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    The 24-Year-Old Master In (Old School) Communication

    How 24-year-old Lülü uses expressions and language that China’s elderly prefer to bridge the widening age gap.

    Exhausted by the stress, her workload, and constant overtime as a writer in China’s demanding video game industry, 24-year-old Lülü chose to quit her lucrative job to strike out on her own as an author.

    That decision late in 2020 immediately triggered a quintessential argument with her mother over career choices. It eventually culminated in Lülü’s mother blocking her on WeChat — China’s social app.

    Keen on bridging the divide, Lülü finally found her voice via a pseudonym. She created a public WeChat account posing as guoxue dashi or a master of traditional Chinese culture — a figure that China’s middle-aged and elderly hold in high regard.

    On December 28, 2020, Lülü published a post titled “The In-Depth Viral Article: How to Be a Good Mother” to this fake account. It laid out the three key qualities of a good parent, which Lülü hoped would make her mother more tolerant.

    But her mother saw through the charade. “Why does the article only list two qualities when the title says three?” she asked. “There are just a few views — it looks like a scam. Did you write it?”

    Unmasked, Lülü was forced to admit she created the account. But to her surprise, her mother wasn’t angry. Instead, she was overjoyed that Lülü “wanted to become a master of traditional Chinese culture.” Her mother instantly shared the article with her friends, even urging them to follow the account. She also asked Lülü to write more carefully and post new content every day.

    Two months later, one of Lülü’s best friends complained that her mother was nagging her about being lazy. The friend’s mother even posted a picture on WeChat Moments — the app’s social feed — that said, “Young People, Get Up and Get Things Done!”

    Keen on pushing back, the friend turned to Lülü a.k.a. guoxue dashi for help, who soon posted an article titled “Older People, Give It a Rest!” It spelled out the three main benefits of lying in bed, which the friend shared on her own Moments in response to her mother.

    Soon after, Lülü’s friend posted this to a group on the review platform Douban, which drew several young people to Lülü’s account.

    And they all wanted the same thing: To change their parents’ attitude using customized content with expressions and language that China’s elderly preferred — written by an apparent master of traditional Chinese culture. Their common concerns: micromanaging children, buying sketchy health products online, or pushing for marriage, children, or grandchildren.

    Since her first few posts, Lülü’s public account has only grown in popularity — currently, she has 35,000 followers. It’s also prompted her to reflect on the challenges of intergenerational communication.

    This is Lülü’s story.

    Becoming a Master

    I began thinking about creating a WeChat public account for older readers around the time the pandemic started.

    In early 2020, I read online that COVID-19 cases were spreading and told my mother to start storing masks. She didn’t believe me and thought I was being alarmist. My friends also struggled to get their parents to stay indoors. At the time, the older generation refused to listen or even mask up, and continued to socialize as they always had.

    This made me realize how complicated communication was with our parents; they’d rather blindly believe what they see on WeChat than listen to their own children.

    For example, my mother once read that anyone who shared a certain post with 89 WeChat groups could win a down jacket. Though I insisted it was a scam, my mother refused to believe me and really did share the post.

    When she fell short of the 89 groups mandated in the post, she created her own groups and shared it there. Needless to say, she didn’t get the jacket.

    That’s when my mother became my muse. Before setting up my public account, I explored the kind of groups and content she followed — they were primarily about “traditional Chinese culture,” “love for life,” and “self-empowered women.”

    So I named the public account after the most common buzzwords: guoxue (“traditional Chinese culture”) and aishenghuo (“loving life”).

    And for the profile photo, I realized many public accounts for the elderly featured Buddha, bottle gourds, or lotus flowers — I chose a bottle gourd for mine. Because of copyright concerns, I took my photo myself by placing a gourd against a white tumbler, adding the text – guoxue – over the image.

    The writing style of my posts was modeled after the content in my mother’s Moments. I made the font as large as possible and colorful, too.

    The headline and post had to include clickbaity words like “good karma,” “it’ll impact your fortunes,” and “don’t miss this!” It was also best to cite feng shui masters or excerpts from the medical text The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Medicine Canon, packaging what I wanted to say with the discourse popular among middle-aged and older people.

    Soon, my mother began making suggestions before I published anything — quote the classics more often, use better images, or make the text brighter, she’d say. I realized then that older people were drawn to vivid colors.

    To this day, however, my mother doesn’t understand what I do. When she heard a journalist wanted to interview me, she thought I was getting recognized because of my study in traditional Chinese culture.

    She told everyone about my “passion,” to the point where a relative remarked, “So you do traditional Chinese culture now? And with that many followers? Impressive!”

    I just responded, “Yes, I’m a master now.”

    Mastering the art

    My account became wildly popular after my best friend shared it in a Douban group on February 22, 2021. For the next two days, my phone buzzed constantly from the unending wave of notifications.

    In just a week, the account had nearly 20,000 followers, with each post drawing over 10,000 views. Moreover, user data showed that 80% of my followers were young. Considering the sheer number of messages we received, I invited my best friend to help run and manage the account’s inbox.

    Most messages were people thanking us for our “hard work,” often with the prayer hands emoji. Some wanted us to explain to the elderly that luosifen, a popular noodle dish with a distinctive odor, were not actually stinky, while others wanted us to write that raising pets brought young people good fortune, and wasn’t a waste of money.

    There were more specific requests for content too. Some wanted to keep their grandparents from falling for sketchy health products online or wanted to rein in their helicopter parents. The most common appeals involved writing about parents who pushed for marriage, a child, a second child, or “stable” careers like civil servants, teachers, or doctors.

    I rejected some ridiculous requests, though. For instance, one user wanted me to write about the benefits of staying up late and drinking alcohol. I refused because I’m not out to bring anyone harm.

    Some people also hoped that I could teach the older generation that homosexuality was not some kind of illness. I respect the sentiment, but that’s not something I can do right now.

    The elderly would get suspicious if a “master of traditional Chinese culture” broached topics like homosexuality. A post like that might turn older readers away and keep me from speaking about other issues. Moreover, even if I did write that post, would one really be bold enough to share it with parents? I feel that it’s difficult at this stage.

    Of the content already published, the first post was the one I used to persuade my mom to be more tolerant of me. The second was tailored for my best friend, and the third was penned in response to a follower who complained that their father never did any housework.

    Titled “Must Read: Advice From a Successful Man,” that third post called on fathers to share the workload around the house and communicate effectively with their children. The last paragraph, highlighted in red said: “Share it with 10 groups! Good content should be shared, so follow and support Chinese people!”

    The fourth post, “Stay Alert: The One Thing Harming Your Brain,” came from numerous comments about parents or grandparents watching videos at incredibly high volumes and waking their children up at 5 or 6 in the morning.

    But the most widely shared post to date was about discouraging parents from pushing their children to get married. Titled “What These Parents Did Doomed Their Kids to Perpetual Singledom,” the post already has over 50,000 views. My mother even shared it on her Moments and commented, “We should be smart parents and not interfere with our children.”

    Behind this content is the disparity in intergenerational dialogue. Our parents feel they are always right, and children have no right to speak as equals. Even when they realize they’re wrong, they refuse to apologize. At most, they may say, “Time to eat” — their way of signifying a fight is over.

    Apart from trying their best to run their children’s lives, Chinese parents would rather believe what they read on WeChat over their children.

    In their view, when WeChat posts mention feng shui and well-being, they’re quoting from the classics, and that lends a more authentic feel to their content, whereas everything their children read online is “nonsense.”

    Given that, I may as well talk to them through a medium they respect. One reason why my posts resonate with my generation is because everybody struggles to communicate with their parents.

    At the moment, I’m driven to add new content every day because of the encouragement from my followers. We already have posts scheduled through next month, prioritizing the ones with more requests.

    Upcoming posts touch upon parents’ pushing for grandchildren (one or more), interfering in their children’s happiness, their desire for control, and high school students forced to consume a variety of health products.

    Other posts are about parents who fall for WeChat scams, parents buying overpriced bottle gourds, and parents who believe you can make money by watching certain videos, among others.

    Incidentally, a company already reached out to post advertisements with us. It specializes in financial management products, similar to microfinance loans. However, considering many of our followers tend to fall for scams, we turned down their offer.

    A rebel daughter

    Growing up in northern China, I rebelled against my parents while still quite young.

    Back in our hometown, parents continue to place a lot of emphasis on studies, and they believe not doing well in class will doom your entire life.

    I, however, always enjoyed joking around in class, which my parents and teachers thought was irresponsible. My teachers also believed everyone should study after class, so I was once put in detention just for talking during class breaks.

    My mother and I fought so much when I was younger that she believed I was “mentally ill.” Our hometown, in a coastal province in northern China, has a Lunar New Year tradition of kowtowing — a ritual of paying obeisance to elders by getting down on both knees and bowing.

    During this time, I was awoken at 4 or 5 a.m., fed some dumplings, and then dragged out to pay our respects around the village. At one point, I told my parents, “You might as well get me a car and I’ll kowtow while sitting atop it. Wouldn’t that be easier?”

    In college, my mother wanted me to showcase the “elegant demeanor” of a student when guests came over, so she’d have me bring them water, pour tea, and greet them.

    This irked me immensely. So, when relatives showed up, I simply said, “Hey everyone, I’m in college now.” Since she was trying to boast that I got into college, that was exactly what I did.

    Everyone in my hometown believed I had gone rogue. At the time, I didn’t know how to rebel beyond clashing with my mother, so our relationship was frosty for a long time.

    In college, I majored in electrical engineering , which typically funnels people to power plant jobs after graduation, but that path never appealed to me. All I did in class was read and write novels.

    In junior year, I won a prize in a writing competition hosted by a video game company that was actually looking for prospective writers. Eventually, I interned with the company while still in college, and after graduation, moved to Beijing to take up the offer.

    It changed everything with my mother. Before graduating or even turning 20, I’d managed to secure a well-paying job. So in an instant, I went from being “mentally ill” to becoming my family’s greatest hope. My economic independence also probably gave me a voice in the family.

    Only after I started working did I realize how hard it was for my parents to earn money. I began to empathize with my mother, which helped thaw our relationship. I often bought things for her, and when we did squabble, I sent her a red envelope — digital cash — on WeChat that she couldn’t resist opening. If she accepted the money, it meant we were good again.

    Our most recent fight was over my decision to quit my job. After working as a video game writer since graduating, I felt it was unfair to work overtime even after I had finished my assignments.

    After hearing about over-stressed employees at giant internet firms committing suicide, I started to worry about my own future. The sudden death of a friend in the industry who frequently worked late hours was the last straw. So in late 2020, I decided to quit.

    A while later, I started writing screenplays for web drama series. Two projects I picked up fell through, but I’ve received advance payment for a third one though filming is yet to begin. As a result, I lost some hope in the film industry and moped around at home for two months.

    During that time, a well-known Chinese gaming company offered me a writing job, but I turned it down after they said there would be long-term overtime work.

    The decision has left me worried, though. I feel my writing style is already outdated and I’m insecure about my skills. I don’t think it was wrong to reject overtime work, but my decision has had one negative impact on my life: I haven’t yet been able to find a better job.

    Bridging the divide

    We might sometimes think our parents are impervious to reason, but that’s just because of the generation gap.

    Other countries took several centuries to reach the level of development that China achieved in one. Given that, though it might seem like our parents are only a few decades older than us, the gap actually seems larger.

    Leaving a job, for instance, is a life-changing decision for my parents because they had only one job their entire lives. They don’t understand why I opposed the six-day workweek.

    In her day, my mother never had weekends off while working at a factory. So when I told her about my hectic workweek, she said: “That’s great, you still get one day to rest.”

    I’ve started to understand them a little better now. My Chinese zodiac sign is the ox, so my mother often sends me posts that say, “You have to share this with anyone in your family who’s an ox.”

    I always reply that such posts are scams and ask her to stop sending them. “But you’re an ox,” she replies. She believes that if other parents sent it to children with the same zodiac sign as me and she didn’t, I would lose out.

    I had a friend who once shared a post captioned with expletives meant to express his surprise. But his mother wrote back asking him to delete it because sharing that post in a family group seemed tasteless, especially coming from a college student.

    In another example, my younger cousin once shared a photo of her and a male friend. Her parents made her delete it or otherwise explain publicly that they were only friends and not in a relationship.

    Considering such incidents were a dime a dozen, it was enough to persuade me to block my parents from seeing my WeChat Moments. Then one time, I was watching a show that mentioned how Moments are the only channel parents have to understand how their children are doing when away from home. I felt for them and decided to unblock them.

    Our parents are actually trying to understand too. My sister told me that our mother studies the GIFs I send to decipher what they mean and sometimes even asked my sister.

    For example, after I sent a GIF of a yellow duck in a bathtub, my mother replied, “Are you taking a shower?” When I sent one of a running pig, she said, “Are you leaving? Going to a meeting now?”

    Another time, I sent a GIF of a kid with black circles under his eyes, only for her to think I was staying up late and had dark circles around my eyes. If I used GIFs of celebrities, she asked: “A colleague or a friend?”

    I eventually stopped sending her GIFs, or if I did, I sent ones with text overlaid.

    My relationship with her only got better after my maternal grandparents passed away. Their deaths made me realize that my mother no longer had her parents around and that our small family was all she had. I still have my mom, but she didn’t have hers, so I resolved to be kinder to her.

    I’m glad that I came to realize this while still young and that I started earning money early so that I can support her. For a while, she sent me messages with empty inspiration or superstitions about health.

    They used to leave me speechless, but now I always respond with “How useful.” She likes using a social karaoke app, so I bought her a microphone and sent virtual flowers every day. I played the part of her biggest fan and even bought her 100 followers.

    She’s slowly started accepting the way I think. If I say she’s wrong, she explains herself to me. We might not agree, but at least we tolerate each other’s views.

    Many have messaged the “master of traditional Chinese culture” WeChat account urging us to produce short videos too, since that’s the format parents prefer.

    I’ve recently discovered that my mother is a genius at creating “older-style” videos, so we decided that I will produce content, and she will add effects. For each post, I pay her 5 yuan. Through this creative collaboration, our relationship has further improved.

    Since the account I made has accidentally become so popular, I’ve decided to try my hand at becoming an influencer online while continuing to write novels and screenplays.

    But this time, I’ve set a deadline. If things don’t improve by early 2022, I’ll go back to finding a full-time job.

    A version of this article was originally published by Liquid Youth. It has been translated and edited for brevity and clarity, and is published here with permission.

    Translator: Katherine Tse; editors: Xue Yongle and Apurva.

    (Header image: Lisitsa/iStock/People Visual, reedited by Sixth Tone)