Being the mother of a single child myself, I know how disheartening it can be when people tell you that the only way to make sure your “one and only” is not spoiled is to have another child. It seems to be the answer to every crippling instance of disobedience, rudeness, and impatience he exhibits.
“Have another child lah, then you won’t bother so much about this one that he always gets his way,” I have often been told. Reading Xinran Xue’s latest book seals the deal for me. The internationally renowned Chinese-British journalist discusses the effects of China’s one child policy on those born after 1970, exposing the psyches, value systems, and consciousness of these only children – sometimes dragging her readers to the depths of sorrow along the way, thanks to how she listens to and writes about people empathetically.
Xue (her books are published under just “Xinran”) uses a journalist’s critical eye for facts and an author’s flair for words effectively in Buy Me The Sky. She examines how a generation of “one-and-onlies”, burdened with great expectations but brought up with a scant sense of responsibility, embodies the hopes and fears of a nation in flux.
According to Xue’s column in Britain’s Guardian newspaper (China’s little emperors – the children without siblings, May 23, 2015) by 2014, China had raised nearly 140 million “little emperors” since the 1980s; these “one-and-onlies” are the apple of their parents’ eyes, expected to raise the family to the next level, yet simultaneously dismissed by society as pandered-to and coddled “little emperors”.
During a recent Skype interview with me, Xue, 57, describes these single children as a lonely, materialistic group that does not understand the value of Chinese culture and the need to respect parents and family elders.
“Over the past decades, family synergy has changed radically,” says Xue.
“It has shifted the minds and souls of a generation, one that is rapid intellectually, psychologically and physically. Everything sped up and changed. There is no border to the national market, let alone is there geographical limitation for this generation,” says Xue, adding that one of the young people she wrote about told her that she can live without family, but not without the Internet.
Each chapter centres on the life of one only child, describing conversations between him or her and Xue. The dialogue is quick and terse.
Most parts of the book refer to Yao Jiaxin, a 21-year-old only child who stabbed a woman to death in 2010 after he had run her over because he wanted to avoid responsibility – a case that many in China have said represents the ills of this only-child generation. At the end of each chapter, the person is asked for an opinion on the case.
Separately, each chapter is a great story. We meet a man who cannot pack or unpack his own suitcase; another whose main ambition is to take selfies with celebrities – if only he knew how to use a camera. These anecdotes are then positioned within a wider cultural context, making the book a timely look at modern China.
All of the people in the book are ones Xue met outside China, whose perspectives are likely to be different from those who have never left the country – as is the experience of many of China’s only children. Xue acknowledges this, and says she encountered hundreds from within China too. Why didn’t their stories make it into the book? Perhaps those who made the cut had the most captivating tales? Still, it would have been interesting to hear from China-based only children too.
Xue, a mother herself, has strong opinions about independence, respect, and morality.
“It is ghastly to see 17- and 18-year-old children with parents waiting outside their schools to pick them up. When asked why they are there, they say it is to make sure their children cross the roads safely,” she says, amazement obvious in her voice.
“I don’t blame them. They have nowhere to go for guidance. Just as the children are different, the parents are finding it hard too because they have no one to fall back on for help. There is no support within the family, at school, or in society. When they have a problem, they have nowhere to go, and panic rises.”
Just when you think Xue is directing you towards one central theory in her book – that these “one-and-onlies” are a spoiled lot – she introduces some who are the exact opposite, like kind-hearted daughter Moon. And some of the stories are touching, sometimes haunting; the chapter on a boy whose family murdered its unwanted baby girls, for instance, is reminder of how tough life remains for many in China.
It is obvious throughout her writing that Xue cares deeply about these children who are now becoming parents themselves. By the end of the book, you will care too.
Xue has built a remarkable career by listening carefully, and always with the greatest empathy. She had an audience of faithful millions as a journalist in China when she hosted a nightly radio show called Words On The Night Breeze. The show began in 1989 on Radio Nanjing and ran for seven years. It was the first radio programme in China to give voice to the personal issues of women, and Xue received hundreds of calls and letters every day; women from all walks of life poured out their stories of incest, rape, kidnapping, brutality, suffering, torture, and neglect.
Xue is the mother of a single child herself, and she does not hold back her emotions for these children, who remind her of her commitment to Panpan, her now 27-year-old “power house” who had been born in China.
“When he points out my mistakes, I take it seriously. You can say I am psychologically controlled by my son. He is a part of my nervous system, my ‘GPS’. My life is filled with junctions, right or left, and he shouts out the directions.”
In 1997 Xue moved to London, where she burst onto the literary scene with her seminal book about Chinese women’s lives, The Good Women Of China, which gave voice to women across the world’s most populous nation. Other acclaimed books she has written are Sky Burial, Miss Chopsticks, China Witness, Message From An Unknown Chinese Mother, and a book of her columns (in Britain’s The Guardian newspaper) called What The Chinese Don’t Eat.
She married an Englishman and currently lives in London but travels regularly to China. Xue also founded the Mothers’ Bridge of Love charity to help disadvantaged Chinese children and to build better understanding between the West and China.