The Chinese Life Plan

September 2nd, 2013, 10:21 am PST by Greg

One of the biggest realizations from my time in China was that there is a shockingly-uniform life plan that is followed by Mainland Chinese kids. (Those who emigrated are generally excluded.) This is what I inferred from many conversations that a kid is supposed to do:

  1. Study hard, get into a good middle school.
  2. Study hard, get into a good high school.
  3. Study hard, do well on the university entrance exam (gaokao/高考).
  4. Go to the highest-ranked university you get in to with your gaokao score.
    • Edit thanks to Corbett: choose your major based on your gaokao score or aptitude test results. Interest in the major is not relevant.
  5. Study hard. Take the cohort-based set curriculum in your program.
  6. At some point, meet a nice Chinese boy/girl to be your boyfriend/girlfriend.
  7. Graduate in exactly four years from that highly-ranked university.
  8. If possible, do a masters or PhD at a maximally-ranked school. A high-status foreign school may be acceptable as long as you come back to China and…
  9. Get a job at a state-owned enterprise, or in the government, or other large stable company.
    • Edit thanks to Chao: Buy a two bedroom condo and car as a prerequisite to …
  10. Within the year, marry the boyfriend/girlfriend. There has been no other boyfriend/girlfriend in the interim.
    • Edit thanks to Elissa: If there was no boy/girl, or the boy/girl was not deemed acceptable by your mother, she will find one who you will marry.
  11. Within another year, have your One Child.
  12. At this point, either your parents or in-laws will move in and help raise the One Child.
  13. Continue to work at the large stable employer, in approximately the same job.
  14. Raise the One Child to start back at step #1 and continue The Plan.
  15. Support your parents in their old age. (The stability of the employer was necessary for this.)
  16. Die.

For a while in China, I would ask students “why did you come to Zhejiang U?” Eventually, I stopped asking because the answer was literally the same every time: “I didn’t get into Beijing or Tsinghua,” which are the two higher-ranked schools.

How relevant what the best-ranked university does is o your goals: irrelevant. Whether or not you wanted to work for a large stable employer: irrelevant. Whether or not you were interesting in having children: irrelevant. Resistance: futile.

I’m not so bothered that there is a “perfect Chinese life plan” as much as I am that in that list, there are basically no options. Chinese kids can literally never make a real life choice, and are not conditioned to make them. (Students who have come to Canada earlier than the plan dictates have confirmed that they really had no idea how to respond to questions like “what courses do you want to take?”)

On Accuracy

At this point, I suspect there are Chinese people reading this and thinking “no, that’s not really true.” (But they’re actually thinking “I didn’t do 9 and only half of 12.”) My experience was that most in-China Chinese kids I talked to diverged from that plan somewhere. The amount of divergence often depended on how “worldly” their parents are (because I can’t think of a better word). To some extent, a particularly willful child could diverge unilaterally.

To be fair, I was getting a biased sample at ZU. In order to get into ZU at all, you had to be on the plan perfectly up to step 4. Maybe at a lower-ranked institution, I would have found a more bohemian population.

Let me contrast with a life place for western kids that I think is followed with about the same precision:

  1. Finish high school, doing as well as possible under the circumstances.
  2. Do some post-secondary education. University is preferred (but the trades are an excellent option as well).
  3. Get a job of some kind (or start a company: that might be good). If possible, it should be a job you enjoy.
  4. Get married and have kids (or don’t).

The biggest difference: we have to make choices.