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.
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.
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.
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.