Family life and intergenerational relationships: hopes and anxieties of two young Chinese women living in the UK

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Lijiaozi ChengUniversity of Sheffield, UK

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Xiufeng JiaUniversity of Sheffield, UK

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Introduction

This reflective short article is written by two 30-year-old Chinese women currently living in the UK and engaged in higher education. In this article, we explore aspects of our identities and backgrounds, principally being from China as our place of origin and now living in the UK, having one sibling, wanting to pursue an academic career in the UK, and being in intercultural intimate relationships. Being young women turning 30 years of age is often given much cultural significance in China as some sort of life-phase threshold. Around this age, there are expectations of forming your own family based on marriage and having children but diverse possibilities to challenge such expectations are becoming increasingly prominent.

It is in this context that we reflect in this piece on our hopes and anxieties about our family and personal lives, and our intergenerational relationships. We set out what we feel are key themes in our personal experiences and our hopes and concerns for the future as younger adult Chinese women concerning our personal, intercultural and inter-generational relationships. We arrived at the key themes for this piece by having multiple conversations about our similar and unique experiences and perspectives. From these conversations, several key issues emerged as important to us: namely, having partners from the UK and our families’ views about this; gender inequalities in the household; how we negotiate our relations with our family as we grow older, especially regarding childbearing and child-rearing plans.

This conversation helped us see how our intimate relationships are situated amid broader relationships in the family, how our identities as women play a part, and how our plans in terms of childbearing and childrearing are deeply personal yet socially embedded. We conclude this piece with reflections on the role of societal change and what the future could hold to help other people navigate similar dilemmas. For our account below, our real names have been changed and we have guarded against identifying family members or their locations.

Embarking on intercultural relationships and parental responses

Our parents’ attitudes towards transnational relationships have changed over time, but this process has been difficult, slow, complicated and back and forth. Having intercultural relationships was an extreme culture shock for Maomao’s parents. She met her partner during her study in the UK. Maomao mentioned that during the eight years of her relationship, her parents’ attitudes changed from disagreement to disregard to acceptance. She felt her parents regarded her relationship as completely unacceptable at first due to their unconscious bias and stereotypes about foreign males, and lack of knowledge about foreign cultures. Her parents never mentioned her partner in front of her or while in the company of their friends and other family members. There were three years of mutual stalemate between Maomao and her parents. Over the years Maomao’s parents appeared to have various emotions and concerns: initial anger, worries, disappointments and sadness. But these gradually turned into more positive emotions with more knowledge about her partner and her relationship, especially after meeting him in person in China. Maomao’s parents started to unconsciously pay more attention to transnational marriage, especially British-Chinese marriages and Western culture through TV programmes and through chatting with their friends who had children in similar situations. Despite their gradual acceptance of her relationship, they occasionally still express disapproval even after her legal marriage.

Luoshang’s story has many similarities in this regard, although her relationship has not been as long and the emotions and concerns involved are somewhat different. Initially, her parents pretended the relationship did not exist. It has transitioned from the initial disapproval to slight acceptance on her mother’s side but even now her dad does not seem to want to discuss it. Due to the restrictions still in place in China, her partner cannot visit China.

However, we feel our parents still expect us to settle down in China after completing our PhD studies, either by bringing our partners to China or by no longer maintaining the relationship (expectations that have changed slightly for Maomao following her marriage, but not completely).

Gender expectations and domestic labour

We both commented on how we observed there was an unequal division of labour within the family we grew up. Luoshang mentioned that she felt her mother did all the housework although her mother was also working just like her father was. Luoshang was asked to take a share in the housework under the rationale that she is a girl, and doing housework is important for a girl as preparation for her future role as a wife. Luoshang sought to silently revolt against this and tried to do the minimum. Consequently, an important value for her is to form a partnership with someone willing to take an equal share of housework. Maomao’s father, on the other hand, did all the cooking, which is different from Luoshang’s household; but, except for this, her mother took the responsibility for the rest of the household chores, while her father was largely absent. We found this had implicitly influenced our considerations in choosing future partners. We sought partners who are not like our fathers.

Luoshang and Maomao each have a sibling: Luoshang has a younger sister and Maomao has a younger brother. The gendered division of labour in our families seems to also be expected from the younger generation when Maomao recalls that the amount of housework delegated to her and her younger brother was significantly unequal. Her younger brother rarely finished his part of the housework yet the parental view on this would be to say that her brother was naturally not as good at housework and Maomao had to pick up where her brother had left off. In her words, “Nowadays, whenever we both visit my parents, the same phenomenon always happens: I participate in meal preparations and other housework, while my younger brother relaxes in his bedroom unless my parents ask for his help.” She appears more sensitive to recognising her mother is struggling with childcare, work and housework, so she does everything her mother encourages. Luoshang recalls that her sister is expected to help but since her sister is still a school student, she gets certain exemptions.

Growing older and renegotiating relationships with parents and families, in a digital world

We both talked about our experiences of renegotiating our relationships with our parents and family. We both had to navigate our parents’ expectations and their authority, which is greatly upheld by Chinese society, while establishing our own ways of life. Even from a distance, it is clear from our conversations that we have embarked on ongoing care within the family. For example, we discussed how we try hard to maintain a close relationship with family members and to help from a distance with any problems (for example, arranging regular health check-up appointments through the internet).

Since we currently live away from our families, digital media has become a central means of sharing information about our lives – or silently battling over different views of the world! We both talked about making regular posts on WeChat to update our parents on our lives. The possibility of hiding or sharing posts has also become part of the negotiation. In the past, Maomao hid all her posts that mentioned her partner from her parents, through a privacy setting. Once her parents accepted her partner, Maomao resumed sharing her personal life with them online and offline; for example, she shared posts detailing how her partner took shared responsibility for housework and financial support. Luoshang mentioned that although she does not use this function, she exercises a certain level of self-censorship and would not post anything she thinks her parents would not approve of. Luoshang comments that she consciously crafts her posts in some way to update her parents about herself in a way she considers is acceptable as well as genuine, as much as possible.

Luoshang comments that she rarely has video chats with her father and most of the time gets updated about her dad’s daily life through his public posts on social media and vice versa, or from her mother when they have video chats. Luoshang comments that she perceived her father to be quite strict and authoritative as she grew up although she also feels this has changed over time with his authority gradually dissolving as she receives more education. She feels the distance in their relationship, though, and uncertainty about how to talk to each other. The main communication mode of social media public posts while she is in the UK suits them for the time being – they get to share things they feel uncomfortable having a chat about. In contrast, Maomao makes a rule for herself that she should have video chats with her parents once a week to get updated on their health and their lives. This is her way of taking care of them from distance.

Considerations, hesitations and anxieties about raising children

We both love babies and have considered having a family and children since we were young. We believe that we could be good mothers. As we are reaching the end of our PhD studies and have turned 30, having a grandchild has also now been put higher up on the agendas of our parents. However, it is financially challenging for us to raise children when we are in such unstable occupational positions as early career researchers. Maomao and her partner bought a house recently to provide a warm and stable environment for their future children and facilitate their education, which was a key consideration in choosing the location of the house. However, the pressure of mortgage payments and living expenses has also paused any current plans for children. Maomao is also concerned about several health and personal risks that might arise from having a child, including increased conflict with her partner, loss of personal freedom and the disruption of her early career development. She is scared her life would become messy, tiring, noisy, busy and stressful after having children, which results in her occasional hesitations about having them.

Luoshang’s story highlights her efforts to experiment with living otherwise. She has grown up being a ‘good girl’ following the command and expectations of her family but she is negotiating ways to no longer follow what is expected of her, such as by not getting married (although she is in a stable relationship), not having a wedding and not having a child. Her reflections on class identity may have played a role here as well. Luoshang described that during her teenage years her family moved from a small town to a larger city and she was sent to a boarding school where she experienced bullying, partly due to her ‘less urban’ lifestyle and self-presentation. These experiences changed her expectations of the future and she fears this is something that could happen to her children – that her children could be discriminated against in some way. The expectation to do financially well and provide for her children is still imposed on her but she is unsure whether that is what she wants when she is not that optimistic about the future. In her relationship with her partner, she tries hard to maintain fairness and balance, in terms of financial contribution and division of household chores, but she is far from being ready to provide for a child. She will only start to think about having a kid after she can afford a dog!

Conclusion

To conclude, our parents’ attitudes towards intercultural relationships underwent a change from disagreement to acceptance over time. In the future, promoting family and intergenerational relationships informed by co-learning and co-understanding of cultural diversities, mutual trust and love, and fair communication are important for us. On the other hand, we envision that more social support would ease the financial and occupational part of the anxiety in raising a child. Societal changes are needed for women to deal with the difficulties of raising children, such as job security, health and medical support.

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that there is no conflict of interest.

Lijiaozi ChengUniversity of Sheffield, UK

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Xiufeng JiaUniversity of Sheffield, UK

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