What my interpreters taught me about Chinese youth

With Wei (left) and Li (right).

This is a translation of two Dutch articles originally published in 2014.

During the two years I lived in Xi’an, China two university students were the most important people in my life. They were the interpreters who helped me communicate with the employees of the non-profit organization where I volunteered as a marketing consultant. Having had only a week of Chinese language training before arriving in Xi’an, I couldn’t say much more than ‘hello’, ‘how are you?’ and ‘nice to meet you’.

Since no English was spoken in the NGO, the two young ladies were my voice and ears. They helped me translate documents and interpreted during meetings. But just as important was their help outside the office. In a world where you don’t speak the language and can’t even read what’s on the menu, they helped me get acquainted with local customs and food.

They were crucial to the love I have developed for (aspects of) their country. Every day we went to lunch together and had plenty of time to talk about each other’s cultures. In this article I will share what they have taught me about the youth of China in the past decennium.

Gao Kao

My first interpreter – let’s call her Li for convenience – was studying safety engineering. She once asked me if I had liked my own field of study, Marketing. Surprised, I replied that in The Netherlands most students like their subject because they have chosen it based on personal ambitions and interest. When I carefully asked if she liked her studies she said: ‘Actually not’. Her father had advised her to go study safety engineering. Li was part of a class with mostly boys and told me it would be difficult to find work after graduation. As a woman in technology, she wouldn’t be taken very seriously.

One day, Li gave me a tour of the campus of her university. As we walked around, she told me about the gao kao, the Chinese college entrance exam introduced in 1977. The gao kao is one of the most important moments in the life of a Chinese. It not only determines whether one can continuing studying, but also in which subject and at which university.   

If a student’s gao kao score is too low, he or she will not be admitted to the better universities, or even to the worst ones. Your future is determined in two days, and it is not uncommon for students with a low score to commit suicide because they no longer see a purpose in life. The social pressure and the shame inflicted on the family when obtaining a bad score can also play a role. The gao kao scores of the children in a community tend to be publicly displayed, bringing either pride or shame.

The score in the gao kao can make or break your career. Hence, Chinese teens have only one priority: learn, learn, and learn some more. The days studying in high school are absurdly long. Ten to twelve hours at school and then off to home to do homework. Not surprisingly, 85% of high school students have problems with their eyesight; almost everyone seems to wear glasses.  

Schools provide optional tutoring in the evenings and weekends, and because of the fierce competition, almost every student takes part. [Note: in 2021 the government banned for-profit after-school tutoring.] Holidays are also entirely devoted to studying. But once the students are admitted to the universities, life becomes a lot easier. Although they live with 3 or 5 others in a dorm room with bunk beds and small desks, it feels like an enormous outpouring of freedom, after the stress they have lived under at home.

Because the budget for interpreters was limited, we made use of university students who spoke reasonable English. For them, the compensation of 1,500 RMB (€180) per month was very nice pocket money and the job provided valuable work experience. The fact that university students were no longer having a hard time was shown by the fact that in their third year both my interpreters were able to work for me almost full-time. Even in her senior year, Li was only sporadically called up to lectures at seemingly random times by her teachers. 

The graduation rates at Chinese universities are extremely high, partly because the universities are evaluated by the number of graduates. It is therefore not surprising that some university diplomas often turn out to be a lot less valuable when they are appraised in the west.

No hobbies, no friends

When I think back to my own teenage years, I remember a time of one or two hours of homework a day and then hanging out with friends. A time of discovering music and losing myself in Tolkien’s books. Attending my first rock concerts and having my first relationship. None of that for the average Chinese youngster.

When we needed a second interpreter and I looked at the resumes submitted by the students, it always amazed me that they did not mention any hobbies, like we do in the west. Of course, they didn’t have time for that. I will never forget how I decided to ask a candidate during a job interview if she really didn’t have a hobby. ‘Yes,’ she said, ‘laughter is my hobby!’

Li was 23 years old when she became my interpreter, and in demeanour like most Chinese young ladies. Compared to western girls she seemed about 10 years younger. Dresses with tulle, Mickey Mouse T-shirts and on some days a frame without actual glasses. Wearing just the fashionable frames was very common in China. When I teased her, she would put on a high-pitched child’s voice. 

The emotional development of Chinese young people in their twenties seemed to lag behind that of western teenagers. For example, since they have been occupied with studying during their high school years, most have never had a boyfriend or girlfriend. Mostly because their parents wouldn’t allow it; it would distract from the gao kao. Halfway through college, Li also found her first love.

Chinese are expected to marry and have children shortly after graduation. Women over the age of 27 are considered ‘left-overs’ by society. At the time I wondered if, under family pressure, Li would eventually marry her first boyfriend. Years later I found she hadn’t. When moving to Beijing she had found a new love, whom she eventually married.

Civil Service Exam

Occasionally, Li was also an interpreter at meetings with government officials I had to attend. Afterwards, she made no secret of the fact that she fiercely disliked those people, their arrogance, and the bureaucracy. But to my surprise she decided to take the civil servant exam shortly after graduating from university. She was one of 1.1 million candidates for the sought-after 17,000 vacancies.

Because of the relatively high security it provides for the future, such jobs are still considered to be very attractive in China. I wrote her a reference letter, but secretly hoped her future would hold more than life among the people she disliked so much. 

When I contacted her a few years later to see how she was doing I learned she had failed the exam and had since returned to her hometown in Zhejiang province. When I asked the recently graduated safety engineering student who disliked her major so much what she was doing for a living, she told me she was teaching at Zhejiang Ocean University in her hometown. ‘Wow, teaching at a university!’ I said surprised. ‘In which subject?’. ‘Safety engineering’, was the answer.

Home before dark

My second interpreter was fourth-year university student Wei. Li and Wei were poles apart. Where Li could be moody at times, Wei always seemed cheerful. As ‘streetwise’ as Li could be, Wei was very shy. But at the same time, Wei was much more eager to learn and had impressive work ethic, where Li could be lazy at times.

Like many Chinese youth, Wei was raised by her grandparents. These circumstances are especially common in China’s rural areas, where children are cared for by grandparents and go to school in their native village, while the parents earn money in the industrialized eastern Chinese cities.

Children are also often left behind because of the hukou system, a kind of household registration system which attaches certain rights to their place of birth. If children would accompany their parents and migrate, they would not be entitled to, for example, government-funded education and health care in their new place of residence.

Most blue-collar workers do not earn enough to afford private alternatives. As a result, many ‘left-behind children’ only see their parents once a year during the Chinese New Year, when everyone returns home for family celebrations. Sadly enough, I had the impression that even during those traditional festivals Wei seldom got to see her parents.

‘I was raised by my grandparents. They were stricter with my behaviour than with my studies. They believed that a good upbringing by the family is essential for a girl. For example, I always had to be inside before dark, whether it was summer or winter.’ When we went to sing at a karaoke bar with friends – a typical way for Chinese people to socialize – Wei always got a phone call from her grandmother asking where she was.

One day she wanted to take a short trip to a town elsewhere in the province to see some historical sites and return home after an overnight stay. Her grandmother made it very clear to her that this was out of the question. Her grandfather would be so worried that he would have a heart attack and that would be poor Wei’s fault. Disappointed, she stayed at home.

Like Li, 24-year-old Wei also found her first real boyfriend in the year she worked as my interpreter. When she finally got up the courage to introduce him to me and her other friends, it was touching to see them together. Even holding hands seemed too embarrassing for them. Unlike Li, Wei’s first boyfriend would eventually become her husband.

Wei: ‘Due to the turbulent times in which they lived, the previous generation did not have much experience with puppy love. Therefore, there was absolutely no sex education at home. Even at school, the lesson was poorly organized, and teenagers were not given any advice. On top of that, my grandparents made me believe it was wrong to have a boyfriend when you should focus all your attention on studying and exams. My grandmother always told me to wait until I walked through the university gates.’

Old ideas

Growing up without parents and being raised by an older generation has a huge impact on some young people. ‘Because they grew up in completely different circumstances, my grandparents raised me according to circumstances that only existed in their time.’ Indeed, Wei sometimes held quite radical and old-fashioned ideas.

When I spoke to her in a neutral way about the Dalai Lama, she became angry and told me that it was a dangerous man who was threatening the regime in China. When I asked her what she based such things on, the answer was invariably: ‘That’s what my grandfather told me.’ According to Wei, the bloody crushing of the student uprising in Tiananmen Square had never really happened and was merely malicious western propaganda.

Many westerners will remember their teenage years as a time when they rebelled against their parents and pushed boundaries. Parents won’t always like this but having experienced teenage years of my own two sons, I think it is a healthy process in our society.

Teenagers search for their own truth, for their own ideals and ideas, only to later realize that things are a lot more complicated than they thought. I also consider this a healthy process. But it is often not possible for young people who grow up with China’s limited freedom of information and the yoke of the opinions of an older generation.

When Wei finished her job as my interpreter, I wrote a personal letter to her in addition to a reference letter. I thanked her for everything she had done for me and advised her to explore the world through her own critical common sense. To investigate matters from various sources and angles and arrive at her own truth rather than that of the government, her grandparents, or that stubborn volunteer she was working for.

Searching for the truth

Wei eventually went on to study English at the University of Surrey in the UK. We visited her in October 2013. Vanessa, an English volunteer we had worked with in Xi’an and who had become something of a mother figure to Wei, was also there.

Wei had already met Vanessa a few times in England and Vanessa told me about their last meeting. Wei had looked at her almost guiltily and had whispered. ‘Vanessa…that Tiananmen Square incident in 1989…’. ‘Yes…?’  said Vanessa, who had often sat at the table when Wei and I had had another heated discussion on the subject. ‘What about it?’. ‘I now believe that it really happened…’.

Wei would later write to me: ‘I am still confused about finding the truth. I don’t want to be abused by any party. In the past year, however, I had to reluctantly to admit that there is a very large grey area in addition to black and white.’

‘The only way I can find out the truth is by experiencing and comparing. Since I am now outside China, there is no longer a ‘great firewall’ on the internet and I can find information about things like ‘Tiananmen Square’, ‘Tibetan Independence’ and ‘The 14th Dalai Lama’. I have also read books by western authors about China’s problems and I have seen pictures of historical events in China in museums. All these things will help me in my comparison process. I can’t just change my opinion about my country, but I can change my opinion about the government. Finding the truth takes time.’