Twenty-three-year-old Yang Hu is a generation older than his cousin. The 15-year age gap has meant the two have been exposed to a very different upbringing due to the rapid changes in China over the last two decades.
Yang’s parents put a lot of emphasis on school. Nowadays, he says, parents are keen not just to encourage their children at school but to provide them with music and art classes and lots of opportunities for social interaction to give them the cutting edge in their future careers.
“My cousin’s generation is heavily influenced by what their parents think is good for them. That fits the globalised metropolitan culture they are living in. My generation has loads of homework, but now competition for jobs has shifted from schools to family upbringing and out of school activities.”
Yang grew up in Chongqing, a big city in a mountainous region in south west China. The city has two rivers running through it and pandas live nearby. He was an only child. His father was a sales manager in a medical facilities firm and his mother is an accountant.
Yang studied English language and literature at Zhejiang University in Hangzhou, a coastal area which is a favourite destination for migrant workers from rural areas of China. While at university he volunteered to teach English and maths at one of the schools. It was there that he noticed the different cultural resources migrant and middle class families provide their children. “There was a huge discrepancy between schools even those in the same area and they had different outcomes in terms of their linguistic and cultural abilities,” he says.
“That area is being globalised at a very fast pace. There are a lot of different values and cultural divides emerging. Different people have a different understanding about what kind of culture they give to their children. Traditionally there has been a big gender divide in the way girls and boys are treated. Migrants tend to put a lot more emphasis on boys’ education, for instance. They are also less likely to provide any after school activities for their children.”
Yang, who is currently studying for an MPhil in sociology at Cambridge, says middle class parents tend to hothouse their children, forcing them to do all sorts of extracurricular activities and hiring personal tutors for them. “They are very confident in what they think is good for their children. They are creating Renaissance children who are good at everything whereas the migrant workers feel it is the school’s responsibility to educate their children,” he says.
He has noticed, however, that migrant workers’ children tend to be more creative and more entrepreneurial. “I have seen 13 year olds selling things to younger children,” he says. “You never see that with the middle class children as their hours are so tightly controlled. The migrant workers’ children are allowed more space to shape their own lives.”
Yang’s research focus is on the inter-generational transference of social, economic and cultural capital, how parents can give their children linguistic and social advantages and the inequalities this might create in a country such as China. He is comparing children brought up in the 1990s with those brought up now to see how changes in education policies and how children use their time have changed. He is focusing on middle school children in their early teens and looking to see how schools can make up for the lack of input from migrant parents. For instance, they could offer after school activities or summer programmes. “This could narrow the gap, but first I need to pin down the differences and inequalities between the two groups,” he says.
His PhD, for which he has been awarded a Gates scholarship, will begin in the autumn and will look at a slightly different issue. He wants to study the social stigma attached to children who are brought up by single, divorced mothers. “It’s really tough for single mums,” he says. “They find it very hard to get remarried and many don’t do so until after their children leave school.” They earn less than single fathers and either work less as they have to balance work with childcare or have to work harder. If they work less, they are less able to pay for extra curricular activities for their children. Yang wants to look at what could be done to provide them with more support.
He says the divorce rate in China’s big cities is soaring, especially among migrant workers. This is in part because wives often stay at home to look after their parents and so couples face long periods apart. Another stress factor in the cities is that people often work long hours and are very mobile. Traditionally, divorce is frowned upon in China, says Yang. Usually divorced mothers stay single until their children are grown because they don’t want their children to grow up in a stepfamily or to take on the name of another man.
Yang is looking forward to being a Gates scholar. He is hoping the mix of scholars from different backgrounds will help his research. He is particularly interested in talking to scholars working in demographics and psychology.
Coming to Cambridge was the first time he had travelled outside China. “It takes a while to come to terms with different cultures. Cambridge is a very vibrant place,” he says, adding that he would like to compare western and oriental values about cultural capital. “I am starting to learn about other cultures and this has given me a lot of inspiration.”