The day an author turns in his first book is usually one to remember. But for Zak Dychtwald ’12, his finished manuscript was just one of several milestones. The same afternoon he submitted Young China: How the Restless Generation Will Change Their Country and the World he quit his job and started a consultancy and think tank, named after his new book. “I registered the company from my office,” he tells CCT. He found the process “disturbingly easy, like buying a scooter,” but remembers realizing, “I could finally do what I dreamed about.”
Though still in his 20s, Dychtwald has become an in-demand expert on one of the biggest cultural influences of our time: the Chinese millennial. According to an article Dychtwald wrote for The New York Post in February, there are five times more millennials in China than there are in the United States. At around 400 million (as of 2016), the number is greater than the populations of the U.S. and Canada combined. With China on course to possibly surpass the U.S. economically by 2028, this worldly generation of Chinese youth — a group that’s increasingly digital, educated and well traveled — has the potential to alter all of our futures.
Dychtwald points out that more Chinese youth will be attending American colleges, buying real estate in the U.S. and making up audiences that Hollywood will look to when creating plotlines. (Large “first openings” for movies are now starting to take place in China.) That means that firms in sectors like banking, real estate, travel and culture are eager for Dychtwald’s insights.
Dychtwald’s infatuation with China began when he was a child in California, reading Eastern-based sci-fi and watching Bruce Lee. As a College student, he spent a term at Hong Kong University. Intrigued by the mainland, he moved to Suzhou after graduation. Through a succession of odd jobs — tutoring, videogame translation, freelance consulting — and a lot of railway travel across the countryside, Dychtwald got to know this young Chinese generation as well as any Westerner could.
This years-long cultural “deep dive” was professionally invaluable; he says “everyone wants to know” about his identity research. A recent speaking event at the Columbia Global Center in Beijing about the anxiety of Chinese people born in 1990 or after drew more than 99,000 listeners via livestream.
Topics like this exemplify the bold research that Dychtwald is most interested in pursuing. For him, Chinese millennials seem like a “restless generation,” distinguished from their elders by an avid quest for identity. “This … generation is the first in modern Chinese history that, by and large, doesn’t have to think about subsistence questions like ‘How is my family going to eat’ … ?” he writes in his book. Instead, they are thinking about self-definition: “‘What do I want for myself? My family? My country?’”
Here, Dychtwald looks at the way that today’s Chinese family structure is shaping the lives of this important group.
—Rose Kernochan BC’82
Jiangguo’s big eyes beamed out from beneath well-styled hair, combed over and sealed in place. A blue argyle sweater with gray and orange accents hung easily from his shoulders. His brown corduroy pants looked newly pressed. Jiangguo looked prepared to discuss his résumé for the position of regional manager at the Samsung semiconductor factory up the street.
Jiangguo was five years old. While he waited for class to begin, his thumb remained mostly in his mouth. The heels of his Velcro-close shoes lit up every time he shifted his weight. He stood in a row with four other children in the center of the high-tech classroom. Their gazes were trained on my right hand, where Cici, my puppet and co-teacher, rested.
I sighed. It was difficult to shake the feeling that in front of me were the little emperors I had heard so much about before I came to China. China’s one-child policy meant that all of a multigenerational family’s attention and resources were heaped on just one kid. The result was expected to be a generation that had been spoiled rotten, the so-called little emperors.
The uncomfortable implication was that if these were China’s little emperors, I was their court jester. After all, I was dressed in a highlighter-orange jumpsuit, with my right arm elbow-deep in a green turtle hand puppet. I taught weekends at a training school for wealthy preschool and kindergarten students. The national media, government, and parents alike have attacked China’s education system for producing good testers but not good thinkers, creators, or team players. My school offered a solution. It aimed to plant the seeds of English through immersion learning while its young students became comfortable with technology.
I looked at the turtle puppet. He looked at the crowd. Together we pronounced the word microscope with exaggerated slowness. His wide-set, googly eyes bounced and bobbled as he surfed over the heads of Jiangguo and his classmates, asking them in English, “What amazing technology are we going to learn about today?” The two young Chinese teaching assistants translated in singsong voices.
“Repeat after me,” I said. “Microscope.” The teaching assistants coaxed the five young students to repeat the word microscope with them.
To my surprise, a murmur of “microscope” bubbled up from the back of the class. I looked at Jiangguo and his classmates. None of them had so much as opened their mouths.
The class door at the back of the room shut abruptly, and Jiangguo’s grandmother looked at me guiltily from behind the glass partition. At the back of class an entourage of thirty adults, five or six for each of the students, stood watch over the class, separated from us by the big glass partition, a setup that bore a striking resemblance to a zoo. They shifted noisily. Becky, one of the TAs (they all went by their chosen English names at work), turned and politely reminded the crowd to please let the students answer for themselves. Sherry, the school manager, moved around them with her electric smile and tailored dress, trying to convince the parents to buy larger packages of classes. Many complied. With only one child to spend on, why not?
Jiangguo’s family was easy to pick out. As Jiangguo munched on his thumb, his mother, father, paternal grandmother, paternal grandfather, maternal grandmother, and an uncle watched anxiously. His grandparents could be seen pointing at him and commenting on his progress, his interaction with other kids, or the way he held a seashell. His mother stood in back, arms folded across her chest, beaming at her son and scribbling on a writing pad she kept with her at all times. All his relatives stood throughout the hour-long class, watching intensely as little Jiangguo twiddled a microscope, fiddled with a computer program, played with a robot, or just stood quietly in the middle of the room.
Through the classroom window we could see the world’s largest LED screen reigning over the most developed part of the city, the gleaming new glass and steel of Suzhou Industrial Park. The district, like many of China’s city centers, had not existed a decade or two earlier. I looked back at this group of little emperors: a class of five students with a three-person teaching team and an entourage of more than thirty adults pressed against the glass in back. I sighed again.
During a break, Sherry asked what was wrong. I told her I felt like a performer for these little emperors.
Without missing a beat, Sherry nodded toward the back of the class. “The original little emperors are in the back of the room,” she said, flashing her electric smile. And then, with a no-nonsense look, she told me, “Now get back to class.”
Stunned, I stood for a moment in a corner of the classroom before doing the math. The Western media had dubbed only children “the little emperors” in the early 1990s. Today, the demographic created by the one-child policy — four grandparents and two parents who focus all their attention on one child — is referred to as the “4:2:1 problem.” I was so used to taking the “little emperor” concept for granted that it had not occurred to me the original one-child generation had already grown up.
China has been tracking the developmental pitfalls experienced by generations of only children for decades, long before we in the West started paying attention. In 1987, when China’s first only children were turning seven, China released a propaganda film called China’s Little Emperors — a “how-not-to” film about raising the first generation of only children. It plays like a Chinese child-rearing version of Reefer Madness (which claimed the effects of “marijuana cigarettes” were the loss of sanity and committing aggravated assault with an axe). Overindulgence and excessive pressure, the Chinese movie claimed, would lead to societal ruin. The overriding fear was that when these hundreds of millions of spoiled only children grew up, they would unleash their awfulness on the country.
Many Westerners have asked me, “What kinds of contributors can these little emperors be to society given their excess-oriented foundation?” Hedge fund managers want to know, “What are those little emperors looking to buy, exactly?” Even foreigners who have worked in China for years will often grumble, “Those spoiled little emperors are a pain in my . . . ” as a kid steps on their shoes at Pizza Hut.
Sherry was right. The first group of these only children had already grown up. They are my friends, classmates, tutors, teachers, bosses, managers (Sherry included), and, technically, clients. As I looked out the window at the new Suzhou Industrial Park, it was tough not to think that if the stereotype of little emperors has not changed in thirty years, it is nearly the only thing in all of China to have remained the same.
The Western media had dubbed only children 'the little emperors' in the early 1990s. Today, the demographic created by the one-child policy is referred to as the '4:2:1 problem'."
The front gates of Suzhou University open up to the part of the city called Suzhou Industrial Park, a mix of new residential apartment buildings and factory headquarters.
The layout of the city district has a sprawling feel compared with other parts of Suzhou — it is spacious and carefully planned, and the roads are as broad as highways. Along the park’s wide lanes the logos of Microsoft, IBM, Oracle, L’Oréal, and Samsung beckon from the sides of new industrial warehouses.
On the other side of Suzhou University, across a small river and following paths meandering between trees and red brick school buildings, the back gates of campus opened up to old Suzhou, the Suzhou that earned the moniker “heaven on earth” centuries ago. The university’s back gate opens onto a narrow alley lined with cheap student eats. Come nightfall, college students streamed out the back gate and into Suzhou’s milky bluish-black twilight, splitting off into “fly dives,” bare-bones eateries known for good food and minimal décor.
Some broke off and formed a line at the Egg Wrap Grandmaster’s stall, the most famous savory crepe wrap stall in Suzhou. A hundred paces from the grandmaster’s stall, the alley converged on an eight-hundred-year-old canal. At dawn and dusk an old man punted a small boat up and down the waterway, ducking beneath the arched bridges and the willow branches. Not half a mile away in the other direction, Samsung’s robust semiconductor factory clicked and whirred. At the end of each day, I would make the trip by electric bike from my job at Suzhou Industrial Park, through the university, and out the back gates to eat at Trade Winds.1
At the time, Trade Winds was the most modern restaurant on the alley. Opened by a graduate of Suzhou University, it featured a long countertop that encircled the griddle and gas ranges, which made talking easy. The owner claimed he modeled it after the late-night tavern on Midnight Canteen, a Japanese TV show that was a mixture of melodrama and food worship; the show had a major cult following in China. Trade Winds’s walls were covered with Polaroid pictures of young people. If you hung out there, each face from the Polaroid wall would eventually squeeze through the sliding door and hunker down at the bar for a bowl of the signature red-cooked pork noodles. The place had a homey feel, and many students treated it as such, eating and chatting there after class. It was a community.
Xiao Lu was a central part of that community. A particularly sharp bioengineering student, Xiao Lu was a customer-turned-employee who worked at Trade Winds when he wasn’t in class. He washed dishes and talked with the customers after the lunchtime rush. All the while his biochemistry books were open at eye level on the top shelf over the sink. He often read while he worked. Once, when just the two of us were in the restaurant, he told me that his happiest memories were from Trade Winds. Soon, though, he would graduate, and the pressure of finding a job was beginning to eat at his nerves. I would watch him at the countertop, meticulously filling out countless applications for chemical engineering positions, while the rest of the students talked during their break from class.
One day I walked hurriedly into Trade Winds after work and slammed the door behind me. Xiao Lu raised his eyebrows and looked up from his books. A few regulars sitting at the bar greeted me. “What’s up?” Xiao Lu asked.
Work had been frustrating. As I peeled off my orange jumpsuit with the school’s logo on the front, I explained to the Trade Winds regulars how excessive it all seemed: one foreign teacher (me), two TAs, the head of the school, my green turtle puppet Cici, and a mass of family members all teaming up to teach these five-year-olds how to say a few words in English.
My frustration soon degenerated into criticism of my students. “This is why China’s only children have such a bad reputation abroad,” I ranted. “Jiangguo and the rest of my class are all little emperors!”
My words landed with a thud. People sitting next to me stared quietly into their bowls of noodles.
Wei Yu, a twenty-year-old economics student, broke the silence. She looked at me sternly and said, “A little outdated with this kind of ‘little emperor’ talk, aren’t we?”
Gesturing with a pair of chopsticks, Zhang Jing, who was finishing his master’s in mathematics, added, “This is like saying, ‘You know how American youth love their hopscotch and nickel arcades!’ ”
Xiao Lu had been quiet behind the counter as he worked on the stack of bowls and chopsticks in the sink. He finished wiping off the metal base of the large rice cooker and put it down on the counter.
“That term, ‘little emperor,’ is total bullshit.”
I was taken aback. Xiao Lu doesn’t swear.
“Why?” I asked.
Xiao Lu took a deep breath and threw the dish towel over his shoulder. “As a foreigner, you cannot begin to understand the tremendous amount of pressure put on your little students,” Xiao Lu said. “Think about what you’re seeing next time you’re in class: six people standing around watching a five-year-old learn English. Do you think that kid wants to be there? Wants to be studying English on his Saturday instead of playing in the park? Wants all that focused attention? No chance.”
The students around the countertop stared at Xiao Lu. He had rarely put that many sentences together in a day, let alone a minute or two.
“But it is the only way a family thinks their kid can get ahead today,” he continued, “so his parents and grandparents watch him, groom him, tutor him meticulously to make sure he will be able to get good grades, get into college, get a job, marry young, buy an apartment, and ultimately help support his parents and grandparents. We get more attention, more food, more resources. In exchange we give up our youth.”
Taking the dish towel off his shoulder, he turned around, flipped the faucet on, and turned the page of his biochemistry book with the back of his hand.
“In summary: two characters,” Xiao Lu said, turning around once more and holding up two fingers in the air, “压力, yālì.”
1. Several years ago, many cities around China outlawed motorbikes, both as a way to clean up city air and incentivize green industries. Now, the streets are packed with electric mopeds that people charge every night in their apartment complexes.
From Young China: How the Restless Generation Will Change Their Country and the World by Zak Dychtwald. Copyright © 2018 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press.
Published quarterly by the Columbia College Office of Alumni Affairs and Development for alumni, students, faculty, parents and friends of Columbia College.