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Y, 24, Guangzhou 广州 – on Gap Years in China

By Olivia Halsall (郝文婕), 66hands

Last year, Y contributed to “You Have More Freedom Than You Think” (你比你想象的更自由), a book documenting the experiences of 30 young Chinese who took a “gap year” 间隔年 to do something unconventional. Y is often asked how to overcome parental conflict as China’s only children deviate from their parents’ “fixed plan for their kids — primary school, middle school, college, job, marriage, and having children”.

Chinese education expert, Xiong Bingqi, explains that Chinese parents cannot fathom a year out of education because most Chinese universities only permit deferring in exceptional circumstances, such as illness; a “gap year” would hinder one’s chances of university admission when competition is already fierce. Another factor is one’s personal citizenship file: an unexplained year could disadvantage those applying at government or state owned companies. Despite this, Chinese youth are beginning to challenge traditional expectations of education, employment, and more importantly, social status. Sun Dongchun is confident that “society is progressing and more young people will be able to have their own gap year experience.”

On his own gap year experience, Y primarily freelanced whilst building his company’s website as he likes to be able to anywhere. For the first 6 months, he travelled between Guangzhou 广州 and Beijing 北京 (roughly 2,140 km), choosing to leave Beijing and its cold, smog-filled winter for New Zealand 新西兰.

Interested to know what Y thought of the British, having just completed his Master’s in London, he told me before arriving in the UK he thought the British might be高冷. The characters literally translate as “tall, cold”, the closest translation I could find being “haughty”. Another word used to depict the UK, (owing to Chinese social media) was 腐国 which is Chinese slang referring to, “the perception of the UK as decadent for its attitudes towards sexuality”. The former image of haughty Brits formed a stark contrast with the flamboyant, modern and seemingly “decadent” supporters of homosexuals. 腐国in fact originated from Chinese social media trends and memes of various British TV series characters, that whilst we may appear cold and indifferent on the surface, we are humorous and light-hearted on the inside.

I asked Y if there is a particularly desired characteristic amongst the Chinese youth, to which he replied the spirit of being able to 折腾 which translates as “to toss from side to side”, or “to be weird and wonderful (crazy)”. If an individual is daring to persist, fight and dream for something they are passionate about all whilst having a positive impact on others as a role model, then, in the eyes of the upcoming Chinese generation, they have achieved 折腾. Y told me, “If you purposely pursue success, then you are just like everyone else in China. Pursuing success isn’t necessarily a desired characteristic because it’s too common, 折腾 is what the Chinese youth are now striving for”.

J, 20, Jinan 济南 – On love, sex and relationships in China.

Curious about the ways in which love, sex and relationships manifest themselves in contemporary Chinese society, I met with friend, J, to discuss boys, relationships and sex; more specifically J’s reasons for hiding her 3 year relationship with her boyfriend from her parents and gender roles in modern Chinese relationships.

J told me that people would not normally say 性 sex, but instead subtly clap three times, refer to it as  啪啪啪 (pronounced papapa) or say to do the 滚床单 (to roll around in bed sheets). J started dating one of her close friends in secret aged 18. 3 years on and whilst the relationship is no longer secret among friends, J is yet to tell her parents. One of the necessities in keeping the relationship undisclosed is because dating in Chinese secondary schools is often frowned upon and in some cases forbidden. In 2011, a school in 四川 Sichuan imposed a rule stating that students found “20 inches of each other would be told off by teachers in the first instance and then given a formal punishment”.  Whilst many parents express concern for their child’s love life, they also believe that relationships would interfere with one’s studies, so only after graduation should one find a partner, get married and have children.

A Chinese saying goes 宁坐宝马车里哭,不坐自行车上笑 I’d rather cry in a BMW, than laugh on a bicycle; coined in 2010, when 20-year old Ma Nuo, a contestant on TV dating show 非诚勿扰 If you are the one, rejected a potential suitor after he suggested they go on a romantic bike ride to which she replied she would prefer someone with a BMW. Despite social media criticism of modern Chinese dating values, this phrase represents the motivation and mentality of some Chinese seeking a partner. Without previous experience, based on parental advice and societal pressure, some Chinese are selecting life partners based on their material wealth as this guarantees financial security and a certain lifestyle.

J explained that in China, a marriage between two people is more like a marriage between two families, with less emphasis on individual happiness and satisfaction, and more emphasis on the needs and requirements of the family as a whole. However, more and more Chinese youth are shunning conventional expectations and choosing happiness over materialistic wealth. For example, a group of  剩女 (a term for leftover women i.e. those that have reached late 20s without having married) fought against parental and societal expectations in their “Marriage Market Takeover” video and couples are now embracing 裸婚 naked marriages which excludes the emphasis on materialistic wealth (house and car ownership) in a marriage.

J told me her boyfriend and her are equals in their relationship, but he displays  大男人主义 (chauvinistic) behaviour, considering his role as a boyfriend to protect and support her. Traditional expectations of Chinese women include “passive and inactive” behaviour, “maintaining one’s virginity” and “not to ask too much for sex and consider men’s satisfaction as one’s own”.  J said that men who hold onto these expectations are said to have 直男癌 (straight man cancer) and are fiercely criticised by many Chinese youths who strive for gender equality in relationships.

However, despite their shyness in talking about sex, Chinese youths are having sex at an earlier age than before. A study by Peking University showed “the average age for first time sex in China was 22.2 years for those born after 1980, dropping to 17.7 years for those born after 1995”  Furthermore, TV shows such as 女人帮·妞儿 China’s own “Sex and the City” are tackling expectations of virginity and sexism head on. Like many countries both developed and developing around the world, China has a long way to go before longstanding Confucian values (where women are inferior to men) are squashed and gender equality can be achieved.   Perhaps what we are beginning to see is the start of a  “Chinese sexual revolution”; China is slowly starting to lay the groundwork in becoming a society that feels comfortable in talking about love, sex and relationships.


Olivia is the founder of 66hands.com, featuring very interesting and insightful stories from Olivia’s China experience, reflecting on China’s past and present. 

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