“It is so easy to be angry in Beijing,” she lamented when I asked her about her home. “It is so busy. You cannot understand.”
It was one of those long flights that sometimes do not feel purposeful — until I met a woman I will call Ju. She was a recent university graduate who was going home with mixed feelings. She wanted to see her parents but knew that the minute she landed she would be swept back into a culture that had expectations of her gender.
She was to marry a good man. She would have one child. She was to be a teacher as her father wanted. She would care for her parents and her husband’s parents in their old age. She will dream of Canada all her life, but may never live here unless she marries a Canadian or immigrates. She may forever be in the same community because that is where her family is.
Her city is her home and her concern. As coal is still burned and the winter weather cold, air pollution from heating and the nearly six million cars create dense smog. The government is cutting down on new cars and although Ju’s family has a car, getting a new one will not be easy. You have to win the draw (much like a hunting draw) in order to be allowed to purchase a car.
Ju worked hard to get a chance for a Canadian education as competition is fierce in school. Excellence is expected. Should Ju get a teaching job her salary will be around C$1,500 a month, which she claims is quite comfortable as goods, with the exception of luxury brands, are cheap.
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But even though the costs of food and clothing are reasonable, raising a child is expensive, she said. As an only child, she saw her life as quite normal and did not embrace China’s new policy allowing for two children. The cost was only part of her decision as she reminded me that there is the societal expectation that she care for her parents and her husband’s parents. That puts up to eight persons in a very small dwelling.
“My generation,” she said, “is not interested in having two children.”
Elder care in her city of nearly 22 million is very limited and some analysts estimate the waiting list is up to 100 years long. As people live longer, the caregivers may become elderly themselves and have their own health issues. Although health care is available for families, there is a cost, and like Canada, it is determined province by province. Welfare does not exist. Families may employ help that often lives in.
A friend who has lived and worked in Beijing would describe the thousands of house labourers who sat on sidewalks visiting and sleeping on cardboard on their one day and night off. With nowhere to go and little money, these workers live on the street for that day.
This is complicated by the internal Chinese passport, or Hukou, which limits services to those who live outside of the province in which they are registered. So a day off or holiday is often spent on the street.
For Ju, a day off is spent at home and a family holiday is going to another country as she claims one very seldom stays in Beijing. Her family loves to visit Japan and of course, Canada. Sometimes, they visit relatives in the same city, but that is often a logistical nightmare and it is easier to go someplace else.
Ju showed a lot of respect for her family and her culture. I was curious and asked her about her dreams and she replied, “to find a good husband, to have one child.” Her hopes, of course, would be for that to happen in Canada, but that is a huge choice for a young woman who is deeply connected to her family and her culture.
I sensed that this love of both worlds tore at her heart.
As we neared our destination I inquired as to what she would change in Beijing if she could. “Slow it down,” she pleaded.
With the economy growing so fast, she found that even the changes between visits while going to school were overwhelming. The rapid pace stressed her even though she was from a family with financial means.
In China’s rush to ‘catch up,’ the growing pains are hitting all generations.
Certainly there are advantages to opening up the economy of the country, and the opportunity for youth to travel and be educated abroad. It is through this lens that we often view China. But visiting with Ju gave me a different perspective.
Beijing is not alone in facing the social cost of economic prosperity. Perhaps ‘slow it down’ is something to aspire to from a global perspective as we take a closer look at holistic systems in cities to ensure persons of all classes and castes can enjoy the place and space in which they live.
No doubt Ju will be a great teacher, and as a much-loved daughter will always have support. But her social and cultural world is forever structured for her in terms of traditions that even a Canadian education will not change.