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Mar 04, 2013

Multicultural Sandwiches - Understanding Intergenerational Needs in Shanghai

Over the last decade a migration has been taking place in China, a relocation of people from the countryside to the cities to find work and better opportunities. This urbanization is on a scale that the world has not yet seen before, in fact many anthropologists are calling it the largest migration in the history of the world. Official statistics published by the Chinese government place domestic migration numbers at over 10% of the country’s population of 1.3 billion, and these numbers don’t include any migrants who, due to China’s complex household registration system, may not register their relocation.

The vast bulk of the migration is among younger workers, roughly those in their late teens to thirties, who are pursuing better work opportunities in the bigger cities, both blue and white collar. For many families, this causes a lot of disruption to the their generational power structure, as the younger generations amass more financial resources and opportunities than their parents. In a nation with such a historical value of filial piety, the expectation that children will care for the aging parents is in no way a small one.

With all of the opportunity comes the same challenges experienced in the west when more and more families became dual earner households: there is also much less time and attention for childcare. While childcare tends to be less expensive here than in the US, many families may still find it challenging to budget for, or may simply dislike the idea of hiring a stranger for this. As such, some new parents might opt instead for their parents to move from their hometowns to live with them and provide childcare.

Recently the China Daily printed an article about this phenomenon. It primarily discussed what this has been like for the grandparents: how challenging it might be to move to a new city in one’s late 50’s, 60s or sometimes even 70s. (In one family interviewed the grandparents in their 60s and great-grandparents in their 80s all moved together to help take care of the grandchild!) Many grandparents experience isolation when they first move; making new friends can be challenging as a senior citizen. Quite often they may also find it difficult to communicate with their neighbors or people in their community as they may be unfamiliar with the local Shanghainese dialect.

As an American counselor in Shanghai, I wouldn’t necessarily have the opportunity to work with the relocated grandparents in adjusting to the city, instead I would be much more likely to encounter this adjustment indirectly through their children, especially if those children happen to be married to a non-Chinese individual. (The majority of my couples’ work here is with bicultural couples rather than couples where both partners are Chinese.) No doubt it can be a challenge for the couple to adjust to the new shape of their family - not only of having a new baby in the home but also now of having the addition of grandma, and possibly also grandpa. Add to this the element of more than one set of cultural expectations and it can become quite a sandwich of different needs, with the the couple caught in between their parents and new child (and sometimes finding themselves on different sides of an issue). The in-laws are an vital part of the childcare process but they may not have the same ideas about child-rearing as do the younger generation or especially as the partner who is not from China.

It may be hard for this middle generation to find a voice to be assertive with their parents, not only out of filial piety but also out of being in a position to need their parents’ help once more. But on the other hand, it may be equally difficult for them to accommodate their parents’ or in-laws choices about the child’s care.

Its important for the counselors working with families in this situation to encourage the families to communicate as expressively as the norms of that family will allow. Understanding the parents’ possible sense of alienation in their new home can help them to have empathy for their parents’ situation and help them find ways to adjust. For example, children may be able to introduce their parents to possible community activities or groups where they might find people with whom they have things in common.

It’s also vital to empower the couple to create a new, blended culture in their home, although even as I say this, I’m aware that this comes from my very western training as a couple’s counselor. I have to be very mindful in this type of situation to keep whatever I think “should” be happening in the home completely out of the discussion and just work at giving the couple the tools they need to communicate about their challenges. Through opening this dialogue, and working towards more genuine understanding of each of their backgrounds and dreams, the couple may then work towards creating shared meaning and rituals for their lives as a new family. In essence, this is no different from what two individuals from the same culture would do in their marriage, it just has a few added indregients.

Christine Forte
is a counselor to the international population in Shanghai, China. You can learn more about her work here:


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