The Filial Child—A Reflection On Stress of Chinese Students Studying Overseas
A Cornell student Miaoxiu Tian was found dead in her apartment this past Wednesday. The death appeared to be a suicide, according to police investigation.
From Chengdu, China, Tian was a senior majoring in materials science and engineering. She emailed her study group the day before her death: “I’m sorry that I can’t finish the project with you.” According to her classmates and supervisors, Tian was not only a “dedicated student eager to take on new projects,” but also “outgoing and in love with outdoor activities.”
In 1912, the psychologist Alfred Adler proposed the concept of inferiority complex in understanding the forces that drive personality. Turning his attention to immediate social imperatives of family, society, and their effects on the unconscious, Adler explained that people’s self-esteem suffers if they feel unable to meet life’s demands that come from the outside, and that their sense of self tightens and becomes inferior as a result. “In addition to regarding the individual’s life as a unity,” Adler wrote in Individual Psychology of Alfred Adler, “we must also take it together with its context of social relations.”
In contemporary China, most current college-age students are born under the recently amended One Child Policy. To the extent that the individual’s education commands collective sacrifice within the family unit, the only child is immensely pressured to live up to his or her parents’ expectations. In light of what he describes as “the cycle of Yang,” Charles Stafford examines the parent-child relationship of mutual dependence as connected with the notion of filial piety (xiao), characterizing it as an “involving system of mutual obligations between parents and children.”
This sense of indebtedness in young adults is, according to Susanne Bergenbaek’s anthropological field worker, undertaken at two elite universities in Beijing, reinforced through the Chinese educational system, in which the idea of filial obligation is thoroughly invoked as the child’s repaying the parents’ sacrifices by studying diligently. The goal of the One Child Policy, combined with educational reforms centered on the discourse of “quality education,” is to bring the country to modernization by creating highly educated, “quality population.”
For one Qinghua University student Gu Wei, however, the imperative of the Chinese educational system presents a paradoxical situation. On the one hand, the national sentiment that “there are so many people in China, and if you don’t do well you will have no future” prescribes education as the only path to success. Meanwhile, the proposal of going abroad for further study is both the attempted cure for and source of his nightmares, as the option remains fiercely competitive and thus constitutes the obstacles to his self-development from which it proclaims to remove.
For the children, to think of themselves as in relation to their parent does not make them feel less circumscribed. “Think small, think double, think of something that might impress no one but will still let you graduate and find a job,” writes Weike Wang in her recent novel Chemistry. One scene in the book, where the mother of an unnamed Chinese-American student screams “you are nothing to me without that degree” encapsulates the tension between the Ph.D. student and her demanding parents, who work hard for their immigration status and hope their daughter will repay the sacrifice by fulfilling the generational contract.
On the other hand, Gu Wei was able to experience a sense of relief when he realized his mother’s love was unconditional, and persisted “regardless of whether or not he obtained a scholarship to an American university.” Yet, the thought of committing suicide was far from being eradicated from the root, and not actualized only to the extent that it was repressed by the filial son who “could never do this to [his] parents.” It is also pointed out that the moral inculcation of filial piety is reinforced and embedded in the Chinese notion of the country as “country-family” (“guo jia”). According to the state’s vision of Chinese students as loyal servants to the country, children are compelled to internalize the state as an extension of the family and to feel accordingly obligated to the country in the same way they repay their parents.