My uncle Renying — a retired primary school teacher — loves going to college reunions. In the last few years, he’s met up with former classmates in Quanzhou, the city in southeastern China’s Fujian province where he went to college, to eat, drink, and talk about old times.
Renying’s propensity for nostalgia is far from exceptional. These days, many retired Chinese people in their 60s and 70s go to class reunions. Some attend sumptuous banquets on the anniversary of their high school graduation; others go on countryside excursions with people they met in college.
Younger people lack their parents’ hunger for nostalgia. Recently, a friend of mine, Li Meng, tried to plan a 20-year reunion with her elementary school classmates. Although Meng was a member of a chat group on WeChat — China’s ubiquitous social messaging app — that contained about 50 of her school peers, hardly anyone responded to the suggestion. The reunion never happened.
One reason for a lack of interest among young people is that nostalgia is more likely to affect older people. My uncle goes to reunions to revive his younger self, look back on the exploits of his youth, and recall a time when he seemingly had the world at his fingertips. China today is almost unrecognizable from the country it was in the 1950s and ’60s, and the rapid pace of development is unsettling to many older people. The reassurance of a class reunion gives them a rare sense of belonging, acceptance, and optimism for the future.
School reunions are particularly popular among urban, middle-class, well-heeled retirees. They were shaped by the turbulent political changes that took place after China was reunited under Communist rule in 1949, and the majority of them were classed as zhiqing — “educated youth” — during the Cultural Revolution, when they were sent down to the countryside to learn the perceived wisdom of China’s peasants at a time when they were supposed to be in high school or university. The collective hardships of this era — students toiled in the fields during the daytime and studied Maoist thought during breaks from work — fundamentally shaped their personal values, convincing them to subordinate individualism to the interests of their work team. This is probably a key reason why group activities — school reunions, community choirs, square dancing — are of immense emotional significance to many retired Chinese.
But since the late 1970s, when the government’s policy of reform and opening-up planted the shoots of individualism in Chinese society, collectivist values have faded. The socio-political culture of the Cultural Revolution was a unique historical moment that is incomprehensible to many youngsters today. Many older Chinese don’t speak with their children and grandchildren about the events of that decade; for some, class reunions are a way to recover their identity by sharing experiences that only their peers can understand.
It is telling that class reunions are largely the preserve of China’s more well-to-do retired people. While some got rich off the market economy, many are former public employees whose jobs survived the wave of layoffs that decimated state-owned enterprises during the 1990s. As a result, they retired with stable pensions, endowment insurance, and sometimes their own homes, having secured themselves a bolt-hole in the city prior to the dramatic surge in home prices. These people have money, time, and energy: The current legal age of retirement in China is 60 for men and 55 for women. Most people of this age are forced to call it quits while they are still healthy, mobile, and keen-witted.
In Chinese public discourse, the elderly are often viewed as a disadvantaged community. This portrayal conceals the fact that many elderly people possess deep reserves of enthusiasm, vitality, and experience. Left with nothing to do, many old people find themselves stuck in a state of perpetual ennui. Under these circumstances, WeChat groups with former classmates are an important outlet for communication, while real-life reunions can be a form of escapism from the monotony of retirement. My friend Shao’s parents spend their days huddled together on the couch with phones held up to their ears as they listen to the voice messages of their classmates, now dispersed across the country, and record their own messages in return.
Another group of retired Chinese people are called laopiaozu, or “elderly nomads.” They are people who originally planned to live out their days in their hometowns, but ultimately followed their children to the city to take care of their grandchildren. Statistics published in 2016 by the National Health and Family Planning Commission show that out of China’s 247 million internal migrants, just over 7 percent were elderly nomads in 2015, nearly half of whom migrated specifically to take care of other family members.
My aunt Fen is one of them. She spent much of her life in Quanzhou, but later “drifted” to Wuhan, in central China’s Hubei province, where her son’s family lives and works, in order to help take care of her grandson. In Quanzhou, she enjoyed a varied and fulfilling life, attending classes at a college for the elderly, going shopping, traveling widely, and taking part in square dances. Once she moved to Wuhan, though, she had to invest virtually all of her energy in housework and child care.
Elderly nomads often have more exhausting lives in retirement than they did as members of the workforce. They not only have to shoulder a panoply of chores, but also must endure the loneliness of living in unfamiliar cities with unintelligible local tongues — many elderly people speak less-than-fluent Mandarin — and where they have no friends or other relatives to keep them company.
In April of this year, Fen exultantly called my mother and told her she was going to Yunnan, a province in southwestern China, on a weeklong vacation. My mother was stunned: How could her sister bear to leave her grandchildren for a whole week? Fen replied that she was going to attend a class reunion: One of her college friends had opened a tourist resort in Kunming, the provincial capital, where he had organized a getaway for his former classmates.
That week, Aunt Fen’s WeChat feed was filled with cheery posts, selfies with old classmates, and photos of Kunming. For elderly nomads who can afford them, school reunions are a much-needed respite from a hectic lifestyle that challenges their very sense of self. Fen came back rejuvenated from her trip to Kunming. Now, she says, she’s waiting for the next one.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Zhang Bo and Matthew Walsh.
(Header image: Graduates from the class of 1955 pose for photographs at Guiyang No.1 high school, Guizhou province, Sep.15, 2015. Wu Dongjun/VCG)