Kids To­day

Who will shape China’s youth nar­ra­tive— mil­len­ni­als, or the Western­ers who can’t stop writ­ing about them?是谁的声音在讲述中国“千禧一代”的故事?

The World of Chinese - - Bookmark - BY JEREMIAH JENNE

In the open­ing chap­ter of Young China: How the Rest­less Gen­er­a­tion Will Change Their Coun­try and the World, au­thor Zak Dy­cht­wald stum­bles across the PRC border—and straight into China Ex­pert ter­ri­tory.

“As both an em­pire and a mod­ern cul­ture, one of China’s most distin­guish­ing fea­tures was its in­su­lar­ity from the world,” he writes. “How­ever in­ef­fi­cient the Great Wall was at re­pelling en­e­mies, it was an apt metaphor for China’s at­ti­tude to­ward the out­side: Keep out.”

It doesn’t bode well for what’s to come.

Dy­cht­wald, who be­gins the book as a study-abroad stu­dent in Hong Kong, sets out to de­scribe the am­bi­tions and as­pi­ra­tions of the “post-90s” and “post-00s” youth, “the first mod­ern Chi­nese gen­er­a­tions less pre­oc­cu­pied with needs and more in­volved with wants, in par­tic­u­lar, ‘Who do we want to be?’” In this gen­er­a­tion is “Tom,” who’d stood in long lines to sam­ple KFC as a boy and is now study­ing for a graduate de­gree, try­ing to dis­tin­guish him­self from the sea of

fel­low grad­u­ates; “Bella,” mean­while, is look­ing be­yond academia af­ter fail­ing the re­quired ex­ams, lament­ing, “[In China] there are doors to your dreams…china has many peo­ple. Those doors are very crowded.”

This gen­er­a­tion may fo­cus on wants, but this means sur­viv­ing near­glad­i­a­to­rial com­pe­ti­tion at ev­ery stage of their lives. The abil­ity to field this in­tense com­pe­ti­tion, ar­gues Dy­cht­wald, chal­lenges the out­dated tropes of “lit­tle em­per­ors,” the spoiled off­spring of China’s one-child era. Mil­len­ni­als are con­tin­u­ally seek­ing new strate­gies to cope with the enor­mous pres­sure they face, and some­how suc­ceed.

Dy­cht­wald de­scribes fam­ily life in China in trans­ac­tional terms: “Par­ent Eaters,” kids who stay at home and use up their par­ents’ sav­ings, ver­sus par­ents who ex­pect their off­spring to ad­here to so­cially con­structed timeta­bles for ca­reer, mar­riage, pro­cre­ation, prop­erty own­er­ship, and fi­nan­cial se­cu­rity. These may be boom times, and to­day’s youth might be free of the crush­ing bur­den of sur­vival faced by ear­lier gen­er­a­tions, but that does not mean these kids are al­right.

There seems to be a rule that, when one is young and in China, one ought to write a book about oth­ers who are also young in China. Dy­cht­wald de­serves praise for do­ing his re­search in cities other than the elite cen­ters of Shang­hai and Bei­jing, and he fol­lows in the (un­ac­knowl­edged) lit­er­ary foot­steps of 2017’s Wish Lanterns: Young Lives in New China by Alec Ash, 2016’s Lit­tle Em­per­ors and Ma­te­rial Girls by Jemimah Ste­in­feld, and China’s Mil­len­ni­als: The Want Gen­er­a­tion by Eric Fish.

The recipe for these books seems rel­a­tively sim­ple: In­ter­view lo­cal friends and ac­quain­tances, weave their life sto­ries into a com­pelling and semi­con­nected nar­ra­tive, add com­men­tary to taste, and gar­nish with ad­ven­tur­ous anec­dotes from the au­thor’s own life in China. The trick is, while sim­ple recipes are hard to botch, they can be fiendish to mas­ter.

At their best, these books pro­vide data points; dis­parate sto­ries ac­knowl­edged as part of a larger mosaic. The ablest authors avoid gen­er­al­iza­tions while deftly let­ting their sub­jects speak, if not for them­selves, then at least with a min­i­mum of ed­i­to­ri­al­iz­ing. An ex­am­ple is Wish Lanterns, in which Ash shows ad­mirable re­straint, ju­di­ciously and spar­ingly con­tex­tu­al­iz­ing the sto­ries at the heart of his book.

Un­for­tu­nately, Young China too of­ten feels like a book about the au­thor as much as his sub­jects, and at times the nar­ra­tive slides dis­con­cert­ingly close to be­ing an­other China mem­oir, in which the ex­pat in­ter­po­lates his dis­cov­er­ies of KTV and in­ter­net slang with pedes­trian ex­po­si­tion on Chi­nese his­tory and so­ci­ety. Cer­tainly there are some ex­cel­lent and com­pelling sto­ries in Dy­cht­wald’s book, in par­tic­u­lar about chang­ing at­ti­tudes to­ward sex­u­al­ity and gen­der, and the lives of young LGBTQ peo­ple in China.

But these tales speak truths that are di­min­ished by ex­ces­sive ex­e­ge­sis. Rather than let Chi­nese voices carry the nar­ra­tive, Dy­cht­wald comes across as a din­ner host try­ing to shout over his guests. At times, he is il­lu­mi­nat­ing, but too of­ten, es­pe­cially

when he con­tra­dicts his sub­jects or tries to ex­plain the ways in which they are mis­guided, it comes off as laowai-splain­ing.

Fi­nally, there are is­sues with sources and data. It’s not clear why the au­thor chose not to men­tion the afore­men­tioned ti­tles, all of which were al­ready pub­lished while Dy­cht­wald was writ­ing his. (Since Dy­cht­wald’s text also used the terms “left­over” and “women” in close prox­im­ity, we should be all grate­ful that he did cite Leta Hong Fincher, thus avoid­ing an­other so­cial me­dia spat)

What Dy­cht­wald does cite are blogs, news­pa­per ar­ti­cles, pod­casts, or other se­condary ma­te­ri­als eas­ily sourced on the in­ter­net. Much of his in­for­ma­tion comes from folks whose names will be all too fa­mil­iar to the in­ces­tu­ous cir­cle­jerk of the China bl­o­go­sphere.

And when pri­mary data is used, it is not al­ways cor­rectly. For ex­am­ple, Dy­cht­wald sug­gests that to­day’s youth face greater pres­sure to care for their par­ents be­cause, “His­tor­i­cally, in China, most peo­ple did not age and re­tire. They died… in 1950, the av­er­age life ex­pectancy at birth was be­tween thirty-five and forty years old.” The data is cor­rect, but the av­er­age life ex­pectancy at birth doesn’t tell us how long some­body lived af­ter they be­come par­ents. More­over, in­fant mor­tal­ity in the 1960s was well over 80 per 1,000 live births. By 2015, that num­ber was around 8 per 1,000.

There are phe­nom­e­nal sto­ries of young peo­ple in China, sto­ries which can eas­ily be drowned out by the in­flated static of great power re­la­tions, po­lit­i­cal in­trigue, eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment, and term lim­its. Dy­cht­wald should be com­mended for bring­ing some of these to life. While the book does not quite achieve the level of its pre­de­ces­sors, it is clear that Dy­cht­wald is a tal­ented young man with con­sid­er­able am­bi­tion—much like many of his sub­jects.

THERE SEEMS TO BE A RULE THAT, WHEN ONE IS YOUNG AND IN CHINA, ONE OUGHT TO WRITE ABOUT OTH­ERS WHO ARE ALSO YOUNG IN CHINA

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