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Family duty, sense of purpose draw elderly to live in cities

XUAN ZENGXING | 2017-11-02
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Elderly people dance at the western bank of Huangpu River in Shanghai. Some of them move from rural villages or townships to temporarily or permanently live with their children, drifting in their twilight years.(PHOTO: CFP)


It was 5 p.m. Jin Xiuqin, 55, put on a red T-shirt and picked up a nylon bag. She slipped into her black flat shoes and hurriedly pressed the elevator button in the dark hallway.

Jin hastily made her way along a familiar route through narrow alleys, residential areas, busy roads and went up to the third floor of a Beijing kindergarten. Inside she found her 5-year-old grandson waiting with a cookie in his hand.

On school days, Jin is responsible for taking her grandson to a half-hour tutoring session and making dinner before 7 p.m. She had finished all the preparation work for the supper before leaving home.
Jin left a rural part of Tieling, a small city in Northeast China’s Liaoning Province, five years ago to help her daughter lighten the load of working and taking care of a young child.


Elderly drifters
In academia, elderly people like Jin are called “elderly drifters.” They don’t have a local hukou and move from rural villages or townships to temporarily or permanently live with their children. A 2016 report on the migrant population by National Health and Family Planning Commission showed that elderly migrants in China number nearly 18 million, and 43 percent of them leave their hometowns with the sole purpose of helping their offspring.

They appear to be an ordinary part of cities, but they retain a permanent outsider status. These elderly people come to live with their children and stay busy starting from sunrise. At the same time, they are drifting in their twilight years as well.


Parental-to-offspring authority
Jin usually starts her days cooking rice porridge in the early morning. Back home, she always cooks fresh eggs with porridge, so she brought some eggs from her hometown. Jin had raised a dozen chickens and five or six pigs in Tieling, but she sold them all before she left. Though staying at home, her husband still works full time and was too busy to feed them.

In the past five years, every time she came to Beijing, she brought ribs and chickens. She chopped them and divided them into several small bags, which she placed in a big box with dry tofu, eggs, mushrooms, pickles and carried  with her when taking the train. “My children love to eat all of these,” she said. Jin insists that everything in her hometown is the best, but she could only bring a tiny part with her.

A survey conducted by scholar Pan Yongkang in the 1980s found that in the traditional life cycle of Chinese families, youth would live with their parents after marriage and move once they had children. The primary factor is residence. The offspring turn to their parents, who usually have a home already. In this generational pattern, parents have authority and the focus is on the elders.

The current population is more mobile, and fewer people live with their parents. They choose to share a home mostly because their parents can look after grandchildren, so the offspring gain authority and the focus shifts to the younger generation, said Wang Wei, an associate research fellow from the Center for Policy Research under the Ministry of Civil Affairs.

Elderly people have been forced to adjust to this era of rapid development. They are learning to use smartphones, but must use the largest font. They are told repeatedly that a palm-sized phone and a “green box” that represents the WeChat app can help them contact their children. That provides the main sense of security among people in this era.

For the elderly, this sense of security isn’t always enough. Research by Miao Ruifeng, a lecturer from the Shanghai Institute of Technology, found that 69 percent of the elderly population were being optimistic about living in their children’s homes before moving in and 23 percent said they were willing to spend their twilight years with their children in the cities. However, these two figures fell sharply after their living with their children for a while. Most seniors chose to stay because children need their help even though they find it hard to adjust to their lives in the city. In traditional Chinese culture, this can be attributed to a form of “consistent sense of responsibility” or “altruism in the family.


Jin misses her hometown in the rural areas of Tieling. She didn’t plant anything back home except corn after coming to Beijing. Last Spring Festival, she returned to her hometown for a month. Every evening, she participate in traditional dances with villagers from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. She said she enjoys her spacious yard,“I know everyone living along this street. I can walk on the street right after opening the door. It is so convenient.” She said she feels confined in an apartment with elevators and twisting hallways.

Miao found that the elderly have an acute sense of their decreasing authority and status. They also have clearly realized that they are the supporting source of the family income. “There is an invisible value in life. Every member makes a material contribution and adds wisdom to society. The elderly will not feel abandoned or have a sense of futility if they engage in activities that they are capable of, no matter how humble. But usually, their sacrifices fail to satisfy their children,” Miao wrote in a thesis.


There’s always a reason to stay
Jin is afraid to get sick. She seeks every method she can find to anti-aging. She heard that there was an elderly man who moved from Xi’an in Shaanxi Province to Shanghai to look after his two sons’ children, but he died from a sudden cerebral hemorrhage.

Premier Li Keqiang said last year that governments should digitize medical insurance information and integrate it into a national website. It was projected to set up a national medical payment system in two years so that the elderly can pay medical bills while they are away from their hometowns. “We hope that fair remote medical payment will no longer be problematic for the public,” Li said.

Thirty-one provinces and the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps had joined the remote medical clearing system by July 21, 2017. Beijing Human Resource and Social Security Bureau announced on Sept. 3 that all 676 designated medical units in Beijing capable of offering in-patient services have been included.

However, the elderly living away from their hometowns barely have access to information of this kind, except for hearing from each other. They often ask, “The thing that the premier talked about, how is it going on?”


They bear countless apprehensions about death. Some of them make their children send them to their hometowns when they suddenly fall ill, because they don’t want to “die in Beijing.” Some of them have chosen tombs for themselves, hoping to be buried on a mountain top because they like “being surrounded by people.”

However, there is always a reason for them to stay with their children. Some of the elderly are no longer used to the lifestyle of their hometowns. In a sense, they are not local people no matter where they live.

Li Yajing, a student from East China University of Science and Technology, wrote in his master’s graduation dissertation that senior citizens living away from their hometowns gain a sense of purpose from looking after their offspring. Their life largely depends on the families of their children. But sometimes the elderly temporarily living with their children may fail to adjust emotionally because of psychological stress and choose to go back to their hometowns. However, they may return because they miss their children and their children need them.

Jin’s daughter gave birth to her second child in an early morning three months ago. After an evening of intense labor pain, she fell sound asleep. She didn’t know that her mother was by her side and stayed awake all night long.


The article was abridged and translated from the China Youth Daily.