Zak Dychtwald has spent much of his 20s living in and learning about China, and observing how his fellow millennials there navigate their relationship with their parents, entrepreneurship, marriage and politics.
"They're extremely aspirational, but there is a tremendous amount of pressure sort of deciding what it means to be Chinese in the modern world," Dychtwald (@zakdychtwald) tells Here & Now's Jeremy Hobson.
In his new book "Young China," Dychtwald paints a picture of what makes this "restless" generation tick.
On young Chinese people feeling pressure being the only child in their family
"This young generation faces what people are calling the 4-2-1 crisis. What that means is there's four grandparents for every two parents for every one child. It used to be in around 1950 that there were a lot of young people, and not very many old people. The average life expectancy was 36. So you didn't get old, you just died. Because of a longevity revolution, and because this young generation was the first generation born under the single-child policy, China's sort of demographic pyramid has inverted. So now you have very few young people, and an aging population. And now a lot of people interpret that to mean, 'Wow, this young generation must get so much attention.' But along with that attention comes an enormous amount of pressure — pressure to get ahead, pressure to get into a good college, pressure to get a great job, pressure to get married. So all of the attention that used to be dispersed to maybe five or six kids per family — which was the average in 1950 — now it's all focused on that one child. So we call them 'little emperors,' but for China's 'little emperors,' heavy hangs the head that wears the crown. It's a tough existence."
"They're extremely aspirational, but there is a tremendous amount of pressure sort of deciding what it means to be Chinese in the modern world."
— Zak Dychtwald, on Chinese millennials
On what Chinese millennials want out of marriage
"China doesn't have religion, but it does have family. And so the pressure put on these kids — both men and women, but, you know, people my age in China, born in 1990, to get married is ... it's more than just, 'Boy, that would be nice, we'll have something to tell the neighbor.' In order to be a good person in China, they often sort of combine that with the idea of xiaoshun, xiaoshun translates to 'filial piety.' It's a poor translation, because we would never use that in everyday conversation here, but being good to your parents is an absolutely essential part of being a good person, and a large part of being a good child is having the next generation, ushering in the next generation. So getting married young, forming a family young, that's more the coming of age than turning 18, turning 21. It's an essential part of growing up in China, and becoming a grandparent in China is an essential part of growing old."
On how the family bond in China is changing
"It's being put under tremendous pressure now. I often say this young generation is sort of at the fault line of two great tectonic plates: On one side you have tradition, what it's meant to be Chinese for thousands of years, they have a strong, proud history. On the other side you have the pressures of modernity. What does that mean?
"So, for young women, for example, they are told that you have to get an education in this day and age, that you have to get a higher education, and that you shouldn't be dating, because you need to be focusing on your studies. So you're in school until you're like 24 or 25, and then bam, whiplash, you need to get ready to find a partner. Otherwise by the age of 27, now it's getting pushed back to 30, you're considered sheng nu, or a 'leftover woman,' [which] means you're considered inedible by society. So there's this traditional idea which is, get married, form a household. But then there's the pressures of what it means to be a person today, which means you have to be educated in order to get a job, you have to continue to ... most families, both the mother and the father, are continuing to work. So there's the conflict of tradition and modernity ... "
On asking 100 Chinese people what their religion was, and most replying "money"
"You know, they said it half jokingly, but there's enough truth to it. And there was a certain sadness with the response. I would follow up with the questioning, obviously, in so much of the last 35 years, 37 years, 38 years of China's sort of post-reform and opening existence — so post-Mao existence — has been a move from rags to riches. Someone my age in China has witnessed such tremendous economic change. I'm born in 1990. In the United States, I've watched our per capita GDP increase by 2 1/2 times. Really remarkable. Someone the same age as me in China has watched their per capita GDP increase 25 times. They remember the rags, and they've watched their country push towards riches. And with that inevitably comes an overfocus on money and materialism.
"But this young generation is starting to react to that. They're not just asking subsistence questions — 'How am I going to get a food, how do I provide shelter?' — and then the extension of that comes posturing with brands and materialism. They're now asking, 'What do I stand for? What do I believe in? What do I want for myself, my family, my country?' They're identity questions."
On how these millennials see their government
"It's a tricky question, but by and large, the opinion is their government is effective — flawed, but effective. This young generation has had more experience of the outside world than any other generation in Chinese history. Their parents grew up behind a cultural wall without a view of the outside. This young generation grew up with the internet. They read our news, they watch our TV shows. ... I have friends in China who quote Barney from 'How I Met Your Mother' and Martin Luther King Jr. in the same breath. They're more fluent in our culture than we imagine. And like I said, there are so many exchange students here from China. One in three students studying in the United States are from China, so they have up-close experience with the United States, and a lot of that experience has led them to believe that, 'You know what, no government is perfect, but ours gets things done.' "
Book Excerpt: 'Young China'
The train from Hong Kong to Shenzhen looked like a typical subway line—plastic seats and metal handrails. The people in suits were doing their daily commute across the border. The man next to me held two big cartons of milk in a bag on his lap. He told me that because mainland milk was poisoned, people would pay top dollar for Hong Kong dairy. The woman sitting across from me motioned to her child to stop staring. I waved, the girl laughed, and an hour passed.
When we arrived, we were separated into lines for foreigners, main-landers, and Hong Kongers, who still need a visa to get into the main- land. I was stamped through and swept out into Shenzhen Luohu Railway Station, which sees eight million border crossers a year.
As soon as I walked out through the doors of the customhouse, I was slammed by a deluge of noise. Salespeople hawking everything from fruit to suits to consultations on international shipping logistics to factory space by the square meter rushed travelers at the door- way. A handful of dedicated “milk dealers” immediately swallowed the man who had sat next to me; then he rushed out of the pack with a few bills scrunched in his hand. The churn of life was dizzying. I saw signs in English, and tried asking for directions in English, but no one spoke it, unlike in Hong Kong. I tried calling the hostel I had booked, but my phone didn’t work in the mainland. I tried to buy a Coke so I could sit and get my bearings, but after what seemed a promising exchange, I received a box of twenty on-the-go tissue packs instead.
The worst part was that I couldn’t shake Philip’s warnings. I became convinced that the sea of people—the woman with a big wicker basket of oranges, the cab drivers motioning toward their backseats, the middle-aged women beckoning me into their watch stores—were prostitutes in disguise conniving to steal my internal organs.
I sat in the plaza outside the train station for an hour before deciding not to turn back. A classmate had written the address of the hostel in Chinese for me, and I handed the slip of paper to a cab driver. He puzzled at the characters in Traditional Chinese, not the Simplified Chinese used in the mainland. After some consultation with a few other cabbies, he said, “Very good!” and motioned me into his cab. I began to worry when he kept repeating “very good” every time I asked him a question. After half an hour in the cab I had done some calculations: at this speed I would suffer only a broken arm if I jumped out onto the freeway. An arm would heal. Kidneys do not grow back.
Three hours later, I sat at a table in an artists’ compound on the edge of town with three students, two guys and a woman, from Shenzhen University. I had arrived in an artists’ district safe and sound. The area was hip and modern, a combination of Brooklyn and Seoul. These students had noticed me as I was eating alone in a restaurant and had invited me to join them. They wore bomber jackets, peacoats, and tight jeans. One of the guys was wearing a hat backward and had a tattoo on his wrist. It said freedom. The other guy and the young woman were a couple. They sat close, her hand on his arm, his on her knee.
Communicating was difficult. Before they asked a question in English, they would confer with each other for several minutes. I spoke no meaningful Chinese beyond “I don’t want.” We didn’t get very far—a brief discussion about movies—and mostly just ate in a strangely happy silence. All the while they played host, putting the choicest pieces of food on my plate in place of conversation. They insisted on treating when the meal ended. With the dignity of a diplomat one student managed to tell me, “You’re a guest in our country.” We went our separate ways with a wave and a smile. That was it. No pickpockets, no swindlers, no prostitutes. I left Shenzhen certain that China was not like the descriptions people had given me, but I also felt ill equipped to understand what the differences were.
During my time at Hong Kong University, six months at the beginning of 2011, I went to Mainland China several times, doing my best to get deeper into China. I went with a robotics team to Shenzhen’s computer centers and marveled at the technological fluency of the fourteen-year-olds who were gutting and stripping computers in minutes as they sat at folding tables heaped with motherboards and circuitry. I walked through Internet bars with rows of teenagers and twenty-year-olds click-click-click-clicking wordlessly through alternative realities for hours on end. I took tours of factories that manufacture electronic cigarettes as a “quality control specialist” (my friend’s cousin sold them in the UK and asked us to put on suits and tour his suppliers) and sat in on a start-up meeting run by twenty-year-olds looking to change the world. What did they talk about when they were alone? How would growing up in a city like Shenzhen mold you? What did these kids—my peers— dream of?
Seeing more of China didn’t make me understand it better; it only created more mysteries to solve. It was clear that the China I was experiencing wasn’t the China I had been told about. Real China seemed to move behind a wall, and I was seeing only its shadows. The Great Wall, Shanghai’s skyline, Suzhou’s meandering canals, and even Shenzhen’s Luohu station—in all these places I felt like I was looking at a postcard of China, something fascinating but paper thin. As both an empire and a modern culture, one of China’s most distinguishing features was its insularity from the world. However inefficient the Great Wall was at repelling enemies, it was an apt metaphor for China’s attitude toward the outside: keep out.
After I returned to the United States, I found that China’s reputation at home was worse than it was in Hong Kong. When I would ask someone, “What do you know about Chinese people?” I’d hear a smattering of headlines, a description of Chinese people as a Maserati-driving, dog-eating people who live in empty, underpopulated cities but who need to be shoved from behind to fit into crammed subways. They’re poor child laborers who also buy more clothes from Kate Spade and Michael Kors than anyone else in the world. The contradictions carried a whiff of Philip’s Shenzen warning, but I didn’t know how to set the Americans straight. I became determined to go back and dig into China’s mysteries.
After I graduated from college in 2012, I left New York for China armed with the address of a hostel and the phone number for a language program. I did not speak the language and I didn’t know any- one or have a job. My plan was to try to get through that wall.
From Young China: How the Restless Generation Will Change Their Country and the World by Zak Dychtwald. Copyright © 2018 by the author and reprinted with permission of St. Martin's Press, LLC.
This segment aired on February 27, 2018.