Last night after class I found myself somewhat unexpectedly dispensing relationship advice to one of my young classmates. This is either funny or tragic I suppose: I could hardly be considered a poster child for relationship expertise but I guess I’ve been through a few breakups in my time so at least I could empathise with her distress. Only on her second attempt, the first one binned her; now she is discovering that whether one is binner or binnee it is never easy. The good news is she is a pretty girl and I witnessed some Australians eagerly chatting her up on our first day at school last year: at least she will have options. I was sure to point this out since the angst of youthful love lost can often obscure this fact (not, I hasten to add, by saying “oh, get over it: you’re only 22”).
I have gained an appreciation of “the young” from my year of study. Happily I have also gained a greater appreciation of the experience and perspective that come with age. We had a brainstorming session in class the other week. It involved “coming up with” the major events of the 70-90s. Aside from my contribution that I was born at the beginning and they at the end, I realized that the “history” they were dredging up from their limited knowledge of unsanctioned CCP myth were events that I had lived through.
It’s not just their politically skewed education that dulls their appreciation of the past; I suspect young Western students wouldn’t really grasp the significance of the end of the Cold War, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the break up of the USSR in quite the same way as those of us who lived through it. And even we were too young perhaps to appreciate it as much as our parents.
Just as my generation knows about WW2, we haven’t lived it: it is not embodied in our consciousness, it’s a collective experience handed down to us by our parents. My father often says that the US doesn’t fully comprehend war since generations of Americans have not had to fight on their own soil. It is always something that happens far away and unseen but for the TV images. Unless you have family involved it could just as easily be Saving Private Ryan or Band of Brothers.
This Chinese leadership is probably the last that will have a personal recollection of experiencing the Cultural Revolution as adults. Actually if you look at China’s modern history she has undergone a cataclysmic event every ten years or so this century. Since the founding of the PRC alone they have had the Great Leap, the Cultural Revolution, Deng’s Reform and Opening, Tiananmen.. It’s only my classmates’ generation that has not experienced major political upheaval. The jiulinghou (post 90s) will have a different outlook on life even than the balinghou (post 80s and the beginnings of the one child “little emperors”).
So far for the generation of my classmates the seminal event has been the financial crisis. For China it has been a coming of age, for the West a reality check. The collective trauma associated with this for the rioting youth in London is quite different from the opportunity to indulge their curiosity now enjoyed by my fellow mainland students. They don’t seem particularly smug or especially advantaged by their country having “emerged”, they are just confident youths, let loose into the world and able to learn about events such as Tiananmen Square with the detachment of time and distance.
Inasmuch as their own traumatic history is still denied, never mind suppressed, China has a way to go. But the fact that these young adults have the freedom to leave and explore the world from Hong Kong is progress indeed. The People’s Republic of China, like life, has definitely improved with the passage of time.