It’s become de rigueur to talk of either China’s continuing rise to economic greatness and political superpower status, or of its impending fall and all the problems that may yet make it tumble.

In fascinating juxtapositions, we find these perspectives applied to personal stories:
On the one hand, there is the reporting on American graduates becoming émigrés to China (2009), pandering the amazing opportunities there, and of Chinese learning and working hard for their personal success, driven by optimism and ambition.
On the other hand, there is obviously a lot of dissatisfaction, among no-longer blue-eyed Westerners as well as Chinese disabused of the “harmony” in their society, down to the talk of “The End of the Chinese Dream.

Indeed, it is in looking at people rather than percentages that the conundrum facing many a young Chinese becomes clearer; and to understand the world we are at home in better, we need to see it more clearly – even if that clarity puts into stark focus how much more complicated things are already, and how much less we can predict the way they will be going in future.

China is a particularly good example. Not only is it simply big and (ever more) important, but there is also a strong tendency to talk about “the” way China is developing, “the” way Chinese are. Meanwhile, reality on the ground shows these determinedly certain presentations to be hiding an actual great diversity. Depending on where one looks, or even what issues are foregrounded, very different stories emerge – and even from the same groups of people in the same places.

Just thinking of the example of the students I taught during my time in Xiangtan, Hunan, many of the conundrums creating a lot of pain for the current young generation were apparent. Not that they didn’t know how to have fun, but any one-sided presentation would just be an author’s selection, not reality:

Generational differences played one major role.

These students’ parents, for example, had typically seen a rise in living conditions and were very determined to see their children continue on a path to a good life. What that meant, however, tended to be finding a safe job – preferably, government bureaucracy-related – and a stable career – such as, as a teacher. At the same time, students and parents alike knew that these jobs would not pay as much as others.

For the students, it was already becoming quite apparent that the best (i.e., best-paying and/or most stable) jobs would mainly go to those who already had parents in such good and well-connected positions. For others, the outlook was optimistic – China is on the rise, after all – but also guarded, not least when it came to their earnings potential.

That whole issue was complicated still further by the younger generation’s reluctance to put up with just about any work, when that didn’t pay (or rather, allow one to afford) more than what their parents had been able to make and buy. Given both the current level of housing prices and other costs, and rising desires for a certain affluence in lifestyle, it’s quite the conundrum. Half-jokingly, half in earnest, many of the (predominantly female) students suggested that marrying rich would be their best way out.

The university studies themselves were, of course, also seen very differently by different people.

For the parents, all that continued to count was for their child to study, study every day, whereas many of the actual students expressed uncertainty over the value of their studies. These were students of German, so they still considered it better than just studying English (which has much higher numbers of graduates), but not nearly as promising as business or engineering. It certainly doesn’t help that their academic field was not usually chosen by them, but rather by either their parents or the university administration…

Thus, some students were highly engaged and progressing rapidly and well, often with an eye towards working for German companies, going to Germany, or at least having contact to such in a role as translator or interpreter. Others took university studies as something of a time off between the stress of the high school’s GaoKao (university entrance examination) time and the time they’d start working.

Oftentimes, and with either of those groups, the assumption was that hardly anyone learns what they need to know for work at university, but rather on the job – meaning that studies were quite useless except for giving the necessary (but not sufficient anymore) distinction of having had a university education. Unfortunately, at least judging by comments from the representatives of multinational corporations in China, their problem is that all too many candidates can’t even use what they purportedly learnt, but would be wanted to actually work, not get training on the job, as soon as they get hired.

The whole theme of work loomed large, of course.

Navigating it between personal inclinations and family pressures, general talk of optimism about China and personal confidence versus an awareness of how much of a role guanxi (personal connections) and already-existing differences in power and money (and even the very looks of female job seekers) played, presents a tricky challenge. It is hardly helped by the awareness of the need to stand out of the crowd, images of said crowds (not to say hordes) of graduates, and the social pressure to conform.

University life isn’t all about the preparation for work, but social life also has its ups and downs for the young.

Again, generational differences were one major influence. Typically, the parents had little more to say at the beginning of their child’s college life than that they should study, study, and study. One of the main roles of the universities and the class teacher, who served as something of a counselor, indeed was to make sure that the students behaved in morally correct ways – or at least didn’t cause any scandals.

For the students, meanwhile, university life often proved to be a time they were not always having their parents pushing them into cramming, everybody else also being in the same situation of having to do nothing but study and find sneaky ways of having some entertainment, as school years had been. Rather, they suddenly had to navigate social life by themselves, find how the intricate networks of personal relationships worked and how they fit in there.

And expectations were different from the parent’s, with this generation’s attitude towards sex still very conservative, but flirtation and intimacy a sine qua non of student life. Not to forget that, as they got closer to their mid-20s, it would not only be classmates who considered getting a boy-/girlfriend to be a good part of university life, but their parents would start asking more and more about boy-/girlfriends or start trying to arrange mates they’d consider good for their children.

Typically, there was considerable awareness also of those expectations – but they again often run counter to what the younger generation wants or feels to also be required of them. For the women, probably not having a career once they have a child, and suffering the financial shortfalls, or otherwise being stuck in a/the relationship, having to care for their husband’s parents and wanting to care for their own… and for the men, not even getting a chance at marriage, even if they have a stable girlfriend at university already, if they don’t have the house and car and income required to get her parent’s approval (and who would have that, as a student).

The constant grind of such contradictory developments and ideas naturally creates a lot of pain. Depending on personality, not least, some see their chances, a few don’t see any way out (yes, we did have suicides), many just “eat bitterness” (suck it up) and hope for the best. Not so different from the “crisis children” in the West, but with different social contexts, in another economic situation and surrounding level of development – and thus, rather different. Certainly, more complicated than any story of uniform rise and unchallenged optimism.

As complicated as things can get, the look at “the generation of pain” does help understand why young Chinese will be concerned about things such as food and environmental pollution that add to their burdens, but would rather have a stable, if autocratic, government than the instability of transition – at least as long as it keeps their hopes intact rather than shatters them…University lecture in China