Wednesday, March 30, 2011


We are already home, our "China Adventure" now past...sadly. The time seemed to fly by, and we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.  I also enjoyed writing up some of our adventures; indeed, I had ideas for many more topics than I managed to get on-line.  For example, our trip on the bullet train into Shanghai offered lots of material for the blog; some things will just have to go unrecorded, I guess.

However, I did have a couple of projects in progress as we left China, and I hope to get them posted relatively quickly.  One subject I wanted to write about is kids, and the impact of the one-child policy. As everyone knows, China has a gigantic population, whose dimensions seem especially compelling to someone who hails from a small town in the American Midwest.  As I remarked to my students in Nanjing when describing our Iowa home town, I was sure that more people passed me in one day on Guangzhou Road than the total population of Grinnell. And the city of Nanjing itself has twice the population of the entire state of Iowa. Consequently, living in China one gets accustomed to seeing lots of people everywhere.  And these demographics have driven policy decisions, including the rush to produce new housing stock. Coming into Shanghai on the train, for instance, I couldn't help but be amazed at all the hi-rise residential building—both that which is already completed and the rows and rows of hi-rises now under construction. With a "permanent" population estimated at about 20 million, Shanghai hardly needs any new residents. Nor does China, with its total population now estimated at more than 1.3 billion—which explains why the so-called "one-child policy" was enacted.

But it's not about politics or demography that I wish to write. What I noticed throughout our 7-week sojourn in China was how much parents and grandparents seemed to enjoy their kids—or at least it seemed that way to me.  As in any large, complex society, surely many Chinese children suffer abuse at the hands of their parents; and the well-known gender imbalance in China's population points to sex-selective abortions and infanticide, and evidently also affects the gender distribution of children consigned to orphanages. These indicators certainly reveal a nasty underside to parenting in China that was invisible to my street-side observations, and a result, at least in part, of the one-child policy.  But might it not also be the case that the affection for children that I found so obvious and so frequently on display was another, more benign (no doubt unintended) consequence of the one-child policy? At least, that is something that Jill and I wondered about as we observed children and parents in Nanjing.

I started trying to photograph kids early in our stay, but, because I wasn't sure how this act would be received, I made it a point to seek permission from a parent or grandparent—pointing to my camera and then to the child. To my initial surprise, most were more than happy to have photos snapped, and usually they asked me to show them the photo on my camera display.  Their pride and pleasure in seeing the photos of their children were unmistakable.

Sometimes parents went to such lengths to accommodate my photography that they inconvenienced themselves.  For example, while awaiting a train on a subway platform, I asked a mother if I could photograph her child in a stroller, thinking that it would only take a second and not interfere with her boarding the metro. The mother eagerly agreed to my taking the photo, and then set about trying to get her little boy to smile and look at me—neither of which he was prepared to do just then. 
Meanwhile, the train arrived, the doors opened, and still the mother tried to get her boy to favor me with a smile. Finally, the warning bells went off and the mother hurriedly rolled the stroller onto the train, but not before her late entry interfered with the doors closing, causing the official on duty to whistle disapprovingly. The mother, however, now safely on board the train, waved happily to me, more proud of my interest in her son, I thought, than concerned about making the train or disturbing the metro official.
Another time Jill and I happened upon this clutch of young roller bladers, skating around the (now dry) fountain on the university's south campus. As the photo confirms, the kids were fully outfitted with matching protective equipment (pink!) which was not, I suspect, easy to acquire. The kids are surely cute, but I wish that I had had the presence of mind to snap a photo of their parents, whose faces betrayed enormous pride in their offspring who were gliding so spectacularly around the university fountain.

And what about these pictures?  Can there be any doubt how much these parents and grandparents love their children?
More than a few times we encountered elementary-age children at play in Xuanwu park. They played with abandon, and, when called upon, they also performed—for their parents, for the camera, and perhaps just for the joy of performance. That they had prospered through the affection and attention of their parents seemed quite obvious to me.
There were other scenes that I saw frequently but never found a way to photograph: for instance, in these semi-warm days of early spring, Jill and I often encountered parents carrying small children who were lost beneath warm blankets that seemed to envelop the kids—of whom no head or arms were visible. We wondered how the little ones could breathe!  But I never found a way to capture this phenomenon in picture. We also encountered parents bicycling their kids somewhere, with the kids enclosed in plastic, zippered covers installed over their kiddy seats. I never succeeded in getting a picture with the child inside, but perhaps you can get an idea from the apparatus attached to these bikes.
Likewise I would have loved to have captured a picture of the split-behind pants in which very small children are often dressed. This apparel allows for quick access to the relevant body parts when urination  (or something more substantive) becomes necessary. In the meantime, except for those babies fitted with small diapers over their bottoms, tiny little cheeks occasionally peeked out from the pants of these tykes.

But no matter where or when I photographed them, I saw children who were prospering—not because they were well-off (as I assume the roller bladers were, for instance), but because they were loved.

Of course, we were in China only seven weeks, and we saw only a fraction of this enormous country and its giant population.  But the children we saw were the beneficiaries of the affection and attention lavished upon them by parents and grandparents, and that must be a good thing. 

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