At the end of August, I moved into my dormitory at Yale, marking the beginning of my full-year visiting program. I arrived slightly earlier than other upperclassmen did in order to adjust to the United States. I occupied the entire suite for a week, imagining what my companions would be like. One day, when I came back in the late afternoon, I bumped into an Asian-looking girl in the living room. She was lying on a gray couch and typing quickly on her laptop, surrounded by tons of unpacked boxes.
I introduced myself to my new suitemate as an exchange student from Hong Kong, born and raised in China. She welcomed me with a huge, warm hug. Chit-chatting with her was such a pleasant experience; this girl was all smiles and laughs, eyes arching up.
Before I headed to my room, she suddenly said, “I was actually born in China as well.”
I was curious. “Do you still remember your experience there?” I asked.
“Not really,” she answered.
I later learnt that she had never met her biological parents. She was adopted from a Chinese orphanage by an American couple, after she had been left in a basket on the steps of a police station. She was abandoned for a reason that is odd but common: the one-child policy. Her original family gave her up in order to gain access to the next lottery for a boy.
The policy, which strictly enforced a one-child quota to each registered couple, was introduced in the late 1970s in China to control the fast growing population. However, it came with unintended consequences. Since traditional Chinese culture values boys over girls, a baby girl was often unwelcome by some family members, especially those of the older generations.
Being disliked from birth by your beloved is by no means a lovely episode of life. My suitemate is definitely a lucky one who has overcome it; so am I.
My father has three older brothers, and only one of them received a precious boy. Before my arrival, my grandmother craved another grandson, and I was apparently her last chance. She addressed me in embryo as “he” or “my dear boy,” hoping that it would make a difference. When my father informed her of the birth of a new granddaughter, she refused to believe the truth. She came to see me, and the first thing she did was to unwrap the blanket and check my private parts.
My childhood started with worries and caution after knowing of that story from the mouths of different relatives. Thankfully, my parents are both college graduates, and they care less about my gender. They soon moved to the city to work, taking me away from the backwards countryside. The one-child policy continued to influence me, but in other hidden and ongoing ways.
As I am an only child, my parents invested almost everything they could toward my growth. My mother always begrudged buying new things for herself, but she gave me beautiful clothes, dressing me up as an adorable doll, and fed me rare seafood, which she believed facilitated intelligence. At the age of five, I took up piano, at a considerable expense to my growth. In middle school, I participated in Model United Nations, which required me to travel around the country—more money.
I would not be able to have what I had yesterday or reach where I am today if I had siblings. To bring me up in the countryside, later in a small city, and then to give me the chance to reside in Hong Kong—my parents couldn’t have managed it if they had more than one child to raise. I’m grateful for all the possibilities they pared for me. But all these benefits came with a price: I’ve never escaped their high expectations, and I rarely dare to let them down. These voices keep hovering in my mind:
“I never had the opportunity to learn music,” my mother said. “If you don’t play the piano, I will never see my dream come true. You are my only child.”
“We have already given you everything,” my father said. “How can you not listen to us?”
“You are the most satisfying output of our lives,” they said.
Their only continuity, their only hope, their only belief—the list goes on forever. The one-child policy forces them to gamble everything on me. They have no choice, and neither do I. They invested in me without my consent, and they required returns in the same way. I could hardly follow my heart.
I always feel unsafe: I’m afraid of not being excellent, of falling behind, of shaming my parents, of feeling guilty for not giving back what they have devoted to me—my life has become a huge stage where I perform day and night, endlessly. The debt under the one-child policy is too large for me as an individual to pay off.
Therefore, I sometimes misbehave. One rebellion took place as soon as I went to the boarding high school: I gave up practicing the piano, despite my parents’ disappointment and resentment. I was surprised that I had tolerated it for a decade, given the extent that I disliked it. When I was small, the piano signified solitude in my mind because I was always banned from playing with my friends before finishing my piano assignments. I often fantasized about having a sibling who accidentally fell in love with the piano and would willingly realize my mother’s music dream, so that I would be relieved to pursue my own passion.
I enjoy staying with people, I love adventures and I adore nature, so the piano would never be my thing. While I knew it from the beginning, it was only after going to college, when my parents could hardly visit me, where I really started to care about my interests. I chose to major in journalism, I learnt photography, I filmed movies, and I joined a hiking club, among all other activities that I’d never experienced before. I thought that the effect of being an only child had finally expired.
However, an incident last summer altered my understanding. In May, I went back home during the vacation. One evening, when my father and I were watching TV together, we heard about a college student who died in a car accident and left his parents in an empty home. “That’s their only son,” my father said. “What should the parents do in the rest of their lives?”
China’s welfare system is inadequate to cope with its aging population. The elderly are largely taken care of by their offspring, because of both cultural tradition and the constraints of reality. The system used to work well when they had many descendants, but now that is no longer the case. Losing the only child means more than emotional devastation; it can also dim the old couple’s prospects.
Several days ago, I revealed to my father that I was planning to participate in a yearlong volunteer program in Africa—I had been interested in that area since I founded a charity in Hong Kong. To my enthusiasm, my father’s answer was a calm and tough “No.” I struggled to explain my intention, and at last he replied, “If you do go there, I can’t have a single night in sound sleep. You can decide.” Suddenly, I couldn’t say a word. I knew that he didn’t exaggerate. I realized the inescapable responsibilities on the shoulders of an only child, which would only increase as time passed by. Eventually, I yielded to him.
The one-child policy was officially replaced by the two-child policy in January this year. By then, the huge human experiment had run for more than three decades. As guinea pigs, kids of the one-child era irreversibly became the loneliest-ever generation in the course of human history. However, all the pains and gains remain unclear. The government cannot give a complete account; nor can anyone else.
During the Yale orientation for visiting international students, we formed a circle on a lawn. The instructor posed statements, and everyone who answered “Yes” needed to step forward and those who said “No,” backward. The game went well until this sentence: “Are you the eldest child in your family?” Most students reacted instantly, either forward or backward. Only four remained on the spot—all from China. We looked at one another, suddenly understood the situation and altogether burst into laughter.
I am not the only one who is puzzled. I am not alone at being alone.