that life is not as comfortable as in the west, and that China is still a poor country. I could agree, but from my Indian perspective I thought that the middle class was quite comfortable. Their arguments centered around the huge costs of buying houses and cars. I see construction all around me even as I go from the hotel to work. The roads are choked with cars: on the road I see Volkswagen, Honda, Chevrolet, BMW, Hyundai, Mazda, Mercedes around me in traffic jams. In our trip to the 798 art district we saw local people buying art all around us. If my host’s complaints were correct, then there is incredible income inequality building in China.

This was confirmed when I challenged their statement about poverty by saying that costs of things I saw in supermarkets were double that in India. The answer they gave is that normal people cannot afford to buy these things. Maybe that is the reason why there are so many fake handbags in China. But China remains different from India, even among fakes there is a clear gradation of quality, with some good-quality fakes called AAA quality being very well made. In India you can often pay good money and get completely shoddy work. I used to put this down to the lack of a legal system, but China also lacks these laws, and they do better.

We talked mostly about China, but I sensed an immense curiosity about India. At one point I said I knew the names of only two animals in Chinese: the dragon (lung) and the elephant (xiang). The two laughed and said these are China and India, which was more powerful? I tried to be diplomatic saying that they never meet. This was an answer they liked, it was repeated a couple of times in agreement. But even so, every explanation about life in China was followed by a question about what it is like in India.

China and India are not direct rivals: the dragon and the elephant are not in a struggle. But both know that there is another power nearby. There are hostile voices in both countries. The struggle of the future will be to figure out how to avoid confrontation. Travel and mutual understanding may eventually help.

Gender roles

The Family and I haven’t had a long and leisurely month by ourselves in an unfamiliar country for a really long time. We have spent weeks walking in parks and watching people at leisure and talking to each other what we find universal among cultures, and what is special to some.

One of the universals we discovered is how little the behaviours of boys and girls differ from one culture to another. One day I saw a young man in a garden with his boy, maybe four years old. The boy was playacting at being a tough Kung-fu fighter, repeatedly lunging at his father with a scream and trying to push him down. Unsuccessfully, of course, since his weight class was totally different. And then we saw a mother and daughter in the park playing an intricate game of patty-cake.

The featured photo is a typical example of this gender difference. I was sitting in the park of the Summer Palace listening to an amateur group playing music when I noticed my fellow audience. The girl was trying to clap in time to the music. The boy? I don’t think he knew there was music, he was busy jumping up and down, play-acting an imaginary brawl!

Reminded me of the children in my extended family.

The gulf


In the crowded Yuhua garden I saw this person keeping a tender watch over his sleeping grandchild. He was completely unaware of me as I took the photo, but immediately afterwards he noticed me. I saw a shadow of some doubt cloud his expression, so I smiled at him and pointed to the baby. He seemed to understand, and smiled back.

Now, looking at the photo I see someone my age from China and realize that his youth was wasted in the violent upheavals of the Cultural Revolution. For me these events came as distant stories read, but not understood. It took me many years of reading testaments from people of this generation to understand how they grew up with a feeling of complete uncertainty. For this man looking after his grandchild is not just what you and I would imagine it to be. It must also involve a sense of wonder and relief that those years have ended and his grandchild will grow up in a different world.

Even if we had shared a language, even if the political system had been different, it would have been difficult to talk about these things with a stranger. But perhaps in some suitably round about way I might have been able to get some idea of how he views these changes. But that is two imaginary worlds removed from the one that he and I live in.

The icon of modern China


If there is one image which I take away from me to symbolize the new China it will be the selfie stick. You see the twenty-somethings with cameras. You see the teens taking selfies with selfie sticks. No other country is half as obsessed with taking selfies as China. So, of course, there has to be a technical innovation associated with this. It is as inevitable as a tripod for a camera. Does this have something to do with kids who have grown up with six adults (two parents and four grandparents) doting over them, with no cousins or uncles or aunts to distract from their single-minded self-absorption?

The two towers


This is not a story of middle earth. It is a story from the middle kingdom.

Every town in China seems to have a bell tower and a drum tower. They were used to keep time: the bell tolled the beginning of the day, and the drum, its end. They would also ring at various other times to mark various important divisions of the day.

In Beijing, the plaza between the two towers is full of tourists during the day. We chanced on it some time after the gates of the towers had closed. When we arrived, dinner time was already over for most Chinese families, and this plaza had been turned into a playground for children from the surrounding hutongs. They were out doing all kinds of things, with parents and grandparents keeping watch as usual.

The Family says, and I agree, that finishing dinner early seems to give you time to do many things before you fall asleep. Why can’t we do this in India? We never seem to have time between getting back from work, having dinner, and falling asleep.

How China is totally different

familyOne Sunday morning we sat in a park and watched families relaxing. Children skipped about or chased each other. Parents kept an eye on them, while talking to grandparents. The grandparents, in their turn, were unpacking large baskets of food for the children. There were photos being taken all around. The Family was relaxing into a deep sense of the universality of this scene.

I had to knock it down. We had already discussed the fact that China enforces a single child policy. So I followed the logic: each child grows up with two parents and four grandparents lavishing all their attention on her or him. This leads to the lovely scene we saw before us.

What takes some time to sink in is the rest of the logic. The child has no brother or sister, there is no rivalry at home, no need to learn to accommodate to a sibling, no lessons from parents on how to deal with disagreements. But more: no uncles or aunts, no cousins. No slightly older kid to help you grow up, no younger kid to whom you are a hero for a few years. No adults who disagree with your parents when they try to discipline you. Families in China are totally different from those in India, or in the rest of the world.

The Family and I grew up in a family full of aunts and uncles, forever changing our plans and putting everything into disarray. We grew up with cousins with whom we formed a secret society of non-adults inside the family. The most important part of this was the difference during one’s teenage years. As teenagers grow apart from parents and grandparents, the bonds with siblings and cousins deepens; they keep you tied firmly to a family. None of that in China! Behind the universality of human love that we see every day, there must be gulfs of difference modulating its expression.

What replaces these bonds? Do childhood friendships run deep? Are college friends a different family? The cracks in our understanding run out through everything we see before us. It will take time to understand China.

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