China’s youth grew up watching sitcoms and playing videogames. Today they use phone apps to decide what to buy and where to eat. Jeffrey Wasserstrom reviews ‘Young China’ by Zak Dychtwald.
It’s easy to focus on the differences between China’s 20-somethings and Americans of the same age. Mainland residents of this generation are much more likely than their foreign compatriots to be only children, and they are much less likely to have created a Facebook profile, done a Google search, seen a television show mock a national leader, or voted.
Yet when I meet Chinese who were born in the 1990s, I mostly notice something else: how much more they have in common with Americans their age than I did with Chinese of my generation when I first traveled to China as a 25-year-old. Xinyong, the best friend I made in 1986, did not know the songs I had grown up listening to or the television shows I watched as a kid. As a child, I’d been driven around in cars my parents owned, but in those years no one he knew could drive. I met my wife at college; Xinyong met his in a village, where he’d been sent as part of a Mao-era campaign to instill proper revolutionary values in urban youths.
Flash forward to the 2010s and what leaps out from Zak Dychtwald’s engrossing “Young China” are the many contemporary parallels between growing up in China and the United States. The urban 20-somethings whom Mr. Dychtwald befriends during his travels grew up watching “Friends” and playing computer games like “World of Warcraft.” Today they ride around in cars, sometimes hailed via ride-sharing apps, and they routinely use smartphones to communicate via social media platforms and to figure out where to eat, what to buy and whom to date. What was once a chasm is now often just a gap.
Mr. Dychtwald, who graduated from Columbia in 2012, has spent much of his 20s in China, working in several cities and crisscrossing the country by train as he’s honed his Mandarin skills. Along the way he’s met many members of this “restless generation”—his apt term for the large cohort of Chinese born during the final years of the last century (an average of about 20 million children were born in China annually during the 1990s).
The author, who writes with an infectious energy, lets us eavesdrop on the conversations he’s had with scores of young Chinese, often referring to them by the Western names they were given by teachers or chose for themselves. In venues ranging from cacophonous Karaoke bars to opulent office parks, these Toms, Zizis, Renées, and Lin Lins share their life stories and offer opinions about everything from skyrocketing real-estate prices to parent-child relations.
A lot of writing about China still suffers from the Cold War era tendency to think of residents of any country run by a communist party as a faceless mass of automatons. What’s refreshing about “Young China” is that each of the individuals we read about are, well, individuals. There’s Bella—for whom “study became a way of life” at age 6, and who remains obsessed with doing well on tests—and Lulu, who throws herself into get-rich-quick schemes, “driven by her desire to have the financial means to take care of her parents.”
We also meet Wendy, who shares an apartment in Suzhou with Mr. Dychtwald, in a platonic arrangement, while she suffers from the consequences of a messy affair with a married man. And in a Chengdu hostel, Mr. Dychtwald encounters Xiao Guo and Mei, who have such an easy way with each other that other guests assume they must be married. It turns out they are virgins who have come there to “try sex” in a setting away from those they know.
There is a refreshingly ordinary, as opposed to sensationalistic, feel to many of the stories recounted in “Young China”: The author is such a lively spinner of tales that he can tease humor and pathos out of even run-of-the-mill interactions, as when a friend introduces him to Ou Lei, a 21-year-old political conformist who seems prematurely middle-aged. “I thought he had brought his uncle,” Mr. Dychtwald writes of the friend. “[Ou Lei] was dressed like the Communist Party cadre they film for CCTV news pieces, bland men in generic polo shirts tucked into generic slacks.”
I do have a few problems with the book. We do not, despite the subtitle, get much of a sense of how the “restless generation” will or even might “change their country and the world.” In particular, I wondered: What does it mean that the lifestyles of youths in China and other places are converging, while the political structures within that country stay so distinctive and certain forms of control there have been tightening?
Mr. Dychtwald also too rarely acknowledges valuable work that has been done by scholars and other journalists who know China well. Two books from 2015—“China’s Millennials” by Eric Fish and “Little Emperors and Material Girls” by Jemimah Steinfeld —treated exactly the same age cohort. Other worthwhile references could have included works without a tight generational focus, such as “Restless China” (2013), an excellent interdisciplinary collection with chapters on everything from courtship to consumerism.
The lack of deeper dialog with past publications is a shame, since the results are impressive when Mr. Dychtwald does engage with the investigations of others, as in a section on changing views of homosexuality that draws on the writings of sexologist Li Yinhe. The author uses Ms. Li’s work to help readers better understand the stories of people like William, a gay man who still aims to be filial and carry on the family line—something his father encourages him to do via either “adoption or a surrogate mother.”
To make sense of contemporary China, it is crucial to understand the varied aspirations, anxieties, fears and fantasies of the many millions of Chinese—as big a group as the entire populations of some sizeable countries—who were born after the year that soldiers killed protesters near Tiananmen Square. “Young China” provides an excellent starting point for doing just that.
Mr. Wasserstrom is the co-author of “China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know,” an updated third edition of which will be published in March.
Appeared in the February 15, 2018, print edition as 'A Restless Generation.'