Skip to main content

The generation gap is huge for China's millennials and our parents

A woman smiles in front of Sydney harbour
Cecily Huang is a producer in the ABC's Beijing bureau.

The generation gap between my parents and I is much, much bigger than it would be in Australia. That's because China has seen unprecedented social changes and upheavals in just 20 years.

I would have grown up as a communist like my dad if China was the same as it was 20 years ago.

Unlike my parents who starved in the Big Famine of the 1950s and went through the Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976, my generation was born after the 1980s when China started to implement the open door policy. We grew up with McDonald's, Coca-Cola and songs from Michael Jackson, not Mao suits and a personality cult.

My parents spent most of their life trying to save money and had few or no choices in life.

In their youth, the government sent them to the countryside to do farm work and later ordered them to work at an electrical cable factory and a textile mill where they stayed until retirement.

But my generation lives with the benefits of massive economic growth and now has a lifestyle of consumerism.

Having worked for western media for more than seven years and studied in Australia, I certainly have different values and made different lifestyle choices. It leads to endless arguments and struggles with my parents.

Dating and marriage

My father met my mother on a blind date, which I bet no young Chinese would agree to now.

My mother had never dated before meeting my father. They are still happily together after 35 years of marriage.

An older man and woman stand under a tree filled with lanterns
Cecily Huang's parents, Zhengxian Yang and Zhen Guo, grew up in a far different time than their daughter.

I have dated many men but I am still searching for Mr Right.

I am now 35 years old. On a recent trip, a Shanghai male taxi driver showed his sympathy to me when he learnt I was not married.

When I was 30, I got an email from my dad on the morning of the Chinese New Year. He attached a blog post called "Why Women Should Get Married Before 30".

To respond to my dad's email, I sent him a book, translated from "Do Not Marry Before Age 30" written by Joy Chen, the former deputy mayor of San Francisco.

Instead of going home that year, I decided to go to New York City during the Chinese New Year holiday.

Since then, I have looked for any excuse to run away from every Chinese New Year holiday because I could not stand my relatives' repeated interrogation regarding my personal life along with my parents' disappointments. They either make jokes about my appearance or personality as reasons that I am still single or warn me politely that if I wait I'll have less chance of finding a good husband.

Under the Chinese concept of filial piety, we are responsible for our parents' happiness, must obey their life advice and must give them grandchildren.

Dealing with heartbreak

Earlier this year, I got engaged to my Australian boyfriend, who I met when studying for my master's degree in Sydney. My dad preferred that I would marry a Chinese national, but he respected my choice.

However, in an abrupt change of heart, my fiance broke up with me two weeks after he proposed. I was heartbroken. I told my father about it via a phone call.

A young women poses with her parents at tiananmen square
Cecily and her parents have a different outlook on life.

He took the fastest train from my hometown and showed up at my door without any notice.

I was ready for his criticism. I knew this news embarrassed him in front other relatives since the news had spread like wildfire to the rest of my family — "Finally! She was getting married!"

After a few days of not discussing what had happened, I initiated the needed conversation. I said I did not understand why my now former fiance made such decision.

Calmly, my father said: "Nobody in the world knows why Kim Jong-un carries on missile test. Sometimes, there is no answer."

I said I felt no hope for my future. He said: "When Chairman Mao died, no one felt there was any future for China, and they all cried, but now, everyone carries on with their life."

It was how my communist father consoled me — with his political views. His words more or less made sense. I cried on his shoulder for hours. It was probably the first time we did not argue about my personal life and choice of dates.

No politics at home

Years ago we decided to not talk about politics at home after too many furious arguments. He was proud that I had studied in Australia, but he said my mind was seriously impacted by "western poisoned spirit".

My democratic spirit was regarded by him as "dangerous" ideas that could harm China and its socialist system. He refuses to believe Chairman Mao could do wrong.

My dad, now 62, worships Chairman Mao as many people around his age do. He believes there was much less corruption and more equality during Mao's time. They miss and pine for the old days, looking upon it romantically as a simpler, more moral time.

Many Chinese men born in the 1950s to 1960s have names that reflect the ideas of building a great China such as Wei Guo (guarding the country) or Jian Guo (strengthen the country). It certainly makes them feel more attached to the destiny of their country. My dad is called Zhen Guo, which means making the country prosperous.

I feel sorry and sometimes guilty to challenge what he believes. I guess it is painful to hear criticisms of what he fought for his whole life, but I know he was listening even if he didn't agree with me.

Why Chinese kids study hard

Most Chinese either have a tiger mother or a tiger father. If I got a score of 95, my dad would ask why I did not get 97. If I got 97, he would ask me why could I not get 100.

It is the typical Chinese education way — there is never the best, but better. Indeed, my family's attitude to education established my strong personality and self-discipline.

An old photo of a baby with a bow in her hair and her parents
Cecily Huang as a baby with her parents Zhengxian Yang and Zhen Guo

I disagreed with my dad's strict family code of education, but I was amazed to see how western parents came up with beautiful lies and compliments when their kids were doing a terrible job or how they would try to excuse them from exams to protect their children's feelings.

I admired how my western classmates were confident to express their opinions, no matter if it was an absurd or great idea. They had the courage to question the authority.

A common observation of Chinese students by western educators is that the Chinese students lack critical thinking skills. We do not learn critical thinking in China.

A happier life

My dad never said he loved me until I went to university.

He just assumed I knew, and he thought it was cheesy to express his feelings in this way. He has said it more often since he got older.

I understand the struggle between my parents and me is not strictly about our family dynamics but more to do with the clash between my generation's changing way of life and Chinese traditions.

Before my dad returned to our hometown, he told me if getting back with my ex-boyfriend would make me happy then he would support it even if he disagreed. I was touched.

I think my generation is happier than my father's.

Even if greater choice can bring confusion and resentment, I am still glad I live in this era where I have more freedom to decide on my destiny.