In rural China, going to college is just another way to disappoint your parents

A long exposure photo shows a family standing under the rain outside a railway station in Hefei, Anhui province, February 6, 2014. According to Xinhua…
A long exposure photo shows a family standing under the rain outside a railway station in Hefei, Anhui province, February 6, 2014. According to Xinhua…
Image: Reuters/Stringer
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Shanghai is filling up again. Usually China’s most populous city, it fell quiet last month, when more than 60% of Shanghai residents scattered into the countryside to celebrate the Spring Festival, or Chinese lunar new year, with their families. Now they’re trickling back: between 200 to 380,000 people arrive in Shanghai everyday, on the return leg of China’s legendary annual migration.

I passed through Shanghai on my way back from a small and mountainous village called Luoyuan. Deep in the western Zhejiang province, with only 380 households, Luoyuan is my hometown. Every spring festival, our extended family (sometimes around twenty people) gather here in my grandparents’ modest, half-century-old house to eat and chat, night after night. But this year, I discovered that our old house had been transformed by my aunts and uncles into two new four-story houses.

From abroad, I have tried to pay attention to the heavily-discussed transformation of my home country. But I never foresaw that my own family and tiny village would shock me the most when I went back.

This year, the word “money” seems to dominate all conversations in the village. When one neighbor brought her new husband home, the refrain in village gossip was, “The husband is really not handsome; she must have married him because he’s rich.” Another neighbor’s poor salary in a research center was the subject of pity, while a high school classmate’s recent marriage to a wealthy woman came as the most pleasant news at a gathering of childhood friends.

Of course, when my career came up at dinner, salary was the first concern. I’m studying for a masters’ degree in public policy, so one relative of mine jumped in immediately to reassure: ”It’s really alright, every field has the chance to make big money.”

“Don’t worry, give her ten years, she will make loads of money,” continued another family member. Both were speaking more for the sake of my parents more than to me—my mother and father, both farmers, have hoped for years their investment and patience with my education could pay off financially.

“To be a scholar is to be at the top of society, while all other careers are inferior,” goes the old Chinese saying. For years, China’s rural villagers have believed that higher education would help their children in the job market, allowing families to get out of farming and make money with their brains instead of their backs (unlike that other vast group of migrants streaming from countryside villages into cities: manual laborers.)

But a new college graduate’s average salary is actually slightly less than that of a migrant manual laborer. According to a 2014 Peking University survey, students graduating across China earn an average 2,443 RMB ($390) per month, while the average monthly salary for migrant workers in the same year was 2,864 RMB ($457) (link in Chinese). Last year, my generation was dubbed the ”Boomerang Kids,” by a Wall Street Journal article, for the one-in-three new graduates who still come back to their parents for basic financial support.

In many rural areas, those who left home to work or study are still expected to finance new houses for their families in their native villages: proof that they are working hard in the city. And if you’re pursuing a college degree, then you’re not just expected to send money home—you’re also supposed to settle in the city, an increasingly difficult feat due to high real-estate prices.

Mustering the funds (at least $8,000) to build a new house back in your home village isn’t easy for either recent grads or migrant workers, but everyone tries to do it. Since my last visit in 2013, a few dozen new three- or four-story houses have been erected, and my parents also want money to tear down our own old house and build a new one. But neither my brother nor myself can afford it, yet.

“As a university graduate from a village, when your childhood friends have succeeded, and you still can’t make a proper life, what can you do? No one trusts your knowledge,” wrotes Wang Leiguang (link in Chinese), a doctoral student at Shanghai University, in an article published in Southern Metropolis News that circulated widely online before this year’s Spring Festival. Concurs Chang Peijie, a philosophy postdoc at Chinese Academy of  Social Science in The Paper (link in Chinese): “My parents say education is just for prestige. It’s difficult and takes too long to reward…from an economic perspective, education is useless.”

Wang’s chagrin hit a nerve: his article has had more than 1 million clicks on WeChat, a popular local mobile-based social network, and today, even after the Spring Festival, his article is still in the news. A search on Baidu (China’s most popular search website) yields more than 2,000 news articles analyzing the disconnect between villagers’ expectations and the real lives of young people seeking their fortune in urban areas. Wang’s article is also under discussion in China’s ongoing “Two Sessions” of the National People’s Congress and National People’s Political Consultative Conference.

The incentive to study is shrinking. “The more education one has, the more difficult the job-hunting becomes,” writes Lin Yanxing, a journalist from Xinhua News, also originally from a rural village, in an article in Xinhua Net. “When [university graduates] have a job, the salary tends to be very low.” Compared to the growing population of migrant workers—269 million in 2014 from the mere 2 million in 1980s—the number of young people who leave their villages to study in cities has halved over the past 30 years, the result of complex factors that include the high cost of higher education and lowered expectations for economic gain (links in Chinese).

When I ventured, “Perhaps it’s not all about money?” at my family dinner table in the village, everyone fell silent. “But it is about money—what else?” said someone, after a while.

I don’t recall hearing so much talk about money in my childhood. Since 1958, the hukou household registry system successfully divided China’s rural population from its urban areas. But with economic reform (especially since the early 1990s), hukou has relaxed somewhat and village people have been encouraged to pursue wealth in the cities. Perhaps, as financial news columnist Liu Juyuan writes, economic growth has made villagers more competitive.

Like most farmers’ children, when I left the village, I left with both strong support and high expectations from my parents. And just like hundreds of thousands of other young Chinese in their 20s, I fear I will barely survive in China’s cities, unable to repay my pare­­nts’ investment.