Last August, with my classes paused for summer vacation, I took my 5-year-old son to visit my parents in southwestern China, some 2,000 kilometers from our home in the northern city of Tianjin. At one point during the week we spent there catching up, they jokingly quizzed him on his origins: “ni shi nali ren?”
“Where are you from?” It might seem like a simple question, but it threw my son for a loop, and not without good reason: His father is from southwestern China, his mother hails from the east, and he himself was born and raised in Tianjin in the north. Thousands of kilometers separate those three places, to say nothing of their differing dialects, cuisines, and local cultures. And, accustomed as he is to splitting summer breaks and major holidays between the locations, he probably has yet to form a strong sense of belonging to any of them.
For hundreds of years, identity in China has been tightly bound up with your place of origin. How you answered that seemingly innocuous question, “ni shi nali ren?” used to be a kind of shorthand for the language you speak, the food you eat, even your personality. But after two generations of mass internal migration, urbanization, and shifting family dynamics, it’s getting harder to answer. Over the past 40 years, young Chinese from all over the country have flooded into its major cities. Some worked for a time before returning to their hometowns, but many more formed new families in their adopted cities, often with fellow migrants from elsewhere in China. These migration patterns have created a new kind of family dynamic, one that can be summed up as “one household, two migrants, three cities,” or what I like to call China’s “new-new households.”
These new-new households, where the parents from two different places start a life in a third, necessarily require cohesion and compromise. There are significant discrepancies between local lifestyles and cultures in China. When parents from different places live together, they have to adapt to their partner’s dietary and other habits. This is even more true for their children, as they must juggle the diverse lifestyles of not just their father’s family and mother’s family, but also their own city of residence.
For instance, every region of China has its own customs for what to buy, what to eat, and how to celebrate Lunar New Year, Lantern Festival, Mid-Autumn Festival, Dragon Boat Festival, and other traditional Chinese holidays. These customs reflect local history, climate, resources, and culture. But children of new-new households experience them as a mishmash: On holidays, our family table features the spicy southwestern Chinese dishes that I’m used to, the sweeter eastern Chinese dishes that my wife likes, and even some local starchy northern Chinese dishes. When in Rome, after all.
Nor is our family particularly unique. Many of my colleagues and former classmates belong to new-new households and spend their holidays much like we do. Our children experience a mix of holiday customs, not the customs of their place of residence. In the future, when they think back to their childhood memories, will they enjoy the same sense of roots as their parents?
Ironically, it’s the parents, even more so than this melding of customs and practices, cutting the children of these new-new households off from their sense of place. More specifically, it’s parents’ desire — whether they realize it or not — to give their kids a more “modern” upbringing.
Take dialect, for example. In my experience, parents of new-new households typically insist on speaking Standard Mandarin — the national language — even when their own Standard Mandarin is shaky. They never or rarely speak their own dialects to their children, nor do they allow their children to learn the local dialect of their place of residence. Thus, despite having a chance to be exposed to a wide variety of regional dialects, their kids seldom master any. In some cases, they even inherit their parents’ distaste for supposedly low-class dialect usage, reacting snobbishly if they hear local children speaking it.
Another rift relates to their lifestyles. Similar to how they discourage dialect acquisition, many contemporary Chinese parents want to raise their children with what they consider modern, urban habits — rather than the comparatively backward customs found in their hometowns. Sometimes this is a way to keep everyone happy: Both family meals and meals out might tend toward simple, modern offerings that satisfy both parents and their different palates, even as they also deny their children the chance to try the homestyle local dishes they themselves grew up eating. Many new-new households also mark traditional holidays and family celebrations through spending, dining, or park visits, rather than embracing either the local customs of their hometowns or their city of residence.
By these metrics, the children of China’s urban new-new households might be the country’s most “modern” generation ever. They never learned and cannot speak their parents’ or the local dialect, and they grew up separated from local dietary habits and customs. Instead, they speak Standard Mandarin; they consume food that seems global but has actually been highly industrialized; and their lifestyles are shaped more by universal middle-class norms than those of their cities of residence or origin.
There’s a more positive way of looking at this, I suppose. Rather than being bound by the past or nostalgia for their hometowns, this new generation of de-regionalized Chinese is characterized by a strong sense of individual will. No longer tied to any one community, they’re free and able to pursue their interests and passions, to chase after new experiences, wherever these might take them.
Still, I can’t help but wonder. I spent the first 22 years of my life in Southwest China. A decade and a half later, I still miss it: From time to time, I’ll buy the delicacies I grew up with and ship them to myself, just for a taste of home. My classmates and I have taken different paths in life, spreading across the country as businesspeople, civil servants, and teachers, but when we meet up, we slip right back into our dialect and into the conversational rhythms of our hometown.
As my son grows up and starts going to school, he will likely spend more time in Tianjin. But will he ever identify as being Tianjinese? Will today’s children, coming from these new-new households, still have the sense of regional identity as my classmates and I? And if not, what will replace it?
Translator: Katherine Tse; editors: Lu Hua and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Wang Zhenhao.
(Header image: Martin Puddy/Stone/People Visual)