A lonely bur­den for only chil­dren

Many peo­ple born un­der China’s for­mer fam­ily plan­ning pol­icy, which re­stricted most cou­ples to one child, are find­ing it in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult to pro­vide care for their el­derly par­ents. Luo Wang­shu re­ports.

China Daily (USA) - - CHINA - Con­tact the writer at lu­owang­shu@chi­nadaily.com.cn

Ed­i­tor’s note: This is the fourth in a series of re­ports China Daily will pub­lish look­ing at the lives of el­derly peo­ple, the prob­lems they face and on­go­ing ef­forts to im­prove their stan­dards of liv­ing. More sto­ries will be pub­lished in the weeks to come.

Next year will be the 10th an­niver­sary of Su Yao’s de­par­ture for the United States, but she is plan­ning to re­turn home dur­ing the Christ­mas hol­i­days, in­stead of the an­niver­sary.

If the trip goes ahead, it will be the fourth time that Su has vis­ited her home coun­try in a decade.

“I have many plans for the time I will be at home, such as buy­ing a new TV and com­puter, surf­ing the Chi­nese in­ter­net, in­stalling a chess game on the com­puter for my fa­ther, run­ning bank er­rands withmy mother and other things,” she said, adding that she started writ­ing her to-do-list two years ago, dur­ing her last visit to China.

Most of her plans re­volve around her par­ents, who live in Harbin, cap­i­tal of the north­east­ern prov­ince of Hei­longjiang, and will re­tire soon.

“When I came to the US I could never set my mind at ease be­cause my par­ents were far away from me and I couldn’t stop wor­ry­ing about them, even over triv­ial things that re­ally weren’t worth the trou­ble. For ex­am­ple, when we chat­ted via online video, the re­cep­tion was al­ways un­sta­ble. There were prob­a­bly some sim­ple tech prob­lems. My hus­band is a soft­ware en­gi­neer and his job is to solve tech prob­lems for other peo­ple, but we couldn’t even solve our par­ents’ tech prob­lems,” the33-year-old said.

“I can’t think about it too much. Ev­ery time I do, it breaks my heart. I’ve won­dered many times if things would be bet­ter if I had a sib­ling.”

Su’s con­cerns are shared by many mem­bers of China’s “only-child gen­er­a­tion”, peo­ple born be­tween the late 1970s and last year, many of whom live in dif­fer­ent cities, prov­inces and even coun­tries to their par­ents.

Ag­ing pop­u­la­tion

In 2007, the Na­tional Health and Fam­ily Plan­ning Com­mis­sion said there were 90 mil­lion only chil­dren in China. How­ever, Wang Guangzhou, a re­searcher at the Chi­nese Academy of So­cial Sci­ences, be­lieves the true fig­ure is much higher, es­ti­mat­ing that there were 145 mil­lion only chil­dren in 2010, and that the num­ber rose to 176 mil­lion last year.

The one-child pol­icy was in­tro­duced in the late 1970s, so the old­est mem­bers of the only-child gen­er­a­tion are about to en­ter their 40s. Many are faced with the chal­lenge of look­ing af­ter their el­derly par­ents, the old­est gen­er­a­tion of whomis now age 70 and older.

China’s pop­u­la­tion is ag­ing over­all. Last year, the pop­u­la­tion was 1.36 bil­lion, and 210 mil­lion peo­ple were age 60 or older, ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional Bureau of Sta­tis­tics.

No of­fi­cial sta­tis­tics are avail­able to show how many only chil­dren and their par­ents live in dif­fer­ent places, but as China be­comes more open to the out­side world and the econ­omy re­mains strong, young peo­ple have more op­por­tu­ni­ties to leave their com­fort zones and travel over­seas, re­sult­ing in pro­longed sep­a­ra­tions from their par­ents.

For ex­am­ple, the num­ber of young Chi­nese study­ing abroad has surged in the past decade. From 1978 to last year, 4.04 mil­lion Chi­nese peo­ple had stud­ied over­seas, in­clud­ing more than 3 mil­lion in the past 10 years. Given their ages, many are likely to be only chil­dren.

“My par­ents can’t speak English, and they get bored eas­ily in the US. When­ever they visit me for more than a month, they talk about go­ing home and see­ing friends,” Su said.

Sep­a­rate lives

Li Hao has worked in Turkey as a busi­ness devel­op­ment man­ager since 2013. The 29-year-old only child from the north­ern port city of Tian­jin en­joys life over­seas.

“I en­joy the en­vi­ron­ment and the sim­ple life, just work and fun times,” he said. Liv­ing abroad means Li doesn’t have to worry about com­pli­cated per­sonal re­la­tion­ships, but ev­ery year, he spends al­most his en­tire two-month va­ca­tion vis­it­ing his fam­ily at home.

His mother had surgery re­cently, and be­ing over­seas meant Li felt the sep­a­ra­tion more keenly. “It wasn’t a se­ri­ous ail­ment, just a mi­nor op­er­a­tion. But I was con­cerned be­cause I was away from home and re­ceived very lit­tle in­for­ma­tion,” he said.

Even­tu­ally, Li de­cided to take time off work and re­turn home to look af­ter his mother when she was dis­charged from the hospi­tal.

He is now con­sid­er­ing re­turn­ing to China for good, or at least spend­ing more time work­ing in the coun­try “to take bet­ter care of my par­ents and set my mind at ease”.

The prob­lems caused by sep­a­ra­tion also af­fect chil­dren who live in China, but in cities and towns thou­sands of kilo­me­ters from their par­ents.

Last year, a story called Don’t Dare to Die or Marry a Hus­band or Wife from Some­where Other Than Your Home­town, which fo­cused on the dif­fi­cul­ties faced by both par­ents and chil­dren, went vi­ral online. It was writ­ten by Yang Xi­wen, an only child who lives in NewZealand.

“The ti­tle expresses all my fears,” said Zhang Hui, a 29-year-old who lives and works in Shang­hai, far from her home­town of Yancheng, Jiangsu prov­ince, in East China.

“Be­ing an only child means I can­not even date a boy out­side of my home­town be­cause it would be hard to take care of my par­ents at the same time, ac­cord­ing to my mother,” she said. Even though Shang­hai is only a three-hour drive from Yancheng, her mother has been push­ing her to re­turn home for work.

“In my home­town, it’s re­garded as shame­ful for se­nior peo­ple to live in nurs­ing homes. My mother does not want to live in Shang­hai and I can’t af­ford for her to live in Shang­hai, es­pe­cially at her ‘de­sired liv­ing stan­dard’. She thinks it would be easy for her to live with me if I was in my home­town,” she said.

Back in the US, Su Yao has de­cided to post­pone mak­ing any de­ci­sions about the fu­ture. Her lifestyle means she has to be flex­i­ble and re­spond to cir­cum­stances, even though she has to de­ter­mine the best course of ac­tion for her par­ents and her young fam­ily, es­pe­cially her 2-yearold son.

“I want him to at­tend pri­mary school in China, but then again, five years ago I said I would give birth at home,” she said. “At the mo­ment, I’m leav­ing this dilemma be­hind me for a while in the hope that ev­ery­thing will be­come clearer later on.”


Re­tirees Jiang Weimao, 60, (right) and his wife Zhang Yinxiu, 53, have din­ner with Zhang’s par­ents at their home in Zhangji­akou, He­bei prov­ince. Jiang and Zhang’s only child was born in 1984 and died from di­a­betes in 2010.


Three vol­un­teers give Ye Sufen, a 83-year-old who lives alone, a hair­cut at her home in Jinzhou, Liaon­ing prov­ince.

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