For Chinese students, it is that time of the year again, a time to miss loved ones at home, a time to crave for red envelopes, dumplings and firecrackers and, above all, a time to indulge in fond memories of home. But home always carries a paradoxical meaning for this generation of Chinese students, especially those from the mainland. On the one hand, China is the place that we know so well. On the other hand, China is the home that we have never been able to fully understand and a place from which we are growing increasingly detached.
While we grew up in China, we could dwell in our own successes and do our own things without the hassles of the outside world. In the meantime, we ignored that our lives were also closely linked to the broader social system that surrounded us. Chinese students on American campuses, especially those here at Yale, constitute the elite of our generation, in part because of their hard work and in part because of their privileged backgrounds. However, these elites have never seen how the other half lives and are prone to indifference toward the realities at home.
In a way, it was lucky for us to have avoided exposure to the most unfortunate in China. Children from the countryside or even just a mediocre school in an obscure city are extremely disadvantaged. Attending a renowned university often requires the resources that are only available in the big cities, and some of the best schools in those cities more specifically. But we, the lucky few Chinese students attending schools such as Yale, must believe that their hardship is our own hardship. If the elites show nonchalance toward the concerns of their countrymen, then soon enough life will be hard for the entire society.
The elite’s apathy stems from the distinctive apoliticism of this generation of Chinese youth. Due to the “lessons” taught by the Chinese authorities to the general public in the late 1980s, independent mass politics or any kind of social activism is discouraged from above and avoided from below. Rather than pursue paths in politics, many seek more individualistic careers in entrepreneurship and business.
As a result, even when social issues are affecting the lives of millions of Chinese people, the elites often find themselves devoid of the institutions necessary to address these problems. Now when we think about home, all we have is our family and friends, home cooking, some know-how about living in China and some knowledge about Chinese history and culture. As for the vital issues concerning society, as talented as the Chinese students here are in so many fields, very few of us actually follow the news and events in China and even fewer would make the effort to learn about the challenges and politics of the pressing issues at home.
These issues seem distant but are in fact close to our everyday lives. In the past couple of years, China has seen great intolerance towards some of the values we cherish as dearly as the broader Yale community: the freedom of the press and the freedom of expression. This harsh censorship extends even to a forceful rhetoric against Western values.
For Chinese students, there should be a degree of alertness and concern as we think about home, even on occasions such as the Lunar New Year holiday.
Activism is not necessarily feasible at the moment, but a general sense of awareness is necessary for the Chinese identity. To nurture this awareness, we should spend time reading, learning and discussing what really matters to our country. Only by actively concerning and familiarizing ourselves with the important issues can we combat indifference, cynicism and blind nationalism in our home away from China.
The famous Song Dynasty poet Fan Zhongyan once wrote what he believed to be the ideal attitude of the elite, “Show concern before all others; enjoy yourself after all others.” As we celebrate the Lunar New Year holiday and think about home, we should also start caring about the many concerns at home.
Yifu Dong is a sophomore in Branford College. Contact him at email@example.com.