Social Expectations in China

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I remember the scene vividly:

Late last year, I was eating lunch with a Chinese friend who was obviously upset. When I met her at the gate of the student canteen, she tried her best to make small talk, but something was clearly wrong. Her head hung low, her eyes were glued to the floor, and she spoke in one-breath answers, quiet and polite. 

Finally, when we’d grabbed out trays and dug into the cafeteria food, she told me what was on her mind.

“My parents don’t agree with my boyfriend,” she said, elaborating that the couple had been dating for four years, and she could sense he was on the verge of marriage proposal. She loved him, she said, and she was sure he loved her.

But her parents, working-class people from central China, were practical to the bone. They didn’t like the fact that he was a librarian in Beijing, or the fact that he was a few years shy of 30 and didn’t own a car or an apartment. They asked my friend how he could possible support her, and what use it would do to start a family with a man who could barely afford to feed himself, let alone a second (and potentially third) mouth.

My friend’s arguments did no help. Her parents disagreed. That was final.

A few weeks after our meeting, just before the Chinese New Year and a family reunion that would have been painful had she disobeyed her parents, she broke up with him. There was no other way, she told me.

Such is the dilemma in modern China, where young adults must balance cultural and family expectations with the overpowering desire to blaze their own path and do things their own way –touting individualism over collectivism.  

The expectations are fairly clear cut, and the roles are almost typecast from a Hollywood movie. Men are expected to secure a steady job and then lean on their families to buy a car, an apartment, and anything else that proves handy in landing a wife and starting a faily. Women, for their part, are expected to succumb to their gender roles: Marry before 30, have a child, and raise him/her (preferably a boy) to success. In many circumstances, desperation kicks in if a woman is approaching 30 and hasn’t married yet.

What I would argue is that this set of cultural expectations isn’t unique to China, but from what I’ve seen firsthand, it can be a sort of a poisonous culture that acts to tamp down dreams before they’ve had a chance to blossom.

For instance, I have so many smart, capable, Chinese graduate student friends who will forgo a career in whatever their skillset or interests are in favor of what their parents tell them to do, or what they foresee as the most stable option. 

Society as a whole suffers from this, when innovative, talented people are pigeon-holed into the feeling of living a life and a career that is not their own, but is merely what is expected of them.  




“我父母不同意我和我男朋友,” 她说,接着介绍道他们俩已经在一起四年了,她也觉得男方差不多准备提出求婚了,她爱他,并十分肯定他也爱着她。









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Four years ago as I was preparing to come to the United States and to University of Northern Iowa, I had no idea what I am going to major in or what I am going to do after graduation. My mum then told me to choose accounting as she explained the stable future of accounting major and the ease of finding a job. "Besides, UNI has a great accounting program and high CPA pass-rate." She concluded.

So that's what I did. I joined the one of the majors that most other Chinese students chose as well. However, I realized that accounting was not for me within the first half of the semester. After a weeks of long and painful "discussions", I changed my major to Public Relations.

Since then, I talked with many students, both Chinese and American, to find out who chose their major and what they feel about their major. Not surprisingly most Chinese students followed their parents' advice while most American students chose the major on their own. Most American students said their parents didn't care what they choose.

However, what came as a surprise to me was the fact that not many Chinese students are as unhappy about the choice as I thought. Most of them said they didn't know what else to do so they followed their family's advice. Don't get me wrong, not all of them are doing great in these majors, but they just endure the suffering (in my opinion), and keep working hard on the subjects they have no interest in at all. "That's what everyone else does," one of them commented.

I am pampered in a way. My parents and I both did not like to work too hard on something if there is an easier way out. So I cannot understand why people would spend so much of their energy on majors they don't enjoy. If they end-up in the industry they might even need to endure it for a good amount of year before they can do something else. And as far as I know, the longer you spend in an industry the harder it is for you to switch.

The reason for such a different mindset of parents is easy to figure out if you consider the difference in society norms. In China, most children nowadays are the only child of the family due to the one-child policy. When there is no one else to take away the attention from the parents, all the expectations fall upon one child. This then naturally caused the parents to map out everything and want their child to make as few mistakes in life as possible, whereas most American parents would spend their attention on multiple children and those families with single child would still be influenced by the society's norm and not interfere their children's life as much.

What the Chinese parents fail to realize is that avoiding mistakes will not only leave the possibility of making greater mistake in the future, but also leave the child to wonder for the rest of his/her life: what if I did/did not….? With this thought, they cannot focus on their current job because they keep thinking they might be doing something wrong. Thus making it hard to give 100% of what they have at work.

There is no easy way to change a society's norm, but I am really glad that I came to University of Northern Iowa for my undergrad degree because it is really easy to switch majors in the United States.